How fighters are developed is a crucial component in determining their ultimate success in boxing. Although fighter development is more of an art than a science, the goal with any young boxer is to move him or her up the ladder until they are ready to take on top talent. This process features a degree of guesswork because some advanced fighters need far fewer rungs on their ladder than those who need more time to improve and refine their skills.
In the modern era of boxing we have seen vast differences in how fighters are moved. On one side there are boxers like Vasiliy Lomachenko, who was deemed ready for a title shot in his second pro fight (although he lost that bout, but won a belt in his third outing), and Naoya Inoue, who secured a world title in his sixth pro match. Then there are those like Kelly Pavlik, who had 31 pro fights before his first title shot, and Deontay Wilder, who had 32 bouts prior to his opportunity. Obviously, a significant chasm exists between the extremes of fighter development.
All of the above is in the context of this weekend's scintillating 154 lb. matchup between Erickson Lubin (24-1, 17 KOs) and Sebastian Fundora (18-0-1, 12 KOs). Lubin and Fundora represent opposite sides of the development spectrum. What makes it even more interesting is that the same company (PBC) has been responsible for much of both fighters' development (although it should be stated that Lubin didn't align with the PBC until a little later on in his development pathway).
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott
Lubin is now 26, but he received his first title shot over four years ago, where he was wiped out in one round by Jermell Charlo. Prior to the Charlo fight, Lubin had a relatively weak slate of opponents. He had lacked a genuine 50-50 matchup in his later development fights. He was supposed to accomplish big things in the sport and wasn't given many real challenges on the way up. His development was the path of least resistance with his team looking more toward a title shot than creating a well-rounded fighter. Jorge Cota, a solid gatekeeper, was Lubin's best opponent prior to facing Charlo.
Lubin's outing against Charlo exposed significant defensive shortcomings. The final sequence started with Charlo attacking Lubin with a simple double jab. Lubin tried to avoid the second jab by ducking down and to his left, but he left his body completely unprotected, with his gloves nowhere near his face. Charlo immediately followed with a right hand, and that was all she wrote.
It was a stunning turn of events for Lubin, who had been viewed as one of the top prospects in the sport. However, it must be said that Charlo didn't have to do anything flashy to score his KO. He employed no trickery or subterfuge – just a double jab and a right hand behind it. Lubin's defensive posture was a mess and he's spent the last four+ years getting back to the place where he was in 2017.
Lubin's development pathway wasn't necessarily unique in boxing. Many young uber-talents such as Canelo, Anthony Joshua, Gervonta Davis, Shakur Stevenson and Gary Russell Jr. were thrown into title shots without real championship-level experience. For many teams these days, the goal is to get a young kid a belt and then develop him further as a champion. There are differing opinions on the validity of this strategy, but there's no question that it is frequently employed across the sport.
On one hand, the urge to provide a life-changing opportunity for a fighter is strong. Although Anthony Joshua was not a fully developed fighter when he faced Charles Martin for a title, the opportunity was too significant to pass up. And even though Joshua never became a complete, well-rounded fighter, it's tough to argue with the nine figures in his bank account. Yes, he took a loss against Andy Ruiz that a fighter with more experience would have avoided, but he and his future generations will be set. That he didn't reach his ultimate aptitude in boxing is more our problem than his.
But the Lubin situation is not similar to Joshua's from my vantage point. Not only didn't he have the right kind of competitive rounds in his development, but he was facing a tough, prime, power-punching boxer for his first title shot. Jermell Charlo was not Charles Martin or a guy like Matthew Hatton, whom Canelo beat for his first title. At the time Charlo was considered close to an A-level fighter, and his recent run of form in the junior middleweight division shows that he could wind up being one of the top-ten fighters in the history of the division. Prior to fighting Lubin, Charlo had faced tough guys like Francisco Santana, Dennis Douglin, Demetrius Hopkins, Joachim Alcine, Vanes Martirosyan, Gabe Rosado and John Jackson, all of whom were at a minimum on the same level as Cota and many were better. And all Lubin really had was Cota. The difference between Charlo's seasoning and Lubin's was vast. And that seasoning manifested when they faced each other in the ring.
After Lubin lost to Charlo, he aligned with trainer Kevin Cunningham and faced many of the types of fighters that he should have met prior to his world title shot: the cagey former champion Ishe Smith, the rugged Nate Gallimore, former champion and power puncher Jeison Rosario and veteran gatekeeper Terrell Gausha. Through these fights Lubin has learned a lot about himself. He's been tagged by both Gausha and Rosario, but he was able to power through those moments to win without controversy. He's won shootouts when he needed to and relied on his considerable boxing ability on other occasions. With these experiences, he's become a much more well-rounded fighter. (Interestingly, you won't find a notable southpaw on Lubin's list of opponents, and that could be an interesting factor to consider against Fundora.)
A look at Sebastian Fundora's opponents is a stark difference to Lubin's ledger prior to Charlo. Fundora somehow has faced eight undefeated fighters in his first 19 fights. That's a sign that someone behind him didn't fully believe in him at first. Most top prospects are protected to some extent; that's not been the case for Fundora.
Photo courtesy of Esther Lin
Fundora stands at an unimaginable 6'6", which makes him a unicorn at 154 pounds. There's no one else like him. He looks like a toothpick. There seems to be no muscle on his legs. Yet, he's a fighter who loves trench warfare and mixing it up on the inside. Throughout his career, it's been pure boxers like Jamontay Clark and Sergio Garcia who have given him the most trouble, not the tough bangers.
But what's worth noting is Fundora's variety of opponents. Yes, he had his shootout with Cota and won. He also dispatched Gallimore without trouble. But Garcia and Clark were crafty and unorthodox. Daniel Lewis had a considerable amateur background and Ve Shawn Owens was a true puncher.
At 24, Fundora has had a much stronger development slate than Lubin did. Although he also didn't fight a lot of southpaws (with Clark being a notable exception), he's faced opponents who have helped give him additional seasoning at the top levels of boxing. He's had to win wars and also learned to think his way through fights. He's faced fighters with good defenses. He's had opponents who tried running away and others who came right at him.
Ultimately, Lubin and Fundora are now standing in each other's way for greater glory. They have both overcome doubts and incredulity to be in the mix as top junior middleweights. Lubin deserves considerable credit for picking himself off the canvas and seeking improvement. He has now proved he can overcome adversity. His chin has been tested. He has persevered through rough moments.
Of course, I will always wonder what would have happened had he fought the right development bouts prior to Charlo. At 26 would he now be indestructible? I bet we wouldn't see the same type of caution that he continues to show on occasion; he still has points in fights where he doesn't seem to trust his chin.
And Fundora may look like a novelty act, but don't be fooled. He can be a nightmare matchup for many types of fighters. He can use his range, dig to the body and go punch for punch. His endurance is stellar.
The winner of Lubin-Fundora will have earned it. I's a credit to the boxers and their respective teams for agreeing to take the fight. Saturday's loser could find himself many years away from a title shot; the stakes are high. It's what the sport should be about – two hungry guys going for it, risks be damned. And how each has gotten to this point is one of the more interesting dichotomies in modern boxing.