This Friday (ESPN+, 7:30 PM EST), 25-year old former WBO 122 lb. titlist Emanuel Navarrete (31-1, 27 KO) will try to add a belt in a second weight class when he faces undefeated 23-year old Ruben Villa (18-0, 5 KO). Navarrete is favored to win and, if he does, adds new depth to a weight class that seems a bit between things.
A week ago in this space, the quality and depth of matchmaking happening all over the scale was celebrated. Divisions like heavyweight, cruiserweight, Jr. middleweight, bantamweight and others were pointed to as high points for boxing.
Featherweight isn’t a low point but it’s not on fire either.
The recent losses of Oscar Valdez, Carl Frampton and Shakur Stevenson, along with the all but official end of Leo Santa Cruz’s run at featherweight despite still holding a WBA belt in the class, all to the Jr. lightweight class, leave both void and opportunity.
With a loaded Jr. featherweight class sitting just four pounds south, it’s only a matter of time before featherweight is again one of boxing’s hottest weight classes. In the meantime, there are still some interesting possibilities and questions to ponder. Let’s start with the question this weekend will raise.
Is Navarrete in for a spell or a stop?
Navarrete showed his chops in two wins over Isaac Dogboe at Jr. featherweight but he’s held serve since against fringe opposition. His frame was big one class down and the Mexican battler will still look like a man with room to grow this Friday. Promoted by Top Rank, how long would a victorious Navarrete be able to ignore the call of bigger names and fights under his promotional tent at Jr. lightweight? Valdez will soon challenge Berchelt and Jamel Herring is looking at Frampton in January. There aren’t a lot immediate options for Navarrete at featherweight as potentially lucrative as what will be there just four pounds up.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
Will we see Josh Warrington-Can Xu?
Promoter Eddie Hearn continues to hint at a showdown between IBF titlist Josh Warrington (30-0, 7 KO) and WBA sub-titlist Can Xu (18-2, 3 KO). They could call such a showdown “The Wasp’s Nest” because, while neither man is likely to get the other out of there, the clash would likely feature a ceaseless string of stings. Would it be a genuine unification fight by the time it happened? Santa Cruz hasn’t fought at featherweight since February 2019 and is headed for a showdown with Gervonta Davis at Jr. lightweight later this month. Assuming the WBA doesn’t insist on a new ‘sooper’ champ, unification is a real possibility.
A Warrington unification with Stevenson didn’t come to fruition but the discussions happened and leave the chance that a Warrington-Xu winner could be a foe for Navarrete down the road. They could also be a foe for one of the sport’s great enigmas.
Can Gary Russell cap his run?
Sometimes, it’s okay to trust one’s eyes. When he’s in the ring, WBC titlist Gary Russell Jr. (31-1, 18 KO) looks like the most talented featherweight in the world. Unbeaten since a loss to Vasyl Lomachenko, Russell is 32. His inactivity, with only one fight a year in six straight turns of the calendar, has been fodder for social media but wins over Jhonny Gonzalez, Joseph Diaz, and Tugstsogt Nyambayar suggest how much more there could be. Barring a move up the scale, could a unified titlist being in the division be something that snared his interest? A fight with PBC stablemate Santa Cruz never came together. The division’s longest reigning beltholder needs the sort of win that can stamp his time in the division. There’s still time to find it.
With seventeen weight classes, there will always be spots that sit in lulls occasionally. It doesn’t mean a nudge here or there couldn’t get things moving in a better direction in short order. Featherweight could use a nudge. We’ll see soon whether Navarrete-Villa is the start of one.
Anyone reading who has people around them wondering what they love about boxing has a new adrenaline shot available to make a new fan. Last weekend’s fight of the year-level classic between Jose Zepeda and Ivan Baranchyk will have replay value for years to come. Eight (unofficially nine) knockdowns in five rounds with a conclusive finish doesn’t happen everyday...Finally trying The Boys on Prime. Like Preacher, toning down the source material makes for better TV. Garth Ennis’ imagination is one twisted field...Deontay Wilder letting go of Mark Breland doesn’t matter as much as trying to find a way to win rounds without scoring knockdowns. Without a wrinkle, he’s still counting on a thunderbolt to bail out a technical mismatch with Tyson Fury...Donnie Nietes coming back is interesting. At his age, off a long layoff, can he find a career capper or did his window for big nights close?
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. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org