The new year’s boxing schedule kicks off with tonight’s high-stakes showdown for the lightweight division, Luke Campbell vs Ryan Garcia. Just 22, Garcia (20-0) had a brief 44-fight amateur career, and is a ready representative of a wave of rising young contenders. Campbell plays the role of gatekeeper, putting his celebrated amateur boxing pedigree and 45-7 pro record against Garcia’s hand-speed, flash, and 7.8 million Instagram followers. For the winner? A shot at Devin Haney, who still technically holds the only 135 pound world title not in Teofimo Lopez’s hands. For Garcia, a win silences those who, despite his recent training camps with Eddy Reynoso and Canelo Alvarez, doubt the social media sensation and question his skill, and it would signal his arrival to the club of exciting young lightweights that already includes Devin Haney, Lopez, Gervonta Davis and Shakur Stevenson.
Make no mistake, even with plenty of runway to overcome a single loss on his record, Golden Boy Promotions is taking a risk tonight. Many will see a defeat, or even a tepid win on the scorecards, as proof that Garcia’s talents lie more with Instagram and TikTok than the squared circle. As he has generally tried to do against his softer opposition so far, Garcia could blast Campbell out in the early rounds. But if Campbell can withstand Garcia’s whipping shots early, he will force the younger man to adjust, exposing just how much, or how little, ability is backstopping the social media prowess of “KingRy.” This solid DAZN card also features two title fights at the lighter end of the scale, with Nicaraguan twins Rene and Felix Alvarado facing Roger Guiterrez and DeeJay Kriel, respectively, all adding up to a worthwhile night of boxing to start the year.
After that, we face a drought with the next major title match not happening until the 23rd. In the meantime, you can watch Takuma Inoue continue his campaign to break out of his older brother’s shadow on the 14th, then see if unbeaten prospect Patrick Cora can improve to 11-0 at just 21 years old on Showtime on the 20th, and then watch prospect Lee McGregor in a step-up fight against French veteran Karim Guerfi on the 21st on ESPN+. Guerfi, the current European bantamweight champion, has held the belt twice before, and is good enough to test the green, 9-0 McGregor. Coming off of a close victory on the cards against Kash Farooq in November 2019, the fun-to-watch McGregor has an opportunity to improve his stock and of the January fights without a strap on the line, this may be the one to watch.
On the 23rd, Angelo Leo meets the also undefeated Stephen Fulton to headline Showtime’s first major 2021 boxing card. This match, originally scheduled for August of 2020, was one of many to fall victim to the pandemic’s disruptions, with Fulton testing positive for Covid-19. West Philadelphia’s Fulton (18-0) has a piston-like jab and has logged convincing wins against Arnold Khegai, Paulus Ambunda, and Isaac Avelar, while Angelo Leo (20-0) dominated Fulton’s August replacement, Tramaine Williams, but has only nine knockouts against his twenty wins. He will need to bring every ounce of firepower he has to this scrap.
The 23rd’s fireworks might kick off early, with undercard action pitting Vic Pasillas (16-0) against Raeese Aleem (17-0) – Pasillas impressed in September against Ranfis Encarnacion with sharp combination punching on his way to a sixth round knockout win. At 28, Pasillas is a prospect no more, but could use another strong showing against Aleem to build momentum for a championship run, and this might be his last chance to do so. While neither of these fights quite break into ‘must-watch’ territory, they’re good match-ups between skilled fighters who have the tools to offer up an entertaining night.
Artur Beterbiev can’t catch a break, and, having tested positive for Covid-19, sees his January 30th bout with Adam Deines again delayed. But even without Beterbiev, a triple-header rounds out the month, with Caleb Plant fighting Caleb Truax, Sergey Kovalev in a ‘crossroads’ fight against Bektemir Melikuziev, and David Avanesyan squaring up with Josh Kelly. It’ll be a tall order to negotiate all three cards, but each have their charms as we wrap up the month.
First up: Avanesyan vs Kelly, a match that’s been in the making since 2018. 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.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev seeks to rally after his knockout loss to Canelo Alvarez, while Bektemir Melikuziev looks to pick off the veteran and add a famous face to his record. The fight is likely to turn on the thirteen years of age and two inches in reach separating Kovalev (34-4-1), who has struggled in the last few years, and Bektemir Melikuziev (6-0), who also gives up about 160 rounds worth of pro experience. Neither man is shy to trade blows, and so there’s likely to be plenty of action for fans, along with plenty of upside for both fighters as it’s either the first chapter in a Cinderella story for Kovalev, or a breakout opportunity for Melikuziev.
You can, and should, be disappointed that rumors of the slick super-middleweight Caleb Plant (20-0) matching up with Canelo Alvarez last month dissolved without much traction. For my money, even after Alvarez’s dismantling of Callum Smith, Plant remains a compelling dance partner for the pound-for-pound darling. Smith’s speed of hand and foot could be a stylistic challenge for Alvarez, who might struggle to track down the hyper-mobile Plant. But Plant, a titlist at 168, has not caught fire with fans despite his wins over Jose Uzcategui, Mike Lee and Vincent Feigenbutz. On the 30th, he faces a marginally more credible challenge in 37-year-old Caleb Truax (31-4), whose best days in the ring are no doubt behind him. Plant, along with boxing fans, can hope for a flashy win that propels him into more serious fights.
Training camp, and the attendant weight cut, is difficult business, and all the more so during the holidays; add to that the typical post-holiday slump in potential viewers’ discretionary spending, the many fighters who recently competed in the last few months of 2020, and of course the ongoing global pandemic, and it’s no surprise that January, historically a quiet month for boxing, is no different in 2021. Bookended with Ryan Garcia’s upcoming test against Luke Campbell and January 30th’s triple-header, this is about as good of a schedule as we might expect for the start of what will hopefully be a much improved year to come, both in and out of the ring. — Harry Meyerson