Opening bell: Light heavyweight debate
The light heavyweight division is one of the most interesting in boxing. It is loaded with talented fighters who make entertaining fights.
And while there is no clear-cut No. 1 guy in the weight class, at least there is activity among the best, even if it seems unlikely that we'll see the ultimate payoff fight for division supremacy because of the divide between promoters and networks. But things can change quickly in this crazy business, so enjoy the ride wherever it takes us.
Some view Dmitry Bivol as the best of the 175-pounders, but I take issue with that. Don't get me wrong: He's good, very good. But based on his most recent fights, I have a hard time crowning him No. 1, even though he easily outpointed gatekeeper Isaac Chilemba to retain his world title in August and returned for a similarly one-sided virtual shutout of faded former world champion Jean Pascal on Saturday night in the HBO main event at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The fight was a huge mismatch on paper and turned out to be also a mismatch in the ring as Bivol won easily -- 119-109, 119-109 and 117-111 -- to retain his title for the fourth time. However, Bivol (15-0, 11 KOs), 27, of Russia, in no way made a statement. Pascal (33-6-1, 20 KOs), 36, of Laval, Quebec, who has been stopped twice, is a guy with a huge heart who gave his all but isn't close to what he was when he reigned supreme from 2009 to 2011. That Bivol didn't come close to scoring a knockout or knockdown is a mark against him.
Montreal's Adonis Stevenson (29-1-1, 24 KOs), 41, will have a chance to make his case next weekend. He's the lineal champion and owns a belt, but his five-year reign has been filled with soft fights until only recently. He faced one of the division's best in former secondary titlist Badou Jack in May but was held to a draw. Now Stevenson is getting back into the ring to face another candidate for top man in interim titlist Oleksandr Gvozdyk (15-0, 12 KOs), 31, of Ukraine, on Saturday (Showtime, 6:45 p.m. ET) in Quebec City. Whoever wins that fight will have a huge line on his resume.
Eleider "Storm" Alvarez (24-0, 12 KOs), 34, of Montreal, made his case Aug. 4 when he knocked out former unified titleholder Sergey Kovalev -- once regarded as the best fighter in the division -- in the seventh round of an upset in a fight Alvarez was losing. Those not convinced about Alvarez, or who are unsure if Kovalev is done at the top, as many suspect, will see the rematch on ESPN on Feb. 2. Kovalev, who would have faced Bivol this past Saturday had he beaten Alvarez, invoked his contractual right to a rematch.
World titleholder Artur Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KOs), 33, a two-time Russian Olympian fighting out of Montreal, has long been viewed as a potential No.1 guy, but promotional conflicts led to long stretches of inactivity. That appears to have been resolved. He made his first title defense on Oct. 6 and knocked out previously undefeated Callum Johnson in an exciting four-round shootout. But Beterbiev showed he is human when he suffered a knockdown. He is likely to return in February to face contender Joe Smith Jr. (24-2, 20 KOs), 29, from New York's Long Island, who is best known for knocking the great Bernard Hopkins out of the ring and sending him into retirement in 2016.
Two other contenders, Jack (22-1-3, 13 KOs), 35, of Las Vegas, coming off the draw with Stevenson, and Marcus Browne (22-0, 16 KOs), 28, a 2012 U.S. Olympian from Staten Island, New York, are in talks to face each other in early 2019, possibly on the Manny Pacquiao-Adrien Broner Showtime PPV undercard, in a fight that will also be important in terms of the division's hierarchy.
There is plenty of activity in an exciting division and plenty of interesting fighters and fights. As fans, we have it all at 175 pounds -- except the knowledge of who really is No. 1.
Prospect watch: Daniyar Yeleussinov
Welterweight Daniyar Yeleussinov (5-0, 3 KOs), 27, a two-time Olympian from Kazakhstan and a 2016 gold medalist, completed his first year as a pro by continuing to stamp himself as one of the best prospects in the world with a third-round knockout of Marcos Mojica (16-3-2, 12 KOs), 33, of Nicaragua, on Saturday on the Matchroom Boxing card in Monte Carlo.
Yeleussinov, a southpaw who is trained by John David Jackson, looked sharp against Mojica. He dropped him twice in the second round, including from a left hand at the end of the round. Yeleussinov continued his attack in the third round, dropping Mojica again and forcing referee Stephane Nicolo to stop the fight at 1 minute, 10 seconds.
The next step: Yeleussinov is on the fast track. He turned pro in April in a six-rounder, and the fight with Mojica was scheduled for eight. Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn said he will move into 10-round fights in 2019 and be boxing for regional titles by the summer. Yeleussinov is as blue chip as they come.
Fights you might have missed
Saturday at Monte Carlo
Cruiserweight Denis Lebedev (32-2, 23 KOs) W12 Mike Wilson (19-1, 8 KOs), title eliminator, scores: 119-109 (twice), 117-111.
Former cruiserweight world titlist Lebedev, a 39-year-old Russian southpaw, was stripped of his belt for inactivity and named a titleholder "in recess." But he has won two fights this year, including this one-sided rout of Wilson, a 35-year-old club fighter from Medford, Oregon, in a sleep-inducing bout that headlined Matchroom Boxing's annual card in the European gambling capital.
Technically, the fight was a title eliminator, but should undisputed champion Oleksandr Usyk vacate, which most expect he will do to move up to heavyweight in the spring, Lebedev would be elevated to a titleholder by the ridiculous WBA, which loves to play such games.
In any event, if you missed this fight, count yourself lucky. It had no redeeming entertainment or competitive value.
Heavyweight Michael Hunter (16-1, 11 KOs) TKO9 Alexander Ustinov (34-3, 25 KOs).
Hunter, 30, a 2012 U.S. Olympian from Las Vegas, has only lost a cruiserweight world title fight to Usyk in a spirited effort in April 2017. Since then he has won four fights in a row, including this one against the most notable opponent of his career in Ustinov, 41, of Belarus, the former European champion.
Hunter stopped Martin Bakole in the 10th round on Oct. 13 but returned just six weeks later as a late replacement when two-time Chinese Olympian Zhang Zhilei (20-0, 16 KOs) was forced to withdraw against Ustinov because of visa issues. The 213-pound Hunter was outweighed by 66 pounds but beat down Ustinov, knocking him down with a left hook in the eighth round. Later in the round, Hunter opened a cut on Ustinov's forehead and nearly dropped him again when he badly hurt him with a left hand. Another left hand in the ninth round dropped Ustinov again, and his corner threw in the towel, causing referee Gustavo Padilla to wave it off at 1:52.
Hunter was ahead 80-71 on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage. Ustinov dropped his second fight in a row, having also lost a decision to Manuel Charr in a secondary world title bout last November.
Junior bantamweight Kal Yafai (25-0, 15 KOs) W12 Israel Gonzalez (23-3, 10 KOs), retains a world title, scores: 117-111, 116-112 (twice).
Despite the clear-cut scores, Yafai, 29, of England, should count himself lucky to still have his belt after a fourth title defense that was a huge struggle. Gonzalez, 22, of Mexico, who came into the fight having won two fights in a row since a one-sided 10th-round knockout loss challenging Jerwin Ancajas for his version of the 115-pound world title in February, gave Yafai everything he could handle. He certainly deserved a closer nod on the cards, and one could perhaps make the argument that he deserved to have his hand raised.
Gonzalez forced Yafai to fight at his pace, and Yafai was very ineffective with his wide shots, which often missed. An accidental head-butt cut Gonzalez in the fifth round.
Saturday at San Juan, Puerto Rico
Featherweight Christopher Diaz (24-1, 16 KOs) KO1 David Berna (17-6, 16 KOs).
On July 28, Diaz, 24, of Puerto Rico, lost for the first time when he dropped a unanimous decision to Masayuki Ito fighting for a vacant junior lightweight world title in an action-packed fight. Making his return, Diaz moved down to featherweight and blew out Berna, 28, of Hungary, who dropped to 2-4 in his last six fights.
Diaz ended the fight when he dropped Berna with a left hook at 1 minute, 8 seconds of the opening stanza.
Saturday at Auckland, New Zealand
Heavyweight Lucas Browne (27-1, 24 KOs) KO5 Junior Pati (12-23-1, 6 KOs).
In March, Australia's Browne, 39, who has failed two tests for performance-enhancing drugs, including one that cost him a secondary world title, got severely knocked out by Dillian Whyte in the sixth round. His handlers have been extremely careful matching him in his return, putting Browne in the ring to notch a second win in a row against a sub-.500 opponent. First he knocked out Julius Long in the third round in September. This time Browne, who was a career-light 243½ pounds, knocked Pati, 36, of New Zealand, cold with a left hook-right uppercut combination at 37 seconds of the fifth round.