February 22 in Macao, China, IBF lightweight champion Miguel Vazquez returns to action after more than a year away from the ring as he faces undefeated challenger Denis Shafikov of Russia. The 135-pound division is wide open, and the winner here should be positioned for big fights going forward in 2014.
Chinese Olympic star Zou Shiming is the big name on the card for the local fans. Top Rank has worked hard to make the Chinese resort city a kind of Vegas of Asia, with Shiming as their hometown fighter.
But Vazquez vs. Shafikov is the fight with immediate relevance at the world-class level.
|Per BoxRec||Miguel Vazquez||Denis Shafikov|
|Record:||33-3, 13 KOs||33-0-1, 18 KOs|
|Weight:||135 lbs||135 lbs|
|Hometown:||Guadalajara, Jalisco||Miass, Russia|
Shafikov's reach is unlisted on BoxRec, but Vazquez is very long for a lightweight and I expect he'll have a significant advantage in reach. Shafikov is going to need to find a way to work inside and muscle the champ with his greater bulk.
Both of these guys are in their physical primes but already very experienced. The outcome of this fight will shape the division in the years ahead.
In my own rankings, I have Vazquez No. 1 at lightweight. That doesn't necessarily mean I'd pick him to beat anybody in the world at 135, but according to resume and length of time in the division, he deserves the top spot.
Vazquez has never lost at 135. His only defeats have come against Saul Alvarez (twice) and Timothy Bradley. Bradley is arguably the second-best welterweight in the world, behind Floyd Mayweather, and Alvarez is top five at light middleweight.
Vazquez doesn't have what could be called a "signature" win, but he's beaten a lot of top-rated fighters in the always fluid lightweight division. He shot to prominence in 2009 when he handed Breidis Prescott his first career loss. In August 2010, Vazquez captured the vacant IBF belt by beating Ji-Hoon Kim.
Known by the nickname "Genghis Khan," undefeated Shafikov is looking to be the next Russian fighter to make a big splash on the North American scene. He's fought respectable competition, held a collection of minor belts and is due for a world title shot.
Top Rank has a very good roster of lightweights and potential lightweights. The winner of this bout should find himself in some good fights down the road.
Miguez Vazquez is among the best defensive fighters in the sport. His nickname, "Puppet," is a testament to the masterful way he controls distance, moving in and out of range as if controlled by a higher power.
Vazquez fights extremely well backing up and is very difficult to trap. In his last fight, in December 2012, Vazquez reduced Mercito Gesta to standing in the center of the ring, waving his hands in complete frustration.
Denis Shafikov is a physically strong, compact lightweight who knows how to apply pressure to taller fighters. He has good head movement and changes levels well. He is very good at positioning his lead right foot to the outside of an orthodox opponent's lead left, allowing him to exploit his southpaw stance.
I wouldn't call Shafikov a power puncher, but he can bang with authority. He has a good body attack and uses it to draw an opponent's hands down, leaving the head vulnerable.
Miguel Vazquez is the sort of boxer some fans might criticize as a runner. I hate when Philistines refer to great defensive fighters as "runners," but Vazquez's fights can sometimes lack action to the point where I can understand the paying public's frustration.
I've seen Vazquez lose rounds against inferior fighters simply because they were pushing the action. In October 2012, he lost one of three judges against Marvin Quintero, simply because Quintero was far more busy, even though he landed very little.
Denis Shafikov is on the short side for his weight class, and while that can certainly be overcome, it always presents an immediate tactical problem. In the fights and video I have seen, Shafikov relies far more on feints and lunging hooks than the jab to get inside.
That could be problematic against a long fighter like Vazquez, who can control distance and counterpunch expertly.
Vazquez will need to use a busy jab and constant movement to win this fight. It's the basic game plan he has used with so much success throughout his career, but Shafikov is a bit better than most of his opponents have been and his southpaw stance could complicate things for Vazquez.
Vazquez is going to need to move backward behind his jab and then pivot to his right, away from Shafikov's overhand left. I expect the Russian will have his finger on the trigger, ready to let the left hand go all night, so Vazquez needs to be wary of it.
Vazquez is going to need to be busier in this fight than he was in his last two. He came closer to losing than he should have against Quintero in October 2012 due to a lack of activity.
He completely frustrated Gesta in December 2012, but Shafikov is a much smarter fighter than Gesta and will find a way to get into position to unload. If Vazquez isn't busier against Shafikov, the Russian will simply outwork him.
The key to winning this fight for Shafikov is pretty simple. He's got to cut off the ring on Vazquez and eventually trap him on the ropes or in the corner.
But in boxing, simple and easy are rarely the same thing. To cut off the ring on a defensive specialist like Vazquez, Shafikov is going to need to be very precise about the placement of his lead right foot as he comes forward.
He's absolutely got to get his lead right to the outside of Vazquez's lead left. If he doesn't, he's going to eat right-hand counters and uppercuts all night long. Vazquez will continually shift and counterattack before Shafikov has the opportunity to get set.
But if Shafikov can win that first, basic battle over foot placement, he'll be in good shape. As he slips under Vazquez's jab and steps to the right, he should look to bang Vazquez's body with a lead hook. Slowing the elusive Vazquez down with a solid body attack will be another key to victory for Shafikov.
If Shafikov can consistently get the better position with his lead foot, ideally he will be able to maneuver Vazquez toward his overhand left. Shafikov needs to be ready to let that punch go all fight long.
Shafikov needs to throw a lot of punches whenever he can get into range to unload. At the end of the fight, simply having been the busier fighter could very well mean victory for him.
I'll be honest. This probably won't be a candidate for Fight of the Year. But for fans who enjoy the tactics and strategy of boxing, this one is intriguing.
Both fighters have clear, distinct paths to victory. And each man has the tools to force the other down his own preferred path.
But ultimately, I think Vazquez is better equipped physically and technically to implement his own game plan. This should be a tougher fight than his last fight, against Gesta, but I don't think Shafikov is going to be able to get into range against him often enough to land truly damaging punches, and I don't think Shafikov will have much luck at all pinning Vazquez on the ropes or in the corner.
Shafikov is the stronger fighter, and if he can manage to close the distance, there will be some exciting moments. But I haven't seen the Russian use the jab often enough to believe he'll be able to get inside on Vazquez. Feints and lunges aren't going to get the job done.
I think Vazquez will win a decision by about nine rounds to three. After sitting out in 2013, hopefully this fight will be the start of a busy 2014 for the IBF champion.