By Cliff Rold
For the second week in a row, the best fight of the week on paper is probably getting the least attention stateside. Part of that is due to the weight of the fighters involved. Part of it is being lost in a glut of weekend action and lurking on the undercard of one of the most covered fighters in the world. Last Saturday, the Jr. Flyweight title bout between Donnie Nietes and Francisco Rodriguez Jr. played out in the ring as what it appeared to be on paper. It was the best fight of the day.
This one has the potential to turn the soft landing return of former Middleweight beltholder Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. from main event to walk out bout.
On the Chavez undercard (Showtime, Saturday, 10 PM EST/7 PM PST), Puerto Rican 2007 Bronze Medal winner at the World Amateur Championships and 2008 Olympian McJoe Arroyo (16-0, 8 KO) faces Filipino Arthur Villanueva (27-0, 14 KO) for the vacant IBF 115 lb. title. If it ends up being the best fight on Showtime this year, it wouldn’t be a huge shock.
Arroyo is a smart boxer-puncher while Villanueva has displayed craft and sharp outbursts of power. Arroyo has already stopped former WBA Flyweight champion Tyson Marquez. Villanueva arrives at this fight with dominant decision wins over a then-undefeated Marco Demecillo and former WBO Flyweight champion Julio Cesar Miranda.
Both guys are still relatively unproven and should be hungry; full of the stridency youth provides.
Arroyo is 29, Villanueva 26, and the winner will leave the ring with strong bona fides in an increasingly deep and compelling Jr. Bantamweight division. In recent years, the highlight of the sub-Featherweight areas of the scale has been Flyweight (112 lbs.). That hasn’t changed. Yet. Flyweight’s depth, and top talents like Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada, compare favorably with any division outside Welterweight.
Jr. Bantamweight was in the 2000’s what Flyweight has been this decade. Fighters like Vic Darchinyan, Cristian Mijares, Jorge Arce, Martin Castillo, Alexander Munoz, Masamori Tokuyama, Katsushige Kawashima, and Fernando Montiel mixed and matched with several strong supporting players for a series of exciting matches around the world. The era peaked in Darchinyan’s three-belt unification win against Mijares in 2008.
Jr. Bantamweight has largely been adrift since.
A noticeable change started to occur last year. The emergence of Mexico’s WBC titlist Carlos Cuadras (32-0-1, 25 KO), age 26, and Japan’s Naoya Inoue (8-0, 7 KO), age 22 and already a two-division beltholder, seemed to herald a new guard in the division. Inoue’s two-round destruction of the division’s longest reigning kingpin, WBO titlist Omar Narvaez, was as symbolic as it was final.
Whether the winner this weekend is Arroyo or Villanueva, they will add a third talented young titlist in his prime to the mix. Two more quality young battlers help to round out the picture. Mexico’s 23-year old WBA interim beltholder David Sanchez (28-2-2, 22 KO) and South Africa’s 27-year old former IBF champ Zolani Tete (20-3, 17 KO), who gave up his title after a low purse bid against Arroyo, increase the depth of the field.
While there isn’t the sort of veteran proof that we have at Flyweight, what Jr. Bantamweight has is more in line with what is emerging at Featherweight. It’s chockfull of fresh faces. Youth, talent, and fan friendly styles are some of the best building blocks any weight class can have. If that is going to matter to US audiences, this weekend will be significant.
Arroyo-Villanueva could end being just a decent scrap, the sort of forgettable fare that comes and goes most weekends. It could be much more. After years of being overlooked by US networks, Roman Gonzalez made himself must-see TV in a single night on HBO earlier this year. Impress and the masses will ask the most critical question of all:
“When is that guy fighting again?”
Over time, as more names are exposed, an even more critical question always follows:
“When are these guys I want to see again going to fight each other?”
That’s where the Flyweight division enters the equation. The WBC and lineal Flyweight Champion, Gonzalez is already being talked about in a future clash with Inoue. Estrada (32-2, 23 KO), a unified WBO/WBA champ, spent much of his early career at 115 lbs., splitting two fights with then-future (and now former) IBF standard bearer Juan Carlos Sanchez in a ‘before they were stars’ rivalry.
Eventually, probably not too long from now, Gonzalez (43-0, 37 KO) and Estrada are going to be at Jr. Bantamweight. Gonzalez is still only 28 and Estrada is 25. The winner this weekend could be one of the men they pursue. If this fight can impress, the winner this weekend will increase his chances of being a man fans want them to pursue.
Sooner than later, the young beltholders at 115 lbs. will become seasoned champions. As their ranks swell with top-tier entrants from one class below, the pendulum could swing from Flyweight to Jr. Bantamweight as the hottest spot on the low end of the scale for hardcore followers of the sport.
It’s fun to watch the next big run in a division take form. Results will dictate the difference between speculation and reality.
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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]