A guide to the new year: Five fighters to watch in 2024

Boxing

Boxing’s pound-for-pound best delivered some worthy performances in 2023.

Artur Beterbiev kicked off the campaign by keeping his perfect KO ratio intact with a thrilling TKO defeat of Anthony Yarde to retain three light heavyweight titles.

Three months later, a well-placed body shot by Gervonta Davis stopped Ryan Garcia in the year’s biggest commercial fight. In July, Naoya Inoue dominated Stephen Fulton in his 122-pound debut and displayed his generational talent, before unifying titles to become undisputed champion in a second division with another impressive KO win over Marlon Tapales on Dec. 26.

And Devin Haney won every round and even dropped Regis Prograis to become a two-division champ on Dec. 9.

The best performance of all, of course, belonged to Terence Crawford, who dismantled Errol Spence Jr., in a tour de force victory to cement welterweight supremacy.

But what about all the fighters that sit just outside ESPN’s pound-for-pound top 10? There are many boxers with a genuine opportunity to inch closer to that recognition in 2024.

Here are five such boxers we believe are appointment viewing in 2024 (in no particular order):


Jai Opetaia (24-0, 19 KOs) — Cruiserweight

With his quick-twitch reflexes, snappy punching power and balance, the Australian looks like a special talent.

Opetaia delivered a devastating first-round KO against Ellis Zorro on Dec. 23 in Saudi Arabia, where he’ll fight twice more in 2024. That stay-busy bout cost him his IBF title after he was stripped, but Opetaia is primed for far more meaningful accomplishments in 2024.

The 28-year-old is held back by fighting in the overlooked cruiserweight division, but his ability demands the sport to take notice. It was all on display when he picked apart Jordan Thompson in September.

Opetaia also possesses proven grit after he fought through a broken jaw to defeat Mairis Briedis for the title in 2022. To truly realize his potential, Opetaia will likely have to take the well-traveled path of cruiserweight stars who jump to heavyweight.

Evander Holyfield and Oleksandr Usyk (who also defeated Briedis in a title fight) are the most successful cruiserweight champions who found even greater heights at heavyweight, boxing’s glamor division.

Opetaia will be undersized at heavyweight at 6-foot-2, but his talent is probably such that he will be a dangerous play in the unlimited weight class, too.

And with at least two more fights for Opetaia in Saudi Arabia, where organizers have strongly committed to the heavyweight division, Opetaia could make that leap sooner than later.


Junto Nakatani (26-0, 19 KOs) — Bantamweight

The Japanese boxer became a two-division champion in May with his brutal knockout of Andrew Moloney. Nakatani’s power display announced his arrival to the American boxing public and earned him ESPN’s KO of the year.

Nakatani is now poised to become a three-division champion when he meets Alexandro Santiago on Feb. 24 in Tokyo on ESPN+. Santiago won the title when he upset Nonito Donaire in July, but that reign is likely to be short-lived.

Nakatani, 25, is rangy and knows how to place his shots. He picked apart Moloney with his combination punching and then impressed yet again in his first defense, a victory over Argi Cortes in September.

American fight fans are used to waking up in the early-morning hours to watch Inoue, though it took some time for Inoue to build momentum stateside due to the timing.

Nakatani isn’t on the level of his countryman, of course, but he’s must-see TV, too, and fans would be wise to jump on his bandwagon now.


Subriel Matias (20-1, 20 KOs) — IBF junior welterweight champion

Any conversation about must-see fighters has to include the volume-punching machine from Puerto Rico.

Matias, 31, took another step forward in 2023 with his best campaign yet. He won his first title in February when he demolished Jeremias Ponce in February, and successfully defended it with another thrilling display, a TKO win over Shohjahon Ergashev in November.

Hopefully 2024 is the year Matias lands the sort of fight where he can truly show his skills. The 140-pound division is a stacked one, featuring Haney, Garcia and Teofimo Lopez Jr.

Even if Matias can’t land a matchup with one of those stars, there are plenty of other viable junior welterweights who would represent a step-up in competition.

Jose Ramirez, Jack Catterall and Richardson Hitchins would all make for intriguing fights for Matias, who improves his stock with each subsequent outing.


Tim Tszyu (24-0, 17 KOs) — WBO junior middleweight champion

No one enjoyed a bigger breakout year than Tszyu, who proved he’s far more than just a boxer with a famous fighting last name.

The 29-year-old could have waited for Jermell Charlo to recover from hand surgery that postponed their January fight only to watch Charlo falling against Canelo Alvarez instead. But Tszyu elected to stay busy while Charlo recuperated. The decision paid off big time.

In a sport plagued by inactivity, Tszyu fought three times in 2023. He stopped Tony Harrison in March, went on to score a first-round KO of Carlos Ocampo in the summer and then dominated Brian Mendoza in October.

Tszyu appeared more sharp with each subsequent outing, and his improved ability to string together combinations with punch variety popped during his win over Mendoza.

Now a champion at 154 pounds, Tszyu said he’ll fight in the U.S. going forward. Whether the matchup with Charlo materializes remains to be seen. What is certain: Tszyu is a dangerous fighter who has a chance to be a star stateside, too.


Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis (31-0, 28 KOs) — IBF interim welterweight champion

The Philadelphian became a champion in 2023 after Crawford was stripped, and the title should help him land the sort of meaningful matchups that have eluded him.

Ennis, 26, fought exclusively on Showtime, but is now a network free agent, further aiding his quest for marquee fights.

He kicked off the year with a shutout victory over Karen Chukhadzhian and then delivered an explosive KO of Roiman Villa over the summer in arguably his career-best performance.

“Boots” is an explosive puncher with superb balance and fast hands. He appears to be a threat to defeat anyone at welterweight, though it’s unlikely he’ll land a bout with either Crawford or Spence, who could both be done at 147.

That leaves the welterweight division wide open for Ennis’ taking. Now he just needs the dance partners to showcase his talent. Eimantas Stanionis and Conor Benn would surely fit that criteria.

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