Of all of the notable fighters making their return during the COVID-19 pandemic, Emanuel Navarrete drew the easiest assignment.
The reigning WBO super bantamweight champion took part in a non-title bout on Saturday night on ESPN against Uriel Lopez, a journeyman who entered the ring with a 13-13-1 record. The matchup was met with groans from the boxing public, but given the circumstances in the world right now, perhaps taking a soft touch wasn’t the worst decision for Navarrete.
Navarrete spent the first three rounds of the fight moving, jabbing and occasionally touching Lopez with a range-finder of a right hand to the body with the disposition of a fighter shaking off some rust in sparring. As Andre Ward pointed out on commentary, Navarrete “wasn’t really training the way he normally would in training camp,” which is likely true for most fighters on the planet over the last four months. Not to mention, he was coming off a victory over Jeo Santisima on the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder undercard in which he injured his hand. In addition, he had enough trouble making weight for the bout that he began talking about moving up to 126 pounds and beyond.
Promoter Bob Arum told BoxingScene’s Keith Idec prior to the bout that he would likely be staying at featherweight, perhaps for a vacant WBO title, supposing Shakur Stevenson moves up in weight as well. In facing Lopez at a catchweight (both men weighed in at 127 pounds), Navarrete had a less than threatening opponent against whom he could test the waters at a heavier weight and also see some live action while testing his sharpness, fitness, and of course the health of his injured hand. Navarrete picked up the tempo in the fourth round and started to throw meaningful shots, and ultimately stopped Lopez two rounds later with a perfectly placed body shot.
From the perspective of the fans, tune-up fights like Navarrete-Lopez are certainly less than appealing. Particularly after months without any action at all, it’s understandable that viewers want to see the best fighters in the best matchups immediately. But it’s precisely because of that time away that tune-up fights are important to the fighters themselves. This past week’s round of Top Rank shows alone showed the uncertainty of any matchup during this time, with both Joshua Greer and David Kaminsky getting upset on national television.
The previously undefeated Greer took on Michael Plania last Tuesday in a fight he was predicted to win. As the home fighter under the Top Rank banner, the storyline on the broadcast was naturally centered around him. But early in the bout, there was a bit of foreshadowing when it was mentioned on commentary that “a lot of late money came in on Plania,” a 4-1 underdog, from sports bettors. Those bets would pay off, as Plania dropped Greer 1:10 into the fight, and again in the sixth round, before picking up the decision victory.
On the same night, it should be noted, welterweight prospect Giovani Santillan barely scraped by former lightweight titleholder Antonio DeMarco via majority decision in a fight that could have credibly been scored either way.
Two days later, undefeated prospect David Kaminsky was tasked with facing Clay Collard, a converted MMA fighter who only really started boxing as a professional regularly last year. The native of Utah had planned on focusing on MMA once again, but with the pandemic halting operations for the promotion he had recently signed with, the only way to make money fighting was back in the boxing ring.
There have been no easy assignments for Collard during his boxing career—in fact, eight of his twelve opponents have been undefeated. This one, however, looked easier than it ought to have been. Collard dramatically outworked Kaminsky and delivered a frightful beating that placed his opponent in the hospital, where thankfully no grave damage was found. It’s quite possible that Kaminsky is more skilled than Collard, but he was less experienced, and it appeared, not in the same kind of condition. Kaminsky was battered and exhausted after six rounds of dealing with Collard’s buzzsaw output.
Of course, there can never be a fully level playing field, even in a bare-bones sport like boxing. Fighters always have personal obstacles to overcome for one, and based on a fighter’s managerial and promotional situation, might have fewer and poorer resources to work with than his or her opponent heading into a fight. But at least in the pre-pandemic world, there was the assumption that they had access to a gym, to training partners, to sparring and had the opportunity to start camp already in adequate shape.
In the current world however, none of those things are a guarantee whatsoever. And as long as that’s the case, upsets are going to continue happening. For even the sport’s best and wealthiest fighters, the pandemic has stripped some of their privilege away. In all but the most lopsided of mismatches, “the A-side” has lost much of its meaning. Fighters are entering the ring sub-optimally prepared and out of practice. As we’ve seen, every fight a boxer takes right now is a massive risk—and that’s just in terms of their careers, not even taking into account the dangers of training while COVID-19 is still rapidly spreading in many areas of the United States.
Given that, don’t be surprised if more A-sides are upset in the coming weeks. And don’t be surprised or even disappointed if fighters try to avoid that possibility altogether by either taking on lesser opposition as Navarrete did, or avoid danger altogether by simply not fighting at all until the world is in a better place.