by Cliff Rold
For the first time since Nonito Donaire moved up to 122 lbs. in 2012, the bantamweight division could have a titlist with one more than one belt to their name.
Unlike the Fernando Montiel-Hozumi Hasegawa unification match that eventually led to Donaire holding the WBC and WBO titles, this doesn’t feature a pair of long established men in the class. Ryan Burnett is just 25 and looks even younger, a pro only since 2013. Zhanat Zhakiyanov has been around longer, since 2007, but he’s only now arrived in the title picture.
The typical playbook is to get a defense or three notched before even thinking about unification, especially in lighter classes where the money can be harder to come by. Instead, both these men are putting their immediate future livelihood as at stake as well as the straps that adorn their waist.
This tape-delayed portion of HBO’s Saturday tripleheader (10:05 PM EST) might just be the real main event.
Let’s go to the report card.
Title: IBF bantamweight (2017-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 117 ¼ lbs.
Hails from: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Record: 17-0, 9 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 1-0
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Lee Haskins UD12
Title: WBA “Super” bantamweight (2017-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 117 ¼ lbs.
Hails from: Petropavl, Kazakhstan
Record: 27-1, 18 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 1-0 (2-0 including interim title fights)
Current/Former World Champions Faced: Rau’Shee Warren SD12
Pre-Fight: Speed – Burnett B+; Zhakiyanov B-
Pre-Fight: Power – Burnett B; Zhakiyanov B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Burnett B; Zhakiyanov B
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Burnett B+; Zhakiyanov A
Both men enter this fight coming off highly impressive performances. Burnett made a jump in competition and absolutely dominated, dropping Lee Haskins twice along the way. Zhakiyanov’s title winning effort also had two knockdowns.
He suffered both of them. Rau’shee Warren had Zhakiyanov down twice in the first but couldn’t close the show. Warren has never been know has a puncher so one might wonder about the chin of Zhakiyanov but it’s more likely the right blind shot caught him early. He took plenty of leather well the rest of the night.
Zhakiyanov landed more of his own. The pressuring Kazakh keeps a high guard and has subtle head movement. He’s not always an easy target. He’s physically strong, has excellent stamina, and his right hand is very accurate. He throws it with precision but can change the angle to find holes. Zhakiyanov also goes to the body fiercely.
Burnett is the quicker man and also the more awkward. He’s a clever boxer who, while not a puncher, showed versus Haskins he can put a good man down. Against Haskins he often had his hands down near his waist, reacting and countering before Haskins could get his offense home. Burnett also was willing to tie up when Haskins came forward, a tactic that he’ll need against Zhakiyanov. This could be a fascinating style match but could also get mugging and ugly on the inside depending on how Burnett responds to and seeks to control the pressure of Zhakiyanov.
Burnett hasn’t had the sort of gut check Zhakiyanov did against Warren yet but his matchmakers must feel good enough about him to put him here. His intangibles could be further defined by this fight. Competing at home in Belfast, Burnett should be comfortable.
That won’t make Zhakiyanov uncomfortable. He won his title on the road, doing enough in Ohio to overcome those two knockdowns. When a fighter on the road can come off the deck to win on the cards, it’s a sign they really won the fight. This is his second fight in Belfast and he’s used to playing the international traveler.
Zhakiyanov’s road title win and physical maturity should serve him well on Saturday but will it be enough? Burnett appears on film to be quicker. Warren had the same advantage over Zhakiyanov, and a depth of international amateur experience, and it didn’t work out. Zhakiyanov is smart in the way he presses a fight and has more experience in the ring than Burnett. Burnett has good head movement but his low hands are going to see him get tagged by right hands and the body shots will multiply as the night goes on. The pick here is for Zhakiyanov to go on the road for his second fight in a row and leave with a major title belt.
Report Card and Staff Picks 2017: 40-16
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]