By Keith Idec
Jaime Munguia demolished Sadam Ali so easily and so quickly, it looked like Ali didn’t even belong in the ring with him.
In hindsight, Ali probably didn’t belong in the ring with the emerging Mexican knockout artist. Not because Ali can’t fight, but because he’s not really a 154-pounder.
Munguia (29-0, 25 KOs) won’t own that advantage over Liam Smith, the opponent for his first WBO junior middleweight title defense Saturday night in Las Vegas. England’s Smith, a former WBO junior middleweight champion, is the mandatory challenger for that same title he lost to Canelo Alvarez nearly two years ago.
Unlike Ali, who has fought at the 154-pound limit just twice, Smith has basically been a 154-pound fighter throughout his nine-year professional career. However Munguia performs against Smith, it’ll give us a better indication of just how good the 21-year-old Tijuana native is.
The 29-year-old Smith isn’t on the level of WBC champ Jermell Charlo (31-0, 15 KOs) or IBF/IBO/WBA champ Jarrett Hurd (22-0, 15 KOs). He is a legitimate junior middleweight, though, and has lost only to Canelo Alvarez.
Liverpool’s Smith (26-1-1, 14 KOs) had some success against Alvarez, but the Mexican star brutalized Smith to the body. He knocked out Smith with a body shot in the ninth round of their September 2016 fight at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Less than two years later, Smith is determined to win back the title he lost to Alvarez. The Munguia-Smith match will be the main event of an HBO “Boxing After Dark” doubleheader from Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET/PT).
“My loss was Jaime Mungia’s gain,” Smith said during a press conference Thursday regarding Munguia replacing him against Ali on May 12. “He stepped in and he won a title. And I was sitting, thinking, ‘Have I missed me shot?’ But I thank my management team and promoter and Oscar [De La Hoya] and Golden Boy [Promotions] for sticking by me. And the WBO, they kept me in the mandatory position, and I got me shot now. And I got that shot against a good champion in Jaime Munguia.
“It should be an exciting fight. He’s an exciting fighter. He comes to fight. He’s young, he’s hungry, But you know what you’re getting with me. I’m not gonna come here and lie down. It’s not the Jaime Munguia show for me. I’m here to do a job. I’m here to do what I set out to do. When I lost the title, I said I’ll get the title back and Saturday night is me chance to do that.”
Munguia has the opportunity to begin proving that his blowout win against Ali wasn’t simply the consequence of a bigger, stronger, younger fighter tearing through an opponent that belongs at welterweight.
Ali and his team seemed to know that their smallish champion needed to be careful about which junior middleweights to fight. His trainer, Andre Rozier, even acknowledged that title unification fights against huge 154-pound champions like Charlo and Hurd were dangerous propositions probably best left alone.
As well as Ali boxed against Miguel Cotto to win the WBO title, Ali’s handlers understood that the Puerto Rican icon wasn’t the biggest junior middleweight, either. Cotto is two inches shorter than Ali (26-2, 14 KOs) and was 37, eight years older, when they fought.
Cotto still was a 10-1 favorite when Ali upset him by unanimous decision December 2 at Madison Square Garden. Ali’s team took confidence from the biggest victory of his nine-year pro career, yet talked about exercising caution when picking opponents.
Ali had, after all, been stopped by Jessie Vargas (28-2-1, 10 KOs) in the ninth round of their WBO welterweight title fight in March 2016 in Washington, D.C.
That didn’t stop them from accepting Munguia as a late substitute for Smith. England’s Smith withdrew from his fight against Ali less than two weeks in advance due to a skin condition that prevented him from training.
Munguia happily replaced Smith. In a few short weeks, he went from unacceptable to unbelievable by dropping Ali four times on his way to a fourth-round technical knockout win at Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, New York.
A few weeks earlier, the hungry contender wanted to step in for Alvarez after his two failed performance-enhancing drug tests forced Alvarez (49-1-2, 34 KOs) to withdraw from his middleweight championship rematch against Gennady Golovkin. Bob Bennett, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, wouldn’t approve Munguia as a replacement for Alvarez because he would’ve had to move up from 154 pounds to 160 to challenge the dangerous Golovkin (38-0-1, 34 KOs) and had faced a very low level of opposition while padding his gaudy record.
Munguia’s defensive deficiencies also were an issue at times before he obliterated Ali, whose team underestimated Munguia’s power and size advantage.
“We were shocked,” Oscar De La Hoya, whose company promotes Ali, said Thursday. “We were shocked, just like everyone else when you were watching Sadam Ali fighting Jaime Munguia. We didn’t expect Jaime Munguia to come out so strong and finish off Sadam Ali. I believe a lot of people were very impressed not only with his relentless style, with his long range, with his movements, but also his intelligence up in the ring. And I believe that has a lot to do with a trainer that I have to acknowledge, that probably was the best trainer of my career. That’s Robert Alcazar. We started together and here were are now, once again.
“Like I said, he’s a fighter who wants to get to the top, and stay on top. And he has a really, really tough challenge, and that’s no secret. Anyone who has watched Liam Smith fights, always comes to fight. And this not the contender versus the champion. This is not one versus two. But I believe this is a very even fight, and it’s gonna be a very tough fight for both.”
HBO’s two-bout broadcast will begin Saturday night with a 12-round, 130-pound title bout that’ll pit Puerto Rico’s Alberto Machado (19-0, 16 KOs) against Ghana’s Rafael Mensah (31-0, 23 KOs). Mensah, 27, is the No. 1 contender for the 27-year-old Machado’s WBA super featherweight title.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.