We often don't find a lot of steak in the first quarter of the boxing calendar. At best we'll partake in a couple of tasty appetizers as we wait for our main courses to be served later in the year, often beginning in April or May. But 2023 hasn't started out to form. Just two months in and we've already had generous helpings of surf and turf, with four fights in particular worthy of three Michelin stars.
Beterbiev-Yarde, Navarrete-Wilson, Nery-Hovhannisyan and Matias-Ponce have provided shining examples of the best that boxing can offer, with thrilling action and ferocious exchanges. The first two of these fights offered up delightful surprises while the final two lived up to and even surpassed their lofty expectations. And before the shine of these four fights dims as the year progresses, let's take a few moments to commemorate them; they were special nights for the sport.
1. Artur Beterbiev TKO 8 Anthony Yarde
Tagline: Yarde finally lives up to his hype, reaches a new level.
Earlier in his career, Anthony Yarde was considered one of Frank Warren's prized prospects, but his early returns at the world-level demonstrated that he lacked polish and craft. In Yarde's previous title fight against Sergey Kovalev in 2019, he was underprepared physically and strategically, losing by knockout after he clearly gassed. Yarde also lost a subsequent fight to fellow English light heavyweight Lyndon Arthur, where he struggled to get past Arthur's jab.
|Photo courtesy of Top Rank
Yarde and his trainer Tunde Ajayi made some tough decisions after these setbacks, bringing in James Cook to their camp to help with training and fight preparation. Yarde annihilated Arthur in their rematch in four rounds and against Beterbiev, the unified light heavyweight champion, he had a clear plan of attack: counter with hard left hooks to the body, score with quick one-two's and don't get caught in prolonged exchanges. Against Beterbiev, Yarde was no longer just a collection of physical attributes in the ring; he was now a real fighter. Taking on one of the elites of the sport, he didn't look remotely out of place.
Throughout many portions of the fight, Yarde matched Beterbiev, one of the biggest sluggers in the sport, punch for punch. In addition, Yarde demonstrated tremendous recuperative powers, rallying many times after being hurt.
Ultimately, Beterbiev's power shots proved to be too much. A chopping right hand to the head in the eighth round essentially ended the fight, but Yarde pushed Beterbiev the whole way, providing the pound-for-pound talent with perhaps the toughest fight of his professional career. To many, Yarde was supposed to be roadkill for Beterbiev, but Yarde wasn't intimidated by Beterbiev's attributes. Despite the loss, Yarde displayed true world-class abilities. His improvements were real; let's hope that he maintains them. If he does, he'll beat a lot of quality fighters.
2. Emanuel Navarrete TKO 9 Liam Wilson
Tagline: The end of the rainbows and waterfalls portion of Navarrete's career.
Emanuel Navarrete was attempting to win a title in his third division, but his original opponent, former 130-lb. champion Oscar Valdez, had to pull out with an injury. In stepped lightly regarded Liam Wilson, an Australian with a pedestrian record of 11-1, but with a reputation of having a good left hook.
|Photo courtesy of Mikey Williams
At 122 and 126 lbs., Navarrete’s freakish physical dimensions (72-inch reach) and unconventional attack vanquished opponents who couldn't keep up with his physicality, off-kilter rhythms and substantial reach. It almost seemed as if Navarrete was playing another sport. Navarrete beat his opponents by doing so many things against the grain – throwing off the wrong foot, power shots from odd angles, six- and seven-punch combinations, throwing lead uppercuts from several feet away.
But Wilson, who had the physical dimensions of a true junior lightweight, was able to touch Navarrete whenever he let his hands go (which in truth, wasn't always often enough). Using a solid jab and a straight right, he demonstrated that his shorter punches could get there much quicker than Navarrete’s wide offerings.
In the fourth they traded hooks and Wilson's compact missile sent Navarrete to the canvas. And it wasn't a flash knockdown; Navarrete was badly hurt. Although Navarrete had always been hit by his opponents, it now looked as if he had finally met his match at 130 lbs. He could no longer overcome his mistakes in the same way. In the sixth, Wilson hurt Navarrete at the end the round and the potential for a monumental upset was on the table.
But, like a champion, Navarrete rallied. He regrouped and went to Wilson's body with ferocious intent. He dispensed with his brand of spinning wizardry and fought his buns off to survive and do whatever it took to emerge victorious. By the end of the eighth he had depleted Wilson. He started the ninth with a straight right hand that dropped Wilson, and the plucky upstart could no longer withstand the onslaught.
Ultimately, the fight showed that Navarrete isn't going to have too many easy nights at the top level of 130 lbs., and boxing fans may see some great matchups with him over the next 12-18 months. I wouldn't mind seeing Wilson back on my TV either.
3. Luis Nery KO 11 Azat "Crazy A" Hovhannisyan
Tagline: A night of ferocious and beautiful carnage.
This matchup was certainly on fight fan's radar as the former two-division champion Nery was trying to regain momentum in his career against Hovhannisyan, a junior featherweight who is the definition of an all-action fighter. The fight certainly lived up to its billing. It reminded me of those classic late-90s HBO Boxing After Dark broadcasts, where two sluggers gave no quarter and emptied it all in the ring.
|Photo courtesy of Cris Esqueda
Nery started the fight strongly, mixing in power punches with substantial movement. It was clear from early on in the fight that he had the better technique and the straighter punches. But Crazy A, who probably was expecting to lose the opening rounds, wasn't discouraged. He kept coming forward and eating shots. Even when his skin started to open up from all of the damaging blows, he persevered. Crazy A understood the task at hand: Get to Nery's body, make him stop moving, win an attritional war.
By the ninth round it appeared that Crazy A's plan was working to perfection. He was the fighter who was ascendent and Nery now remained in the pocket. Crazy A was landing his hard left hooks and straight right hands on a consistent basis.
But in the tenth round, Nery, who had been stopped in his only loss, to Brandon Figueroa, summoned all his reserves and uncorked a ferocious left hand that dropped Crazy A to the canvas. Hovhannisyan made it out of the round and started the 11th, but Nery started to tee off on him and the fight was stopped.
Nery-Hovhannisyan has been my favorite fight of the year to this point. Everything about it was beautiful: the camera work and lighting by the DAZN crew: the rambunctious Southern California crowd, the tiny ring, the epic battle. It was a throwback to the days of yesteryear, and I loved every second of it.
Subriel Matias RTD 5 Jeremias Ponce
Tagline: Who doesn't love a five-round shootout?
Matias-Ponce was another fight that certainly appealed to hardcore boxing fans. Both fighters featured hard-charging styles, big punches and knockouts aplenty. The fight was for the IBF version of the 140-lb. title and although it feels a little gross complimenting a sanctioning body, we probably would never have seen this matchup unless some hardware was on the line; so, good for the IBF and good for us!
|Photo courtesy of Esther Lin
Matias is one of the true wrecking balls in the sport. Everything he throws is hard and all of his previous 18 wins had come by knockout. So, it was genuinely shocking when Ponce went right at him in the first round and pasted him with his best power shots – hard left hooks, straight and overhand rights – he was there to end the fight early. And his initial onslaught did catch Matias off guard.
Matias ate some ferocious shots in the first two rounds, but he was able to work his way into the fight. By the third round, Matias was successful in getting through on a consistent basis with his best punch, his short, thudding left hook. Matias was welcoming the firefight and Ponce, who had fought so valiantly and vigorously in the opening rounds, now fully understood what he was up against; his plan A, although bold, had failed.
By the fifth round, Matias was able to up his assault, cracking Ponce with left hooks and hard body shots with both hands. A left hook to the top of Ponce's head wrecked his equilibrium and Matias dropped him after some additional follow-up punches. Ponce made it out of the round, but his corner had seen enough. They were going to live to fight another day. Ponce had engaged in a ferocious battle, but Matias' kitchen was just too hot. Matias prevailed in an ultimate mano-a-mano battle.
As I write this at the beginning of March, I'm smiling from ear to ear, recounting these four great wars. These fights are why we watch boxing week after week. They delivered the goods, the smiles, the memories, the pleasure. They are why we are here.