After a busy few months at the end of 2020 during which many top fighters answered the bell, 2021 has been off to a slow start. Thankfully February will see a modest but definite uptick in activity with the short month promising some excitement and even a few high-stakes tilts. That said, February’s action doesn’t heat up until the second weekend with the 13th offering an ESPN card plus two DAZN shows.
First, ESPN and Top Rank bring you light heavyweights Joe Smith Jr. and Maxim Vaslov battling for the belt Canelo Alvarez abandoned after taking it from Sergey Kovalev in brutal fashion in 2019. Smith (26-3) boasts some powerful artillery, primarily a crushing right hand, but he’s added to his tool box, as shown in his KO over Eleider Alvarez. Smith overcame “Storm” by augmenting his power with a high work-rate and a varied attack to head and body, and it might be asking a lot of 34-year-old Maxim Vaslov (45-3) to handle that aggression and pace considering the Russian hasn’t fought since November 2019. Oddsmakers see Smith as the clear favorite, around -350 at time of writing.
The show’s undercard features Jackson Marinez’s return to the ring after August’s robbery-loss to prospect Rolly Ramirez. He faces a demolition man in hard-hitting Richard Commey (29-3), who is seeking to rally after taking a two-round beating in 2019 at the hands of then-ascendant Teofimo Lopez. Boxing is rife with comeback stories, and this is a match-up in which both fighters have an opportunity to redeem themselves.
Moving on to the DAZN offerings for the 13th, the first show will be live from the United Kingdom and features Josh Warrington (30-0), who vacated his IBF lightweight belt to avoid what he viewed as meaningless mandatory defenses. If “The Leeds Warrior” is successful in utilizing his swarming style and accurate punching to overwhelm Mexico’s Mauricio Lara (21-2), he hopes to then challenge either Xu Can or Gary Russell Jr. for one of their title belts later this year.
Joseph “Jo Jo” Diaz (31-1) headlines the primetime slot for DAZN’s North American audience, making his first defense of the super featherweight title he won by overcoming a serious cut to outwork Philadelphia’s Tevin Farmer in January of last year. Fellow southpaw Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (15-0) is Diaz’s mandatory challenger and considering the Tajikistani’s high-pressure style and Diaz’s workrate, these two men might prefer a proverbial phone-booth to a full-sized ring. Neither fighter boasts fearsome power, meaning they’re likely to use the full twelve rounds, even if they eschew most of the ring, and we might be in for a memorable, back-and-forth war.
Another title scrap bolsters this Indio, California card, this one featuring Patrick Teixera (31-1) defending his WBO 154 pound strap against Brian Castano (16-0-1). This match is being marketed as the latest installment in the ongoing regional rivalry between Brazil, represented by Teixera, and Argentina, championed by Castano, and this dash of national pride, along with the possibility of the winner getting a shot at Jermell Charlo, might just be the recipe for these two tough middleweights to put on a show.
The following weekend, we can look forward to another triple-header, this one also kicking off in the UK and headlined by the oft-delayed meeting between David Avanesyan and Josh Kelly, a match that’s been in the making since 2018. It had in fact been slated for this past January 30th and my summary of it still rings true: “At 26, Josh Kelly (10-0-1) has failed to overcome doubts as to the height of his ceiling as a fighter, instead offering up a sort of Rorschach test separating those who see the next Prince Naseem and those who see a brutal chin-checking waiting to happen. Given Avanesyan’s (26-3) momentum after three recent wins in Spain, he could be just the man to deliver such a chin-check, and this bout has the makings of a thriller.”
Offering up an intriguing Rorshach test of his own, Adrian “The Problem” Broner (33-4-1) returns to the ring on the 20th to face an as-yet unnamed opponent after two years on the shelf, the hiatus precipitated by two losses and a draw. During that three fight slide, and in the two-year layoff that followed, it’s safe to say that the unfocused Broner, plagued by legal troubles, was only a problem for himself. At 31, he may still have a long-shot chance to fulfill the early promise of what has been a tumultuous and rather underwhelming career, assuming he can stay focused and active. Will February 20th be the start of 2021’s Comeback of the Year?
An early “Fight of the Year” contender rounds out February 20th’s action, as it pits Miguel Berchelt (37-1) against Oscar Valdez (28-0) for Berchelt’s 140 pound world title strap. Berchelt brings more experience, more power (33 KOs in 37 wins), and a longer reach to the proceedings, but Valdez has an edge in the speed department, despite some uneven performances of late. Both fighters favor their front foot, and this match-up promises intensity and fireworks, especially when one considers these are proud Mexican antagonists, the rivalry going back to their amateur days.
Two more title fights close out February, with ESPN and DAZN again splitting the broadcasting duties on the 27th. Canelo Alvarez (54-1-2), fresh from his December dismantling of Callum Smith, and now set to face Billy Joe Saunders later in the year, takes on Avni Yildirim (21-2). With all due respect to Yildirim, Alvarez can and will end this mismatch in dramatic fashion, likely with a highlight-reel knockout. I suppose one can’t fault Canelo for netting a few extra dollars while taking care of a so-called mandatory challenger, while delaying a bigger fight until a more substantial live gate is possible.
No one ever asked for Alvarez vs Yildirim, but fans have been clamoring for Jamel Herring (22-2) vs Carl Frampton (28-2) since mid-2020 when it was originally scheduled. The match was delayed by various factors including Covid-19, injuries, and college football schedules. While the betting markets give Herring a narrow edge at around +100, this fight is a toss-up, and likely to be one of the best on offer in February. This is Herring’s third title defense, and despite his sometimes uneven performances, his skillset and length could push Frampton to the limit. In store for the winner? A clash with boxing’s new self-proclaimed boogeyman, Shakur Stevenson.
As we struggle to get into the swing of another turbulent year, there remains great uncertainty surrounding crowd-sizes, travel restrictions, and fighters’ ability to safely train and compete. None of this has done much to help promoters and networks secure big fights, but February builds on January’s quiet start as boxing action in 2021 slowly but surely heats up. — Harry Meyerson