Boxers sometimes take rounds off so that they can finish strong. Boxing often does the same. A relatively empty August gave way to a packed September. This October has also been rather slow, but the pace will pick up again in November and December.
The eleventh month of the year begins with a big one: Manny Pacquiao challenging Jessie Vargas for a welterweight world title on Nov. 5. That’s one highlight. It’s nowhere near the only one. Two of the top light heavyweights in the world will fight each other on Nov. 19. Two of the top names at 130 pounds will face off on Nov. 26.
Then, in December, we get a huge heavyweight fight on Dec. 10 [UPDATE: Nope!] , a legend taking his final bow on Dec. 17, and the usual end-of-the-year extravaganza in Japan.
Here are some of the highlights:
Nov. 5 — Can Vargas Send Pacquiao Back Into Retirement?
Manny Pacquiao wasn’t the best welterweight in the world — Floyd Mayweather Jr. was — but he was still one of the best at 147. That much was clear when Pacquiao concluded his rivalry with Timothy Bradley earlier this year, winning a unanimous decision over Bradley in their third fight. Pacquiao retired afterward to focus on his political obligations in the Philippines, though few believed he would be gone for long.
Indeed, Pacquiao (58-6-2, 38 knockouts) missed the sport and announced his comeback. He faces Jessie Vargas on Nov. 5 in Las Vegas for the vacant world title that Vargas won in March with a technical knockout of Sadam Ali.
Vargas is 27-1 with 10 KOs. That lone loss came against Bradley last year, though Vargas did rock Bradley badly in the final seconds. While a few of Vargas’ wins came via controversial decisions (one in 2011, two in 2014), the 27-year-old appears to be improving as he gets more experience and comes into his prime.
It’s uncertain whether what Vargas has will be enough. After all, we keep on waiting for Pacquiao to get old. He’s nearly 38. He isn’t what he once was, but what he is has been more than enough to beat most. Pacquiao has balanced various distractions through the years. He believes he can balance being a senator and being a boxer.
Vargas wants to prove Pacquiao wrong — and prove himself in the process.
Nov. 19 — Kovalev and Ward Battle for Light Heavyweight, Pound-for-Pound Supremacy
It’s rare enough that two of the best fighters in a division face each other. It’s even less often that we get two of the best, pound-for-pound, to share a ring.
But on Nov. 19 in Las Vegas, Sergey Kovalev will defend against Andre Ward. Kovalev’s three world titles will be on the line. So will a spot as one of the two best 175-pound fighters around, if not the best, depending on how you feel about Adonis Stevenson. And so will a spot as one of the two best boxers in the world, if not the best — though Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez will still have a strong case for the throne.
Kovalev (30-0-1 with 26 KOs) has been feasting on whomever else has been available for the two-plus years that politics and business interests have prevented a fight with Stevenson from happening. Often there were gimme outings. But there also have been significant victories over the likes of Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal.
Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) will be Kovalev’s toughest challenge yet by far. The former super middleweight champion is incredibly skilled, gifted and brilliant. He can neutralize his opponents and dominate them. His run through the “Super Six” tournament saw him unseat Mikkel Kessler, outpoint Arthur Abraham and win a decision over Carl Froch.
That tournament concluded in 2011. Ward was remarkably inactive over recent years, fighting once in 2012, once in 2013, not at all in 2014 and once in 2015. His injuries and a battle with his now-former promoter are behind him. This year, he’s tested the waters at 175 by winning a decision over prospect Sullivan Barrera and then shutting out a tune-up opponent in Alexander Brand.
Kovalev also represents a tough challenge for Ward. He has the type of power Ward has never seen and would prefer not to feel. This will be one of two stories, then: what will happen if Kovalev lands and what will happen if Ward makes it so that Kovalev can’t.
Nov. 26 — Lomachenko and the Axeman
Vasyl Lomachenko left the 126-pound division behind earlier this year because too few of the other top featherweights were available to fight him. He sought opportunities four pounds north, at junior lightweight. Initially, he was expecting to face Nicholas Walters, also a former titleholder at 126. Walters turned down a deal. Lomachenko went on to win a title from Roman Martinez instead.
Walters is finally willing to return after sitting out most of 2016. He and Lomachenko will fight on Nov. 26 in Las Vegas, yet another big fight that month in Sin City.
Lomachenko is 6-1 with 4 KOs, but don’t let that record fool you. He was one of the best amateur boxers ever, a two-time Olympic medalist who stepped up much faster than nearly every other fighter does upon turning pro. In his second fight he challenged Orlando Salido, the gritty veteran who has been a tough test for some very good fighters and the downfall of others who overestimated their own skills.
Salido came in more than two pounds overweight and didn’t try to drop the rest of the pounds, giving him a size advantage on fight night. Then the referee allowed him to get away with numerous low blows. Even still, Lomachenko was able to battle to a competitive split-decision defeat. Months later, he outpointed Gary Russell Jr. for a vacant world title.
Walters (26-0-1, 21 KOs) burst on the scene when he chopped down Nonito Donaire in six rounds in late 2014. But he came in overweight for his first defense, winning against Miguel Marriaga but losing his title. That sent Walters up to 130, where he was robbed on the scorecards in a draw with Jason Sosa last December. That was the last we saw of him.
This is a good, potentially difficult fight for both. That’s why we boxing fans were so disappointed when it didn’t happen earlier this year. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too much longer for them to fight, and hopefully the fight will have been worth the wait.
Also in November, and then in December
Here’s what else to look for in the final two months of 2016:
– Nov. 5: The televised undercard of Vargas-Pacquiao includes three title fights. Nonito Donaire (37-3, 24 KOs) will defend his junior featherweight belt against unbeaten prospect Jessie Magdaleno (23-0, 17 KOs), who will be taking a huge step up in level of opposition. Oscar Valdez (20-0, 18 KOs) will defend his featherweight belt against Hiroshige Osawa (30-3-4, 19 KOs). And flyweight contender Zou Shiming (8-1, 2 KOs) will vie for a vacant belt against Kwanpichit OnesongchaiGym in a rematch. Shiming knocked OnesongchaiGym down several times in their 2014 bout en route to a wide decision win.
– Nov. 12: Welterweight titleholder Danny Garcia (32-0, 18 KOs) will headline in a non-title bout against Samuel Vargas (25-2-1, 13 KOs). Garcia is looking to shake some rust off ahead of an anticipated unification bout with Keith Thurman expected to take place early in 2017. Vargas has shown he doesn’t belong in the ring with the top tier of opposition; he was blasted out in four rounds by Errol Spence back in 2015.
– Nov. 12: Heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz (25-0, 22 KOs) will meet Malik Scott (38-2-1, 13 KOs). Ortiz left Golden Boy Promotions earlier this year in what may turn out to be a wise move. He’s since signed with United Kingdom-based Matchroom Boxing, opening the doors to potential fights with more heavyweights than would’ve previously been available due, as always, to the politics of the sport. Scott has won two straight since being put away in one round by Deontay Wilder.
– Nov. 19: On the Kovalev-Ward undercard, light heavyweight prospect Oleksandr Gvozdyk (11-0, 9 KOs) continues his rapid rise by taking on Isaac Chilemba (24-4-2, 10 KOs), a contender who lost a decision to Kovalev earlier this year.
– Dec. 3: Unified cruiserweight titleholder Denis Lebedev (29-2, 22 KOs) will defend against Murat Gassiev (23-0, 17 KOs). Both fighters have power. Gassiev last demonstrated how heavy his hands are when he knocked Jordan Shimmell out with a single punch in the first round of their May fight.
-Dec. 10: Heavyweight titleholder Anthony Joshua (17-0, 17 KOs) is expected to defend against former undisputed champion Wladimir Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs). Klitschko needed an opponent after his rematch with Tyson Fury was once again postponed, this time indefinitely. He also needs the win if he’s going to remain in this sport. Joshua would be adding a huge name on his record, trying to take Klitschko out more definitively than anyone has since Wladimir’s chinnier days more than a decade ago.
[Update: If this fights happens, it won’t be until 2017.]
-Dec. 17: Bernard Hopkins turns 52 in January. He hasn’t fought in two years, since his shutout loss to Sergey Kovalev. But Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) never retired, instead saying he was waiting for the right fight so that he could end his career on a high note and with a good challenge. He’s found his opponent: Joe Smith (22-1, 18 KOs), a light heavyweight who stunned Andrzej Fonfara with a first-round technical knockout in June.
– Dec. 31: Junior lightweight Takashi Uchiyama (24-1-1, 20 KOs) was one of the longest-reigning beltholders in boxing. But then he met Jezreel Corrales (20-1, 8 KOs) in April. Corrales dropped Uchiyama three times in the second round and got a stunning technical knockout win and the world title. Uchiyama will have a chance to prove that the first fight was a fluke. Corrales will be there to prove that it wasn’t.