By Jake Donovan
Denis Shafikov can head into 2017 knowing that he will have a third shot at a lasting impression in the lightweight division.
The hard-luck contender fended off a mid-rounds rally from Richard Commey to fight back and claim a 12-round split decision win Friday evening in Moscow, Russia. Commey came out ahead 116-112 on one card, but was overruled by scores of 115-113 and 116-112 in favor ofShafikov, who becomes the mandatory contender to newly crowned IBF lightweight titlist Robert Easter, Jr.
It was smooth sailing at the start for Shafikov, who invested heavily into a body attack while Commey fought in spurts and largely on the defensive. The tide shifted midway through as Commey opened up his offense, scoring with right uppercuts and an assortment of head shots as Shafikov slowed down just enough to make things interesting on the scorecards.
The veteran contender from Russia battled back hard when it mattered most, putting together an impressive three-round blitz down the stretch. Commey had his say in several exchanges, but his infrequent attack not serving well in the eyes of two of the three judges.
The win caps an incredible bounce-back year for Shafikov, who improved to 38-2-1 (20KOs). The 31-year old southpaw entered 2016 on the heels of a 12-round loss to Rances Barthelemy in their vacant title fight last December. He returned with a vengeance, dominating previously unbeaten 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team captain and rising contender Jamel Herring in July and now adds the big win here to return to the title stage.
His lone other loss came at the hands of then-lightweight titlist Miguel Vazquez in Feb. '14.
Meanwhile, Commey suffers his second consecutive split decision loss in failing to 24-2 (22KOs). The 29-year old from Ghana came up just short in a 12-round war with Robert Easter Jr. for a vacant title in September.
Commey hoped to avenge that loss but instead will head back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to come out ahead in such close bouts.
As for Shafikov, he will be due his title shot by no later than mid-June. Negotiations will likely begin in early February, assuming Easter Jr. prevails in a planned hometown showcase for his first title defense, targeted for late January in Toledo, Ohio.
Evgeny Pavko maintained his perfect record with a one-punch 5th round knockout of Latvia's Ivans Levickis in their scheduled six-round super lightweight affair.
The one-sided affair ended in an instant when a perfectly placed right hand to the liver forced Levickis (24-26, 16KOs) to his knees. The visiting journeyman never threatened to beat the count, remaining on his knees as the referee reached the count of ten to bring a halt to the contest at 0:32 of round five.
Pavko moves to 15-0-1 (10KOs), coming up aces in his return to his native country after a one-fight trip to Canada this past May. The road trip was highly successful for the 27-year old prospect, scoring a 1st round knockout of previously unbeaten Ayaz Hussain in his lone fight outside of Russia. The win over Levickis completes a successful three-fight campaign in 2016 for the rising super lightweight.