By Cliff Rold
It wasn’t long ago that flyweight was the hardcore pick for best division in boxing. A cast of characters led by Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada made a series of memorable fights. What followed was the inevitable movement to higher weight divisions.
Yesterday’s flyweight wave is today’s still hot Jr. bantamweight division and, with the inclusion of Naoya Inoue, what is sure to be a fiery World Boxing Super Series tournament at bantamweight. It remains a good time to be a fan of the sub-featherweight realm.
The spotlight on 115 and 118 lbs. has left less attention for the flyweights just a hair lower at 112 lbs. Saturday, a pair of men in the division have a chance to bring some shine back their way. On a Belfast card headlined by Carl Frampton, and featuring heavyweight star Tyson Fury (YouTube, 4 PM EST), the flyweights will have their chance to steal the show.
23-year old Nicaraguan Cristofer Rosales (27-3, 18 KO) isn’t likely to make anyone forget about his countryman Gonzalez but he doesn’t have to. He made his own impression in April. Traveling to Japan, he pulled off an upset few some coming when he stopped undefeated knockout machine Daigo Higa in nine rounds.
Higa came into the bout with 15 wins all inside the distance. A failure to make weight, coupled with the range and consistent attack of Rosales, left him without the WBC flyweight title. It remains one of the bigger upsets of 2018 and now Rosales has a chance to follow up.
Rosales clearly learned enough in earlier career defeats to Andrew Selby and future 115 lb. titlist Khalid Yafai to find his way to a belt. Has he learned enough to keep it?
The story of the fight is interesting. In one corner, the unexpected upstart Rosales. In the other, a man who three times went to the Olympics for Ireland, Paddy Barnes (5-0, 1 KO). In 2008 and 2012, Barnes left the games with bronze medals at light flyweight before a surprising first round exit in 2016. In both 2008 and 2012, and at the 2007 world amateurs, he lost to eventual gold medalist Zou Shiming of China.
This is Barnes chance for gold. It’s also a big step up in paid competition. Opting not to waste time at 31 years of age, Barnes has faced only two professionals with winning records to date but is jumping straight to the title mix. With a victory, he would be the first Irishman to win a major title at flyweight since Dave McAuley won the IBF strap almost thirty years ago.
The winner won’t have long to rest on their laurels. Selby (10-0, 5 KO), who came off the floor to win a lopsided decision over Rosales in 2017, waits in the wings as the WBC mandatory. He’s only one of a few undefeated new faces in the division.
31-year old Ukrainian Artem Dalakian (17-0, 12 KO) added to his nation’s haul of titles in the 21stcentury when he dominated veteran Brain Viloria to win the vacant WBA belt in February. Japan’s 29-year old Sho Kimura (17-1-2, 10 KO) will be hard pressed to hold his WBO belt past September 24th. Already a former two-division titlist, 23-year old Kosei Tanaka (11-0, 7 KO) will be favored as a challenger and may soon have a third divisional crown to call his own.
Of course, they’re not all new faces. The IBF crown is back around the waist of a man who never lost it in the ring. 35-year old Moruti Mthalane (36-2, 24 KO) hasn’t lost since a cut ended a competitive affair with Nonito Donaire in 2008. He dominated Muhammad Wassem last month on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao-Lucas Matthyse to regain the belt he was stripped of in 2014.
Stacked together, the top of the current flyweight class doesn’t rate quite as high as the two divisions right above it but there is plenty of room to grow. To get hot again, two things have to happen. The first is fights that get people talking.
The second is they have to create a desire to see the men winning those fights against each other. At flyweight, that can be tricky past a point. Geography and purses remain an impediment. There will always be fights devoted followers of the lower divisions want to see but getting the markets to align for things like unification matches hasn’t been easy over the years.
Since the WBC and WBA started recognizing separate champions in the flyweight division in the 1960s, with the IBF and WBO expanding the title picture in decades since, there has been only one unification match: 2012’s Brian Viloria (WBO) vs. Tyson Marquez (WBA) clash.
Before unification becomes a point of discussion, letting the division shake out will have to be good enough. Kimura-Tanaka will satisfy the Japanese faithful; Selby versus the winner of Rosales-Barnes could leave us with an interesting rematch or a Selby-Barnes clash pitting Wales against Northern Ireland. It wouldn’t be an exact comparison, but that would be more than enough to spill some more ink about McAuley’s clash with England’s Duke McKenzie in 1989.
Rosales and Barnes have their chance to do something to create more interest in tomorrow this Saturday. If they do, they’ll boost their division along with each other.
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]