By Cliff Rold
Slowly, the 2008 US Olympic boxing team has turned into quite the productive little class as professionals.
Despite only a single medal (bronze, Deontay Wilder) at those games, three team members currently hold major titles and two more are former title holders in line for more shots down the road. Of the five men to win major title belts, its fair to say New York’s Sadam Ali was the longest shot.
Last year, he got the right shot at the right time.
Last December, Ali (26-1, 14 KO) won a fight better than anyone really expected it to be against an aged but still competent Miguel Cotto. With a unanimous decision, Ali was the WBO titlist at 154 lbs., sending Cotto into retirement at Madison Square Garden.
Ali joined teammates Wilder (WBC heavyweight) and Gary Russell (WBC featherweight) among the reigning; can he turn that win into a memorable reign?
The first stop in answering that question arrives this Saturday.
With so many belts around, it’s easier to win them than it can be sometimes to hold on. Ali, 29, might have a tall task.
Challenger Jaime Munguia (28-0, 24 KO) of Tijuana, Mexico, is only 21 years old. With a slight turn of fate, he might well have been across the ring from Gennady Golovkin last weekend. The idea was widely ridiculed but there was a small group of fight followers who were intrigued by the idea.
They remain intrigued as we head into this Saturday on HBO (10 PM EST). Munguia has attracted some positive attention, been featured in a few cable spots in the US, and can be considered a live prospect. The youngster has real power, an offensive mindset, and a sort of violent charisma that can become an attraction.
Ali has a deeper amateur pedigree and has been in with far better competition. His lone loss, a stoppage at the hands of Jessie Vargas, raised questions about his durability. Munguia hasn’t faced someone as good as Vargas, period.
There are questions about, well, just about everything besides the power of Munguia. Is he ready for this moment at his age? It’s fair to say he wasn’t ready for Golovkin but this is a different challenge. Ali isn’t as imposing, as physical, or as dangerous as a Golovkin. Instead, Ali is the sort of quality boxer who a talented young puncher can either defeat or get better in defeat against without suffering the sort of trauma an experienced, larger man with seriously heavy hands can inflict.
Ali can have the confidence of age, experience, and some physical assets like speed and footwork. He also has the incentive of knowing that, if he clears this first title defense hurdle, he could secure his ability to generate income for the foreseeable future.
What that says about boxing might not be great but it’s not bad for Ali. Let’s be honest: when it comes to the Jr. middleweight division (and welterweight right below it), HBO doesn’t have much to offer right now.
Showtime, doing business with Al Haymon, has Jarrett Hurd, Erislandy Lara, and Jermell Charlo at 154 lbs. with Shawn Porter, Keith Thurman, Errol Spence, and Danny Garcia one weight class down. ESPN, in doing business with Top Rank, has Terence Crawford and Manny Pacquiao at least as long as the aging Filipino icon stays around.
The only current major titlist at welterweight and Jr. middleweight to appear on HBO in the last year or so is Ali. If the New York can string a few quality wins together, he can be their foothold around that area of the scale and that’s not a bad place to be.
It pays better than no title at all.
Whether it will pay off in fights HBO subscribers want to see remains to be seen. Ali’s loss to Vargas, and win over Cotto, both delivered entertainment. This fight should as well with no clear winner on paper heading in.
By the time the final bell sounds, we’ll know whether we had just another title winner or whether Ali can make things interesting with a defense or two.
Jorge Linares-Vasyl Lomachenko feels like a foregone conclusion that still has enough maybe, and fistic class, to make it can’t miss. This will be a good, long Saturday night at the fights…The new show Cobra Kaiis ten times better than it has any right to be. Something that could have been parody ended up being really solid most of the way through…The ESPN+ app is just one more thing that will eventually make streaming potentially more expensive than cable…As good as this Saturday is, none of the fights on tap is as exciting to this corner as Adonis Stevenson-Badou Jack a week from now. That is a pick ‘em fight of the highest order…The bantamweight field for the next World Boxing Super Series is sensational so far.
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]