UK boxing is back, now it needs world champions

Sports

For too long now boxing in the UK has relied on the heavyweights to gain mainstream interest. The biggest fights and news stories in the last five years involving British boxers have featured Tyson Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion, and former WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua.

Josh Taylor should have been one from outside the heavyweight division to attract interest, but a rematch with Jack Catterall never happened and he then lost to Teofimo Lopez Jr.

But while Taylor’s career has stalled, others are gaining momentum.

British boxing currently has five men’s world champions (Fury, WBO cruiserweight Chris Billam-Smith, Joe Cordina, WBA featherweight Leigh Wood and IBF flyweight Sunny Edwards), although Leigh Wood is expected to relinquish his belt and move up a division. The women’s side of the sport has eight.

So when Cordina defends his junior lightweight title Saturday, he has another big opportunity — and it’s not just in his interests to win, but also of all those boxing in the United Kingdom. British boxing needs new stars to increase the sport’s popularity and Cordina is among a crop of boxers from those shores chasing big fights and bigger profiles. Cordina (16-0, 9 KOs), 31, makes a first defense of his IBF junior lightweight world title against Edward Vazquez at Casino de Monte Carlo Salle Medecin in Monte Carlo, hoping that a victory leads to bigger fights in 2024.

Beyond Fury vs. fellow heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, a fight which could take place in February 2024, and the prospect of Joshua facing fellow former heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, there is more to look forward to from the British boxing scene. ESPN takes a look at the potential star appeal and pipeline of big fights in UK boxing.


Joe Cordina vs. Leigh Wood

Cordina won’t reach the heights of another Joe C from Wales — Hall of Famer Joe Calzaghe, who retired in 2009 with a 46-fight unbeaten record mostly spent at super middleweight — but the Cardiff-based boxer can become one of the U.K.’s leading names over the next two years. What will be crucial in Cordina landing successive big fights will be avoiding serious injuries, which have kept him out of the ring in recent years, and reaching a deal to face Wood in 2024.

Wood (28-3, 17 KOs), 35, who stopped Josh Warrington less than a month ago, is expected to relinquish his featherweight title after admitting that making the 126 pounds limit became too difficult. And Cordina is open to the pair meeting at junior lightweight.

“I’m glad Leigh has mentioned fighting me, it means it could be made quite comfortably and won’t be hard to make rather than us chasing each other,” Cordina told ESPN.

“I’m happy to fight him and if he’s happy to fight me we’ve just got to come to an agreement about money and where it’s going to be. I know he wants to fight at the Nottingham Forest ground, and I want to fight at the Cardiff City ground or Cardiff Castle. If we come to a deal we can have it.

Cordina understands that there are plenty of big fights for him, but because not all possible opponents work with the same promoter, fights are hard to make. However, Cordina and Wood are both under the Matchroom Boxing umbrella.

“I want another belt, but it also needs to be a big fight,” Cordina said. I wanted to fight [WBC junior lightweight champion O’Shaquie Foster] after my last fight because he was the only champion available but my promoter Eddie Hearn told me that fight doesn’t make any money. The fighter in my weight who has got belt who interests me is Emanuel Navarrete [the WBO junior lightweight champion], he fights later in November so I will keep an eye on that. After that it will be the lightweights, I only want one or two more fights at junior lightweight and then move up and I’m happy to fight any of the big names at lightweight. When Shakur Stevenson called me out after I won the world title, I was ready for it but he wanted to stay at lightweight and I don’t blame him.”

Cordina won back the IBF belt in April with a split decision win over Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov after being stripped of the belt due to injury following his KO win over Kenichi Ogawa in June 2022.

But before possible fights versus Wood, Stevenson or Navarrete, Cordina must take care of Vazquez (15-1, 3 KOs), 28, from Fort Worth, Texas.

“This is one of the only camps I’ve had where I haven’t had an injury or gone down with the sniffles. I couldn’t ask for better,” Cordina told ESPN. “I showed that I could dig in and sink my feet into the canvas. It was a tough fight, and Rakhimov is a good fighter, a former champion. I’ve never had to get out of first gear until my last fight and I showed in that one I can box, I can come forwards or go backwards.

“Vazquez has an opportunity to change his life, but so have I, this could change my family and kids’ lives. You have to be special to beat me and I don’t think he has got that because he has been beat before.”


Joshua Buatsi vs. Dan Azeez; Smith challenges Beterbiev

Buatsi’s fight against fellow contender Azeez was postponed recently and although it might only hold local, niche interest, it is a fight worth watching. It will also produce a next contender for the belts currently held by knockout machine Artur Beterbiev.

Callum Smith, a former world champion at super middleweight, challenges Beterbiev for his three belts on Jan. 13 and has knockout power himself. If Smith can pull off the upset, it promises to be a big year for him and the winner of Buatsi vs. Azeez, who will progress to a world title shot.


Chris Eubank Jr. vs. Conor Benn

This will perhaps be the biggest non-heavyweight fight on British soil since Carl Froch vs. George Groves attracted 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium for their super middleweight title rematch in 2014.

When Kell Brook and Amir Khan finally fought in Manchester in February 2022 it was a big event, but the controversy, history and nostalgia around a Benn-Eubank encounter would be bigger.

Benn currently is without a boxing license in the U.K. after testing positive for a banned substance shortly before he was due to face Eubank over a year ago. If Benn remains banned in the U.K., promoter Matchroom will take the fight to the Middle East which will could impact on the size and interest of the event. But Benn vs. Eubank, after the rivalry of their boxer fathers in the 1990s, will still be a huge event worldwide, even if no world titles are on the line and it takes place thousands of miles from the boxers’ native England.

Joshua could be on the Benn-Eubank undercard in a non title bout (but not against Wilder), which would play out in front of a crowd of 70,000+ in either January or February at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, or the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in England. A venue in Abu Dhabi is also being considered for the fight should there be complications with Benn’s British boxing license.


Sunny Edwards

One of the best matchups this year sees Edwards (20-2, 4 KOs) face rival champion Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez (18-0, 11 KOs) in a flyweight world title unification fight on Dec. 16. It might not get as much publicity as other big fights this year, but this is one of the most anticipated fights in 2023.

Edwards, 27, from Croydon in south London, is a talkative type and a skilful boxer, but boxers from the small weight classes struggle to get as much attention as those from the heavier divisions. Edwards could buck the trend, especially if his slippery style frustrates Rodriguez at the Desert Diamond Arena, Glendale, in Arizona.

A future fight for Edwards to generate interest is against Galal Yafai, 30, from Birmingham, who is only five fights into his professional career after winning gold at the last Olympic Games.

Cordina told ESPN: “When it comes to the lower weights, me against Leigh Wood and Sunny Edwards against Galal Yafai, can be the biggest fights in our divisions. Sunny and Galal, along with ‘Bam’ Rodriguez, are the best flyweights on the planet. Sunny is inexperienced at the moment, but nobody wants to fight him and he will soon be pushing on, and when it happens Sunny versus Galal will be the biggest fight in that division at some point in the future.”


Chris Billam-Smith, rematch vs. Lawrence Okolie

Billam-Smith (18-1, 12 KOs), 33, must first overcome Mateusz Masternak (47-5, 31 KOs) in a first defense of his WBO cruiserweight title on Dec. 10 before he can contemplate a rematch with Okolie who he floored in three rounds on his way to a majority points win in May.

Billam-Smith might be largely unheralded beyond his native Bournemouth on the south coast of England, but he can stamp his authority on the cruiserweight division in the next year and become the division’s No 1. The Okolie rematch will be well received in the UK, but may still get limited attention elsewhere and this will be the challenge for Billam-Smith going forward: expanding his supporter base. A good win against Masternak will help.


Hamzah Sheeraz

Sheeraz (18-0, 14 KOs) can take advantage of some opportunities likely to come his way at middleweight in 2024. He is a hard puncher, having stopped 14 of his 18 opponents, and can highlight his potential if he convincingly beats the experienced Liam Williams on Dec. 2. This fight will provide us with an indication as to how ready Sheeraz is, as Smith went the distance with Demetrius Andrade challenging for the WBO world title in 2021.


Adam Azim

In his 10th professional fight Azim will challenge Franck Petitjean for the European junior welterweight title on Nov. 18. A world title shot may be too soon for next year for the 21 year old, but Azim is making rapid progress and is great to watch, as you will see if you check him out later this month.


Heavy hopes

Daniel Dubois (19-2, 18 KOs) surprised many with his plucky performance against Usyk in August, but others are ahead of him in the queue (the Londoner is outside the top five in all four world governing bodies) and a title shot in 2024 seems optimistic. A rematch with Joe Joyce (15-2, 14 KOs), who shares the same promoter (Queensberry), would be an appealing fight. Both lost their last fights, and Dubois will be motivated by revenge after losing to Joyce in 2020.


Women’s boxing

Eight women from the U.K. currently hold world titles, testament to the healthy state of women’s boxing in the UK. Both Chantelle Cameron, who faces Katie Taylor in a rematch on Nov. 25, and Savannah Marshall are undisputed world champions, while Natasha Jonas holds world titles in two weight divisions. The challenge for them, as well as the other big names in women’s boxing will be if they can experience bigger fights than they already have in 2024. Ellie Scotney and Caroline Dubois are early in their careers and I expect them to make more headlines in 2024.

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