After a disappointing year for boxing in 2016, many are hoping for better things in 2017. At the moment, all the signs point to the state of the sport improving with some quality match-ups made for the spring period. The super-middleweight unification bout of Badou Jack vs James DeGale and the rematch of Carl Frampton vs Leo Santa Cruz for supremacy in the featherweight division both take place in January before March delivers another unification fight, this time at welterweight, between Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia and, similarly to Frampton/Santa Cruz, the bout between Gennady Golovkin and Danny Jacobs is fight many see as the number one vs the number two at middleweight. All these epic match-ups take place before Anthony Joshua bids to become a unified heavyweight world champion against one of the greatest heavyweights of his generation, Wladimir Klitschko at an expected sold-out Wembley Stadium.
Such anticipated contests aren’t limited to these big name match-ups however and below I have listed some fighters who also look set for a huge 12 months. Deliberately, I have excluded the obvious big names such as Joshua, David Haye or Amir Khan and instead looked to focus on fighters who could break into that small group of elite fighters in 2017.
Heavyweight: Luis Ortiz (27-0, 23 KO’s)
The heavyweight to look out for in 2017 has to be one of Matchroom Boxing’s latest signings, Luis Ortiz. Despite formerly being ranked as the world number one heavyweight in some quarters, namely BoxRec, the undefeated Cuban is scarcely recognised to the majority of British fight fans. Given his lowly profile, Ortiz has been made immediately active by his new promoter Eddie Hearn as he fought twice within the space of just a month.
Ortiz headlined Matchroom’s Monte-Carlo show in November as he comfortably defeated Malik Scott by unanimous decision, knocking down the American on three occasions, to win the vacant WBA Inter-Continental heavyweight title. Less than a month later, “King Kong” was in action again on the Anthony Joshua vs Eric Molina undercard on December 10th at the Manchester Arena. Ortiz earned his 23rd professional knockout victory over Britain’s Dave Allen with a late stoppage in round seven of the eight round contest.
Following his victory over Allen, numerous sources reported that Ortiz was now in line to fight former lineal world champion Shannon Briggs for the WBA’s ‘Regular’ world title in first quarter of 2017, with the ‘Super’ version of the WBA world title to be contested between Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko on April 29th. However, since then such reports have been fairly muted and instead it has emerged that Ortiz will be made the mandatory challenger by the WBA to the winner of Joshua vs Klitschko as confirmed by WBA President Gilberto Mendoza earlier last month.
In the meantime, Ortiz’s next opponent remains unknown. With the opportunity to face either Joshua, another fighter in the Matchroom stable which should make negotiations easier in theory, or Klitschko, one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, for the WBA ‘Super’ world title, the big question for Ortiz is whether he should to choose to take on a big-name opponent, in order to increase his profile and the magnitude of the potential fight against Joshua or Klitschko, or take on a lesser fighter, in order to preserve his place as the WBA’s mandatory challenger.
Given that Ortiz has previously faced two former unified world title challengers, Tony Thompson and Bryant Jennings, in the past 13 months, hopefully Hearn and Ortiz will choose the former and fight a top fighter who is ranked the WBA’s top 15 with David Price and Dereck Chisora potential opponents.
2017 looks set to be a huge year for Ortiz with a long-awaited world title fight finally set to be delivered. Hearn has said that March has been targeted as being the month of Ortiz’s return to the ring and that there is also a “small chance” that he could feature on the undercard to David Haye vs Tony Bellew on March 4th at the O2 Arena. Despite winning comfortably against Malik Scott and Dave Allen, plenty more is expected of a fighter ranked as the world number one and hopefully we can see that and more in the new year.
Light Heavyweight: Joe Smith Jr (23-1, 19 KO’s)
For years the saga of a potential fight between unified world champion Sergey Kovalev and WBC world champion Adonis Stevenson had captured all the headlines in the light-heavyweight division. However, things have now drastically changed with the rise of New York prospect Joe Smith Jr a big factor in this.
Smith Jr had a sensational year in 2016 as he shocked the boxing world twice with two huge upset victories. On June 18th, Smith Jr recorded a stunning first round technical knockout win over Andrzej Forfana, who defeated former world champions Nathan Cleverly and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr in his previous two fights, to win the WBC International light heavyweight title.
Six months later, Smith Jr entered the biggest fight of his career as he took on former unified light-heavyweight and middleweight world champion Bernard Hopkins in the final fight of the 51-year-old’s professional career. Smith Jr went onto earn a career-defining victory as he stunningly, and most importantly, legally, knocked Hopkins out of the ring in the eighth round. So impressive were Smith Jr’s performances against Forfana and Hopkins that the American earned a nomination for the Sugar Ray Robinson Fighter of the Year as voted for by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Smith Jr heads into 2017 ranked fifth in the light-heavyweight rankings by both the WBC and the WBA and, after two huge wins in the latter half of the year, a world title shot looks on the cards in the new year. The question for Smith Jr is which world title route he will choose to go down, the WBC or the WBA?
Long-reigning WBC world champion Adonis Stevenson has been named as a potential opponent by Smith Jr’s promoter Joe DeGuardia, but the WBC have ordered Stevenson to face the winner of Eleider Alvarez vs Lucian Bute on February 24th. With the Canadian having not made a mandatory defence of his world title in three years, it would be extremely unlikely to see them sanction a bout against Smith Jr for the first half of 2016.
Although the WBC doesn’t seem like the best route to a world title in the short term, the WBC may yet prove to be Smith Jr’s most viable option. Aged 39, Stevenson is entering the twilight of his career and, at the moment he looks a far less dangerous proposition than current WBA, WBO and IBF world champion Andre Ward or Ward’s likely next opponent Sergey Kovalev.
As wins over Forfana and Hopkins have shown however, Smith Jr is not afraid of taking on the big names and if he chasing division supremacy, then the WBA path may the one he chooses with a fight against either Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev, two fighters ranked in the pound-for-pound top five by many.
Aged just 27, time is on Smith Jr’s side and following such a dramatic and strong year in 2016, let’s hope we can expect more of the same from the American in 2017.
Super Middleweight: Gilberto Ramirez (34-0, 24 KO’s)
At super-middleweight, much of the attention has been focused upon the trio of British superstars, James DeGale, George Groves and Callum Smith. IBF world champion DeGale is set to fight WBC world champion Badou Jack for the unified world titles in January, three-time world title challenger Groves is set to fight Fedor Chudinov for the WBA ‘Super’ world title in the first half of the year whilst unbeaten British champion Smith is the mandatory challenger to the winner of the DeGale/Jack bout.
Throw into the mix Martin Murray, the WBA Continental champion who is ranked in the top ten by the WBC and WBA, and Rockie Fielding, the WBC International champion who is ranked 12th by the WBC and the WBO, and the super-middleweight division looks by far the most exciting in Britain.
However, with the wealth of British talent at super-middleweight, it is easy to forget about the quality of WBO world champion Gilberto Ramirez. The undefeated Mexican recorded arguably the most impressive victory of 2016 at super-middleweight as he comfortably out-pointed three-time world champion Artur Abraham, winning 120-108 on all three of the judges’ scorecards.
Ramirez is yet to make a defence of his world title however after suffering an injury to a knuckle in right hand which meant he had to pull out of a scheduled bout against Germany’s Dominik Britsch in July. However, last month, Ramirez announced that he had fully recovered from his injury and his promoter, Bob Arum, has spoken of plans to put Ramirez on the same event as fellow Mexican world champion Oscar Valdez, who holds the WBO’s featherweight belt, in March.
Heading into 2017, Ramirez’s next career moves seem a lot more intriguing than the average newly crowned world champion. The Mexican is likely to face a contender ranked in the WBO’s top fifteen in March, but any future plans to unify the division may be difficult for the Top Rank fighter. The winner of the WBC and IBF unification bout Badou Jack vs James DeGale will be mandated by the WBC to fight Callum Smith, making it hugely difficult for Ramirez to face the Jack/DeGale winner. Furthermore, if, as he’s expected to, DeGale wins fights against Jack later this month then against Smith in the summer, then “Chunky” may look past Ramirez and choose to fight potential WBA ‘Super’ George Groves, who is expected to fight Fedor Chudinov early this year, in a huge domestic unification fight with the extra appeal of a grudge rivalry and it being a rematch for a fight Groves won in 2011, DeGale’s only professional loss to date.
With such limited opportunities available for Ramirez in the short term, the WBO world champion could drop down a weight division to middleweight. Unified WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight world champion Gennady Golovkin has said that wants to fight four times in 2017 and with a fight already confirmed in March against WBA ‘Regular’ world champion Danny Jacobs and on-going talks for a lucrative fight against Canelo Alvarez for September, there seems to be a potential gap for Golovkin to fight in June. Ramirez has repeatedly stated his interest in facing Triple G and in May he said “If Gennady Golovkin wants to fight a real Mexican, here I am”. Golovkin has face criticism from many for sticking at middleweight so the opportunity to face a super-middleweight world champion may be appealing to him whilst for Ramirez a win against an unbeaten unified world champion would most certainly represent the biggest victory of his professional career.
Super Welterweight/Light Middleweight: Liam Williams (16-0-1, 11 KO’s)
One of the brightest young British stars has to beaten unbeaten Welsh sensation Liam Williams. The current European, Commonwealth and British champion bounced back from a disappointing 2015, which saw him restricted to just one fight in the year due to hand surgery, as he earned three TKO victories to bring his record up to 16-0-1. After a comfortable third round tune-up win over little-known Argentine Gustavo Alberto Sanchez in June, Williams went onto make the first defence of his British title against previously unbeaten Gary Corcoran in what is largely seen as the best victory of his career.
In November, Williams was set for another huge domestic showdown against unbeaten then-IBF International champion and WBO ranked number 14 Ahmet Patterson with the winner potentially set to fight WBO world champion Canelo Alvarez. However, just days before the contest, Patterson was forced to pull out of the fight after sustaining an injury after being attacking in the street late one night. Hungarian Gabor Gorbics, a fighter who had lost to 3-0 23-year-old Radzhab Butaev by unanimous decision just a week earlier, stepped in as Patterson’s replacement with the vacant WBO European title on the line. As expected, Williams’ power proved too much for Gorbics as the bout ended in an eight round stoppage win for the Welshman.
Having missed out on those big fights in recent months, Williams will surely he eager that his promoter Frank Warren can deliver bigger and better names in 2017, with the hope of a potential forthcoming world title shot. Current WBO junior middleweight world champion Canelo Alvarez is widely expected to face either Julio Cesar Chavez Jr at a catch weight of 165 pounds or Billy Joe Saunders at middleweight in May this year, meaning that it is likely that he will vacate his title later this month, once his next fight has been officially confirmed. Given this, Williams, who is ranked at number three by the WBO may be in line to fight for the vacant title in the first third of the year. Further enhancing Williams’ prospects of a shot at the potentially WBO world title is the positions of the WBO’s number one and two contenders. The number one contender is the WBO International champion Demetrius Andrade, but, the former world champion seems unlikely to feature in a vacant title bout as he goes about pursuing a significantly bigger fight against WBC world champion Jermell Charlo, after winning a WBC final title eliminator against Willie Nelson in June. Similarly, number two contender and former four-weight world champion Miguel Cotto already has a fight scheduled for February 25th against James Kirkland and, given that his next fight is expected to be his last, he will likely chase a bigger name than Williams.
For British fans, the big hope is that Williams will fight former world champion and the number six ranked contender Liam Smith, in a bout which could potentially be contested for the vacant WBO world title. Given that Frank Warren, who has a strong relationship with the WBO, promotes both fighters then a match-up between the two fighters would make sense. Furthermore, with Warren recently agreeing a huge new broadcast deal between BoxNation and BT Sport, a huge domestic world title fight between Williams and Smith would a brilliant way to kick-start the new partnership.
Featherweight: Lee Selby (23-1, 8 KO’s)
Another Welsh star who could have a breakthrough 12 months in 2017 is IBF featherweight world champion Lee Selby. The Barry Island-born star had a year to forgot in 2016 as he made just one defence of his world title against little-known American Eric Hunter in April. Given the stellar year Selby enjoyed in 2015 by defeating the then-unbeaten and long-reigning champion Evgeny Gradovich in May before winning by unanimous decision against former three-weight world champion Fernando Montiel in October.
After his victory over Hunter, the boxing world was crying out for Selby to face undefeated WBC International champion and fellow British rival Josh Warrington in the summer. For months, Warrington had been calling out Selby to take the fight, however it is since emerged that the advisors to Warrington had put the potential Selby fight on hold, according to Warrington’s former promoter Eddie Hearn.
Selby has since turned his attention to the bigger fish in the featherweight division, particularly the winner of Carl Frampton vs Leo Santa Cruz II who will fight for the WBA world title once again on January 28th in Las Vegas following Frampton majority decision win in July in New York. Although Selby’s hopes to face either Frampton or Santa Cruz seem over-optimistic on paper, he does have good reason to be confident that his team can deliver the fight. Selby is currently advised by influential American Al Haymon, who also advises Frampton, Santa Cruz and WBC world champion Gary Russell Jr, meaning that Selby’s stake at the negotiation table should be strong.
Encouragingly, Frampton and Santa Cruz have both stated their interest in fighting Selby, depending on whether they triumph or not in the rematch in Vegas. Frampton declared his interest in taking on the Welshman when he said “if I get through this one (Santa Cruz), the Lee Selby fight is one that I want”, with the Northern Irish star going on to say that “25,000 tickets” could be sold in “an outdoor stadium in Belfast”. Meanwhile, Santa Cruz has similarly stated his intentions to pursue a unification bout against either Selby or Russell Jr, if he defeats Frampton convincingly.
But, before Selby even starts to begin thinking about fighting for featherweight supremacy against either Frampton or Santa Cruz, he must first concentrate on his forthcoming fight later this month. Selby takes on his mandatory challenger, Jonathan Victor Barros, a former world champion at 126 pounds between 2010 to 2011 who is on a seven fight winning streak since losing by knockout to unbeaten two-weight world champion Mikey Garcia in November 2012. The world champion is heavy favourite to make a third successful defence of his world title, and perhaps rightfully so after Barros narrowly beat Japanese domestic level fighter Satoshi Hosono by split decision in October. With such huge rewards potentially at stake, Selby cannot afford to be complacent against an experienced boxer who enters his 47th professional bout.