What: Billy Joe Saunders vs. Shefat Isufi, Super MiddleweightsWhen: May 18
How to Watch: ESPN+ 2:30 p.m. ET
Why You Should Care: To see if Billy Joe Saunders has enough motivation left after his newest reinvention to win a title at 168 pounds.
Billy Joe Saunders is fighting for the WBO 168-pound title, after having lost the WBO Middleweight title due to a positive PED test in September. He’s left trainer Dom Ingle, who he used to say helped him rediscover his love of boxing, and is currently working with Tyson Fury’s newest trainer Ben Davison. Now, Saunders is claiming he’s been inspired by working with Fury and seeing how well “The Gypsy King” came back from his own personal struggles, and assuring anyone that will listen that with a new trainer and a new weight class, he is now a fresher, better fighter. That’s a lot of needing to re-inspire and reinvent himself for a guy that is only 31 years old. But Saunders is still slick, still undefeated, and still very good.
Canelo recently won a title at 168 before moving back to 160 and beating Daniel Jacobs, fully understanding that as big of a star as he was, holding world titles in multiple weight classes would make him even bigger. Now Saunders will try the same thing, taking on 27-3 German fighter Shefat Isufi for the WBO 168 pound title. Isufi hasn’t lost since a 2015 stoppage to Dariusz Sek, and has fought the vast majority of his career at 175 or higher. But with three losses on his resume including a 2014 loss to a fighter making his professional debut, it’s hard to imagine any outcome other than Saunders cruising to a decision win.
But Billy Joe Saunders’ recurring narrative of having to fall in love with boxing again, switching trainers to keep things from going stale, and needing a fresh start every couple of years is a troubling one. When a fighter keeps needing to re-motivate, re-inspire and reinvent himself, it’s a matter of time before the trick stops working and he finds himself on the wrong end of a loss, and needing to redeem himself. We’ll see if that day comes on Saturday.
What: Deontay Wilder vs. Dominic Breazeale, HeavyweightsWhen: May 18
How to Watch: Showtime 9 p.m. ET
Why You Should Care: To see if Deontay Wilder can back up his tough talk, or Breazale can prove it’s just the posturing of a fighter whose aura of invincibility is slipping away.
Deontay Wilder was asked about his upcoming fight with Dominic Breazale and said “If he dies, he dies, it won’t take long.” When given a chance to backtrack or laugh off the Rocky IV reference, Wilder instead declared “This is the only sport where you can kill a man and get paid for it at the same time... so why not use my right to do so?” as well as “His life is on the line for this fight and I do mean his life. I’m still trying to get me a body on my record.”
Those are some disturbing words, and words that if the fight was a bigger deal he would be getting (no pun intended) killed for by mainstream sports media. But there is a very real possibility this tough talk is intended to obscure a hard truth: Wilder’s aura of invincibility has taken a serious hit in his last two fights. Luis Ortiz almost knocked him out in the seventh round of their fight, and Tyson Fury outboxed him for enough rounds that most people thought he deserved the win, not the draw.
Remember, almost all of the truly insane Mike Tyson quotes about eating Lennox Lewis’ children, making Razor Ruddock his girlfriend, and bathing in Francois Botha’s blood came after we saw him battered and beaten by Buster Douglas. Tyson was always cocky, but that is likely not a coincidence.
Dominic Breazale’s only loss came in 2016 when Anthony Joshua dominated him, before stopping him in the seventh round. A former University of Northern Colorado quarterback, Breazale will stand the same height as Wilder at 6 feet, 7 inches tall, but while Breazale’s height will help him, his football background likely won’t. Wilder knocked out former USC football star Gerald Washington in 2017. Still, unlike any other professional opponent before, Breazale has a couple of fight tapes he can put on and say, “If I do that like he did, I will beat Wilder.”
Deontay Wilder is either going to back up his hyperbolic tough guy act or prove it’s just the posturing of a fighter that was embarrassed the last time he stepped foot in the ring. Saturday night, it’s up to Dominic Breazale to determine which.
What: Gary Russell Jr. vs. Kiko Martinez, FeatherweightsWhen: May 18
How to Watch: Showtime 9 p.m. ET
Why You Should Care: Because Gary Russell needs to be exciting enough to make fans stop forgetting about him during his 364 non-fighting days of the year.
WBC featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr. fights once a year. Yes, the man with the fastest hands in boxing who still has only lost once (to Vasiliy Lomachenko) has so far in his career made the baffling decision to fight one match annually, beginning in March 2015 and continuing to today. So, while he can whine that Leo Santa Cruz won’t fight him in a title unification bout or that Gervonta Davis doesn’t want any part of him at super featherweight, the truth is that only fighting once a year places you solidly in the “out of sight, out of mind” camp no matter how fast your hands are or what titles you hold.
But if you’re going to only fight once a year, you’d better look great that one time. That’s the challenge Russell faces; he is easy to forget about because of this inactivity. Luckily for Russell, Kiko Martinez offers a great opportunity for him to look good. Martinez is 39-8 and has been stopped three times as a professional. While most of his losses aren’t bad (he’s been beaten by guys like Carl Frampton, Leo Santa Cruz and Josh Warrington) eight losses is eight losses.
Gary Russell compared himself to Santa Claus saying “When I come to fight, I always bring these two gifts (his two fists) “They say I’m like Santa Claus; I only come around once a year, and I can’t wait to deliver and display my talents once again.”
Santa’s appeal isn’t that he only comes around once a year -- so does Labor Day, who cares? -- it’s that he gives you good enough presents to last the other 364 days. If Gary Russell Jr. wants us to care enough about him to demand fights with Santa Cruz or Davis fighting only once a year, he needs to give us enough excitement on Saturday to last the other 364.
What: Ivan Baranchyk vs. Josh Taylor, Junior WelterweightsWhen: May 18
How to Watch: Dazn 4 p.m. ET
Why You Should Care: To see if Josh Taylor can convince the world he’s the man at 140 before he gets a shot at “Rougarou,” like they believed not long ago.
Entering the WBSS 140 pound tournament, Josh Taylor was the favorite in many people’s eyes. While not the number one seed, he was the former British Olympian, and the only fighter other than Terence Crawford to have beaten Viktor Postol. Now, he’s the forgotten man, and he did nothing wrong.
Regis Prograis has simply looked so good in his run through the tournament that everyone assumes he’s the best fighter at 140 and a future problem for the welterweight division. Luckily, Taylor gets a chance to remind the world how good he is before fighting Prograis. He faces undefeated, 19-0 Ivan Baranchyk for a spot in the final against Prograis.
If Josh Taylor is the forgotten man, what does that make Ivan Baranchyk? Baranchyk holds the IBF 140 pound title, is undefeated at 19-0 with twelve knockouts, but his journey to this fight is an interesting one. He pulled out of the fight (and the WBSS tournament) over a monetary dispute, only to return when the issue was solved. Now training with Freddie Roach, he will have to travel to Glasgow to fight Taylor in the Scot’s home nation. Taylor is the favorite, and many people believe Baranchyk has only a puncher’s chance.
Fighting in Scotland, Josh Taylor can get the world to believe in him again if he looks amazing against Ivan Baranchyk. Then again, as long as he wins it won’t matter if they believe or not, because he’ll get a chance to force belief upon them in the WBSS final against Regis Prograis.
What: Emmanuel Rodriguez vs. Naoya Inoue, BantamweightsWhen: May 18
How to Watch: Dazn 4 p.m. ET
Why You Should Care: Because Rodriguez is a world champion with a storied amateur background, likely the best opponent “The Monster” has faced as a professional, and most people still think he’ll get knocked out.
Puerto Rico’s Emmanuel Rodriguez is the IBF bantamweight champion of the world, undefeated at 19-0 with 12 knockouts, and had a storied amateur career, only failing to make the Olympic team after suffering massive burns when he tried to light a truck on fire derailed his training and forced him to have to rehabilitate himself before making a comeback. He is very likely the best fighter Naoya Inoue has ever fought. And he is huge underdog.
Such is the belief in Inoue, the Japanese knockout sensation that has won all 17 of his fights and stopped fifteen of his opponents. It is widely expected that as good as Rodriguez is, Inoue will knock him out and move on to face Nonito Donaire in the WBSS finals. In his last two fights, he’s scored first round knockouts and none of his last six opponents (all of whom were legitimate fighters not bums) made it past the sixth round. Numbers like that have people talking about Inoue as one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world.
Maybe Emmanuel Rodriguez will give Inoue a test (there’s a bit more animosity after his trainer pushed Inoue’s dad), or maybe he’ll be first-round KO victim number three in row. Either way, Naoya Inoue is a fighter that you want to see, for as long as you get the chance. And the way he finishes opponents, it might not be long.
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