By Nat Gottlieb
Two months ago, Jaime Munguia was just a whisper on the wind, a talented kid down in Mexico, a good prospect, but not really on anybody’s contender radar.
It took just one fight, a brutal, fourth-round stoppage of former champion Sadam Ali for Munguia to transform that whisper into a shout. There’s a new face joining the middleweight ranks — a potential star with fearsome power.
Having grabbed a junior middleweight title away from Ali in their May bout, Munguia will make his first defense of it against a tough and far more experienced former champion, Liam Smith, at the Hard Rock Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The fight will be broadcast on HBO’s Boxing After Dark this Saturday at 10 PM ET/PT.
In the co-feature, Alberto Machado (19-0, 16 KO’s), a newly-crowned junior lightweight champion from Puerto Rico, will be tested by another unbeaten fighter, Rafael Mensah (31-0, 23 KO’s), who will be fighting outside of Ghana for the first time. Mensah could be another in a long line of African champions from the city of Accra, a hotbed of boxing.
Despite Munguia’s impressive showing against Ali, it’s hard to say just how good the 21-year-old from Tijuana really is. Ali had fought most of his career at welterweight, and while he did beat Miguel Cotto last year at junior middleweight and spoil the Puerto Rican’s retirement party, it’s a stretch to call him a true 154 pounder.
The 6’0 Munguia (29-0, 25 KO’s), on the other hand, is a huge junior middleweight, more of a 160-pounder. While the Mexican did make the 154-pound weight limit for his fight with Ali, by the time he rehydrated, he looked like a light heavyweight. Munguia dwarfed Ali and knocked him down twice in the first round and once in rounds two and four before the fight was mercifully stopped.
Munguia’s beatdown was so bad that promoter Lou DiBella tweeted after the fight: “They did @realworldkidali no favors with this match. Not even a fight. GROSS size mismatch…Just look at the size difference…Dude’s a true middle and real big at 154.”
Unlike Ali, the 29-year-old Smith (26-1-1, 14 KO’s) has fought his entire career at junior middleweight. The Brit has 160 rounds of experience against much better boxers than Munguia (89 rounds) has faced to date, including Saul Alvarez, who needed nine rounds to knock him out.
Although Smith has a distinct edge in experience, he knows he’ll have his hands full with the young Mexican. “Munguia is obviously a dangerous puncher, and I’ll have to be wary of him early on,” Smith says. “But he’s never fought someone as good as me and a fully-fledged 154-pound fighter. I can’t afford to look an inch past Munguia, though.”
And for good reason. Besides Munguia’s power, he had an extensive amateur background and is more of a boxer-puncher than just a banger. Munguia has fast hands, a stiff jab, and sets up his power punches well. He differs from many Mexican fighters in that he isn’t an inside boxer. He prefers to keep the fight at a distance, where he can utilize his long arms to throw bombs.
What makes this matchup so intriguing is that their styles seem tailor made for each other. Munguia likes to stand right in front of his opponent and doesn’t move around the ring much. And unlike when he faced the slick Ali, Munguia won’t have to go look for Smith. The Brit also likes to stand in front of his opponent and moves even less than Munguia. As such, this appears to be a recipe for a fully-engaged, action fight.
The blueprint for a Munguia victory over Smith may have been written by Alvarez. Smith fights out of a high-glove defense with his hands held on the sides of his head. That makes the Brit hard to hit with headshots. But at the same time, that kind of shell defense leaves the lower part of his body exposed. Alvarez’s strategy from the start was clearly to patiently break Smith down with body shots until those hands were lowered. When that happened, Alvarez pounded Smith with hooks and uppercuts until a three-punch combo knocked the Brit out with a liver shot.
Munguia is also an excellent body puncher. The Mexican’s trainer, Robert Alcazar, who worked with Oscar De La Hoya and Jessie Vargas among others, might try to duplicate Alvarez’ fight strategy.
Of course, at this stage of his career, Munguia isn’t remotely as experienced and wily as Canelo. Nor as patent, either. Having knocked out 18 of his last 19 opponents in short order, Munguia got sloppy in the third round against Ali, going for the KO. In doing so, Ali, despite having been knocked down three times in the first two rounds, was able to land several easy shots against Munguia’s lax defense.
The Mexican won’t be able to afford to let his guard down against Smith, who while not exceptionally powerful, is patient and fights in flurries whenever he sees an opening.
“Munguia’s a world champion for a reason and has a high knockout percentage,” Smith says. “I’m going to have to be at my best ever. Unfortunately for Munguia, that’s what I’ll be.”
Like Munguia, the 27-year-old Machado is also a freshly-crowned champion with lots of power, having knocked out 13 of his last 14 opponents. And, also like Munguia, the Puerto Rican is relatively inexperienced. What Machado has going for him, besides blunt power, is he’s a big junior lightweight at 5’10 with a 72-inch reach.
Machado demonstrated he’s a game fighter last October when he got up off the canvas and knocked out then champion Jezreel Corrales in the eighth round. At the time of the knockout, Machado had been outworked by the Corrales and was behind on all three scorecards, 64-68 twice, and 65-67.
It’s hard to say what African challenger Mensah brings to the table. Mensah fought only mediocre competition in Ghana. But boxing history shows that unknown fighters coming out of Accra are more than capable of making a splash in the U.S. The list of future world champions who cut their teeth in that city is impressive, and includes Ike Quartey, Azuma Nelson, David Kotey, Joshua Clottey, and Joseph Agbeko.
Mensah does not lack for confidence in his American debut, either. “I know Machado, and there is no doubt I can beat him,” Mensah says. “When I saw Machado fight, I said, ‘Yes, I can beat you. I will come and may not knock you out, but I will beat you…and teach you a boxing lesson. I fight in front of huge crowds in Accra—it is like the Las Vegas of Africa.”