Matchroom put out a schedule, which is of course subject to changes because of the whims of fate and COVID, and, it must be said, it didn't bowl you over in terms of overall quality.
The Brit deal-maker Eddie Hearn did announce one tussle that has me pretty amped; March 6 we can all see if Dillian Whyte experiences a flashback to the Aug. 22 evening when he had things in hand and then had his world exploded by a Russian uppercut, compliments of faded but by no means fully deflated Alexander Povetkin.
And apart from that, the schedule reflects, arguably, a few things. One, Hearn doesn't have the DAZN mega-wallet to use when crafting matches like he did, and also, English boxing is in a place where spots are there for the taking for athletes wanting to be seen as world-class standouts.
That's a kind way of saying, this Matchroom schedule doesn't zap you with positive emotions, because you are looking forward to seeing ascendent talents, or in their prime practitioners who are a good bet to leave you a satisfied fight fan.
English boxing as a whole is not ensconced in a golden age. Anthony Joshua is seen as 1B in the heavyweight class, with Tyson Fury being the kingpin in the eyes of most outside the UK. Daniel Dubois experienced a harsh hiccup on his hoped for ascent a few months ago, and Joe Joyce saw a reputation bump with his win, but isn't chattered about excitedly among fans of the heavyweight sector outside of his home zone.
In the cruiser class, Lawrence Okolie, age 28–the 15-0, 12 KOs hitter is a featured player in the Matchroom 2021 kickoff sched, he faces Krzysztof Glowacki for the vacant WBO crown on Saturday March 20– is no fan fave, even though he edges up the ratings. In auditions to broaden his appeal, too many of us were moved to yawns. He has no wins that stand as a signature victory. Does Okolie (below) “deserve” to be ranked No. 2 by the WBO? That's a rhetorical question.
At 175, many Brits root for Joshua Buatsi to get to the next level, but he's been the recipient of skilled management as he elevates in the rankings. Just 13-0, he's 27, and hasn't been tossed into the sort of waters that prove he's someone that the UK can rally round and boast about. Anthony Yarde, promoted by Frank Warren, the Hearn rival, is dogged by more questions about his ceiling, than raves about his 22 professional starts.
At 168, BJ Saunders, not to be found on the Matchroom schedule, is regarded as skilled, but prone to self sabotage, so he gains followers and then almost reflexively repels them, with his actions and behaviors and lack of outings. Callum Smith underperformed in his opportunity to show his homeland that he and Canelo Alvarez were of comparable class. He's 30, and may have just “graduated” to be thought of as a scalp, a steppingstone record builder for younger guys with higher upside.
Middleweights Liam Williams, who lost twice to Liam Smith, and Chris Eubank Jr will see opportunity knock louder for them in 2021, but both are in a “show me, don't tell me” classification zone for Americans. Eubank is like so many of the English talents on this list. He is not young, he's 31, doesn't fight often enough, and hasn't been successful at converting a win into a momentum push toward greater prominence. His dad was a legend in his day, but has proven to be detrimental to his kid's career.
Amir Khan, age 34, with four stops in his five losses, is not seen as a true threat to the top tier at 147, and Kell Brook, who turns 35 in May, and Khan are discussing a past prime clash of chinny ultra vets.
Lewis Ritson, age 27, is ranked highly by the WBA at 140, and is enjoying a four fight win streak. But he didn't blow anyone away in his last effort, against 34 year old Miguel Vazquez last October.
At 135, English fans hoped their man Luke would show Ryan Garcia that he was over hyped, but in Cali King Ry instead sent Campbell back home to ponder heavy stuff. He's 34 in September, is 3-3 in his last six, and has to wonder how much longer this dangerous game is for him. Brits who a couple years ago exulted in all the titles their pugilists had cornered have to look at 135 as another division where Americans are enjoying a status edge. Teofimo Lopez, born in Brooklyn, Gervonta Davis from Baltimore and young King Ry are head, shoulders and bargaining power in an elite class. The English look on with envy.
At 130, perhaps a Martin Ward (24-1-2), yet another one in that late 20s zone, will break out in 2021, get a break and secure an actual signature win. He's yet another testament to skilled managerial and promotional efforting, as well as the dilution the sport as a whole is faced with because of an excess of weight classes and titles.
Do English fight fans have more cause for optimism when they consider the super featherweight space? Yes they do; Matchroom has the IBF 126 champ on their first quarter schedule, Josh Warrington (30-0, 7 KOs) faces Mexico’s Mauricio Lara (21-2, 14 KOs) on Feb. 13. A win–and Warrington is a massive favorite, Lara's record is built on a flimsy foundation–then keeps Josh in play for a higher profile assignment to play out after, knock on all the wood, COVID gets better sorted. Would the bigger deal bout come against Kid Galahad (No. 1 IBF) or Jazza Dickens (No. 3 IBF)? If yes, then Warrington's rep world-wide wouldn't likely be in play to flourish massively.
Super bantam isn't a white hot, or even red hot division, so maybe you could argue it's ripe for an English athlete to stand out and announce their true worth…same can be said for 105 and 108. What about at 112, maybe WBO No. 2 Sunny Edwards is one who gives England a flyweight of bold-face note in 2021? Maybe his older brother Charlie makes a run to supremacy at 115 or 118, more likely bantamweight, where the WBC has him as No. 3.
I'm not being close minded, I know that boxing is still that place where a guy or gal can go from no name to big damn deal in the half blink of an eye. I also know that COVID is ripping new assholes in America and in the UK, so everyone gets a pass for all their schedules, to a degree, until the pandemic truly is tamed. Perhaps this Matchroom package will be remembered as a period when fighters graduated, to more prominent places, after turning in thrilling showings which reminded us what we love about pugilism.
Maybe the fighting pride of Manchester, the super featherweight Zelfa Barrett (24-1, 15 KOs) defends his IBF Intercontinental Title against over ex champ Kiko Martinez (41-9-2, 29 KOs) on Feb. 13, on that Matchroom, card, and his effort renders him an immediate sensation. It's possible that another fighter listed on the Matchroom schedule, Nottingham’s Leigh Wood (23-2, 13 KOs) downs Reece Mould (13-0, 6 KOs) for the vacant British featherweight title and lifts himself two levels.
The Matchroom March 13 slate holds possibilities for a more nuclear sort of impact for guys like Fabio Wardley (10-0, 9 KOs), who will get positive attention if he drops and stops heavyweight Eric Molina (27-6, 19 KOs). And it's a decent bet that Campbell Hatton (below), son of British fight legend Ricky Hatton, gets the W in his professional debut and spurs salivating on the part of the English fight fans.
Chantelle Cameron (13-0, 7 KOs) can make a mark on March 20, when she makes the first defence of her WBC super lightweight crown against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Hernandez (23-7-3, 7 KOs). She's angling to lure Katie Taylor, the Irish standard bearer on the women's side, into a tiff. But let's put it on the table, the growth of the women's boxing scene, in America and in the UK, didn't take off as was hoped for by people who put their chips on Claressa Shields, who got a mega push courtesy of Showtime starting with her second pro fight, against Sydney Leblanc. Katie Taylor is highly respected, but no, the women's scene didn't grow incrementally in the last 3-4 years to where it's in a stone's throw in terms of impact compared to the men's side. Shields thinks that's because power players didn't push the women's space properly…and that's a debate for another day and column.
And by April 10, a couple guys and/or gals who weren't close to being on radar as stars will have demanded to be given attention. Conor Benn (17-0, 11 KOs) defending his WBA Continental Title against Samuel Vargas (31-6-2, 14 KOs) gives him the chance to get a tick closer to the level of prominence his father Nigel did when he was seen as the most exciting boxer campaigning in the UK. The kid is 24, it's not inconceivable that by age 26 or so, he'll have rumbled in buzz-y matches like the ones “The Dark Destroyer” did against Michael Watson, Iran Barkley and Chris Eubank, but I'd bet my house and yours against that taking place.
This is kind of a cold summation, but right now, this era is looking thin for English boxing.
At least as compared to, say 2016. If you widened out the scope, and assessed Uk boxing circa 2015-2016, optimism reigned with Tyson Fury, Carl Frampton, Ricky Burns and Tony Bellew were in the mix at high levels. Also, James DeGale owned a super middle crown, and the fans loved their ‘Chunky.'
Kell Brook was cresting in confidence, leading to his acceptance of a game-changer battle with Gennadiy Golovkin, Terry Flanagan enjoyed a title reign at lightweight, as did Anthony Crolla. Lee Selby proudly wore an IBF featherweight strap around his waist. Jaime McDonnell had time with the WBA bantam belt in his possession, and Lee Haskins made Bristol proud as a bantamweight titlist.
Reasons for the “slide,” as compared to that golden period are varied, but probably the single biggest reason for the dip is a simple one: those guys got older. They went from being at or near their athletic peak, to a zone where the reflexes were a notch slower, and it became that much harder to make weight.
If you think the state of English boxing is not so dim as I've laid out, you might note that plenty of the fighters that Matchroom is wanting fight fans to care about and tune in to are at their athletic peak or can still look forward to that sweet spot as pugilists. But in many of their cases, they are behind in development as compared to the fighters listed above, who all conspired to make UK fans beam with pride.
It will be up to those featured players on the Matchroom schedule kickoff slate to prove me wrong, and live up to the upbeat tone in the Matchroom start to the new year release.