by Cliff Rold
That it might be the best division in boxing right now is a worthy debate.
That it is the most exciting division in boxing right now is not. Loaded more than ten deep, and with a series of pulse racing brawls in recent years, fight fans in 2014 are living through one of the great eras at 112 lbs.
There are plenty that don’t realize that. Those that do have a chance to let them in on the secret with three high profile, hard to predict clashes from September 5th to September 10th.
The most anticipated weekend of the year for hardcore fight fans is here. An additional Flyweight clash the following week is icing on the cake. How the results shake out could determine whether the division continues at its steady, already thrilling rate or whether we are about to see things heat up even more.
Hope for the latter.
The first of the three contests, on September 5th in Tokyo, will be for history’s crown. The longest unbroken championship lineage in boxing dating to the reign of Flyweight great Miguel Canto has a battle worthy of that history. There have been occasions when the lineage didn’t always line up with the best fighter in the division over the last 40 years.
This won’t be one of those occasions.
It’s a crying shame interested US audiences will likely be waiting to see this on YouTube but, hey, at least we live in the age of YouTube.
Japan’s 31-year old Akira Yaegashi (20-3, 10 KO) enters as linear and WBC champion and has never looked better. Yaegashi first impressed the global audience when his epic 2011 WBA 105 lb. title win against Pornsawan Porpramook went viral. It was the BoxingScene and ESPN Fight of the Year. A unification clash with Kazuto Ioka in 2012 left no less an impression as Yaegashi fought through a badly swollen eye en route to a narrow split decision defeat.
After almost seven years in the lowest weights, Yaegashi made a two-division leap and challenged Toshiyuki Igarashi for the Flyweight crown in 2013. It was an awkward affair, but Yaegashi won with room to spare and he’s made three defenses since. The most notable of them, a decision victory over former Jr. Flyweight titlist Edgar Sosa last December, showed how much more than a warrior Yaegashi can be.
Using his excellent hand speed and feet, Yaegashi outboxed Sosa for a decisive verdict. It wasn’t without action but Yaegashi wisely kept that action contained and Sosa could never catch up long enough to fell the champion.
Nicaragua’s Roman Gonzalez (39-0, 33 KO) is a different animal than Edgar Sosa.
Only 27, Gonzalez is in his prime and already a former titlist at 105 and 108 lbs. His resume speaks for itself. He already holds quality wins against current unified 105 lb. titlist Francisco Rodriguez, via stoppage, in 2013 and in a Fight of the Year contender with unified Flyweight titlist Juan Francisco Estrada in 2012. Gonzalez was the only man ever to stop the excellent Yutaka Niida for his first crown (WBA, 105), and posted a lopsided decision over Katsunari Takayama defending that crown.
A skilled boxer whose body assault might be the most comprehensive and punishing in boxing, Gonzalez has been the wiser for the move up to 112 lbs. No longer draining extra pounds, he’s appeared quicker and sharper than ever.
If he was a larger man, he might have the sort of hype that currently surrounds Middleweight Gennady Golovkin. Like Golovkin, Gonzalez hasn’t always found other top quality men seeking him out. His overall quality of opposition has been better.
The only blemish on Gonzalez’s ledger came a 2009 title defense at 105 lbs. Fighting on the home turf of Mexican opponent Francisco Rosas, the underdog gave a solid showing and made a fight of it. Gonzalez still appeared the clear victor but, boxing being boxing, Rosas managed an even card in front of the locals to make it a majority decision.
They fought again for the interim (later full) WBA crown at 108 lbs. in 2011. Gonzalez, fighting as if the first result insulted him, destroyed Rosas in two rounds.
He’s that kind of guy.
There won’t be any doubt winner of Yaegashi-Gonzalez is the number one guy at Flyweight. They won’t have to wait long for capable challengers to the throne. A possible all-Mexican classic ensures that.
On September 6th, the 24-year old Estrada (26-2, 19 KO) will attempt to continue the momentum he built beginning with his loss to Gonzalez. Unheralded before the fight, Estrada teamed with Gonzalez to steal the show on the undercard of the thrilling Flyweight unification battle between Brian Viloria and Tyson Marquez. It was so impressive an outing that Estrada found himself rewarded with a shot at Viloria in his very next fight.
Traveling to Macau, Estrada won a split decision for the WBA and WBO belts in April 2013. It was a very good fight even if the card for Viloria was charitable. Estrada hasn’t looked back, defending twice with a decision over then-undefeated Milan Melindo and a stoppage of veteran Richie Mepranum. A range of Mexico’s best from legends like Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. and Juan Manuel Marquez to trainer Nacho Beristain have pegged Estrada as one of the nation’s finest.
Like Yaegashi, Estrada has a different animal in front of him this weekend.
Trying to think of a boring Giovani Segura (32-3-1, 28 KO) fight is hard to do. Ever swinging with uncommon power for the lower classes, the 32-year old has found success at 108 and now 112 lbs. He avenged his first loss, and won his first title, by turning a decision loss to Cesar Canchila into a fourth round knockout win in 2009. The following year he unified two titles and staked his claim as World Jr. Flyweight Champion in the BoxingScene and Ring Magazine Fight of the Year, stopping the then-undefeated Ivan Calderon in eight.
Since moving to Flyweight, there have been bumps in the road but he enters red hot as the challenger this weekend. While never dropped, he took a brutal beating in an eighth-round stoppage loss to Viloria, failing in an attempt at the WBO Flyweight crown in 2011. Out of the ring for all of 2012, Segura returned in 2013 and has gone 4-1 since. All four of his wins have come via knockout, including a twelfth round finish in one of last year’s best fights against Tyson Marquez. His lone loss, to Sosa, was an excellent affair that saw Segura post a violent rally after falling behind early.
National pride, two titles on the line, and well-matched styles would make Estrada-Segura (BeIn Sports Espanol, 11 PM EST) a fantastic fight on any weekend. That it marries with a weekend that also features Yaegashi-Gonzalez, Carl Frampton-Kiko Martinez II at 122 lbs., and a Showtime tripleheader with Adrien Broner and Lucas Matthysse in separate fights, is why this is the weekend of the year so far in 2014.
Good luck topping it.
So far, the descriptions of combatants in imminently scheduled Flyweight action has been chockfull of references to Fight of the Year winners. On September 10th, we get a look at a little something different.
IBF Flyweight titlist Amnat Ruenroeng (13-0, 5 KO) hasn’t appeared as yet to be the sort of fighter to end up in a savage brawl. The rangy Thai battler, already 34 with a background in Muay Thai, is smart, awkward and much better than his fledgling record would indicate. He easily outboxed Rocky Fuentes in January for the title lost by talented South African Moruti Mthalane outside the ring.
Ruenroeng’s bigger statement was provided in his second start of the year.
Traveling to Japan in May, Ruenroeng was challenged by an Ioka who was almost taken for granted as the winner heading in. After Ioka’s successful unification win over Yaegashi at 105, and a short title reign at 108, that made sense.
Ruenroeng made nonsense of the notion. Ioka was never really in the fight. Unable to solve the jab, movement, and angles Ruenroeng threw at him, Ioka was soundly outboxed. There was a new factor proven at Flyweight. The split decision said more about Ruenroeng being on the road than the action in the ring. Now, it’s Ruenroeng’s turn to have home court tested.
28-year old Puerto Rican McWilliams Arroyo (15-1, 13 KO) entered the pro ranks with high hopes. A 2008 Olympian and 2009 Amateur World Champion, Arroyo has put an early four-round decision loss aside and enters with four straight knockout wins.
The question of whether he can catch the cagey titlist makes this an intriguing match. Much more a potential chess match than the other two big Flyweight fights taking place over the next week, it might play a critical piece in determining the ultimate future of the division.
It’s never just about the fights today, no matter how good they look. It’s also about what those fights could lead to. Flyweight has consistently provided top shelf action over the last four-five years. It has also found ways to keep reloading with fighters from lower classes who have made the same sort of warfare.
What this era hasn’t yet found is its point of culmination.
In any weight class, the national origin of various titlists and the economic strength they have in their regional market can play a role in whether they end up fighting each other. Even in a class where the historical title is clear, seeing all of the most notable men who call themselves champion face off is the best way to define this special time.
Should Yaegashi and/or Ruenroeng win their fights, the chances to see further unification might decrease.
Yaegashi has plenty of tough, profitable options in Japan, including a possible rematch with Ioka. He wouldn’t necessarily have to play ball with any other titlists, though it’s not impossible. We’re seeing an uptick in unification matches involving Japanese champions in the last couple years with the recent Francisco Rodriguez-Katsunari Takayama fight at 105 occurring in Mexico.
There have been few Thai champions to engage in unification over the years. Men like Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, Khaosai Galaxy, and Veraphol Sahaprom put together long, noteworthy reigns from 112 to 118 lbs. None even partially unified. Ruenroeng changing that course doesn’t feel like the safest bet even though he might be the sort of tricky out who could beat anyone if given the chance.
What if both of them lose?
If both Yaegashi and Ruenroeng lose, Flyweight suddenly has an alignment of Latin talent that might just carry enough profit incentive to force this Flyweight era towards true definition. Estrada and Gonzalez already have history and a rematch would be mouth watering. Gonzalez-Segura would be a desirable puncher’s duel. Arroyo versus either Estrada or Segura would be a worthy latest chapter in the legendary rival between Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Perhaps the most exciting outcome would be Gonzalez, Estrada, and Arroyo all winning. If that’s how it’s gone down at the end of these three fights in six days, Flyweight would have a trio of skilled punchers in their 20s at the top of the class. The feeling of possibility in the air before this ‘weekend of the year’ would only go up in the weeks and months ahead.
They can mix and match with each other.
They can mix and match with Yaegashi, Ruenroeng, Viloria, Mthalane, Ioka, Juan Carlos Reveco, and perhaps a rising 108 lb. titlist like Donnie Nietes.
They can keep this ride going.
Enjoy the FlyWars. It doesn’t look like they’ll be ending anytime soon.
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]