Murodjon Akhmadaliev delivered an emphatic reminder that the top spot at junior featherweight is very much up for grabs.
The unbeaten WBA/IBF titlist defended his title in style, breaking down Ronny Rios en route to a stoppage in the 12th round. Akhmadaliev floored Rios midway through the final round, with an ensuing attack forcing referee Rafael Ramos to stop the bout at 2:06 of round twelve in their DAZN co-feature Saturday evening at Tech Port Arena in San Antonio, Texas.
Rios came out as a determined challenger, using his heavy jab to set up straight right hands. Akhmadaliev made a subtle defensive adjustment to ensure that the sequence did not become a pattern. A reminder of Akhmadaliev’s rapid ascension to the top came in the form of a stiff jab that briefly froze Rios in his tracks.
Akhmadaliev controlled the distance and action in round two. Rios launched a left hook in the early portion but struggled to adapt to Akhmadaliev’s body punches and purposeful right jab. Both boxers worked the stick as a weapon more than as a range finder, with Rios doubling up in the closing seconds.
Rios took the lead in round three, attempting to walk down the defending champion. Akhmadaliev was successful boxing in reverse but still forced to caution against Rios’ jab and long right hand. The Uzbek southpaw connected with a straight left down the middle, forcing Rios to adjust his attack which affected his punch output.
Akhmadaliev had Rios badly hurt throughout the first half of round three. Rios began the frame strong but left himself open for a shot to the midsection that nearly caused him to double over. Akhmadaliev continued on the attack as Rios attempted to ride out the storm, with the California native coming back strong by round’s end.
Still, not even the late surge by Rios could avoid a tongue lashing in the corner in between rounds. Rios offered a smarter approach in round five, avoiding a firefight and putting his natural size advantage to proper use. Akhmadaliev remained in control for the most part but was twice cited for low blows.
Akhmadaliev entered in the second half as a one-handed fighter. Rios was forced to cover up as Akhmadaliev launched uppercuts from long range in round seven, constantly circling the challenger. Rios managed a left hook but was unable to pin down the elusive Akhmadaliev but picked up the pace in the back half of the frame, letting his hands go once he was able to close the gap.
Rios was rocked by several right hooks by Akhmadaliev down the stretch in round eight. Akhmadaliev offered constant lateral movement to disallow Rios a chance to return fire. The disturbing shift in momentum drew a rise out of Rios’ head trainer, Hector Lopez who called for more pressure and less time spent on the ropes.
The speech only in the sense that most of round nine was spent by Rios in the middle of the ring. Akhmadaliev continued to dictate the pace, connecting with jabs and right hooks but also offering an overhand left for the first time in several rounds.
A brief shift in tempo came early in round ten, as Rios landed a left hook. Akhmadaliev shook off the blow and eventually went back to what was a showcase performance by the defending champion. Akhmadaliev landed with his jab and fully loaded right hook, though Rios punched through the gaps and managed to catch the southpaw with a right hand to the body.
Akhmadaliev loaded up with right hooks to begin round eleven. Rios absorbed the ones that landed while partially blocking the rest but not offering a response. The stiff jab by Akhmadaliev continued to bother Rios, who attempted to catch his foe with a combination jab upstairs and right uppercut to the body. Akhmadaliev ended the round with a right hook to the chin and a straight left hand behind Rios’ guard.
Rios was told under no uncertain terms that he needed a knockout to win heading into the twelfth and final round. Instead, it was Akhmadaliev who closed the show in style. A crippling body shot forced Rios to a knee, beating the count but no longer able to sufficiently defend himself. Akhmadaliev piled on the attack in forcing the referee to rescue Rios from additional damage.
The loss marked the second failed attempt by Rios (33-4, 16KOs) to win a major title. The Santa Ana, California native fell short in an August 2017 challenge of then-unbeaten WBC junior featherweight titlist Rey Vargas.
Akhmadaliev advances to 11-0 (8KOs), making the third defense of the unified titles he collected in a twelve-round win over Daniel Roman in their Fight-of-the-Year slugfest in January 2020. The 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist and accelerated pro is keen to fully unify versus WBC/WBO champ Stephen Fulton but could be forced to first meet IBF mandatory challenger Marlon Tapales.
Akhmadaliev-Rios served as the co-feature of a three-title fight DAZN telecast. Headlining the show, locally based unbeaten WBC junior bantamweight titlist Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez (15-0, 10KOs) attempts his first defense against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (50-5-1, 43KOs), a former two-time WBC champ from Si Sa Ket, Thailand.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox