Much has been made, rightly, of the unofficial lightweight showcase wrapping up Saturday night in the battle between former lightweight titlists Vasyl Lomachenko and Richard Commey. So far, every fight has been entertaining. Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney got spirited challenges from Isaac Cruz and Joseph Diaz, respectively, while George Kambosos toppled Teofimo Lopez for the lineal lightweight crown in a thriller where both men came off the deck.
Lomachenko-Commey looks as ripe with possibility as any of them going in. As a package of contests, it sets the table for an excellent 2022.
Lightweight was already intriguing. It’s only getting hotter.
It’s the opposite in some respects of a division that, in part due to COVID, has had a hard time getting out of neutral over the last two years. While Lomachenko-Commey airs on ESPN (9 PM EST), Showtime (10 PM EST) will air a competing card headlined by future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire (41-6, 27 KO). Donaire will be making his first defense of the WBC bantamweight belt he won with a rousing knockout of Nordine Oubaali in May against fellow Filipino Reymart Gaballo (24-0, 20 KO).
Donaire-Gaballo will be the second bantamweight title fight of the day on Saturday with all three men currently holding major sanctioning body titles in the division set to fight from December 11-14. If all three win, we could be roughly back where we started at the end of 2019 and that wouldn’t be a bad thing for bantamweight.
When 2019 ended, bantamweight looked as healthy as any division in boxing. Naoya Inoue (21-0, 18 KO) concluded his run through the World Boxing Super Series, winning the IBF belt and unifying it with the WBA’s in the final against Donaire in the Fight of the Year. Zolani Tete, who exited the tournament with an injury prior to a scheduled bout with Donaire in the semi-finals, was defeated by John Riel Casimero (31-4, 21 KO) for the WBO crown just weeks after Inoue-Donaire.
Donaire’s performance against Inoue, while losing, validated his return to bantamweight and left him a viable part of the title picture. Inoue aimed for his second US appearance in a unification bout with Casimero, slated for April 2020.
The world got in the way then.
Boxing has been in its own way since COVID issues have tapered off. Donaire-Oubaali was memorable. Little else has been.
Casimero moved on to a pair of appearances on Showtime against Duke Micah and Guillermo Rigondeaux. Saturday, Casimero squares off with former IBF titlist Paul Butler (33-2, 15 KO). Rigondeuax was almost replaced for a unification bout with Donaire after Donaire defeated Oubaali but arguments over drug testing and familial insults lept original plans in place. In retrospect, it was all the worse for fight fans as Casimero-Rigondeaux ended up one of the least entertaining televised fights of 2021.
It was still a better use of Casimero for this calendar year. One can argue the talented Inoue has lost the better part of two years of his prime. Inoue faced solid contender Jason Maloney in 2020 but in 2021 mandatory Michael Dasmarinas wasn’t much of a threat and Tuesday’s defense against Aran Dipaen (12-2, 11 KO) will see Inoue enter as a prohibitive favorite. It doesn’t mean Dipaen won’t rise to the occasion but it’s still disappointing for Japan’s “Monster.” Inoue’s first five opponents at bantamweight were all top ten bantamweights, at least according to TBRB and Ring. Dipaen is his second foe in a row who is not.
There is reason for optimism. Chatter is up, though nothing is official, about revisiting Inoue-Casimero in the first half of 2022. Donaire is making his second straight appearance on Showtime at a time when Showtime has aired a lot of action around the weight. If Inoue-Casimero takes place, Donaire versus someone like Gary Antonio Russell or Emanuel Rodriguez would be interesting matchmaking in the meantime.
There is every reason to think there is a chance that bantamweight could complete a still relatively four-belt unification by the end of next year. Inoue has stated it as a goal before moving up in weight.
If Donaire doesn’t win this weekend, Gaballo (who enters off a controversial win over Rodriguez) adds a fresh face to the title mix with instant rematch possibilities with Donaire and Rodriguez, a clash with Russell possible, and other competitive options.
For now, it’s enough to have all three of the primary players at bantamweight in action in quick succession. It won’t and, based on what the fights look like on paper, shouldn’t create the same buzz as the lightweights have but it clears the deck. Bantamweight has pieces to be more than it has been over the past two years.
The results over the next week could go a long way toward getting it there.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.