5) Julio Cesar Martinez vs Jay Harris, Feb. 29 (DAZN)
The debate for the No. 5 slot here came down to Martinez-Harris or the Feb. 8 featherweight title eliminator between Kid Galahad and Claudio Marrero. I think the two fights are of roughly the same quality, but this one has the much higher chance to be entertaining, so I’ve gone this way.
Martinez (15-1, 12 KO) has exploded into the ranks of the flyweight elite since last March, starting with a big upset win over Andrew Selby in Mexico, followed by a thrashing of Charlie Edwards in August in the UK, which would have won the Mexican slugger the WBC belt if not for a late shot that change things to a highly unusual no-contest in the ring.
But Edwards did not want return smoke, so the belt went vacant, and Martinez faced Cristofer Rosales, a former titleholder, on Dec. 20 in Phoenix. Martinez battered Rosales, stopped him in the ninth round, and claimed the title. Now he’ll be back just two months later for a first defense.
Harris (17-0, 9 KO) is not a scrub. The 29-year-old Welshman is a legitimate prospect, a fighter who has been looking to rise up the ranks, and he’s showing a lot of balls taking a fight on this level now. His two most notable wins have been his last two fights, victories over Angel Moreno and Paddy Barnes, neither exactly a notable contender in the flyweight division.
Harris has the look of a good, well-rounded boxer, but Martinez is a tornado of punches, and all of them are thrown with destruction in mind. He’s shown the ability to just keep throwing even pretty deep into a fight, too; this is not a guy who has power for four rounds and then loses zip on the fastball. If Harris is to pull this off, he’ll have to prove capable of taking the punishment from Martinez, because the punishment is inevitable, and also firing back enough to potentially discourage JCM. It might be a wipeout, it might be something more, but there’s some intrigue on paper. And even if it turns out to be “wipeout,” Martinez has quickly become must-see TV.
4) Mikey Garcia vs Jessie Vargas, Feb. 29 (DAZN)
This is a huge fight for Garcia (39-1, 30 KO), a lot on the line for his career. 11 months ago, Mikey moved up to 147 pounds to face Errol Spence Jr, proclaiming he’d “seen something” he felt he could exploit in the unbeaten American star. It was a major gamble, and it did not pay off, as Spence dominated a physically overmatched Garcia for 12 rounds, while Garcia pumped his fist every few minutes because he hadn’t been knocked out yet.
Some believe Garcia made a bold choice with that fight. Others believe — and the argument got stronger after we’d seen it play out — that Garcia simply chased a paycheck and took an L in the sort of fight where, honestly, almost nobody would put it down to a lack of talent or ability, but more to a lack of being a welterweight.
There was a lot of talk about what Garcia would do next. We knew he wasn’t going to go back down to 135, so the question was 140 (where Garcia briefly held a belt he never defended) or 147? It’s 147, as Garcia takes on former titleholder Vargas in Texas.
Vargas (29-2-2, 11 KO) last fought in Apr. 2019, beating Humberto Soto in a 151-pound catchweight fight. Soto is no welterweight, let alone junior middleweight, and despite the usual valiant effort from the Mexican super-veteran, Vargas was simply too much for Soto to handle. Prior to that, Vargas had back-to-back draws with Adrien Broner and Thomas Dulorme.
Vargas has never been an elite fighter, never really delivered on the promise he was thought to have when he was young. Yes, he won a world title, beating Sadam Ali for the vacant WBO welterweight title in 2016, but he was sorely outclassed by Manny Pacquiao 11 months later. Winning a world title is something you can always put on a Wikipedia page and the belt itself in a trophy case at your home, but it doesn’t always make you elite. Boxing has too many wrinkles for that to be true.
But is he good enough to beat Garcia? Yeah, maybe. Garcia has the bigger history and track record, but not at 147 pounds. Vargas is a natural 140/147. Garcia looked tiny and ineffective at 147, and you might say, “Well, he faced an elite fighter,” but he seemed to be pushing it even in his one fight at 140, when he beat but didn’t blow away Sergey Lipinets, who is good but not an elite fighter.
This is a big chance for Vargas, yes, but for Garcia it’s really a must-win for his standing with the boxing public. Yeah, he could, in theory, lose and go back to 140 and still do OK, but Mikey’s rep is hurting after last year, and he surely doesn’t like it. This is a chance for him to take a step forward again.
3) Gary Russell Jr vs Tugstsogt Nyambayar, Feb. 8 (SHO)
Heavens to Betsy, but WBC featherweight titleholder Russell (30-1, 18 KO) is fighting in a month other than May for the first time since 2016. In May 2017, Russell beat Oscar Escandon. In May 2018, it was Joseph Diaz Jr (that was actually a pretty good one). In May of last year, it was Kiko Martinez.
Russell has fought once a year since 2015, in fact — that year it was Jhonny Gonzalez in March, in 2016 it was Patrick Hyland in April — so there’s no guarantee Russell, 31, will step through the ropes a second time in 2020. He might do this fight and dip for the rest of the year. But Russell seems to realize, at least, that his prime years aren’t going to last forever. He’s been more aggressive in calling out other top opponents. He’s made a more vocal effort if nothing else.
This fight with Mongolia’s Nyambayar (11-0, 9 KO) is a mandatory, but it’s a good one. Maybe you haven’t seen “King Tug” fight, but he’s legitimately good. The 27-year-old won silver at London 2012, losing to the excellent Cuban amateur Robeisy Ramirez in the final, and works best as an aggressive, hard-charging fighter, though not a clumsy or lumbering one.
He can punch, too, but he’s also proven he can handle a tough 12, winning a 12-round battle in Jan. 2019 over Claudio Marrero. He’s a legitimate top five featherweight right now, which owes more to a glut of fighters moving up in weight recently, but he’s quality either way. This is not a washed up veteran, this is not some guy who’s proven to be a fringe contender at best. The last time Russell faced someone in their prime, it was Joseph Diaz Jr, and Diaz gave Russell a good fight. If Nyambayar is better than Diaz, what with a couple more years passing, Russell could be more vulnerable than most believe in this fight. It’s a somewhat quiet matchup, but a good one.
2) Kal Yafai vs Roman Gonzalez, Feb. 29 (DAZN)
The big selling point here is that this may be the last good chance at the mountain top for former pound-for-pound elite Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, now 32 and a few years removed from the point he was considered a fighter on that sort of level.
Nicaragua’s Gonzalez (48-2, 40 KO) can still fight, it seems. Following his two losses to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017, the latter a brutal beatdown that was stopped in the fourth round six months after their first fight, where the Thai pummeler won a controversial decision, Gonzalez was out a year before returning and looking a bit rusty but still pretty good, stopping Moises Fuentes in five. He then sat out 15 months before a low-key return in December, wiping out Diomel Diocos in Japan.
Gonzalez’ wins over Fuentes and Diocos weren’t marquee victories, but he did what you’d have expected a prime Roman Gonzalez to do in both. He looked sharp enough in both — the rust you’d expect was there with Fuentes, but didn’t last — and still looks like a dangerous contender at 115.
Yafai (26-0, 15 KO) is defending the WBA title here, and at 30 he’s not a lot younger than Gonzalez, but he definitely has fewer miles on his body. The British standout has been aching for this sort of fight ever since winning this belt back in Dec. 2016, when he beat veteran Luis Concepcion.
Since getting the belt, Yafai has made defenses against Suguru Muranaka, Sho Ishida, David Carmona, Israel Gonzalez, and Norbelto Jimenez. It’s not exactly what he was looking for; he’s been calling out top fighters for years. He hasn’t even built up a fan base at home in the UK or anything, not fighting in his home country since 2017.
The big, glaring question is about what Gonzalez has left, but assuming it’s enough, there’s another question here: can Yafai really compete against someone on this level? He hasn’t had to before. There’s a lot of intrigue on both sides, both fighters with something to prove.
1) Deontay Wilder vs Tyson Fury 2, Feb. 22 (FOX & ESPN+ PPV)
Easily the biggest fight and biggest event so far in 2020, and the biggest on the schedule to date, and even if we go with the rumor that Canelo Alvarez will face Ryota Murata on May 2, this is a bigger fight than that.
Wilder (42-0-1, 41 KO) and Fury (29-0-1, 20 KO) did decent numbers all things considered for their Dec. 2018 Showtime pay-per-view main event, which ended in a controversial and at times thrilling draw, doing a reported 325,000 buys. Neither was a proven pay-per-view commodity at that time and the matchup somewhat came out of left field, but both guys have big personalities and can talk a fight up, and a big heavyweight fight is pretty easy to sell compared to just about anything else.
The rematch is a much bigger deal, far more highly-anticipated, with over a year of building to this meeting. Wilder had two monster knockouts in 2019 over Dominic Breazeale and Luis Ortiz, while Fury picked up wins over Tom Schwarz and Otto Wallin, the latter tougher than anticipated due to Wallin’s determination and a nasty cut on Fury that probably would have stopped most other fights.
Top Rank promoter Bob Arum still thinks this will do over two million buys on US pay-per-view. He may be reaching there, but then again maybe not. ESPN and FOX are working together here and you’re talking about a massive reach with mainstream sports fans who might be talked into $79.99 on pay-per-view, even if it comes in the final hours with the co-broadcast on both networks featuring prelim bouts and the final sales pitch.
As for the fight, it sells itself. Wilder has the monster punch and is making an argument as possibly the biggest puncher ever. Fury’s the best boxer in the division in some time. Their personalities mesh for great entertainment in interviews and press conferences. The first fight delivered for those who bought it or watched otherwise. It’ll be a hit; how big of a hit remains to be seen, but the important thing is it’s a great fight that everyone wanted.