TAKING its cue from the successful return of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) last May 10, big-time professional boxing is all set to return to the US this month with a series of fight cards from Top Rank Promotions. However, do not expect the marquee names of the sport to step out of their cocoons this early as Top Rank head honcho Bob Arum plans to slowly build up the excitement.
Arum has mapped out a series of fight cards that will start on June 10 (Manila time) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. Following the template set by the UFC, health protocols will be strictly followed. All the participating boxers, officials and crew will be tested for the coronavirus. The fights will be held in an empty venue and since the sport is in a ‘trial run’ of sort, no major world title fights will be held. The world champions who are set to appear will only be figuring in non-title bouts with the end in view of shaking off ring rust.
The June 10 card will feature a 10-round non-title tiff between WBO featherweight kingpin Shakur Stevenson and Felix Caraballo. A silver medalist in the 2016 Olympics, Stevenson turned pro in 2017 and within two years won the vacant WBO crown with a decision over Joet Gonzalez.
Stevenson, 22, is one of the up-and-coming stars of the fight game. Arum has described the New Jersey native as a “mirror-image” of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Southpaw Stevenson (13-0, 7 knockouts) is a defensive boxer with above-par offense. Former champ Tim Bradley sees a lot of Mayweather Jr. in Stevenson but adds that it is too early to tell.
If the June 10 card ends up glitch-free, Top Rank has other cards on deck, stretching until the end of the month or possibly early July. One intriguing fight card, scheduled on June 17 (Manila time) at the MGM Grand, will feature General Santos City native ‘Magic’ Mike Plania.
Plania, 23-1 with 12 knockouts, is booked to face Chicago native Joshua Greer Jr. (22-1-1 draw with 12 knockouts) in a 10-round contest. Greer Jr., who started boxing at age 15, is the No. 1 ranked contender by the WBO in the bantamweight (118 lbs.) division.
Plania has been pegged as the underdog, but the Filipino is currently on an eight-fight winning streak. Plania made his US debut in March 2018, losing a decision to former world bantamweight champion Juan Carlos Parayno of the Dominican Republic. Plania actually knocked down Parayno in the third canto but failed to capitalize. Plania has since chalked up 8 straight victories, 4 of which were registered on US territory. Plania is currently training in Miami, Florida and figures to easily book a ticket to Las Vegas.
Plania will be on record as the first Filipino to return to the ring after the lockdown. Before the coronavirus broke out, several Filipino boxers were set to see action in title fights. Bantamweight champions Naoya Inoue (WBA-IBF) and Filipino John Riel Casimero (WBO) were supposed to square off on April 25 in Las Vegas while former champion Nonito Donaire Jr. was looking at a May collision with WBC bantam king Nordine Oubaali of France. Giemel Magramo was supposed to battle Japanese Junto Nakatani in April for the vacant WBO flyweight title. The Magramo-Nakatani tussle is now scheduled to take place on August 1 in Japan. Inoue-Casimero remains in limbo but is still expected to come into fruition. Donaire Jr. remains in the hunt for a shot at the WBC diadem.
As aforementioned, Top Rank is holding back on the big fights and for good reasons. The fights involving the big guns of the sport definitely deserve a live audience. The live gate forms part of the fight income and no promoter wants to lose out on the huge money. There is also the problem of convincing the superstars to fight in an empty arena. WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford has made it clear that he is not willing to take a pay cut should he be asked to fight in an empty venue. On the other hand, IBF lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez Jr., who was supposed to fight WBO-WBA counterpart Vasiliy Lomachenko on May 30, is totally not interested in fighting in an empty arena. Arum is working on a unification showdown between Crawford and WBA champ Manny Pacquiao and such a pairing will definitely rake in a mammoth paying crowd. The title fight between Lopez and Lomachenko will likely be held later this year, hopefully when the situation has normalized and fans have been given the go-signal to troop to the venue again.
Pro boxing is back to taking baby steps. Then again, it is important for the sport to get back on its feet after being knocked down by the pandemic. From an economic standpoint, boxers, cornermen, ring officials who have taken a considerable hit cannot wait to resume their ‘jobs.’ The WBC has stated that the champions need not worry about being stripped of their crowns as it is ready to extend the period for their mandatory defenses. Clearly, everybody is chipping in to help the sport get back in the groove.