The fight receiving most of attention this weekend is the battle between YouTubers KSI and Logan Paul at Staples Center in Los Angeles. In August 2018, the two social media mavens met at Manchester Arena in England and fought to a six-round majority draw. The broadcast produced a huge online audience and procured significant pay-per-view numbers.
Hence the rematch Saturday, under professional rules. Ali-Frazier it is not, but you can’t knock the hustle.
While it’s an event that makes many die-hard fans and traditionalists cringe, it’s also an opportunity to showcase some promising fighters on a big stage in the lead-up to the madness. Between the KSI-Logan Paul undercard and a Top Rank card with a junior lightweight world title main event, there is a lot of boxing to enjoy this weekend.
The fighting marine in Fresno
Mark Kriegel details the upbringing of Jamel Herring, and how the death of childhood friend Stephen Brown steered him into an unexpected career and championship success. For more Top Rank Boxing action, sign up for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/
WBO junior lightweight world titlist Jamel “Semper Fi” Herring (20-2, 10 KOs), who won his belt by outboxing Masayuki Ito on May 25, makes his first defense of that title against the undefeated Lamont Roach Jr. (19-0-1, 7 KOs).
It headlines a Top Rank card on ESPN+, and takes place at Chukchansi Park — a minor league baseball stadium that typically serves as the home of the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
In addition to his recent run of success in the ring, Herring has dealt with extraordinary challenges in his life. He served two tours in Iraq as part of the Marine Corps, and suffered the loss of an infant daughter, Ariyana, in 2009 from sudden infant death syndrome.
He didn’t come by recent successes easily. The 2012 U.S. Olympian hit a rough patch in his career in 2016 and 2017, when he lost two out of three fights (to Denis Shafikov, and later Ladarius Miller), and he reached a professional crossroads.
Since then he has won four fights in a row and found himself as a boxer after joining the camp of WBO welterweight titlist Terence Crawford.
A lot is on the line this weekend for Herring. With a victory, he could land on a major card being planned for China in early February, and Carl Frampton has been mentioned as a possible opponent for 2020, among others.
First he has to get by Roach, for whom this is a major step up in competition. Roach most recently was featured on the Canelo Alvarez-Daniel Jacobs undercard in May, scoring a decision victory over Jonathan Oquendo.
Herring’s service in the military will be highlighted in a major way Saturday night. Local fight promoter Rick Mirigian said there will be a flyby from naval air jets and fireworks. Marines from Camp Pendleton also will line up during Herring’s entrance as he’s led into the ring by a military convoy.
Devin Haney makes his first title defense
Haney (23-0, 15 KOs) will defend his lightweight world title for the first time against an unknown and untested Alfredo Santiago (12-0, 4 KOs) as part of the KSI-Paul card.
Some would dismiss the talented young Haney as a “paper champion,” given the fact that he didn’t actually capture his WBC world lightweight title in the ring. Haney was promoted from interim to full titleholder by the WBC after the sanctioning body elevated Vasiliy Lomachenko as a “franchise champion.”
Haney made it clear that he has no such reservations.
“I feel like a world champion — I worked my way up,” Haney said. “I knew that, possibly, winning the interim title would lead to Lomachenko vacating, or being franchise. I worked my way up. I knew exactly what I was doing and it happened the way it happened and can’t nobody take that away from me.”
There is no denying the talent of the 20-year-old Haney, who, unlike other potential challengers, is serious about facing Lomachenko in the near future. He is a fast, technically sound boxer whose punching power is coming along as he develops physically.
What’s more, he absolutely believes that if it were up to Lomachenko, they would face one another inside the ring.
“I think, honestly, if it were up to him, he’d face me — but his team doesn’t feel like it,” Haney said. “There are easier fights out there.”
Regardless of how he “won” his first major world title, his talent — and just as importantly, his focus and work ethic — are undeniable, and it looks like he will be a pillar of the sport for the next decade.
Saunders makes his stateside debut
Billy Joe Saunders (23-0, 15 KOs), who is now the defending WBO super middleweight titlist, will face Marcelo Coceres (28-0, 13 KOs) in his first bout on American soil as the co-feature to Saturday night’s spectacle in Los Angeles. The outspoken Saunders recently told ESPN that he wouldn’t have been part of the undercard in an event like this if it was in England, but he believed this was an opportunity to further his brand in a large media market.
That decision comes with some pressure, and expectations of actually opening a few eyes. While he’s bombastic outside the ring, he has often been a bit boring inside of it once the bell rings. That’s why, despite having won titles at 160 and 168, he’s been left out of the mix in terms of the marquee fights available in either division.
For his part, Saunders says he’s ready to shake that reputation, starting with Saturday’s fight. Given the chance, Saunders wants to “introduce my name and my star with my fists, and show them the level I should be at.”
There is plenty of action and possibilities galore in either of those divisions, though, and Saunders could get into the mix by making more definitive statements during his fights.
In Coceres, Saunders is facing a fighter with a record that appears better than his actual quality. Saturday’s title challenge is Coceres’ first fight away from his home country of Argentina. This is a fight designed for Saunders to score some style points against Coceres. It would be disappointing for him to slog through another 12-round decision.
At the prefight news conference, Saunders was still feeling the effects of the long flight from the U.K. to California. But by the time his fight rolls around Saturday night, he expects to be up to the challenge at hand.
“I think I’ve got to win impressively, yeah,” Saunders said. “I’m getting used to this time zone. I’m tired now — I’ve been here since Sunday — so hopefully I’m feeling fresh and rejuvenated to put a good performance on.”
Robeisy looks to rebound
We’ve seen some high-profile upsets in 2019, but none were as shocking as two-time Olympic gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez falling in his pro debut. On Aug. 10 in Philadelphia, Adan Gonzalez floored Ramirez in the first and outhustled him in the other three rounds.
This wasn’t in the script for the highly touted Cuban boxer, who was signed to a lucrative deal by Top Rank earlier this year. In the interim, the 25-year-old has made a significant change in his corner. He hired Ismael Salas, who is also Cuban and a former head coach of the country’s national amateur squad.
In the professional ranks, Salas has trained the likes of Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Jorge Linares, Danny Green, Jessie Vargas, Rances Barthelemy and Nonito Donaire.
“Obviously, the Cuban amateurs coaches know Salas, and given the outcome of the first fight, it’s a step in the right direction,” said Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s director of boxing operations.
There is no denying the amateur pedigree of Ramirez, who defeated newly minted WBO 126-pound champion Shakur Stevenson for the gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but given early returns, we’ll have to see if his style will translate as a professional.
Flores to pack the house again
Gabriel Flores Jr. and his father, Gabriel Sr., discuss the purpose of boxing in their lives after the tragic loss of the 19-year-old’s mother.
The undercard in Fresno also features 19-year-old Gabe Flores Jr. (15-0, 6 KOs), who is matched against Aelio Mesquita in a lightweight bout. While Herring-Roach is the evening’s main event, and heavyweight Kubrat Pulev is in the co-feature, this young man from nearby Stockton will be the big ticket-seller on this show.
That was certainly the case on May 4 at the Stockton Arena, when two world champions — Artur Beterbiev and Jerwin Ancajas — shared top billing on the marquee. Flores scored a highlight-reel knockout of Eduardo Reis in the third round, and he was the one who filled the seats. On the same night that Canelo fought Jacobs in Las Vegas, that fight card was still able to draw over 10,000 in the building.
According to Mirigian, who also manages Flores and is best known for turning unified junior welterweight champion Jose Ramirez into a bona-fide attraction in the Central Valley, there will be at least 9,000 to 10,000 in attendance at the ballpark on Saturday night.