One Quarter Down: Year In Boxing Starts Strong
David Benavidez and Caleb Plant just closed out on Saturday a whirlwind of a first quarter boxing schedule which has been nothing short of amazing.
Before talking about this past weekend's Super Middleweight bout, let's revisit some of the highlights of the first 3 months of this year.
2023 started with a bang on January 7th in a fight between two undefeated Lightweights in Gervonta Davis and Hector Luis Garcia. For the WBA world champion Davis this was supposed to be a stay busy type fight leading into a superfight with Ryan Garcia later in the year.
For Garcia (no relation to Ryan), this was an opportunity earned after his upset victory over Chris Colbert last year. Garcia would follow that triumph by capturing the WBA Jr. Lightweight title with a decision win over Roger Gutierrez. This would be far more competitive than most predicted over the course of the first 7 and a half rounds. Garcia dictated the pace in the early rounds behind a busy jab. Davis, who is typically a slow starter, was true to form as Garcia (16-0-10 KOs) took the early rounds on activity alone.
In round 5 Davis (27-0-25 KO's) began to potshot and find his timing and he started to methodically break down his opponent with mental and physical pressure. Davis took control of a chess match type boxing match, one in which Garcia was still live and fighting well when a sudden ending in the form of a Davis power surge onslaught sent Garcia back to his corner at the end of the 8th hurt and damaged. He would not continue, complaining that he could no longer see from the right eye. The contest was waived off a few seconds into round 9 officially just as the bell sounded to begin action. Prior to the instant conclusion it was a competitive bout between two guys fighting on close to even terms throughout. For Davis this was the exact kind of test needed before moving on to one of the most anticipated fights of the year in 2023 with Ryan Garcia.
On the undercard of the Davis- Garcia pay per view was an intriguing matchup between a slick boxer in undefeated Rashidi Ellis and once beaten Colombian knockout artist Roman Villa.
This fight would have an interesting style contrast as Ellis is a very speedy fighter with flash who has also shown that he can crack, illustrated by his one punch knockout over Eddie Gomez.
Villa in turn had not had to rely much on his boxing as he dispatched 24 opponents by way of knockout in his 25 victories. The one decision win was in his previous fight over undefeated Jenelson Figeroa.
Early on it was the speed and quickness of Ellis putting rounds in the bank over a wild swinging and often telegraphed Villa. Ellis (24-0-16 KOs) was boxing smart and landing crowd and judge friendly punches often on his slower opponent. Ellis was also doing so behind an accurate jab which helped him sweep the first 5 rounds on all 3 judges' scorecards.
As the fight progressed the relentless pressure of Villa began to slow down the nearly 4-1 favorite Ellis as Villa began to have his moments which were coming far more often than in previous rounds. As the bout progressed into the second half of the fight it was Villa beginning to take control on a tiring Ellis who seemed to be crawling to the finish line of the 12 round bout.
In those final 3 championship rounds Villa continued to make a charge in the form of hard overhand rights and sweeping left hooks which resumed finding a home on the depleted Ellis who courageously tried to fight fire with fire.
Behind on the scorecards and in need of a miracle in a fight in which he had taken over but was trailing on the cards while running out of time, Villa would deliver in dramatic fashion by dropping Ellis with a huge left hook with a minute and fifty five seconds remaining in the fight. With little time to waste in trying to get the finish Villa immediately pounced on his stunned opponent. Ellis to his credit showed savviness in clinching and killing the clock as well as courage fighting back hard and exchanging with Villa landing solid shots of his own.
That courage would ultimately cost him dearly as with only 4 seconds remaining in the fight Ellis would be caught with a vicious left hook in the middle of an exchange while fighting off the ropes. The bell would sound ending the contest as Ellis rose to his feet. High drama indeed.
When the scores were announced Villa would have his hand raised in a huge upset by majority decision. Although he had closed the gap on the scorecards, it was the theatrical ending to the 12th round which secured victory for Villa. There is talk of a rematch which would be greatly welcomed by boxing fans.
Fast forward 3 weeks and it was unified Light Heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev traveling to his opponent's backyard defending against slick power punching Anthony Yarde in the United Kingdom.
This fight had all the makings of a slugfest as Beterbiev could be the biggest puncher in the sport. Heading into this contest his record stood at 18-0 with all 18 wins coming by way of knockout. Yarde to his credit entered having scored 22 knockouts in his 23 victories to go along with 2 losses.
This one didn't disappoint, as Yarde implemented the advantages he had over the champion in the form of speed and athleticism to take a few of the early rounds in a nip and tuck affair.
The first 4 rounds were a matchup of Beterbiev's power boxing against Yard's more slick and crafty brand of pugilism. That would all begin to go out the window in round 5 as the fighters engaged at close quarters more frequently and by the end of the stanza both men were now bleeding. Beterbiev from a cut over his left eye and Yarde from a cut under his.
Beterbiev really began to impose his will and strength on Yarde who was still battling back in rounds 6 and 7 and nowhere near ready to give in but clearly fading. An overhand right by the champion in round 8 hurt the challenger, smelling blood in the water Beterbiev immediately attacked with a volley of power punches exemplified by another overhand right which deposits Yarde onto the canvas. Yarde beat the count but the follow up attack from Beterbiev forced Yarde's corner to hop on the apron and signal to the referee to stop the fight. At the time of the ending all 3 judges had Yarde ahead by scores of 77-75.
February 3rd would pit lightweight champion Emanuel Navarrete 36-1-30 KOs against Australia's Liam Wilson. On paper it appeared to be an ESPN showcase type fight for Navarette who was making his 4th defense of the title against an opponent with all of 12 professional fights who was victorious in 11 of those outings. In reality, it was anything but.
Wilson came to win and broke out of the gate quickly imposing his size and will on a retreating Navarrete who was forced to fight off the back foot early on while looking to walk Wilson into a big shot.
Over the course of the next couple of rounds the two would constantly trade bull/matador-like positions as each tried to gain sustained momentum.
In round four a huge counter left hook by Wilson caught Navarrete in the middle of an exchange and had the champion badly wobbled. The follow up assault in the form of a volley of power shots put the wounded Navarrete down on the canvas. With only 20 seconds remaining in the round, Wilson was unable to finish his prey.
An extremely aggressive Wilson came out in round 5 as it appeared Navarrete still did not have his legs underneath him. The champion managed to navigate his way around the ring for a majority of the round and avoid taking any big shots. With about 30 seconds left in the stanza the defending champion seemed to get his footing back scoring with a few solid power punches while surging forward to close the round well.
Round 6 would see Navarrette sink in many hard shots to the body throughout the course of the round while imposing his will on a seemingly depleting Wilson. With the final seconds ticking away on the clock Wilson would again rock the champion with a left hook.
Round 7 would prove to be a pivotal period of the matchup. After a fairly even round where both men landed their share of eye catching punches it would be the champion Navarette who would draw blood from the nose of the challenger while pummeling Wilson with a barrage of power shots the final 20 seconds of the round. For the first time that night, Wilson had been clearly hurt and hurt badly.
Round 8 would again be fought on even terms with both men trading places as the aggressor. It seemed like this would remain the theme of the round when suddenly things dramatically changed. With 1 minute and 15 seconds remaining in the round Navarette would land a beautiful two punch combination in the form of a left uppercut to the body and right cross upstairs, again Wilson was hurt. The champion followed up with a variety of wide swinging power punches but the challenger was stubborn and battled back making it out of round 8 but now looking the worse for wear.
In round 9 Naverette would waste little time in finding out if his opponent was ready to go, landing a huge right hand to the chin 20 seconds into the round and depositing Wilson on the deck for the first time. With two and a half minutes to work with Naveratte would not let Wilson off the hook a third time as he went for broke crashing home over a two dozen power shots on the retreating challenger. He knocked Wilson all over the ring until finally pinning him on the ropes were the referee would call a halt to the action with Wilson absorbing numerous punches without firing back. TKO Round 9.
At the time of the stoppage Navarette had pulled ahead on the judges scorecards in a fight in which Wilson showed plenty of skill and will but would unravel under the relentless enforcement of the defending champion.
February 8th would give boxing fans another good matchup with defending WBA Featherweight champion Leigh Wood taking on hard hitting challenger Mauricio Lara. This fight had all the makings of a slugfest as both men love to engage and and in turn are not the most defensively responsible of pugilists.
Wood (26-2-18 KOs) has always shown a willingness to exchange and with the Mexican Lara fighting on foreign soil in the UK, he was not there to go to the scorecards. The toe to toe war that many expected instead turned into a boxing professor teaching a student a lesson with Lara being the recipient.
For the first several rounds the champion surprised most in imposing a disciplined boxing style behind an educated jab while keeping the action in the center of the ring.
Lara (25-2-1-18KOs) pressed forward, often absorbing jabs to both the mouth and midsection. Round after round this theme played out with the champion now dropping a right hand behind his jab and on occasion following up with his left hook. Lara seemed baffled as his activity decreased and he seemed to be doing more waiting than punching.
By round number 5 Wood was putting together beautiful combinations while never straying far away from his jab which had been controlling the entire fight. The champion had taken control of matters and was having his way with a Lara that was only fighting in spurts. The occasional explosion of power shots which would be the storm that Wood would weather time and time again while continuing to put rounds in the bank.
Round 6 would see the champion beginning to open up on his opponent more with a foray of power punches throughout the round and then settle back into boxing mode using his jab and legs to avoid danger. Heading into the 7th round it appeared that it was the champion's night and he could do no wrong. The feeling of a potential stoppage by Wood seemed a very relevant outcome as he had outclassed Lara in all areas and the challenger appeared fatigued.
Round 7 looked a lot like its predecessor as Wood continued to control all aspects of the action when suddenly while reeling back to uncork a left hook in the center of the ring he was beaten to the punch by a left hook from Lara which was both perfectly and beautifully timed.
Wood never saw the punch coming and was sent crashing to the canvas. The champion would rise to his feet but on shaky legs as he wobbled around the ring prompting trainer Ben Davison to throw in the towel stopping the fight.
A substantial come from behind victory for Maricio Lara in a fight he outboxed, outpunched, outclassed and behind on the scorecards. In boxing, the fight is never over until the final bell sounds and Lara proved just that.
February 25th was a clash for IBF the Jr. Welterweight title with defending champion Subriel Matias taking on undefeated challenger Jeremias Ponce. “Clash” would be the operative word as these two engaged in toe to toe warfare the second the bell rang.
Ponce (30-0-20 KOs) came out guns blazing, immediately attacking the champion with a non stop volume of power punches many of which scored through the high guard defence of Matias.
Matias (18-1-18 KOs) had little choice but to cover up and try to avoid the incoming in round number 1 as the non stop punching Ponce nearly tripled the champion's output 96-38.
Round 2 was fought at an even more torrid pace as now the hard punching champion had to get started maybe a little earlier than planned.
Matias wasn't there to cover up and absorb punishment in the hopes that his opponent couldn't keep up the pace, If Ponce was going to fade, Matias was going to have to help that cause. Toe to toe, rock em sock em exchanges throughout round 2. Ponce goes, Matias goes. Nothing changed in round 3 and these two warriors continue testing each other's chins and will. Neither fighter was showing any signs of relenting …or tiring as they continue at a furious pace. The feeling that this one could end at any second was a constant presence. With both men loading up on violent and explosive punches that were finding each other clean totally a combined 50 times a round—-how could this be sustained ?
Matias began investing more to the body in round 4 landing some telling shots on the challenger who was still firing away with combinations to the head and body. Regardless of how often Ponce would find a home with his power punches it wasn't enough to discourage Matias who finished the round with an explosive flurry of punches.
Heading into round 5 of an evenly contested contest the champion was now throwing more punches than Ponce, essentially beating him at his own game as the two continued to fight in a phone booth. The challenger was still fighting to win but it was becoming clearer that Matias was taking over the fight and the output of Ponce was beginning to dim just enough. With 15 seconds remaining in the round a sustained rally of punches from the champion finally put the challenger down. Ponce would rise to his feet and survive a follow up barrage but upon returning to his corner his team decided that he had taken enough punishment.
It would go in the book as 5th round TKO in a fight where these two warriors averaged 80 punches per round each.
The following week brought boxing fans another intriguing Featherweight matchup between Brandon Figueroa and Mark Magsayo. This would be Figueroa’s ( 23-1-1-18 KO'S) second bout at Featherweight since losing his Super Bantamweight title to Stephen Fulton.
For Magsayo (24-1-16 KOS) his first time back in the ring since losing his WBC featherweight title and undefeated record to Ray Vargas.
Both men needed victory to move on to a potential title shot later in the year. Figueroa, as has been his customary style throughout his career, never stopped coming forward while switching stances between orthodox and southpaw. Maysayo boxed well early, landing clean and captivating shots while using Figeroa's aggression against him. This would be effective initially but as the fight wore on the relentless pressure of Figeroa combined with some good inside body work in the trenches began to wear his opponent down. Maysayo did more holding than punching on the inside which is where Figeroa preferred to engage as he sensed Maysayo wilting under the insistence. This would lead to not one but two point deductions from Maysayo for holding in rounds 8 and 11. The short punches at close range and constant downstairs attack on the inside paid dividends for Figueroa and he grinded out a unanimous decision in an action packed fight were Maysayo had plenty of moments but not enough offensive outbursts to win many a swing round that could have gone in either direction but favored the busier and more relentless fighter in Figueroa.
The following weekend March 12th would be an important contest between Tim Tszyu (21-0-15 KOS) and former WBC Junior Middleweight champion Tony Harrison.
For Tszyu this would be the final test before moving onto a world title shot with undisputed champion Jermell Charlo. For Harrison, the only man to defeat Charlo, an opportunity to have a tiebreaker in the form of a third fight with the division's kingpin. This was a battle between the calculated pressure, combinations and power punches of Tsyzu and the movement, slickness, experience and snappy jab of (29-3-1-21 KO'S) Harrison.
Tszyu came forward playing the role of the aggressor as expected while showing much needed patience against a crafty veteran who was using the perimeter of the ring to move left and right behind a flicking jab while being an elusive target. In the early going this was often successful for Detroit's Harrison as he was able to land his pestering jab frequently as well as do some good counter punching. The problem for Harrison was that he needed more than just a jab. The right hand cross which has been an effective punch for Harrison throughout the course of his career was almost non-existent.
The reason for this could be the improved defense and boxing IQ of Tyszu who countered Harrison right hand attempts early on with a quick right uppercut of his own which found a home on more than one occasion. It was because of that reactiveness of Tszyu which led to Harrison being tentative if not gun shy with letting loose his straight right.
Round after round the Australian Tszyu pressed forward behind more than decent head movement against an elusive but tiring opponent who was forced to fight at a frantic pace.
Harrison was not without landing some good blows himself, usually off a Tyszu miss to give the undefeated contender something to concern himself with. When Tszyu would pin Harrison in a corner or on the ropes he would do damage to the head and body with his heavy two fisted attack. At no point in the fight could one say that the Australian was in complete control. Round after round Harrison would have his moments. It seemed he was looking to use his experience in the hopes that Tszyu would become impatient, over-commit on his offense or over be aggressive, opening himself up for a well placed counter. Nothing of the such transpired as Tszyu continued to apply pressure often behind a hard jab and beautifully placed 4 and 5 punch combinations to the head and body of Harrison.
By the middle of round 7 it seemed like a matter of time before Harrison would finally succumb to the punishment he was receiving which was now telling on his face as both eyes began to badly swell. Each time the Australian would have an offensive onslaught the brave former champion would battle back and keep himself alive in the fight. This was until round number 9 when Tsyzu finally broke his man down with a violent storm of punches, most of which finding their intended target sending Harrison to the canvas. He would rise but was clearly a beaten man and the referee wisely waived the fight off.
For Tsyzu he proved once and for all that he is ready for a title shot with Charlo later in the year, for the former champion Harrison he showed tremendous heart in proving that he is still a tough out for anyone in the division. At the time of the stoppage all 3 judges had it a very close affair 77-75.
The last big fight of the first quarter was between Super Middleweights David Benavidez and Calab Plant. This grudge match took on the big fight Las Vegas feel and did not disappoint.
Early on Plant (22-1-13 KO'S) as expected moved and boxed well behind an accurate jab. The undefeated (26-0-23 KO'S) Benavidez was having a hard time tracking his slippery opponent down. Plant used every inch of the ring displaying good ring generalship and firing off quick combinations when he would commit to coming forward. The first half of the fight was all Caleb Plant. Slick boxing, movement, an arcuate jab and just enough moxie to force Benavidez to respect him. Anyone who has seen David Benavidez fight knows that it takes him a few rounds to get the engine running but once he does he is a force and this fight would prove to be no different.
Plant arguably won 5 of the first 6 rounds with his activity and movement alone. Stating that he dominated the first half of the fight wouldn't be off base. The problem for Plant is that this was a 12 round fight and he had a ways to go to reach the finish line.
Benavidez would come out for round 7 and begin the second half of the fight with the tenacity that we have come to expect. More zest and passion behind his attacks, more punch output as well as he relentlessly pressed forward. Benavidez is was now feinting more looking to create openings. Plant was forced to burn up energy with constant movement as Benavidez began cutting off the ring and punishing Plant in the clinches. The game plan was simple and cruel, break his opponent down by forcing him to fight for 3 minutes of every remaining round. Plant was doing more clinching in round 7 which carried over to round 8. When he would look to lock Benavitez up he would pay a toll in the form of hard smashes to the body and sides of his head for the trouble. In the early rounds when Benavidez would close the distance Plant would throw hard to the body and spin off creating distance and separation. Now everytime Benavidez got close it was Plant initiating a clinch.
In round 8 Benavidez landed a shot which clearly hurt Plant who was forced to do more clinging to kill the momentum. A few moments later a hook to the body followed by a hook upstairs had Plant scrambling and clinching in a round that he not only lost but got damaged along the way. After another dominating round the ninth Plant had hit survival mode in round 10 as Benavidez had clearly now taken over the fight. More Plant sustained punishment, another round in the bank for Benavidez. Round 11 was more of the same as the game former champion fought in spurts in between hammerings.
Heading into the 12th and final round the only question remaining: would Plant hear the final bell? To his absolute credit Plant emptied the tank in the final round. A round that he seemingly needed on the scorecards but winning might have gone out the window and self preservation taken over as Benavitez relentlessly looked for the finish. The two traded to the final bell as it rang signaling the end of the bout. When the scorecards were read it's unanimous. David Benavidez remained undefeated in a fight that lived up to expectations with Benavidez having to dig himself out of a big hole on the scorecards and Plant battling to the end to become just the 4th person to go the distance with the man known as “The Mexican Monster”.
1 quarter down, 3 to go.The first 3 months of 2023 gave boxing fans several important and intriguing fights which delivered. A dud or two can usually be expected with a busy calendar of matchups but that was not the case with all the big fights living up to an exceeding expectations.
Things don't slow down in quarter 2 as top dogs in the sport like Anthony Joshua, Shakur Stevenson, Jesse Rodriguez and Sebastian Fundora are all in action in the next 2 weeks.
The Gervonta Davis- Ryan Garcia super fight finally happens April 22nd followed by the return of Canelo Alvarez 2 weeks later. Devin Haney and Vasiliy Lomachenko fight for division supremacy May 20th and Josh Taylor and Teofimo Lopez tangle June10th. The momentum of the first 90 days of the calendar picks up even more steam as the year rolls on and if the first interval is any indication then 2023 will be a year to remember.