Sports

Boxing tournaments we’d like to see: The divisions and fighters that could benefit from an eight-man tourney

Wouldn’t it be great if boxing had a logical schedule where the best fought the best in a tournament like other sports, to determine the best in each weight class?

But boxing tournaments have rarely been done, mainly due to boxing politics. The top fighters in a division can be signed by rival promoters and broadcasters, which prevents great matchups from happening. Injuries and mandatory title defense obligations also make boxing tournaments difficult to pull off.

If all obstacles were removed, however, there would be some great fights as part of eight-man tournaments which ideally could be completed within 18 months. ESPN takes a look at three fantasy tournaments that would be great for fan interest and boxers’ careers, while crowning an undisputed king in those divisions.


Heavyweight division

No. 1 seed: Tyson Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs), 35

The WBC champion is ESPN’s No. 1 heavyweight and will go into the tournament as top seed if he defeats Oleksandr Usyk on May 18, a clash that will decide the first undisputed heavyweight champion in the four-belt era. Fury suffered a cut above his right eye during a sparring session in early February, in an area that has already been badly cut in recent years, that forced the Usyk fight to be moved back from Feb. 17. But of more concern for Fury fans was his performance in his last fight in October: a split decision win in a nontitle fight against former UFC champion Francis Ngannou, whose fight against Fury was only his first as a professional boxer. Ngannou floored Fury during the close fight, and many believed Ngannou deserved to win. Fury’s last title defense was a 10th-round stoppage win over veteran Derek Chisora in December 2022, and by the time he climbs through the ropes to face Usyk, it will be over two years since his last significant win, against Dillian Whyte in April 2022.


No. 2 seed: Oleksandr Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs), 37

When the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion faces Fury on May 18, he will do so knowing he has been in better form recently than his opponent. The Ukrainian southpaw twice outpointed former champion Anthony Joshua and has made two defenses of his titles. He stopped Daniel Dubois in August, but Dubois felt he produced a legitimate knockdown (which was ruled a low blow). Despite that controversy, Usyk produced an impressive stoppage and he looks in sharp form, which might see him start the tournament as top seed and as the undisputed heavyweight champion. He holds wins over two others in the competition (Joshua and Dubois) and his skill set can be rivaled only by Fury.


No. 3 seed: Anthony Joshua (27-3, 24 KOs), 34

The two-time heavyweight world champion is in good form, perhaps the best of all the heavyweight lineup, and provided he comes through a March 8 fight with Francis Ngannou, he will start this tournament as either the No. 3 or even No. 2 seed. Since back-to-back decision losses to Usyk in 2021 and 2022, Joshua has steadily improved in stoppage wins over Robert Helenius and Otto Wallin. AJ faces a quarterfinal bout versus another former champ, Joseph Parker, whom he stopped in seven rounds in 2019. That fight could set up a semifinal with the No. 2 seed (either Usyk or Fury). Joshua’s fifth-round demolition of Wallin on Dec. 23 was his best performance for at least five years, and arguably his best since he stopped former long-reigning world champion Wladimir Klitschko in 2017.


No. 4 seed: Filip Hrgovic (17-0, 14 KOs), 31

Hrgovic is the No. 1 contender with the IBF, but it is hard to argue a strong case for him progressing past the semifinals. The Croatian made hard work of Demsey McKean in August, and you can’t draw any conclusions from a Dec. 23 easy win over veteran Mark De Mori. Hrgovic is a smart boxer and his career has been carefully guided so far, but against the likes of Fury, Joshua or Usyk it is hard to see him finding a way to win. One potentially interesting matchup for him is a rematch with WBO interim champion Zhilei Zhang, whom he narrowly outpointed in August 2022.


No. 5 seed: Jai Opetaia (24-0, 19 KOs), 28

Opetaia, the IBF cruiserweight champion and ESPN’s No. 1-ranked fighter in the division, would be a wild-card entry to this tournament, but others have stepped up to heavyweight and won world titles (from David Haye to Evander Holyfield and, most recently, Usyk). It would be a big challenge for the Australian, but he is in fine form. After outpointing Mairis Briedis for the title in July 2022, Opetaia recorded quick KOs over Ellis Zorro and Jordan Thompson. Should he beat Briedis in a rematch on May 18, Opetaia would consider a new challenge and will fancy his chances against Hrgovic in the quarterfinals.


No. 6 seed: winner of Joseph Parker (34-3, 23 KOs), 32, vs. Zhilei Zhang (26-1-1, 21 KOs), 40

Parker, a former WBO champion, produced a stunning performance to outpoint Deontay Wilder in December, and if he can repeat the same movement and work rate against a 40-year-old Zhang, who is slower on his feet, he should win again in Saudi Arabia on March 8. However, if Parker fights at close range, Zhang will land some of the punches that saw him twice stop Joe Joyce last year. Parker is coming off his best career win against Wilder, a former champion, but he also ruled as WBO champion for two defenses until Joshua stopped him in March 2018. Zhang will be confident after two stoppage wins over Joyce, who halted Parker in 11 rounds in September 2022. It promises to be an entertaining fight, but only the winner progresses to this tournament.


No. 7 seed: Daniel Dubois (20-2, 19 KOs), 26

Dubois produced a plucky performance in his world title shot against Usyk in August last year. Usyk stopped Dubois in the ninth round, but the English fighter has dangerous power which eventually stopped big Jarrell Miller in December. With the titles all in the hands of two men, Dubois like other heavyweight contenders will benefit from a tournament like this to give him the opportunity to accelerate his career rather than waiting around for another title shot. He could face Usyk in his opening bout, though.


No. 8 seed: Andy Ruiz (35-2, 22 KOs), 34

After 17 months (and counting) out of action, Ruiz will be grateful for a high-profile fight, but he will not be easing back into it as he faces the top seed, either Fury or Usyk, in a world title fight. Can Ruiz produce the shock of the tournament, which will transform his career? He has done it before. The Californian upset the odds when he stopped Anthony Joshua in seven rounds for three versions of the world title in 2019. Ruiz piled on the pounds in the afterglow of victory and lost the titles by decision in a rematch six months later. After two decent wins over Luis Ortiz and Chris Arreola, Ruiz had surgery on a torn rotator cuff last year and could suffer from prolonged inactivity, but don’t write him off from once again becoming boxing’s latest Cinderella Man champion.


What must-see matchup do we get?

Joshua vs. Fury was once described as a $200 million megafight, but talks to make it happen have twice collapsed despite both English rivals agreeing to face each other. This tournament presents an opportunity for the pair to finally face off, if they keep winning.

Joshua has improved his game since losing the belts to Usyk and, even though he’s a former two-time champion, could be the surprise winner of the tournament. If Joshua meets Usyk again, will he have developed the ring IQ to cut down the ring, limit the Ukrainian’s movement and land his big shots in a third fight between them?


Which fighter can make a name for himself?

The competition could also launch the heavyweight career of Opetaia, currently No. 1 at cruiserweight. The Australian can win his first bout versus Hrgovic but would need to produce an almighty upset to beat either Usyk or Fury in the semifinals. Dubois has performed well over the past year but, like Ruiz, is likely to find the top seeds a step too far.


Who can win it?

Usyk had his wobbly moments against Dubois (and he could face him again in the quarterfinals) but he has still looked better than Fury in his past two fights and seems a sensible pick for a winner at this stage. Much depends on what version of Fury turns up to face Usyk in May, and if he is still as sharp as he was when he beat Wilder and Whyte in 2021 and 2022 respectively. Joshua, in his current form, is also a convincing choice.


Junior middleweights

No. 1 seed: Terence Crawford (40-0, 31 KOs), 36

As the current ESPN pound-for-pound king after becoming undisputed welterweight world champion last year, Crawford will face a new challenge by stepping up a division in this tournament. Crawford looked sensational in his ninth-round stoppage win over fellow American Errol Spence Jr. in July last year, reinforcing his status as the sport’s top operator. But how will he cope at 154 pounds against some of the other fighters in this tournament? Crawford won his first world title at lightweight (135 pounds), and fighting at a new weight class will push the Nebraska native, who is already a three-division world champion. He has boxed once per year recently, and this tournament gives boxing fans the chance to see Crawford more regularly at the tail end of his career.


No. 2 seed: Jermell Charlo (35-2-1, 19 KOs), 33

After he was outclassed in a one-sided decision loss at 168 pounds to Canelo Alvarez in October, this tournament offers Charlo the chance to reestablish himself and regain some recognition. Charlo, from Houston, entered the ring with Alvarez as the undisputed junior middleweight champion but was no match for the Mexican star and was floored in the seventh round during a unanimous decision loss in the super middleweight title fight. Charlo’s grip on his world titles is loosening as he has been made WBC champion in recess and there are moves to strip him of the WBA belt, with the other two titles already out of his possession. At 6 feet — the second-tallest fighter in the competition — Charlo will look to utilize his reach and height advantages.


No. 3 seed: Tim Tszyu (24-0, 17 KOs), 29

The Australian’s career has accelerated over the past 18 months and he is now WBO champion, with a high-profile fight against former welterweight world champion Keith Thurman scheduled for March 30. Tszyu showed his elite credentials with a unanimous decision win over Brian Mendoza — ESPN’s No. 2-ranked junior middleweight at the time — in a first title defense in October. Tszyu is the son of Russian-Australian Kostya Tszyu, who reigned as junior welterweight champion from 1998 to 2005, and is showing the potential to be involved in big fights like his father, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame for the Class of 2011.


.

No. 4 seed: Errol Spence Jr. (28-1, 22 KOs), 33

The former WBC, WBA, and IBF welterweight world champion has not surfaced since being dropped three times in a ninth-round TKO loss to Crawford in July last year. Spence has claimed he was suffering from an eye injury going into the fight and has since had cataract surgery. The Texas native reigned as a welterweight champion from 2017 to last year but is another fighter who has suffered from inactivity with just two fights in the past three years — in part due to a one-car crash he suffered in October 2019. This tournament offers Spence an opportunity to regain some lost ground.


No. 5 seed: Keith Thurman (30-1, 22 KOs), 35

Based on form and activity, Thurman is likely to enter the tournament looking to revive his career after his fight with Tszyu on March 30. The former welterweight champion has not fought since February 2022, when he defeated Mario Barrios by unanimous decision, a fight that also ended another spell of inactivity. In fact, the Florida resident has fought only twice in the past five years. Thurman is likely to find himself fighting to save his career in this tournament, which could create a newfound motivation and produce surprising results.


No. 6 seed: Sebastian Fundora (20-1-1, 13 KOs), 26

The 26-year-old fights to revive his career when he takes on Serhii Bohachuk for the vacant WBC junior middleweight world title on March 30. A victory would assure him a place in this tournament. Considering Fundora ended his last fight counted out, he is lucky to find himself fighting for a world title in his next outing. Fundora’s bubble burst when he was knocked out in the seventh round by Brian Mendoza in April last year, the first loss of his promising career. Known as “The Towering Inferno” due to his 6-foot-5½ frame, the Californian was ahead on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage but has not fought since.


No. 7 seed: Vergil Ortiz Jr. (20-0, 20 KOs), 25

Ortiz has slipped off the radar recently, but this tournament could put him back in the spotlight. Ortiz made a brief but impressive debut at junior middleweight by stopping Fredrick Lawson in a round in January after not boxing at all last year. His progress has stalled over the past two years for health reasons. He pulled out of title fights with Eimantas Stanionis three times due to a damaged muscle tissue condition (twice) and an emergency appendectomy.


No. 8 seed: winner of Israil Madrimov (9-0-1, 6 KOs), 29, vs. Magomed Kurbanov (25-0, 13 KOs), 28

Madrimov, from Uzbekistan, will enter the tournament with the fewest fights on his professional record and the lowest profile if he beats Russian Kurbanov for the vacant WBA title (no date has yet been confirmed). However, he has already managed to get himself into the No. 1 spot for Charlo’s WBA title. Both Kurbanov and Madrimov have suffered with inactivity recently and this tournament could be good for the winner of their vacant title bout, should it materialize, to test his skills against the top fighters in the division.


What must-see matchup do we get?

A lot of these fighters have been calling each other out over the past year, and this tournament makes those fights a reality. In the quarterfinals, Ortiz gets the chance to revive his stalled career if he can produce an upset win over his Texas rival Charlo, while Tszyu will face a potential world title unification fight against Fundora or Bohachuk. The semifinals could see a rematch between Crawford and Spence, this time at 154 pounds, and Tszyu facing off against either Ortiz or Charlo could be an all-action bout.


Which fighter can make a name for himself?

This tournament could transform Tszyu’s career. Past wins over Mendoza (116-112, 116-111, 117-111), Carlos Ocampo (first-round KO) and Tony Harrison (ninth-round stoppage) last year make him a good bet as the eventual winner, even if there are others with more wins and titles to their names. But the tournament will also be good for the likes of Ortiz, who could pull off an upset versus Charlo and get his career going again with some high-profile fights. But for others, defeat in this tournament and failure to restore their status could mark the end of their careers.


Who can win it?

Picking the pound-for-pound No. 1 seems sensible as the eventual victor, but Crawford is 36 years old and we don’t know how he will adjust to stepping up a weight class. This tournament comes at the right time for Tszyu, who is on an upward trajectory with youth, talent, power and ambition on his side. Crawford looked majestic in a stoppage win over Spence, but Tszyu’s pressure and work rate can see him crowned king at 154 pounds.


Junior lightweights

No. 1 seed: O’Shaquie Foster (22-2, 12 KOs), 30

The Texan is the man to beat in a tight division, considering that Emanuel Navarrete is moving up to lightweight to face Denys Berinchyk for the WBO 135-pound vacant title. But Foster was involved in a close fight with Abraham Nova to defend his WBC belt on Feb. 16 (a split decision win and one judge even had it for Nova) and has work to do if he wants to settle arguments as to who is No. 1 at junior lightweight. Foster looked good in a final-round stoppage of Eduardo Hernandez in October and a unanimous decision to win the WBC belt against Rey Vargas, who was previously unbeaten and a champion in two weight classes, in February last year. He brings excitement and finds a way to win even when he is losing fights.


No. 2 seed: Joe Cordina (17-0, 9 KOs) 32

The Welshman has been talking about moving up a weight class, but perhaps the prospect of a big clash against British rival Leigh Wood in the quarterfinals will convince him to stick around at 130 pounds. Cordina puts his IBF world title on the line versus Anthony Cacace on May 18 after a majority decision win over Edward Vazquez in November and a split decision win over Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov in April to win back the belt. The two-time champion first won the title with a stunning second-round win over Kenichi Ogawa in June 2022, but he was stripped of the belt due to injury. Cordina would rather be fighting the other champions than Cacace — and he will get the chance to do it with this competition.


No. 3 seed: Robson Conceicao (17-2-1, 8 KOs), 35

You just don’t know what you are going to get with Conceicao, which makes him interesting. The Brazilian unexpectedly held Emanuel Navarrete, ESPN’s No. 1 in the division, to a majority draw challenging for the WBO belt in November. Conceicao, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist, got off the canvas twice in a gutsy performance, but there are doubts as to how far he could go in this tournament after decision losses to Shakur Stevenson and Oscar Valdez (a potential opponent in this tournament) at world title level.


No. 4 seed: Lamont Roach Jr. (24-1-1, 9 KOs), 28

The WBA champion, from Maryland, has rebounded well from a unanimous decision defeat to Jamel Herring in a fight for the WBO title in 2019 and in his last fight captured the WBA title with a split decision win over Hector Luis Garcia. Roach crucially dropped Garcia in the last round in November to seal the biggest win of his career. He was an accomplished amateur and his educated boxing could help him do what needs to be done to progress in this tournament.


No. 5 seed: Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (17-1-1, 14 KOs), 29

The former champion has not fought since losing the IBF title by a split decision to Cordina in April last year. Rakhimov, from Tajikistan but based in Los Angeles, was floored in the second round and then had to contend with a swollen-shut left eye for much of the second half of the fight. Despite the injury, Rakhimov had good spells of his own in an enthralling encounter. Rakhimov won the vacant belt with a ninth-round win over England’s Zelfa Barrett in November 2022, and this competition gives him a pathway to become a two-time champion, and possibly get even with Cordina.


No. 6 seed: Oscar Valdez (31-2, 23 KOs), 33

The Mexican fighter has found it tougher going at junior lightweight than he did at featherweight, where he won seven world title fights and established himself as the division’s No. 1 by ESPN. But in the past two years he has lost decisions to Shakur Stevenson and Emanuel Navarrete, so he will try to regain some momentum when he faces Liam Wilson on March 29. Valdez won the WBC featherweight title by knocking out Miguel Berchelt in February 2021, and made one defense — a decision win over Conceicao seventh months later –before losing to Stevenson. Two of the judges saw it quite close against Conceicao, whom Valdez meets again in the quarterfinals. If he looks good against Wilson, Valdez’s experience can see him shine in this tournament.


No. 7 seed: Leigh Wood (28-3, 17 KOs), 35

Wood’s next move is unclear, but he indicated that making featherweight was becoming too much of a struggle and he would be stepping up a division. And there are some big fights at junior lightweight for Wood to finish his career, after winning back the WBA featherweight title last year with a brilliant unanimous decision over the dangerous Mauricio Lara, before he stopped English rival Josh Warrington in seven rounds in October. Wood has shown he can uproot quality operators like Michael Conlan (a fight of the year contender in 2022) and Xu Can, and brings excitement to the tournament as a wild-card entry.


No. 8 seed: Andres Cortes (21-0, 12 KOs), 26

The unbeaten Las Vegas resident earns a place in the tournament on the back of a fourth-round stoppage win over Bryan Chevalier on Feb. 16. Before the fight, the 26-year-old was talking about facing Foster, and with this tournament, he’d get his wish in the quarterfinals. This tournament is a great opportunity for Cortes, who otherwise would not get a title opportunity just yet as he is currently outside the top 10 in all four world governing bodies.


What must-see matchup do we get?

With Navarrete due to step up a division and challenge for a lightweight title, we are leaving out ESPN’s No. 1 and WBO champion at junior lightweight from this competition. What this tournament can establish is a new dominant force at 130 pounds, with some excellent matchups. One of those happens in the quarterfinals: Cordina versus British rival Wood, who has relinquished the WBA featherweight title in the expectation that he will be moving up a weight class. This fight could attract a large crowd to an outdoor soccer stadium in the UK and would be one of the biggest fights to be staged there this year.


Which fighter can make a name for himself?

Foster brings excitement and late drama: He floored Nova in the final round and was involved in a brilliant 11th in his fight against Hernandez to force a final-round stoppage last year. Fights against Cortes and Roach could be lively and improve his popularity before a potential final with three world titles on the line.


Who can win it?

If Cordina stays injury-free (he has been troubled by hand problems in recent years), the Welshman’s classy ring IQ and hand speed can see him navigate his way through to the final and perhaps win the tournament. Foster wasn’t convincing last time out, but he can be expected to be better and is a good bet to reach the final. Cordina and Foster look like the best picks for this tournament.

Articles You May Like

Who’s chasing DeChambeau? What are expectations for Tiger? Looking ahead to Friday at the Masters
Concern for Bank of England as real earnings growth at highest rate since 2021
‘I had a meltdown’: The woman evicted twice in 18 months through no fault of her own – as delays to law change continue
‘It all depends on how Israel responds’: Oil prices steady despite escalation in Middle East conflict
Are we heading for World War Three? Experts give their verdicts