WHEN Liverpool’s Liam Smith made the move back to Sky Sports this year – via promoter Ben Shalom – he did so hoping it would result in a money-spinning showdown with Chris Eubank Jnr. What he gets instead, a fight against Tanzania’s Hassan Mwakinyo, rather sums up “Beefy’s” luck in recent years. Always willing to fight the best, in any location, Smith has too often found that the best – or in Eubank’s case, the most lucrative – don’t always want to fight him.
Smith is a former belt-holder at super-welterweight but, nonetheless, there is a sense that Liam, now aged 34, has suddenly got his work cut out to fulfil his true potential. One of the best of all boxers in Britain when it comes to all-round ability, the WBO strap he claimed in 2015, then lost to Canelo Alvarez the following year, nonetheless remains his only flirtation with world gold.
Throughout his career he has bettered his countrymen, however. Both Steve O’Meara and Erick Ochieng were highly regarded when he outscored them in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He twice beat a ferocious Liam Williams in 2017 (albeit controversially the first time) and, more recently, he outclassed both Sam Eggington (2019) and Anthony Fowler (2021). His only losses came away from home and in very good company. Smith, 31-3-1 (18), gave Alvarez a decent scrap in Texas before being stopped in nine, he was competitive with Jaime Munguia in Las Vegas en route to losing on points in 2018 and was unlucky to be on the wrong side of another 12-round decision against Magomed Kurbanov in Russia last year.
He bounced back from every defeat with renewed determination to move forward. A loss to the unfancied Mwakinyo would be harder to brush off, however. Twenty-seven years old, with a record of 20-2 (14), Mwakinyo has been to the UK before when, rather unexpectedly, he exhibited his meaty right hand. The recipient then, in September 2018, was the aforementioned Eggington who was hoping to secure a shot at a sanctioning body belt in victory. Mwakinyo scored a stunning victory in round two after triggering the upset with a left hook to close the first.
Though the power was evident, it remains difficult to envision Smith allowing the African to tee off like Eggington did. The Midlander’s habit of reacting to a hurtful blow by inviting another was a faulty ploy. Right hand after right hand, each delivered in fast bowler motion, landed flush on Eggington until his legs buckled, his head rattled, and the referee wisely called it off. Well-telegraphed they may have been, but they should also serve as a warning to Smith that he should not underestimate his opponent, nor allow himself to switch off.
Last time out, 12 months almost to the day, Mwakinyo feasted on the remains of Julius Indongo, stopping him in four rounds to retain his African 154lbs title. Indongo enjoyed success when keeping Mwakinyo behind his long jab but ultimately fell apart when his opponent, swinging at full pelt whenever the former titlist got close, inevitably hit the target. Though crude and some way below Smith when it comes to boxing ability, his instinct to let fly with haymakers means he will be a perpetual nuisance and therefore can’t be written off completely. Plenty of British fighters have come undone when faced with similar opposition.
Regardless, Smith has never once prepared poorly nor taken victory for granted. It seems only a lull in concentration, or a sudden decline in reflexes, could cost him here. “Beefy” will get ample chances to raid his opponent’s body and patiently drain the ambition from him. This could well go the full distance – Mwakinyo looks as hardy as they come – but we expect the Scouser, buoyed by fighting in his nearby Echo Arena where his record is 11-0 (9), to end matters in the second half as the educated pressure becomes too much to bear.
Should it go as anticipated, expect Smith to get an opportunity – and payday – worthy of his talent in his next outing.
Another local fighter, Natasha Jonas, is also hoping to cash in at the end of her career. The inspirational southpaw – something of a trailblazer in the amateur code – at last won a professional belt when she walloped a woeful Chris Namus at the Manchester Arena in February. The prize for that two-round shellacking was the vacant WBO super-welterweight strap, despite it being Tash’s first fight above light-welter. Sweden’s Patricia Berghult, 15-0 (3), is likely to be better prepared than Namus and therefore provide a better indication of how suited Jonas really is to the extra weight.
Berghult, who brings her WBC belt to the party, has built her record predominantly on lowly opposition in the professional ranks. However, she kept far better company as an amateur. In 2012, for example, she beat an 18-year-old Lauren Price, but found the quality of opponents like Katie Taylor, Chantelle Cameron and Estelle Mossely to much to overcome before turning over in 2015.
The only pro rival of any real regard she has encountered is Hannah Rankin, who Berghult edged over 10 rounds in 2019. In that bout, Berghult started quickly, flooring the Scot in the opening session and ramping up the pressure in the second. Rankin played catch up well down the stretch but ended up a loser on all three cards.
A well-schooled boxer with fast hands, Berghult has only fought once since then, outpointing veteran Olivia Belkacem over 10 rounds in November last year. Jonas, meanwhile, is battle-ready after facing top class opposition like Terri Harper and Katie Taylor since Berghult defeated Rankin. And though Namus was poor (a subsequent one round loss to Mary Spencer further illustrated her decline), the promise of a sanctioning body belt provided Jonas, 11-2-1 (8), with yet another high-end training camp under the tutelage of Joe Gallagher.
It’s that lifetime of superior education which makes Jonas a healthy favourite. She has to be mindful of her opponent’s work-rate, quick feet and nifty in-fighting prowess, but the home fighter – assuming the extra weight doesn’t become a burden in a long fight – should be backed to win this one over the 10-round distance.
It is refreshing to see the talented Dan Azeez defend his British light-heavyweight title rather than going the more ‘fashionable’ route – which is to aim at obscure international fighters for obscure international titles, while paying a sanctioning body to reward the winner with a high ranking. In Shakan Pitters, a towering Midlander who somehow makes 175lbs, Azeez – and us fans – get a far more worthwhile opponent.
The 6ft 6ins Pitters, from Birmingham, won the British championship himself in the summer of 2020 when he widely outpointed Chad Sugden before losing it at the end of the year in a minor upset to Craig Richards. It is the nature of that loss – a catalyst in “Spider’s” subsequent resurgence – which makes Pitters the underdog. Pitters was unable to cope with the springy challenger’s attacks, from range and in-close, in much the same way Hosea Burton did when faced with Azeez in their clash for the vacant title (Richards had by then relinquished).
Since that November 2021 triumph, Azeez, 16-0 (11), has fought just once, beating Reece Cartwright in eight rounds five months ago. Coincidentally, Pitters, 17-1 (6), comes into this one on the back of an eight-round victory over Cartwright, too. Shakan beat the Leeds fighter back in November 2021 (one week before Azeez stopped Burton in seven) but there was a sense at ringside that Cartwright should have been allowed to continue when the referee stopped it.
Pitters is quick and nimble for such a tall man. Though a good body puncher with a whipping jab, the 33-year-old doesn’t always use his height and reach to his advantage. To win here, he will have to ensure that Azeez is kept at range for long periods and, when the champion burrows inside, is tied up. To win, then, Pitters may have to do so uglily.
An upset is not beyond the realms of possibility. But 32-year-old Azeez has been fighting with confidence in recent outings and looks the heavier hitter. He will need to take chances to break inside and hurl overarm rights when close enough to connect. Expect Azeez to target Pitters’ long and lean body, too.
Pitters can make life awkward for Azeez but we expect the championship to remain with the man from Lewisham. A stoppage, in the second half, looks the likeliest result.
Red hot super-lightweight Adam Azim, 5-0 (4), gets another runout, as does 2-0 (2) heavyweight Frazer Clarke, who can now build momentum after recovering from injury. There’s decent cruiserweight matchup between cruiserweight prospects Nathan Quarless, 10-0, and Michael Webster, 7-0 (5), too. THE VERDICT: A solid bill to kickstart the new season.