The Best Is Yet To Come (Part 1)

As we approach the halfway point of the year, the World Cup has taken center stage, attracting the undivided attention of a large majority of sports fans around the world. Boxing will take a back seat for the next few weeks and promoters, duly aware of the situation, have scheduled few, if any, high-profile events for the rest of June and most of July. But the matches already in the books for 2018 not only provided fight fans with plenty of excitement but have also set up some mouthwatering tilts, some of which have already been signed, with others very likely to take place before the end of the year. This is great news for boxing fans, and as such, is worth celebrating.

So we hereby present to you six top-notch fights likely to occur in the second half of 2018, and which would tick boxes on most fight fans’ wish lists. It says a lot about the resilience of professional boxing that, despite its fractioned business landscape–with network and promoter alliances trumping so many interesting contests from happening–there’s still enough talent to go around to set up five-star confrontations such as the ones below. So let’s get hyped!

Oleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev
Why does it matter? Like the rest of the bouts on this list, Usyk vs Gassiev is a best vs best fight that serves to establish the best fighter in its division. At cruiserweight, the Ukrainian and the Russian emerged as the finalists in the World Boxing Super Series, this despite holding a combined record of only 40-0. But don’t let their relative professional inexperience distract from the fact both are at or near their physical prime, and that they’ve torn through the best the division has to offer, including Marco Huck, Mairis Breidis, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk and Yunier Dorticos. With all four major belts at stake for the first time in the division’s history, it doesn’t get any bigger and better than Usyk vs Gassiev.

Oleksandr Usyk.

How likely is it to happen? After a relatively smooth run, the WBSS ran into trouble when it came time to schedule the cruiserweight final, which was originally slated for May 11 but was postponed when Usyk suffered a training injury. Negotiations resumed to reschedule the event, with the biggest stumbling block being the venue, since Gassiev would prefer the bout took place in Russia, while Usyk would prefer it did not.

But this week the Russian Boxing Federation stated that Usyk vs Gassiev will now take place in Moscow on July 21. Since there has been as yet no official announcement from the World Boxing Super Series–or from its mastermind, former Al Haymon sidekick Richard Schaefer–most initially took the news with a grain of salt. However, as days have gone by and no one has refuted the announcement–coupled with the fact some undercard fights have already been disclosed for July 21–chances are pretty good Usyk vs Gassiev will take place on that date.

Gassiev battles Dorticos.

Will it give us fireworks? Usyk vs Gassiev is every hardcore fans’ wet dream at the moment. While the Ukrainian–an Olympic gold medalist–is favored to prevail based on his better overall skills and footwork, Gassiev proved throughout his run in the tournament–and in his semifinal performance against Dorticos in particular–that he has the chin and heart to stand up to any cruiserweight in the world. Both being accurate, powerful punchers and tremendous competitors, Usyk vs Gassiev figures to be a gripping war of attrition with an exhilarating ending.

Srisaket Sor Rungvisai vs Francisco Estrada 2
Why does it matter? Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Mexico’s Juan Francisco Estrada are the two most badass super flyweights in the world, which is saying a lot when you consider that the division also boasts Khalid Yafai, Jerwin Ancajas, Roman Gonzalez and Carlos Cuadras in its ranks. Moreover, the first encounter between Sor Rungvisai and “Gallito” was a great fight, a barnburner contested at the highest level, “world-class stuff,” as Larry Merchant used to say.

The outcome was a majority decision for the Thai, but Estrada mounted a rousing late-rounds rally that kept the outcome on the balance until the final bell. To top it all off, the first Sor Rungvisai vs Estrada fight headlined an action-packed Superfly 2 card at LA’s Forum, which continued the recent and very welcome trend of highlighting the best the lower weight divisions have to offer. To have the rematch between Sor Rungvisai and Estrada as a headliner in a third edition of Superfly would further boost the case of 2018 as an amazing year for boxing.

How likely is it to happen? The good news is that, according to Steve Kim, HBO has greenlighted Superfly 3 after receiving notice that the Canelo vs Golovkin rematch is officially on. We’re speculating here, but the most likely explanation is that HBO’s boxing division really needed to secure those PPV revenues in order to pay for non-PPV boxing shows like Superfly 3—and that tells you all you need to know about HBO Sports honcho Peter Nelson’s “commitment to boxing,” but we digress.

The bad news is that reports surfaced this week that Sor Rungvisai might be looking to stage a defense of his title in his native Thailand before returning to North America in early in 2019. So while HBO and promoter Tom Loeffler still intend to stage Superfly 3 in September, Rungvisai might opt out of the headlining spot. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the Thai warrior changes his mind.

Will it give us fireworks? If you saw the first Sor Rungvisai vs Estrada fight, you already know the answer to this question. If you haven’t, go find it on YouTube and give it your full attention. Sor Rungvisai and Estrada share enough talent and cojones between them to put prizefighters of any size to shame, and it’s an embarrassment that they have to wait for haggling middleweight divas to decide how they will split $70 million before they can get in the ring for six-figures. Fact: no other fight in 2018 has a higher “bang to bucks” ratio than this one and marketing it is likely a far easier enterprise than HBO realizes. The first fight was awesome and razor close and, mark my words, Sor Rungvisai vs Estrada II is going to be a hot ticket.

Santa Cruz vs Russell Jr.

Leo Santa Cruz vs Gary Russell Jr.
Why does it matter? Over the last few years “Terremoto” Santa Cruz and Gary Russell Jr. have established themselves as the crème de la crème at featherweight. Each of their records sports a single blemish: Santa Cruz dropped a majority decision to top-talent Carl Frampton in 2016, a loss he avenged a few months later, while Russell Jr. also lost a close one to Vasyl Lomachenko in 2014.

Cruz (right) battles Frampton.

More recently, each scored victories against worthy opponents: Russell Jr. defended his WBC strap against Joseph Diaz in May, while Santa Cruz did the same for his WBA belt, earning a clear, hard-fought decision in a rematch against the always tough Abner Mares. Very much in their prime and with momentum behind them, an encounter between Santa Cruz and Russell Jr. would yield a clear answer as to who’s the man at 126 pounds.

How likely is it to happen? Of the fights featured here, this one is the least likely to occur before 2018 comes to a close. The reason is that, even though both Santa Cruz and Russell Jr. fight under the PBC/Showtime umbrella, they also tend to go through long periods of inactivity. This makes us wonder whether, despite their proclaimed willingness to face each other next, they will indeed agree to terms to make it happen without taking a pointless tune-up first.

Gary Russell Jr. (right) brings talent and speed to the ring.

Will it give us fireworks? Santa Cruz vs Russell Jr. would bring us a classic boxer vs puncher duel with no clear favorite. Santa Cruz has evolved over the years from a straightforward volume fighter into a smart, technically sound combination puncher. While his punching output and stamina is what usually gets him wins, in Russell Jr. he would be facing a guy with speed, power and mobility, a trifecta that often times is enough to frustrate the hell out of volume punchers. Would Santa Cruz be able to adapt and get the job done against Russell Jr.? Or would Gary figure out Leo and inflict enough punishment to subdue his work rate? There’s only one way to find out.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Charlo vs Hurd! Joshua vs Wilder! And of course, Canelo vs Golovkin Redux! 

–Rafael Garcia

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