There is no case in 2023 for Anthony Joshua being the best heavyweight in the world. In retrospect, there may never have been.
But Joshua is still a star and stars matter in boxing. There are few bigger ones than Joshua even after his consecutive losses to Oleksandr Usyk. Chapter two of the rebound from those defeats unfolded Saturday in the form of a knockout of late replacement Robert Helenius. Joshua was tentative in spots and seemed too comfortable throwing one shot at a time, but he also seemed to be working on more upper body movement and was fluid with his jab. Two fights in with trainer Derrek James, their marriage is still a work in progress.
As expected, Joshua knocked Helenius out, the fourth man to turn the feat, but all that most will remember is someone else did it a whole lot faster.
That someone else might be next for Joshua, finally, after all these years.
Futures: There was a brief moment in time with Joshua and Deontay Wilder held every major alphabet title and a knockout win over every professional opponent they’d faced. The fight didn’t come together. Speculation abounds that it may be next for both men.
It’s one of those scraps that would be both late and right on time. Boxing always has room for a pair of giant knockout artists to square off and the winner would be positioned to challenge the winner of Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk if it ever happens or one of those two if it doesn’t. Let’s hope it finally happens.
From big men to not so big men…
Rodriguez Leaves a No Vacancy Sign
The title picture at bantamweight post-Naoya Inoue is complete. Emanuel Rodriguez regained the IBF bantamweight title with a lopsided decision win over Melvin Lopez. The fight was no contest from the start. Rodriguez was too experienced, too skilled, too good for Lopez. The referee could have stopped the bout in the final round after Rodriguez scored his third knockdown of the frame but went with the count and time ran out.
A swelling over the right eye of Rodriguez supplied what drama there was in the fight before the final round. The commission ruled it caused by punches; it appeared to be a head clash from ringside. Lopez would have had to assert himself to make it matter but simply didn’t appear to know how. Rodriguez completes his journey back to the title circle after his devastating knockout loss to Inoue in the World Boxing Super Series.
What does it mean for the division going forward?
Futures: At the least it means the division has a champion for each of its four major belts. That isn’t the same as an identity. It may take a minute to establish one of those; maybe longer. Rodriguez-Jason Moloney II or either versus Takuma Inoue are probably the biggest fights that can be made in the class for the moment, but none of those unification clashes leaps off the page as a particularly must-have fight for fans. Rodriguez says he wants a unification with Alejandro Santiago. They’re all good fighters but there isn’t a lot of star power for the moment.
The best case for the class may well be for one of the veteran junior bantamweight stars (Juan Francisco Estrada, Roman Gonzalez, Kazuto Ioka) to move up to challenge Rodriguez, Moloney, Inoue, or Santiago for a belt. There are compelling stories to be told with those men trying to add to their ledgers.
It isn’t far-fetched to think undefeated Junto Nakatani, former flyweight titlist and dangerous contender at junior bantamweight, could potentially unseat any titlist 115 or 118 pounds right now. A rise in weight to a class looking for a new identity could be an opportunity if his team thinks outside the box.
For now, a reset was in order and is now complete. Rodriguez is in the winner’s circle. What rewards come with that will unfold in time.
The winner’s circle is becoming standard for the man who won the fight of the weekend.
Navarrete Gets Career Win
For this weekend, we’ve saved the best for last.
It was reasonable to question Emanuel Navarrete’s level of competition since a pair of breakthrough wins over Isaac Dogboe. It was reasonable to wonder if he’d hit his ceiling at junior lightweight after a dramatic struggle with Liam Wilson.
It turns out it was reasonable to think a bigger fight would bring a bigger performance out of Mexico’s three-division titlist.
Matched with former featherweight and junior lightweight titlist Oscar Valdez, Navarrete went to work with the lights the brightest they’ve been in his career, retaining the WBO title. The story of the fight was there from the opening frame with Navarrete throwing, according to CompuBox, 73 punches to Valdez’s 33. He wasn’t always landing at a high rate but it was more than enough to leave Valdez’s right eye a swollen mess by the end and in the final frame Navarrete landed (34) almost as many punches as Valdez threw (39) in a fight-high 101 punch barrage.
Navarrete was everywhere, throwing from odd angles, switching stances, an improvisational performance that seemingly always delivered exactly what was needed. Valdez tried to match him with heart, will, and the perfect power counter shot that never arrived. Valdez made it harder on himself as the fight progressed. Valdez’s jab dropped to single digit attempts in round six and in the championship round it vanished even more. An experienced champion and former Olympian, Navarrete left Valdez in fling and pray mode down the stretch.
It was one-sided, but still dramatic and exciting. It wasn’t quite as exciting as the television crew at ESPN made it out to be, nor as competitive. All of the scores, ranging from 8-4 to 11-1 in terms of rounds, were fair. Try to find a decisive round for Valdez? There weren’t a lot to choose from and a rematch is neither needed nor wise for Valdez.
But is there much in the way of better business for a Navarrete who is now 12-0 in title fights?
Futures: The junior lightweight division isn’t boxing’s hottest spot right now. Like bantamweight, it features lots of good fighters without an abundance of star power…but star power can grow and Navarrete is growing into it nicely. He’s must-see TV, a fighter whose boxing IQ is easily underrated. All that volume can distract from how intelligently it is applied and how many different looks he can generate.
If unification was an option, Navarrete versus Hector Garcia, Joe Cordina, or O’Shaquie Foster would all be intriguing fights. They might not be as lucrative as Navarrete being matched with one of the bigger names Top Rank has at lightweight. He might not be favored against a Vasyl Lomachenko or Shakur Stevenson, but after Saturday one could see those fights being seen as options for Navarrete’s promoter.
For Valdez, one wonders how many more nights like Saturday he has in him. Valdez has been a reliable action fighter for years now but he has taken more than his share of lumps. By the time he heals from Saturday he’ll be pressing 33 in a physical career now more than a decade old. Valdez has given fans everything he had, win or lose. It isn’t going to get any easier from here.
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 email@example.com