BRACE yourselves, we were told, the lightweight division is about to catch fire. Teófimo López had out-bedazzled Vasiliy Lomachenko, Ryan García looked mustard while halting Luke Campbell, Devin Haney was getting better and better, and Gervonta Davis was threatening to stick around at 130lbs. A new era was upon us, they said, just you wait and see.
Well, one year on and we’re still waiting. There are flickers of promise but we are no nearer to any of the big four (or five, if you include Lomachenko) actually fighting each other. If anybody needed evidence of the harm the current politicking in boxing can do, or fancied a quick a lesson about what happens when promoters, networks and multiple sanctioning bodies rule a sport without the need to answer to anyone bar themselves, they need only look at the lightweight class: A division loaded with enough talent to rival bygone eras and so much red tape around their necks they can’t get close to each other. I don’t subscribe to the popular notion among old-timers that they don’t make fighters like they used to. Simply, they don’t make the fights they used to.
So we make do with what we can get. This weekend, Teófimo “The Takeover” López, the world champion and holder of at least three sanctioning body straps (good luck trying to work out what’s going on with the WBC belt), will appease the IBF, pay them a hefty fee, and fight the bloke they deem to be the most worthy of a shot. George Kambosos Jnr, 19-0 (10), took his place atop the IBF ratings by beating Lee Selby last October. The only other top-level fighter he’s beaten is Mickey Bey, who he outpointed via split decision over 10 rounds in December 2019. In the rankings we use, the fiercely independent TBRB rankings, Kambosos sits at number eight. And that would seem about right.
Frankly, given some of the unbelievably bad mandatory challengers the sanctioning bodies have somehow manifested in recent years, this is a good matchup. A bout between a world champion and a top 10 contender should generally be welcomed with open arms but, with the elite fighting so sparingly these days, it is a shame they’re not fighting their closest rivals when they do. Even so, after 13 months on the sidelines (for a variety of reasons) since López’s exquisite showing against Lomachenko, it will be good to be reminded about what all the fuss was about. On that night in The Bubble, inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Teófimo wowed the smattering of ringsiders and many more watching on television around the world.
López was magnificent. He was disciplined, on point, and intelligent. Only seldomly flashy, he stuck to his gameplan, fenced with startling precision and took the fight to Lomachenko. As we rubbed our eyes in both wonder and disbelief, López sat on his stool after six rounds, content he had won all of them. Loma did up his game in the second half but the lead his opponent had secured was all but unassailable. The scores were lopsided at the end, too lopsided, but the right man won. A star was born. A legend had fallen. And that new era was supposedly upon us.
Two weeks later, Kambosos and Lee Selby engaged in close, largely unexciting combat. Selby occasionally threatened to take control but, whether off form or past his best, he could not effectively contain his opponent. Kambosos took the decision after 12 rounds on a split that seemed clear cut. But, again, the right man won. Even so, few were adding Kambosos’ name to the heady mix of lightweight talent back then. So inside the Theater (formerly the Felt Forum) at Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday night, thanks almost exclusively to the IBF, he gets his chance to prove he belongs. For that to happen, he’s going to have to be immeasurably better than he was against Selby and hope, too, that López is not quite as supreme as he looked against Lomachenko.
The Aussie is aggressive and fundamentally sound. He has quick hands, throws eye-catching hooks in close and is adept at straight punches down the middle, too. Freddie Roach used to regularly call on George when he needed quality sparring for Manny Pacquiao and sings Kambosos’ praises. Undoubtedly, the time spent at the Wild Card will have provided the 5/1 underdog with invaluable education. Yet, when compared to López, he is decidedly rough around the edges. His chin can hang a little too long in the air as his feet struggle to keep time with his arms. He leaves himself open to counters when he attacks. And López, 16-0 (12), is a master at punishing any mistakes.
The pick simply has to be for the world champion, a hearty 1/8 favourite at the time of writing, to win. Kambosos won’t be overawed by the occasion, nor will he give a bad account of himself. But what he’ll surely find is a fighter who is simply too good, too accurate and too spiteful. Though it’s always something of a gamble to predict an inside the distance defeat for a fighter who has never been stopped – George Kambosos might turn out to be this era’s George Chuvalo for all we know – the feeling is that López, clearly in the mood for a fight, will land enough punches to end the bout before the end, perhaps in the middle rounds. That new era we’ve been hearing so much about just might, at last, start to take shape.
The undercard is buoyed by another sanctioning body strap being contested. A vacant super-featherweight belt is up for grabs when Azinga Fuzile, 15-1, and Kenichi Ogawa, 25-1-1, collide over 12 rounds. It could be a terrific encounter, and we make Fuzile a narrow favourite, but neither fighter is ranked in the real Top 10 so we won’t be calling the winner a world champion, although the IBF will.
Also on the Matchroom-promoted undercard is promising 9-0-1 featherweight southpaw, Raymond Ford, against Felix Caraballo in a 10-rounder, marketable but limited heavyweight Zhilei Zhang takes on Craig Lewis and Somalian-born Ramla Ali, who fights out of Greenwich, London is set to fight Isela Vera.
The Verdict After too long out of the ring, expect López to make up for lost time.