By Cliff Rold
It’s not the main event this Saturday night at the Stub Hub Center. On paper, it appears to be the real fight before we get there.
Nonito Donaire-Nicholas Walters looks like the goods at Featherweight.
And that’s good for the Featherweight business.
It’s been almost eight years since Juan Manuel Marquez left Featherweight for 130 lbs., closing the door on the last truly memorable era in the division. The fantastic foursome of Marquez, Manny Pacquiao, Erik Morales, and Marco Antonio Barrera, along with some excellent supporting cast, still cast their shadow.
The years since have seen some quality talent come and go, and occasionally some fantastic fights, but nothing ever quite came together like it did in the first half of the 2000s.
That appears to be changing.
If a new wave can truly be determined to have a start point, this emerging burst of excitement in the house that Pep built can point to a series of upsets for its origins.
In March 2013, Evgeny Gradovich announced himself a part of the scene with a win over Billy Dib for the IBF belt. A few months later in August, veteran Jhonny Gonzalez stopped undefeated three-division titlist Abner Mares for the WBC belt. In December of that year, Simpiwe Vetyeka upset the longest reigning titlist in the division, Chris John, for the WBA strap. Finally, in March of this year, former Olympic master Vasyl Lomachenko fell short in a shot at the WBO title against veteran Orlando Salido; Salido had lost the title on the scales and has since moved up to Jr. Lightweight.
Those outcomes, as individual fights, would have stood alone as interesting outcomes. As a series of events, they breathed life into a division without a clear focus. They created buzz, excitement, some deck clearing, and set up the future unfolding now.
For the first time in a while, we can look forward to more than a good fight or fighter here or there. The alignment of talent creates the possibility of a round robin.
The 28-year old Gradovich (19-0, 9 KO) has since added three defenses, establishing himself as a TV friendly battler. Vetyeka parlayed his upset into a fight with former three-division titlist Nonito Donaire (33-2, 21 KO), allowing an entry point into the division for one of the genuine stars of the lighter weights. Donaire won a cut shortened affair with a knockdown before it was over.
Lomachenko (2-1, 1 KO), only 26 years old, performed well enough in his second (depending on who you ask) pro fight to get another title shot over the summer, defeating Al Haymon client Gary Russell for the WBO belt. Mares, since the Gonzalez loss, signed with Haymon and likely would have operated outside the other players mentioned here. Gonzalez (57-8, 48 KO) has no such impediments.
And then there is Walters (24-0, 20 KO).
The 28-year old Jamaican puncher, who also holds a version of the WBA belt, has a chance to say just how real he is this weekend. In his last outing, he made his biggest statement to date with a fifth-round knockout of Vic Darchinyan. While Darchinyan is getting long in the tooth, he was shortly removed from a near upset of Donaire in a long overdue rematch. If Walters can win this weekend over the 31-year old Donaire, he’ll be a serious player.
Walters shares promoter Top Rank with three of the four major titlists (Donaire, Gradovich, and Lomachenko). Gonzalez isn’t under that tent but has recently expressed an interest in a Donaire fight.
Recent history tells us for a series of fights to happen, alignment is key. We’ve seen veritable round robins at Jr. Welterweight and Welterweight, but on dual tracks contained by promotional/network/advisory bubbles. At Light Heavyweight, Adonis Stevenson suddenly finds himself both history’s champion and without a fight. The nonsense of now keeps too many divisional giants away from each other.
At Featherweight, those issues are largely absent. The winner, and loser, of Donaire-Walters will have intriguing, makeable options as we turn the page to 2015 because they can stay in house to find them. More players will join them, some in the circle and some outside. This is how a wave turns into high tide. How long it lasts remains to be seen.
It’s been awhile but Featherweight has the makings of returning to its rightful place as one of the genuine hot spots in boxing. It doesn’t look like the same collection of talent the last wave brought us. The fights and matches can be good enough to be good enough.
So everyone seems to be posting their Hall of Fame choices. Here were mine…In the modern class, the vote went to Riddick Bowe, Wilfredo Vazquez Sr., Hilario Zapata, Santos Laciar, and Naseem Hamed. Dariusz Michalczewski, Gilberto Roman, Sung-Kil Moon, Miguel Lora, Lupe Pintor, and Nigel Benn were all strongly considered as well. On the current Modern ballot, Ray Mancini, Vinny Pazienza, Paulie Ayala, Meldrick Taylor, Sven Ottke, Gianfranco Rosi, Ratanapol Sor Vorapin, Fernando Vargas, and Buddy McGirt all fall into the permanent no category…In the Old Timers category, the vote went to Eddie Booker, Betulio Gonzalez, Yoko Gushiken, Pone Kingpetch, and Masao Ohba. The arrival of the long overdue Booker forced Harry Jeffra off this vote for the first time in years. He’ll be back. In future years, a vote for Rodrigo Valdez is all but guaranteed here along with perpetual wonder at Ernie Terrell making the ballot. The Muhammad Ali halo is strong…Feel free to agree or disagree. For a boxing nerd, this is one of the most fun times of the year.
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]