By Cliff Rold
It’s like a really violent game of red light, green light.
With seventeen weight classes only pounds apart, any spot on the scale can go from ho hum to hot damn fairly quick in the modern era. There is almost never a division devoid of high quality talent, but talent alone doesn’t move the pulse. High quality matches do. Given the geography of the sport, it can sometimes be that the two best in a given class compete so far apart on the globe that no market exists to generate a fight between them.
For a division to get hot, it needs points of intersection. Intersection is most easily arrived at with depth.
Look at the best divisions in boxing in the last few years and they all share depth in common. Jr. Welterweight, Jr. Middleweight, Super Middleweight, and Cruiserweight have been and are continuing to churn out solid fights and satisfied crowds because there are too many well-matched fighters in the same place for anything less.
Bantamweight had a wild run for a few years; Jr. Featherweight took some of the best of that, mixed it with what was already there, and had a fun sprint over the last year and a half.
This Saturday, from Macau, China, for the second time this year on HBO2 (5:30 PM EST/PST), fans will get a good look at a division as hot as any of the above and it may only be the beginning of a run.
Flyweight proper (108 and 105 have had their own moments) arguably hasn’t had this combination of depth and matchmaking since the 1970s when men like Miguel Canto, Betulio Gonzalez, Shoji Oguma, and Guty Espadas Sr. forged a golden era for the division. It’s all happened in short order.
One year ago, Flyweight was in transition, not quite ho hum or hot damn. In the biggest upset of 2012, journeyman Sonny Boy Jaro knocked out possible future Hall of Famer Pongsaklek Wonjongkam for the lineal claim to the title and the WBC belt, signaling the end for the most consistent performer of the last decade in the division. Jaro would hold the belt only a moment, losing in his first defense to Toshiyuki Igarashi.
At the same time, resurgent former US Olympian Brian Viloria was building momentum in the best run of his career with a WBO title win over Julio Cesar Miranda and concussive defenses over Giovanni Segura and Omar Nino.
When Viloria signed to Mexico’s Tyson Marquez, the WBA titlist, in the division’s first unification fight since the 1960’s, it was clear:
There were pieces coming together.
Who knew that one of the most important pieces would emerge on the undercard of Viloria-Marquez?
Juan Francisco Estrada (24-2, 18 KO), lost a decision to undefeated 108 lb. titlist Roman Gonzalez in a fight that nearly stole the show from what would be an excellent knockout win for Viloria. It doesn’t happen all the time, but there are moments when defeat earns just rewards.
In 1982, an unknown 13-0 Azumah Nelson stepped into the ring with the great Salvador Sanchez. In what would tragically be the last fight of Sanchez’s career, Nelson went into the fifteenth round leading on one of the three official cards before suffering the only stoppage defeat of his career. Losing was okay because of the way he lost. It was a great fight that left fans wanting to see Nelson again (something they would do for many years as “The Professor” built a commendable Hall of Fame ledger).
Estrada’s loss was a little like that. In a Fight of the Year candidate, he battled the talented and heavy hitting Gonzalez better than anyone in the lower weights has since Gonzalez won his first belt at 105 lbs. in 2008 and was in the fight until late. It was enough to make Estrada a viable opponent for Viloria in April of this year in Macau on the undercard of the newsworthy pro debut of Chinese Olympic Gold Medalist Zou Shiming.
Estrada turned out to be more than just an opponent. In a performance full of both passion and skill, Estrada outworked, outfought, and outboxed Viloria to take his belts. The Gonzalez performance was no fluke.
This weekend, the native of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, gets his third consecutive tough assignment, again in Macau, again underneath Shiming.
Milan Melindo (29-0, 12 KO) of the Philippines may not be favored but he’s earned a shot and is unlikely to be a pushover. No matter who wins or loses, if the fight ends up being memorable the division will have grown its depth even more.
Estrada was but one piece to emerge in April.
Another critical piece jumped two divisions, from Strawweight, to enter the title picture just two days after Estrada-Viloria. Japan’s Akira Yaegashi, one of the game’s most thrilling warriors, defeated Igarashi for the lineal honors just two fights removed from a tough unification loss to Kazuto Ioka at 105 in 2012.
Gonzalez and Ioka compete, for now, at 108. With Estrada and Yaegashi holding titles four pounds higher, it’s hard to imagine they’ll stay there much longer.
The Asian and Latin markets have usually driven Flyweight. Macau’s development as a venue, and Shiming’s development as a Flyweight draw in the region, is rapidly creating what could be a central stage to bring those markets together. Fighters chase glory, competition, and titles.
They also chase the dollar.
Macau could, potentially, be a big part of generating enough of those dollars to keep the hot streak at Flyweight going alongside the regular production of good Flyweight fights in places like Thailand, Mexico, and Japan.
And there is youth too. Of the men holding major belts, Yaegashi (17-3, 9 KO) and IBF titlist Moruti Mthalane (29-2, 20 KO) are only 30, no longer that old in the lower weights. Estrada is only 23 and his current challenger, Melindo, is 25. Tyson Marquez (36-3, 23 KO) remains a threat to anyone; he’s only 24. The WBA’s ‘regular’ titlist (not to be confused with Estrada’s “Super” designation) is 29-year old Juan Carlos Reveco (31-1, 17 KO).
Viloria (32-4, 19 KO) and former 108 lb. titlist Edgar Sosa (49-7, 27 KO), a looming mandatory for Yaegashi, provide veteran flavor at 32 and 33. Shiming (1-0) is already 32; how young a 32 that is remains to be seen. There is valid skepticism about whether he has the chops to be a good pro but in his case it matters little.
He is already a draw. Because of that, he will be a factor in the title picture probably sooner than later and is likely to be a heavily pursued scalp.
108 lb. champions Gonzalez (29-0, 25 KO) and Ioka (12-0, 8 KO) are 26 and 24, respectively.
If history’s title were all that mattered, Yaegashi and Estrada would be the most important immediate clash in the division. There might not be a market for that fight in particular. There is plenty of market for a memorable round robin in search of a kingpin, a Lord of the Flyweights. In fact, that round robin is already underway and there are no signs of abating.
The depth is there. The intersections are strong. The green light is on.
Fasten those seat belts and let the hot damn continue.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]