Carl Frampton, Michael Conlan, David Benavidez and Otto Wallin return to the ring in key fights this weekend for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced the sport to a halt in early March.
Frampton (27-2, 15 KOs) continues his quest for a world title in a third division when he faces late-replacement contender Darren Taylor (16-3, 7 KOs) in a lightweight bout in the main event of a boxing card to be staged at the BT Sport studio in London on Saturday (ESPN+, main card at 4 p.m. ET, undercard at 2:30 p.m. ET).
In the co-main event, Michael Conlan (13-0, 7 KOs) meets Sofiane Takoucht (35-4-1, 13 KOs) who most recently lost to Josh Warrington when challenging for the IBF featherweight world title.
WBC super middleweight titlist David Benavidez (22-0, 19 KOs), one of ESPN's best 25 fighters under the age of 25, defends his belt against Roamer Alexis Angulo (26-1, 22 KOs), in the main event of a Showtime card on Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
On the undercard, heavyweight Otto Wallin (20-1, 23 KOs) jumps into the ring for the first time since his near-upset of Tyson Fury in September to face veteran Travis Kauffman (32-3, 23 KOs).
Who is in need of a better performance in London, the established Frampton or the up-and-coming Conlan? Where does Benavidez stand in the 168-pound division? What does a win do for his career? Is Wallin for real? What can we expect from the dangerous heavyweight contender?
Steve Kim and Nick Parkinson weigh in on a big weekend of boxing.
Who needs a bigger performance on Saturday, Carl Frampton or Michael Conlan?
Parkinson: They both need the rounds; neither has boxed since the end of last year. But a strong performance would benefit Frampton more, since he wants to swiftly land a world title shot in a new weight division (junior lightweight). Frampton, 33, is in the last stage of his career, and the Northern Irishman is seeking to make history by becoming the first Irishman to win a world title in three weight classes. He hasn't been helped by a late change of opponent and with less than a week to go; he still did not know for sure who he was facing due to opponent Vahram Vardanyan having visa problems. Darren Traynor ultimately stepped up, and Frampton needs to impress and keep alive his hopes of challenging WBO junior lightweight titlist Jamel Herring later this year.
Boxer Conlan represents the hope of Northern Ireland
Boxer Michael Conlan grew up during the fighting in Belfast, Northern Ireland and has emerged as an up-and-coming featherweight contender.
Kim: Frampton's legacy is, for the most part, already set. He's a two division champion (winning major titles at junior featherweight and featherweight while battling top fighters like Leo Santa Cruz (with whom he split two fights), Nonito Donaire and Scott Quigg. He really has nothing to prove at this point. If he wins this weekend, it looks like he'll face WBO junior featherweight belt-holder Jamel Herring in an attempt to capture a major title in his third weight division.
But Conlan still has to prove whether he can develop into a professional standout after a notable amateur career. While he has remained undefeated and racked up victory after victory, he hasn't truly shown that he is ready for the upper echelon of the division. Conlan has made the decision to move down to junior featherweight and is now rated No. 3 by the WBO. He insists that he will show better form as he gets further acclimated with trainer Adam Booth. Conlan has a big chance Saturday, and needs to show off his skill against Sofiane Takoucht this weekend.
With a win Saturday, is Benavidez the best super middleweight in boxing?
Parkinson: No, not quite. At 23, Benavidez has achieved a lot in a short amount of time, but he is still one or two wins away from earning the top spot in the super middleweight division, and dislodging England's Callum Smith, the WBA titleholder.
Angulo took Gilberto Ramirez to a decision challenging for the WBO belt in 2018, and this is a good fight at this point for Benavidez. But Benavidez needs to beat others among the elite -- maybe IBF titlist Caleb Plant or WBO titleholder Billy Joe Saunders -- for bragging rights. Then there's Canelo Alvarez, who holds a WBA secondary world title... shouldn't we be considering him No. 1 at super middleweight as well as middleweight?
Regardless of how No. 1 and No. 2 should stack up, Benavidez has more work to do.
Kim: Right now Benavidez is second in the ESPN rankings at 168 behind Smith. Now, you can argue that based on Smith's latest outing -- in which he was fortunate to get his hands raised in a close unanimous decision victory over John Ryder in November -- that this order should be flipped, but does a win over a heavy underdog really merit him jumping to the top spot?
His best win came in his last bout, a ninth-round KO against Anthony Dirrell, but overall his body of work is lacking.
The same can be said regarding all of the belt-holders at super middleweight. Smith has a victory over George Groves and won the World Boxing Super Series. Caleb Plant defeated Jose Uzcategui, and has notched two soft title defenses, while Billy Joe Saunders, the WBO belt-holder, has beaten nobody of note at 168. Canelo Alvarez's run in the division consists of a single fight against Rocky Fielding.
Truth be told, nobody really has a strong claim here.
What can we expect from Wallin in his first fight since facing Fury?
Fury sustains massive cut above eye vs. Wallin
Tyson Fury gets caught with a left hand across his brow as he is backed into a corner by Otto Wallin. For more Top Rank Boxing action, sign up for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/.
Parkinson: Wallin surprised us in a strong performance against Fury nearly a year ago, giving the heavyweight champion a harder than expected "warm-up" bout before his rematch with Deontay Wilder. The Wilder fight looked to be in real jeopardy when Fury was cut badly against Wallin, but he managed to prevail by unanimous decision. If Wallin can get past Kauffman, he edges closer to becoming a bona fide title contender. Kauffman last fought against Luis Ortiz in 2018, so this bout will be a good test to see Wallin's development since the Fury setback.
Kim: Wallin put forth an admirable effort in losing to Fury last September. His mobility gave Fury fits and after he cut Fury, he put a lot of plans in jeopardy.
Wallin won in losing. Can he build off that performance? I believe he will. Wallin is a fighter who has gained quite a bit of confidence from that fight, and at age 29, he is in his physical prime. On the flip side, while Kauffman is a veteran, there is considerable wear-and-tear from a career that began in 2006. Wallin is simply too fresh and athletic for Kauffman.
Wallin is not currently ranked in ESPN's top ten heavyweights, but it wouldn't be a stretch to say that he's probably somewhere in that next echelon of big men. With all the plans being made for Fury, Anthony Joshua and their mandatory challenges that await, Wallin probably won't get another crack at a title for at least another year, but time is on his side.
What other fight are you most looking forward to watching this weekend?
Parkinson: Cecilia Braekhus versus Jessica McCaskill. McCaskill is a good test for Braekhus to see if the world welterweight No. 1 is still as strong as ever at 38. McCaskill has reigned as WBA-WBC junior welterweight world champion for almost two years and took Katie Taylor, the world No. 1 lightweight and one of the world's best women boxers, to points in Dec. 2017. Can she upset the odds against the most dominant champion in women's boxing?
Braekhus has incredibly reigned as world champion for over 11 years. It's an intriguing fight, and we will find out if Braekhus, the undisputed welterweight world champion, is still the woman to beat in boxing.
Kim: Israil Madrimov-Erik Walker. The 25-year-old Madrimov is just 5-0 (5 KOs), but he is being put on the fast track for a world title shot. And since Madrimov is ranked second by the WBA, he will have several belts to challenge for with Jeison Rosario, Erislandy Lara and Michel Soro all holding some version of the title with the organization.
Madrimov is one of the most unique boxers in the sport, as he freely switch-hits and has an athletic and hard-hitting style. His trainer, Joel Diaz, has said he was one of the most naturally gifted boxers he has ever worked with, describing him as a mix of Gennadiy Golovkin and Vasiliy Lomachenko. It will be interesting to see how his style translates against world class-level competition, but his management and trainer have no issues with finding out sooner rather than later.
Should there be a rematch between Terri Harper and Natasha Jonas or would you like to see Harper against WBC No. 1 contender Mikaela Mayer?
Parkinson: After such a great fight and debate over the decision, it would be a real surprise if we don't get a rematch next. Like a few people, I had Jonas just edging out the win as she did better in the second half of the fight, rocking Harper in the sixth and eighth rounds. I expect Harper to improve in the rematch between English rivals, which is likely to happen due to public demand (especially in the U.K.), interest from the U.K. broadcasters (Sky) and Eddie Hearn's comments after the fight.
But a fight between the winner of Harper-Jonas II and Mayer would attract global interest as one of the biggest stories of the year in women's boxing. Mayer is being lined up to face WBO titleholder Ewa Brodnicka and a unification fight after that with Harper or Jonas would make it even bigger.
Kim: Yes, Harper-Jonas was one of the better fights of 2020, and there is a demand for a rematch. While Harper retained her title, many believe it was Jonas that should've had her hand raised in victory. These fighters put on a great show at "Fight Camp" and have earned their place on a bigger card later this year, perhaps on the Anthony Joshua-Kubrat Pulev show that is being planned for early December.
As for Mayer, it looks like she will be getting a shot at Brodnicka. There's no reason why the winners of Harper-Jonas and Mayer-Brodnicka can't meet down the line in a unification bout, unless the same, tired politics that plague the men's game crop up here.