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UK Insider: The Lightweight Division is Heating Up

By Nick Halling

The lightweight division is the hottest and deepest in British boxing, and although Ricky Burns recently lost his WBO title, there’s a good chance that another domestic fighter could soon be challenging for a version of the world belt.

As has been reported elsewhere, talks are in progress for Miguel Vazquez to bring his IBF crown to London to defend against Dagenham’s Kevin Mitchell on the Froch-Groves II undercard at Wembley stadium on 31 May. Promoter Eddie Hearn has tweeted his interest in the Mexican and negotiations are ongoing.

Mitchell has a stay-busy fight this weekend and remains focussed on that. Popular, talented and engaging, the Dagenham man has shown in the past a temptation to wander off course if not kept occupied. If he were a racehorse, he’d be wearing blinkers. That’s why his handlers are keeping him busy this weekend. But dont expect him to slip up on Saturday night, as he eyes a third shot at becoming  world champion.

However, such is the strength in depth among British lightweights, that Vazquez is not the only world title holder currently catching the eye. WBA boss Richar Abril, and interim WBC belt-holder Omar Figueroa are also on the radar too. Even if Vazquez-Mitchell gets made, there’s a decent chance that either Abril or Figueroa could be facing British opposition later in the year.

The landscape is cluttered with talent. Burns, currently enjoying a vacation, has already declared a strong interest in carrying on, and seems certain to be out again in Glasgow in the summer (28 June has been pencilled in). Burns has options, but one of those options is highly unlikely to be a rematch with his recent conqueror, Terence Crawford.

Not only is the slick American all wrong style-wise for Burns, he has also expressed little interest in a return to the UK. That rematch is not going to happen.

There are whispers  instead that Burns could instead meet the winner of next month’s mouthwatering all-Manchester dust-up between former British champion Anthony Crolla and former WBA world title challenger John Murray.

Crolla has paid his domestic dues, having boxed the likes of John Watson,  Derry Mathews (twice), Willie Limond, Gavin Rees and Stephen Foster Jr. Crolla was close to securing a shot at Burns, had the Scot held onto his WBO crown. Crawford messed up those plans, but victory next month will see Crolla close in on the big stage once again.
Murray is an intriguing one. The former British and European boss was thought by many to be washed up, following a brave but lopsided defeat to Brandon Rios for the WBA strap in December 2011. Two years on the sidelines followed, during which his career hung in the balance when a brain scan revealed an abnormality. Since being cleared to box again, Murray has changed trainers, bombed out a couple of opponents, and is fighting like a man with a sizeable chip on his shoulder.

The winner of Crolla-Murray meeting Burns in an eliminator for Abril’s (or even Figueroa’s) title, is a highly plausible scenario.

Meanwhile, below the big beasts lie plenty of other contenders. Terry Flanagan is a fascinating prospect. The unbeaten Manchester southpaw is clever, capable, and at 24, a fighter with a future. His biggest problem is that nobody seems to be in any hurry to face him.

Avoided he may be, but it seems as if Flanagan's time could soon be coming, as he has been mandated to box for the British title.

Commonwealth champion Derry Mathews is always in crowd-pleasing contests, although his stock fell when he lost to the Irishman Stephen Ormond last time out. Mathews showed he remains dangerous, however, when he wiped out Tommy Coyle with one punch to lift the Commonweath crown last summer.

The engaging Liverpool man had hand issues against Ormond, and has subsequently had both his fists operated on. He is now back in full training and on the hunt for his next opponent. Mathews has been written off many times before. Only a fool would dare to do so again.

Coyle, incidentally, is another player on the lightweight scene, but rumours persist that the Hull man could move up to light welterweight. With new British champion Curtis Woodhouse confirming earlier this week that he will fight on, a Woodhouse-Coyle light welter collision with domestic honours on the line is gaining plenty of traction. It would certainly be a sellout in Hull.

One-time British and European boss Gavin Rees is still active too. An unsuccessful challenger to Adrien Broner last year, Rees has been on a losing streak recently, but having briefly contemplated retirement, is determined to fight on with plenty left to offer.

Last time out, Rees lost a razor-tight verdict to fellow Welshman Gary Buckland. The former British super featherweight title holder, Buckland is currently in limbo, as his connections attempt to tie up a new promotional deal. Buckland has also spent the last six weeks inactive, having damaged his right hand in the Rees fight.

Younger prospects like Scotty Cardle and Luke Campbell are also rapidly climbing the rankings. The unbeaten Cardle had his best performance to date earlier this month, with a last round stoppage of former British featherweight boss Paul Appleby. Campbell, the Olympic gold medallist, is simply obliterating everyone put in his path and although the opposition thus far has been limited, he looks destined for stardom.

And then there is the division’s most ignored fighter, British champion Martin Gethin. Since winning his crown 14 months ago, the Midlander has had a frustrating time as injuries and pullouts have limited him to just one appearance since, a failed IBF eliminator against the capable Ammeth Diaz.

Gethin was mandatory to face Rees when the Welshman owned the Lonsdale belt in 2012. That fight never saw the light of day: Rees vacated, Gethin stopped Ben Murphy in 9 to win the title, and there has been no movement ever since. The Lonsdale belt has been gathering dust since January 2013.

Gethin was supposed to defend against former title holder Crolla late last year, but was forced to withdraw with perforated eardrums. “I really didn’t want to pull out of that,” he said. “There were people saying I’d bottled it, but I’ve never bottled a fight in my life.

“But there was an injury there, and I couldn’t risk it. I perforated my ears sparring with Ricky Burns. One healed, but the other didn’t. You can’t fight like that. I had to protect my own career.”

Gethin was optimistic that he’d share a ring with Crolla when the British Boxing Board of Control mandated that they must meet next. Instead, Crolla got the opportunity to take on Murray, an offer which, in financial terms, was simply too good to turn down.

So it means a frustrated Gethin is once again on the sidelines looking for an opponent.

“I was really looking forward to Crolla, that would have been a good fight, but maybe it’s just not meant to be,” he said. “It’s funny, but when Rees and Crolla held the belt, everyone wanted to fight for it. Now I’ve got it, it seems like no-one wants it anymore.”

Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports.

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