There are two highly significant world title fights involving four undefeated fighters on Saturday.
First up is one of the year’s most attractive matchups. Southpaws Regis Prograis (24-0, 20 KOs) and Josh Taylor (15-0, 12 KOs) will meet to unify their 140-pound world titles in a toss-up fight in the finals of the eight-man World Boxing Super Series junior welterweight tournament (DAZN, 2 p.m. ET).
Then, bitter rivals Shakur Stevenson and Joet Gonzalez will meet for the featherweight world title vacated by Oscar Valdez in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN+ card (10 p.m. ET) at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nevada.
Stevenson (12-0, 7 KOs), the 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist and uber prospect, was Valdez’s mandatory challenger, so when Valdez gave up the strap, Stevenson was set to compete for the title against the lesser-known Gonzalez (23-0, 14 KOs), who was ranked No. 2 after Stevenson, in an excellent fight between two up-and-comers. With Stevenson promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy, Gonzalez’s promoter, playing nicely with each other these days they were able to make the fight without the need for a purse bid. The fight will represent the best opponent of each man’s career in their first scheduled 12-rounder.
This is your Ringside Seat for the fights:
Evenly matched final
Prograis, 30, a New Orleans native fighting out of Houston, and Taylor, 28, of Scotland, are very evenly matched. According to Caesars, Prograis is a slight favorite.
Prograis and Taylor, a 2012 Olympian who didn’t go pro until 2015, began the tournament as the top two seeds, respectively. Each has made it to the final with little resistance. Prograis easily outpointed former lightweight titlist Terry Flanagan in the quarterfinals and then stopped Kiryl Relikh in the sixth round to take his belt in the semifinal in April.
Taylor had his way with Ryan Martin in a one-sided seventh-round stoppage in the quarterfinals followed by a competitive, but clear decision over Ivan Baranchyk to take his belt in May.
Heated words, then calm
Prograis and Taylor are typically respectful of their opponents but they’ve gotten a little snippy this week.
Prograis is 24-0, but Taylor said during the final press conference that Prograis hasn’t fought any good opponents.
On the other hand, Prograis doesn’t believe Taylor will be able to hurt him, or even hit him. But aside from the back and forth they showed each other respect.
Prograis said Taylor was the best in the division other than him.
“He’s taller, he’s longer. Does he hit harder? Maybe, maybe not. Is he faster? Maybe, maybe not. Better chin? Maybe, maybe not,” Prograis said. “The tale of the tape never matters. What matters is heart and boxing IQ, and mine is so high. That will be the difference.
“We are here for the belts, the trophy, the money. But the main thing for me is to prove I’m the best. He gets hit. Josh has been hurt against Ivan Baranchyk and Viktor Postol, who aren’t punchers like me. They’re not sharp, crisp like me. They don’t have the timing that I do.”
Taylor viewed things differently.
“I don’t think he does anything better than me. I just want to get there and get it done now. I 100% believe I can knock him out,” Taylor said. “He is a good fighter and a world champion but he is going to get it on Saturday night.”
Aiming for history
If Stevenson, 22, of Newark, New Jersey, wins the belt he will not only be one of the youngest active world titleholders but he would become the first 2016 Olympian to claim a world title. Two others, China’s Bin Lu and Uzbekistan’s Batyr Akhmedov, have tried and failed.
Now Stevenson has his chance.
“It feels good to become the first Olympian from the 2016 Rio Olympics games to become a world champion,” he said. “That’s definitely a good feeling. It’s going to become true on Saturday.”
Grudge match of highest order
Love is a funny thing, it can bring you closer together or farther apart…. and love will take center stage during Saturday’s WBO Featherweight Championship fight, when Joet Gonzalez and Shakur Stevenson face off.
Even if there was no title belt at stake one would get the feeling Stevenson, 22, of Newark, New Jersey, and Gonzalez, 26, of Los Angeles, would fight for free in the street.
They do not like each other. At all. Neither is shy about it and it’s made for a contemptuous buildup from the moment they railed at each other during the news conference to announce the bout in mid-September.
The genesis is that Stevenson’s girlfriend is Gonzalez’s younger sister Jajaira. They’ve been dating for about three years after meeting at an amateur boxing tournament they were both competing at. The men don’t hide their contempt for the other.
Mark Kriegel offered more insight on one of the most unique backstories to a fight that boxing has seen in a long, long time.
What the future holds
Shakur Stevenson joins Max Kellerman as he previews his emotions heading into his title fight vs. Joet Gonzalez.
For the junior welterweights, the winner will remain unbeaten, will have unified two of the four major belts The winner’s stock and profile will be at a career-high.
But Jose Ramirez owns the other two titles, having knocked out Maurice Hooker to unify in July. Many view him as No. 1 in the division. Others will view Saturday’s winner as the top man.
There is a good chance, especially if Prograis wins, that come 2020 we could see an undisputed title fight. Ramirez plans to make two mandatories, first against Postol in February and then against Jack Catterall in the spring/summer.
Saturday’s winner could do a victory-lap defense, or make one of his mandatories, but by this time next year, if the champions keep winning, there will be a very makeable megafight.
Jumping even further ahead, that winner would put himself in position for a move to welterweight and perhaps a huge fight with titlist Terence Crawford.
In the case of the featherweights, if Gonzalez, 26, of Los Angeles, wins, expect him to look for an optional defense, perhaps back home in Southern California.
If Stevenson wins, he may not even defend the belt and look to immediately go to the 130-pound junior lightweight division, where Top Rank could match him with the likes of titlists Miguel Berchelt and Jamel Herring or even Valdez.
But Stevenson said he would remain at featherweight for one more fight if he can get a unification bout with England’s Josh Warrington (30-0, 7 KOs), who has said he is also interested in the bout. It’s also quite makeable given the close working relationship between Top Rank and Warrington promoter Frank Warren.
“I got one more fight at 126 (after Saturday),” Stevenson said. “I’m outgrowing this weight. I want to move up, but if I could unify at 126 I will stay for one more fight. I want to go straight to unification. I will go to England if I got to and fight Warrington. He’s been talking about me. Warrington told me if I win a world title he will fight me.”
Rafael’s Prograis-Taylor prediction: Prograis and Taylor are in the final as expected. Taylor is a little bigger and has faced slightly better opposition. He’s also fighting near home. Prograis has more pro experience and is a better puncher. It should be a good and competitive fight. I think there’s something special about Prograis and I’m picking him by a late knockout.
Rafael’s Stevenson-Gonzalez prediction: They’re both fighters on the rise with a huge desire to win this one because of the world title at stake. and their bitterness toward each other. Gonzalez is a good fighter but Stevenson, in my view, is on another level. As Floyd Mayweather would always say, skills pay the bills. I like Stevenson, with the better skills, speed and defense, by comfortable decision.