On Saturday, Janibek Alimkhanuly has a chance to take over a division that used to be one of the best in boxing. With top middleweights like Canelo Alvarez, Gennadiy Golovkin, and Erislandy Lara fighting in heavier divisions or inactive, can Alimkhanuly, already the WBO champion, become the No. 1 fighter at 160 pounds? If he beats IBF champ Vincenzo Gualtieri (ESPN/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET), there are enough arguments to claim that title.
On the undercard, young lightweight Keyshawn Davis (9-0, 6 KOs) is fighting for the third time this year when he faces Nahir Albright in a 10-round bout. With a victory, can he be in the conversation to be the 2023 prospect of the year?
Also Saturday, junior middleweight champion Tim Tszyu is facing Brian Mendoza in the first defense of the title he inherited when Jermell Charlo was stripped of the belt before his super middleweight fight against Alvarez in September. Tszyu has been impressive this year, with two KO victories over Tony Harrison and Carlos Ocampo. Can he follow up with another stoppage win against Mendoza, who has never been knocked out in his career?
Mike Coppinger, Timothy Bradley Jr., Ben Baby, Nick Parkinson and Brett Okamoto have some answers.
Don’t be surprised if … Janibek Alimkhanuly rules the middleweight division
The fact he’s positioned to be the No. 1 guy in the 160-pound weight class is a testament to his success. The 30-year-old, undefeated fighter from Kazakhstan has beaten some quality opponents on his way to winning the WBO belt. Two years ago, he stopped former titlist Rob Brant and overpowered a faded Hassan N’Dam. He also has impressive second-round KO wins against Danny Dignum and Steven Butler.
It doesn’t look like there’s anyone in the division to truly challenge Alimkhanuly (14-0, 9 KOs). This has been the worst that middleweight has looked in recent memory. Many of the big names named above that have roamed the division are either inactive or in other weight classes, leaving one of the most storied weight classes in boxing pretty light.
That also explains how Gualtieri (21-0-1, 7 KOs) got his title. He picked up the vacant IBF belt with a win over Esquiva Falcao in a bout between two midrange contenders who were ranked prominently by the sanctioning body.
What makes Janibek an interesting fighter is that he carries excellent power, evident in his 64.3% stoppage rate. An impressive win could make him a bigger draw in one of boxing’s most storied divisions. — Baby
Don’t be surprised if … Keyshawn Davis ends as the 2023 men’s prospect of the year
Davis, a rising star in the world of boxing, is positioned to capture the title of prospect of the year and make a remarkable leap into the realm of world champions in 2024.
It comes as no surprise, given his exceptional talent. Davis has already taken down three opponents this year, boasting an impressive combined record of 70 victories and a mere seven losses. His victories over Juan Carlos Burgos, Anthony Yigit and Francesco Patera have solidified his position as one fighter to watch right now.
What sets Davis apart is not only his lightning-fast hands but also his extraordinary skill set. He has astounded fans in just nine professional fights, fighting on the undercard of numerous championship bouts. Davis showcases a mastery of elite techniques, including great control, frames and impeccable timing. His command of these techniques reveals maturity and finesse beyond his years, and his ability to close the show — possessing a ferocious killer instinct — further cements his status as a blue-chip talent and a formidable contender.
Davis continues elevating his game, inching closer to the ultimate goal of claiming a world title and becoming a new player in the sport. — Bradley
Don’t be surprised if … Francis Ngannou gives Tyson Fury an actual challenge
Mike Tyson: Fury vs. Ngannou won’t be as one-sided as people think
Stephen A. Smith and Molly Qerim sit down with Mike Tyson and Francis Ngannou to discuss Ngannou’s mindset and strategy going into his first-ever boxing match vs. Tyson Fury.
I’m not predicting a win, here. OK? So, calm down with the ‘Oh, of course the MMA reporter thinks Francis will win.’ That’s not what I’m saying. If Ngannou, in his first boxing match, were to beat the best heavyweight boxer in the world, I wouldn’t be surprised — I’d be utterly shocked. But will I be surprised if he has his moments during the fight? No.
I thought Conor McGregor would get clowned by Floyd Mayweather in 2016. I thought there was a legitimate chance he would look awkward, flailing at shots and get tired early. I didn’t think that because I was down on McGregor, I just respect the sweet science of boxing. I appreciate that when someone is world-class at boxing, such as Mayweather and Fury, they’re capable of making others look silly who are not world-class in that sport, such as McGregor and Ngannou.
McGregor turned in a respectable performance though. I believe Ngannou can too, for a lot of the same reasons. He’s intelligent and will be prepared. He also told me something personally that I can’t disagree with. A fight is a fight. When there’s a fight in any situation, Ngannou is a fighter. Plain and simple. — Okamoto
Don’t be surprised if … Tim Tszyu vs. Brian Mendoza is closer than people expect
If Tszyu brings the same finishing instinct he showed against Ocampo, Mendoza will be in trouble on Saturday.
Tszyu (23-0, 17 KOs) is flying at the moment, having answered questions about whether he can deal with opponents at the top tier. Momentum is important in boxing and Tszyu’s belief is in the right place following a brutal knockout of Tony Harrison in March and that first-round demolition of Ocampo in June. Mendoza has never been stopped, but how will he cope if Tszyu swarms him like he did Ocampo in the summer?
Tszyu, 28, goes into his first defense of the WBO junior middleweight title with the expectation to retain the belt after putting together some strong performances. Still, Mendoza is also on a roll, so don’t be surprised if you also see Mendoza’s hand raised in an upset win.
Mendoza’s confidence has been restored with knockout wins over Sebastian Fundora (seventh round) in April and Jeison Rosario (fifth round) in November, when he also started as the underdog as he will be against Tszyu. Those two upsets are testament to the desire of the American challenger, and the way Mendoza (22-2, 16 KOs) chopped down the bigger Fundora with a devastating left hook makes you wonder whether he can do it again to silence Tszyu’s home crowd in Sydney.
This is a brilliant matchup (one of the best in 2023), likely to finish with a KO and most people expect Tszyu to deliver it. But it might not be the case. — Parkinson
Don’t be surprised if … a Terence Crawford-Errol Spence Jr. rematch doesn’t happen next
Stephen A.: Terence Crawford is the best in the world right now
Stephen A. Smith tabs Terence Crawford as the best pound-for-pound fighter after his win over Errol Spence Jr.
It’s overwhelmingly likely Crawford and Spence fight one more time after Spence exercised the rematch clause in August, but there is still work to be done before the return bout is finalized.
Crawford won the undisputed welterweight championship in dominant fashion via seventh-round TKO, and the two-way rematch clause in the contract stipulated that the winner would select the weight for the second fight.
During his postfight interview, Spence said he would move up to 154 pounds. Crawford, meanwhile, is inclined to campaign at 147 pounds. The rematch, given the lopsided nature of the first fight, is more intriguing at a new weight, but it’s up to Crawford. He could agree to a fight at 154 pounds, but also could ask that Spence make some financial concessions to make it happen.
At the moment, the weight hasn’t been agreed upon, sources told ESPN, though the pay-per-view rematch is planned for February. A catchweight between 147 and 154 pounds makes sense, though Crawford could agree to move up to 154. However, he said after Canelo Alvarez’s win over Jermell Charlo that he was no longer interested in a fight with Charlo.
If Spence doesn’t fight Crawford next, a junior middleweight debut fight against someone like Brian Castano would be interesting. But it’s far more likely we will see Crawford-Spence 2 at some weight above 147 pounds. — Coppinger