Back in August of 2014, following an ugly contest marred by excessive clinching and frequent rabbit punches, Kell Brook supplanted Shawn Porter as IBF welterweight champion. The unbeaten underdog emerged with a majority decision and immediately set his sights on an eagerly anticipated all-England showdown with Amir Khan.
Alas, the Khan fight did not materialize. Soon after his title triumph, Brook was stabbed in mysterious circumstances while holidaying on the sun-drenched island of Tenerife, the perpetrator never brought to justice. As he lay stricken in a hospital bed, his left thigh crosshatched with 32 metal staples, doubts were raised as to whether Brook’s career could even continue.
We all know that it did, but a match with Khan – with whom Brook has long enjoyed a rivalrous relationship – has remained elusive. Seven months after claiming the title, Brook defended it on home soil against Jo Jo Dan, eviscerating the rabbit in his headlights in four clinical rounds. Afterwards, the champion was visibly affected by the enthusiastic support from his loyal Sheffield fans. Holding back tears, he assured them that his leg had completely healed and he promised to “be back out in June in a massive fight.”
Since the Dan bout was a mandatory defence, and Brook had recently recovered from a savage machete attack, it was easy to cut the champion some slack. The big fights, we were sure, would come. It was just a question of when. Two bouts later, and Brook’s fans are having to repeat that assurance like a mantra: the big fights will come, the big fights will come …
As we’re all aware, the ignominious Dan defense was followed not by a massive event but by an unattractive, uncalled-for showdown with fellow Brit Frankie Gavin. The title defence, which inexplicably headlined a huge UK pay-per-view, resembled a pedestrian sparring session conducted under the bright lights of London’s o2 Arena. And it ended, once again, with Brook reiterating his desire to land a meaningful fight.
Naturally competitive and a product of Brendan Ingle’s famous Wincobank gym, the same industrious workshop that turned out Prince Naseem Hamed, Brook was never going to be content with the standard of opponent fed to him since claiming the crown. Though his three opponents since Porter possessed a combined record of 81 wins against just five defeats, it was patently obvious that Jo Jo Dan, Frankie Gavin and Kevin Bizier did not represent the cream of the division.
It must have hurt Brook deeply when Amir Khan announced his megabucks clash with Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. These are the kind of match-ups a young fighter dreams of, with Khan now having earned the type of payday Brook has never so much as got a whiff of. If it wasn’t obvious before Khan vs Alvarez, it is now: Brook needs a marquee fight.
The impatience of fans to witness Kell Brook step up in class has been evident on social media and boxing forums for some time. Acknowledging this, Brook’s promoter and propagandist Eddie Hearn has insisted he’ll line up a worthy foe for his enthusiastic charge in the near future. After some initial blarney about fighting middleweight dreadnought Gennady Golovkin, talk has centred on a unification. As WBA champion Keith Thurman is set to face Porter, this leaves two names firmly in the frame: Danny Garcia and Jessie Vargas.
Make no mistake, either match would represent a significant step up in class. Garcia, the undefeated WBC champion, has by far the stiffer resume, with wins over a brace of top names including Khan, Lucas Matthysse, Mauricio Herrera, Lamont Peterson and Robert Guerrero. Vargas, the newly-minted WBO champion, holds victories over the likes of Sadam Ali and Antonio DeMarco but was pretty soundly beaten by Timothy Bradley last summer.
Garcia, then, seems like the standout choice. The hard-punching Philly fighter ticks all the boxes: he’s unbeaten; he’s a world champion in his prime; he holds a devastating KO victory over Brook’s nemesis; and he fights in an exciting, combative manner. But when the idea of going to Britain to fight Brook was put to him last September, Garcia seemed uninterested. “The UK, I don’t know, I heard them taxes over there are crazy,” he said with a grin. Thus, it comes as no surprise to learn that Vargas appears to be the likely opponent for a major scrap this summer.
Brook has fought twice in America, once in 2011 and again in 2014. And though I suspect he’d be only too happy to clock up some more air miles, Hearn is keen to build his man’s name in the UK, which means boxing him on home soil. Can he throw enough money at Garcia to tempt him across the water? With the deep-pocketed Al Haymon bankrolling ‘Swift’, you can go ahead and colour me skeptical.
However, Hearn himself sounds optimistic. “We are coming to the end of the process and things are looking good,” he recently told ESPN.com regarding a deal to make Brook vs Vargas happen. “We have made a great offer … I think there’s a good chance this fight gets made and it’s a great fight for both champions.”
Vargas is an excellent fight for Brook, even if the Vargas name doesn’t carry quite the same weight as Garcia, Thurman, Bradley or Khan. It would be interesting to see whether Brook can beat Vargas more decisively than Bradley. If he can, he becomes a two-belt champion in one of boxing’s hottest divisions. With Mayweather hinting at a return, Brook would be in a solid position to call for a Floyd fight should he handle Vargas.
If we assume for a moment that Floyd is just yanking our chain with talk of a comeback, and Manny Pacquiao is also able to resist the lure of boxing’s bright lights, the best active welterweight in the world might be Timothy Bradley. Speaking after his recent loss to Pacquiao, ‘Desert Storm’ said he was looking forward to enjoying a well-earned rest at his “beach house in San Diego.” No-one can grudge him some R & R, but Bradley will want to bounce back in a meaningful fight when he returns. A return with Jessie Vargas for his old belt makes sense, but if Hearn can lock Vargas in for Brook, perhaps Bradley will set his cap at the victor.
One man who seems eager to throw down with Brook is Errol Spence. The supremely gifted 26-year-old put the division on notice last month, bouncing Chris Algieri off the canvas in five rounds. Though afterwards he expressed a desire to face Brook, the IBF quickly intervened, insisting Spence would have to first win an eliminator against the awkward but light-hitting Konstantin Ponomarev. Still, Brook vs Spence is a mouthwatering prospect between two of the division’s most obvious talents.
The landscape of the welterweight division has a certain Game of Thrones quality about it, with many accomplished fighters vying to occupy the vacuum left by the sport’s flagship competitors. Brook is just one man with his eye on the royal seat, but in order to solidify his claim, he must vanquish his rivals. That means Garcia, Bradley, Vargas and Spence. A unification with Keith Thurman is another intriguing battle, though I’m not sure how interesting a return with Porter would be as their styles mixed like oil and vinegar last time.
For now, let’s hope Brook lands the summer blockbuster he deserves. Even the best fighters can get stale facing a succession of unworthy challengers.
— Ronnie McCluskey