By Cliff Rold
It’s a division with a little bit of everything: a long-reigning lineal king, a unified titlist, and two more talented beltholders. Along with all of its present tense, 122 lbs. also has one of the richest histories in boxing since its contemporary incarnation came to be in the 1970s.
Jr. featherweight was anchored for years by the power of Wilfredo Gomez. It saw significant moments from Hall of Famers Jeff Fenech and Daniel Zaragoza, gave us the superstar emergence of Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Manny Pacquiao, and featured the first three epics between Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez.
It’s impressive to think we’re still only scratching the surface of the thrills the division has provided in the last four decades.
In 2019, the pieces appear in place for another memorable run. The question is how many of the pieces can come together.
This Saturday, Mexico’s 24-year old Emanuel Navarrete (27-1, 23 KO) attempts his second defense of the WBO belt against Arizona’s 24-year old Francisco De Vaca (20-0, 6 KO). It will be Navarrete’s first in over a year against someone other than Isaac Dogboe.
Navarrete’s first win against Dogboe turned heads late last year, stealing the shine from what looked like a potential star in the class. He finds himself in the main event Saturday (ESPN, 10 PM EST) at a time when the boxing calendar is sputtering towards a more active fall.
It’s a chance for eyeballs, and a chance to build buzz with the sort of hardcore fans who can make a mid-August card a solid investment.
Navarrete is talking the right talk, saying he has desire to unify the division. He has the sort of style that makes the prospect of an attempt intriguing.
Someone else beat him to it already this year. In April, 29-year old Los Angeles native Daniel Roman (27-2-1, 10 KO) unified the IBF belt to his WBA strap in a rousing affair with TJ Doheny. Roman tackles WBA mandatory and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Murodjon Akhmadaliev (6-0, 5 KO) of Uzbekistan in September.
On the WBC side, Rey Vargas (34-0, 22 KO) dominated former bantamweight titlist Tomoki Kameda to make his fifth title defense in July. Vargas, like Navarrete, has stated he is open to unification. He might have to see a mandatory first in the form of the man too many forget is still there.
No matter how many alphabet belts are taken away from him, Cuba’s Guillermo Rigondeaux remains the lineal champion of the class until someone beats him in the ring. Since winning a unification fight against Nonito Donaire in 2013, Rigondeaux is 7-1 with his lone loss coming in an ill-fated trip to 130 lbs. where he surrendered in the corner to Vasyl Lomachenko. The 38-year old could easily be 8-0 but for a shot landing just after the bell against Moises Flores resulting in a No Contest.
Rigondeaux was tested in his last outing, a highly competitive affair with veteran Julio Ceja. Down on all three judges cards, Rigondeuax landed a laser to drop Ceja in the eighth. The stoppage carried some controversy but it also kept “The Cult of Rigo” hopeful their tactical favorite might have another glory or two to celebrate and wash away the Lomachenko mess.
How realistic is it to hope that, from this assortment of talents, there might be a chance to see three titlists whittled down to one? This all sounds great and all but it leads to the obvious question: what are the politics at play?
Roman is promoted by Thompson Boxing and Matchroom, Vargas is with Golden Boy, Navarrete fights for Top Rank, and Rigondeaux is now working with PBC. Looking at a recent DAZN affair might lift hopes for further unification.
Despite significant investment in Jose Ramirez both in building him as a local draw in Central California and on some ESPN shows, Top Rank agreed to a unification fight with Matchroom’s Maurice Hooker just weeks ago. It’s enough to let us know deals can be made when parties are willing. If Navarrete wins this weekend, and he should, and Roman wins next month (and he has a very tough challenger despite his relative lack of professional experience), it’s a fight fans could discuss without feeling like they’re spitting in the wind.
Due to their sharing deals with DAZN, Golden Boy and Matchroom have worked together and the incentive continues. Vargas-Rigondeaux would be a fascinating fight but there are allowances for unification to occasionally delay mandatories. Vargas is unlikely to get hit with a WBC “franchise” tag so someone is going to have to fight Rigondeaux eventually.
If Rigondeaux defeated Vargas before any unification took place, it might keep one of the belts out of the mix for future unification but Rigondeaux would have a lure for some like a Luis Nery who looks very much like he needs a new division.
Combine all the ingredients and Jr. featherweight is in a good place with a spotlight this weekend. A year or two from now, it might be the home of Japan’s Naoya Inoue as well. What we don’t yet is whether all, or at least most, of the ingredients will be mixed.
The champions are saying the right things and Roman walked the walk against Doheny. Sooner than later we’ll know if that was the beginning of something big or the exception to the rule for the current 122 lb. class.
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]