Fighter of the Month – February 2021

As the world permits hope to smile, like the pale Spring sun of late February, boxing is emerging squinting and yawning from the hibernation of Winter and the grip of the COVID pandemic. Shows and events are beginning to populate the diary, fights are happening and momentum is being wrested from the inertia of lockdown.

There has been chaos too. Boxing isn’t boxing without its signature melodrama, the myopia of judges and the sanctioning bodies’ eternal shenanigans. Certainly, there was enough action committed to record to award another Fighter of The Month to follow in the steps of Ryan Garcia who won the equivalent January prize.

The criteria for consideration for the award, as the previous winners illustrate, is more nuanced than merely selecting the victor of the highest profile bout that occurred within the month. If so, Mexican superstar Saul Alvarez, would likely sweep up the award every time he boxes. Often, as is my predisposition, an underdog will secure the acknowledgement on the basis of the upset they caused. Cedric Boswell was a winner back in 2008 following his destruction of Roman Greenberg by way of example. A defeat so comprehensive, Roman never fought again and disappeared from view and toward much darker worlds. Cedric failed to capitalise and was struck off for PED offences some years later. I let him keep the award. He’d suffered enough.

Occasionally, it can be the nature of the performance as much as the significance. Last month the fact Ryan Garcia not only beat the best opponent of his career but had to climb off the canvas to do so added substance to the victory rather than detracted from it.

This month saw a series of notable fights, although the COVID factor continued to impact cards across the world with fights lost as boxers were diagnosed with the virus.

The biggest upset this month occurred in a Featherweight contest between Josh Warrington, who stepped down as the IBF Champion in the prelude to the fight, and Mexican Mauricio Lara. Warrington, a huge fan favourite, appeared to miss his partisan support and certainly suffered with the age old problems of ring rust and overlooking his supposedly low risk opponent. Slow but heavy handed, Lara, a 10/1 underdog, shrugged off Warrington’s early success to knockdown the former champion heavily in the 4th. The fight should have been stopped there and then, it wasn’t, and with Warrington on stiff and uncooperative legs, he suffered further in the fifth. He never really recovered and by the 9th, was tired and in harm’s way. Lara finishing the job definitively.

Perhaps disparaging to view a champion defending their belt as an upset, but challenger Pretty Boy Josh Kelly had been widely tipped to overcome 32-year-old European Champion David Avanesyan in their clash last week. Kelly found the Armenian Russian, who boxes out of Newark, England these days, far too dogged and durable and after early success found himself bloodied, battered and bereft of resistance by the mid-point, a white towel from the corner confirmation of the view. Avanesyan was a popular and deserved winner.

Elsewhere, the aforementioned Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez dispatched the WBC’s mandatory challenger Avi Yildrim to restate his dominance in the Super-Middleweight division and expose, if exposure is really necessary, the absurdity of the WBC’s processes. Yildrim may be the most ill-qualified challenger since the retiring Eddie Croft was sanctioned to box Erik Morales in a bout first mooted as an exhibition. None of the sanctioning bodies have any shame. Credit for Canelo opting to box Yildrim, between the victory over Callum Smith and the scheduled ‘unification’ with Billy Joe Saunders in May, rather than negotiate side-steps with the WBC and Yildrim in the background. If boxing is a game, Canelo is a belligerent and determined player.

Final consideration too for American Jerry Forest. Knockdown in rounds 1, 2 and 3 of a 10 round contest, the 32 year old proved durable and determined against unbeaten Chinese giant Zhilei Zhang, earning a creditable draw.

Despite these worthy cases, Lara and Avanesyan strongest among them, the winner of the February award is, unquestionably, Oscar Valdez who first out boxed the bigger Miguel Berchelt and then duly knocked him out with a left hook that will contend for punch of the year come December. It was a devastating shot leaving Berchelt prone on the canvas having first fallen in slow motion to land there. The fact Valdez was one of the fellow champions at Featherweight Josh Warrington was pursuing, prior to his loss, an explicit reminder of how fickle fortunes can be in the boxing world. Equals a year ago, they are now treading very different paths.

Congratulations to Oscar Valdez.

Oscar Valdez proves superior in every department as he cold cocks Miguel Berchelt in the 10th round having dominated the Super-Featherweight champion.

Boxing opinion and insight by David Payne

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