By Cliff Rold
It seems boxing is all about good news these days?
A strong segment of the fans want a showdown between Gennady Golovkin and Saul Alvarez?
We’re getting it.
Andre Ward owed Sergey Kovalev a rematch?
He signed for it.
Heavyweights need a classic to kick start a new era?
Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko delivered it.
For a smaller but loyal group of fans in the western market, there is always a cry for more attention on the little men of boxing. They watch a cadre of fighters who work as hard as any other and often over deliver on action in the ring. Boxing loves an underdog. Guys who stand often below 5’5 and weigh under the featherweight limit are business underdogs from jump.
In every generation, there is some pocket of little men that starts to get attention. In the 1990s, Jr. flyweight was red hot. In this century, flyweight, Jr. bantamweight, and bantamweight have all had streak periods with stars made in Nonito Donaire, Vic Darchinyan, and Abner Mares among others.
Right now, the pendulum is swung heavily back to Jr. bantamweight, or 115 lbs. It’s been a stream of good news for followers. The emergence and rise to the division of Roman Gonzalez has been the catalyst but the supporting cast around him has held up their end. This weekend, a breather in some respects after a pair of monster shows, will move the spotlight back to these little warriors.
Live on AWE (3 PM EST/12 PM PST), 27-year old 2008 Olympian and WBA titlist Khalid Yafai (21-0, 14 KO) will make his first title defense at home in Birmingham. How he draws in his hometown as a champion could go a long way in further shaping this exciting time for his division. The British boxing market is vibrant. In a division with real fights to be made every way one turns, being one of the guys who can add dollar value to fistic value means a lot.
It can also mean something for fans.
It takes a special confluence of circumstances to get the highest number of fights made in a little man era. Most of the time, at best there are a couple prominent titlists and often they fight in markets disparate enough to keep them apart. Look at an example at flyweight in the 00’s. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam and Omar Narvaez both rattled off double-digit title defense reigns in parallel. They never fought each other and there was no real organic demand for it.
In a competitive sense, that should never happen in a sport. The whole point should be finding out that the best is, right? In a business sense, it is logical. Both sold tickets, both guys pleased their fans, and that was that.
This is a time where there is a volume of good fighters who are getting access to the audience. The access creates demand. Pretty simple.
Yafai won’t be seen by an overwhelming number of US fans this weekend but it will be more than if there was no AWE broadcast. Given the division he fights in, he’ll probably get a healthy chunk of the hardcore sorts who pay the most attention that low on the scale.
It’s a win if he can win.
31-year old challenger Suguru Muranaka (28-4, 13 KO) of Japan could make that at least a test. Muranaka hasn’t lost since 2006 and has wins over former title flyweight challengers Takuya Kogawa and Hiroyuki Hisataka. Those are pluses. He’s also never been stopped.
As far as challengers go though, he’s the sort that makes a good first defense. Yafai showed real chops in outboxing Luis Concepcion for his belt last year. He can box a little, punch a little, and has educated feet.
Yafai can win big and he still won’t be the central focus of most who follow the class. It’s not a bad place to be. Gonzalez is looking to avenge his first loss, and regain the WBC title, from Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in the fall. Their first fight was one of the best of 2017. The rematch will be hotly anticipated. A WBC eliminator ordered between former titlist Carlos Cuadras and former unified flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada will be as well if it gets done.
With what’s been in the water this year, let’s assume it will.
Between those four, HBO has already been home to two excellent battles and can mix and match them for a few more. When the dust clears, and it’s time for a fresh face, Japan’s Naoya Inoue has enough buzz to be a factor.
Yafai has a chance to build a buzz of his own. As good as Inoue looks on YouTube, he’s still yet to make a dent on US TV outside of some overnight airings on Argentine network TyC. Yafai will have eyeballs, and English commentary, weekend. Just entering his prime, he can continue to develop while his peers add miles to their odometer.
This week, Yafai was quoted in other media outlets as saying he’d like to unify at Jr. bantamweight. Those chances could emerge outside of the US entities and further bolster his position. IBF titlist Jerwin Ancajas is out there and can fight. Inoue-Yafai could always be a great way for both to expand global eyeballs.
And all along the way, if he can keep winning, and selling seats at home, he can make the case that he’s a star worth both risk and reward.
Tune in this weekend. A good division is in the spotlight and a critical player may be emerging. That’s not bad for a breather.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]