Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Eric Raskin
This isn’t true most years in boxing, but it has been so far in 2017: If you wish for a fight, you get it. Whether it’s a middleweight championship superfight that fans have been salivating over for two years, a light heavyweight rematch to just about the only fight we wished for and got in 2016, the most promising fighters in the loaded welterweight division mixing and matching, the various pound-for-pounders in the similarly loaded 115-pound class doing the same, or even a cross-sport oddity better suited for three rings than one, the biggest and/or best fights just keep getting signed.
On January 28, at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California, Miguel Berchelt and Takashi Miura both prevailed via exciting late-round knockouts on an all-junior-lightweight Boxing After Dark doubleheader that saw four fighters combine to land more than 1,000 power punches. Immediately, fans started calling for the winners to meet. Immediately, promoters and managers got to work on it. On July 15, at the Forum in Inglewood, it’s going to happen. Just like that. No marinating. No hardball. The fans just had to rub the lamp, and out came the genie. Berchelt-Miura, the most logical action fight to make in boxing’s most action-oriented division, is headlining a for-the-fans tripleheader (HBO, 9:50 PM. ET/PT) because, well, we wanted it, they wanted it, and that’s all it seems to take this year.
“I took on this challenge because I only want to fight the best,” Berchelt said when the fight was announced. “Miura is a true warrior and always leaves it all in the ring, but I am young and hungry and am confident I’ll return to Mexico with the world championship belt still around my waist.”
“I know Berchelt is strong and I know that we’ll go head to head,” Miura responded. “[It] will prove to be a great fight.”
If their respective recent pasts are any indication, Miura is likely to be correct. The 33-year-old Japanese southpaw was in 2015’s Fight of the Year, a frantic slugfest in which he lost to Francisco Vargas by ninth-round stoppage. His return to HBO in January vs. Miguel “Mickey” Roman was almost as dramatic: Miura was trailing on the scorecards through nine rounds before rallying with bodyshots to produce multiple knockdowns and halt Roman in the 12th. Meanwhile, Berchelt did the near-impossible on that same January card: He took part in a bout against Vargas that wasn’t a Fight of the Year contender. But that’s only because Berchelt won too convincingly. The action was tremendous throughout, but the 25-year-old Mexican consistently got the better of it until referee Raul Caiz Jr. saved a bloodied Vargas in the 11th.
“There are no sure things in boxing, but Berchelt-Miura comes about as close as it gets,” says Hall of Fame boxing journalist Nigel Collins. “These guys are made for each other and, barring a catastrophic headbutt in the early going, it should be an all-out war.”
Berchelt, 31-1, 28 KOs, hasn’t heard the final bell in his last 18 fights. Nine of the last 10 fights on Miura’s record of 31-3-2 with 24 KOs have ended inside the distance. Both warriors have their share of technical flaws. For Berchelt, who boasts a searing left hook and almost always punches in combination, there are balance issues; he often finds himself tipping forward, not set to transfer his weight as he throws, making him something of an arm puncher.
The southpaw Miura sits down on his punches much better – perhaps too well, to the point that he’s often caught flat-footed. He’s also overly focused much of the time on setting up his straight left hand. And Miura, no defensive whiz, employs one particularly worrying tactic: He often bends at the knees and waist and then leans to his left and will stand in that position, frozen, for a moment or two. It’s something Roman took advantage of a couple of times to drill him with straight right hands. For Berchelt, even though the left hook is probably his best punch, his combination-punching prowess means right hands will fly too, which could spell trouble for Miura.
“Neither Miura nor Berchelt are defensive geniuses, and I expect both to land frequently,” observes Collins. “Still, Berchelt is a bit more mobile, which could give him an advantage both on the attack and defensively.”
If there’s a sure way to slow a mobile fighter, it’s to go to the body, something Miura — a big junior lightweight who unofficially rose to 146 pounds for his most recent fight night — does destructively. It was a left to the solar plexus than began Roman’s fall, and Miura’s right hook to the body is just as devastating.
“Judging by the left hooks Berchelt dug into Vargas’ flanks, he’s no slouch in that department either,” Collins points out. “Bodypunching could very well be the deciding factor in this fight — but I’m not sure for who.”
There are currently two distinct categories of fighter at the top of the 130-pound division: Vasyl Lomachenko, and everybody else. Berchelt vs. Miura has an excellent shot at telling us who’s the best of that non-Lomachenko stratum. And it has an even better shot at thrilling us along the way.
Jezreel Corrales vs. Robinson Castellanos
If the Berchelt-Miura winner isn’t the greatest threat to Lomachenko in the division, it would be because that distinction goes to Panamanian southpaw Jezreel Corrales, who makes his U.S. debut on the undercard against Robinson Castellanos. Mexican veteran Castellanos’ record of 24-12 with 14 KOs may not be pretty, but the 35-year-old earned this opportunity with a slew of upsets. He shocked Yuriorkis Gamboa by seventh-round KO just two months ago, and before that he handed defeats to former titleholder Celestino Caballero and unbeaten prospects Ronny Rios and Christopher Perez. Doing the same to the 25-year-old Corrales, whose lone blemish on a 21-1, 8 KOs record came in his second pro fight, won’t be easy. Corrales scored a pair of breakout wins over previously undefeated beltholder Takashi Uchiyama last year in Tokyo, the first by stunning second-round KO, the second by decision.
“I’m excited to make my U.S. debut,” Corrales said. “While people in America might not yet be familiar with me, they will surely know my name after this fight.”
Joe Smith vs. Sullivan Barrera
As intriguing as the two 130-pound bouts on the card are, perhaps the best fight of all – or at least the toughest fight for which to identify the favorite – is the light heavyweight clash that rounds out the tripleheader. The Joe Smith-Sullivan Barrera battle of once-beatens feels like a genuine tossup. The 35-year-old Cuban-born Barrera (19-1, 14 KOs) suffered his only loss by decision against Andre Ward – no shame in that – and has since bounced back with wins over Vyacheslav Shabranskyy and Paul Parker. Smith (23-1, 19 KOs), a 27-year-old construction worker from Long Island, punched his way from obscurity straight to Fighter of the Year contention by flattening both Andrzej Fonfara and Bernard Hopkins in 2016. Smith seems the bigger puncher, Barrera the more skilled boxer with more experience at the world-class level. Somebody’s “1” has got to go; good luck guessing whose it will be.