Boxing this year has the potential to really light the sports world up with breakout stars ready to claim their shine and big-name champions trying to etch themselves into the history books. With so much to choose from, the writers at CBS Sports took it upon themselves to answer some of the biggest questions at the forefront as a fresh 12 months of fighting is set to begin this weekend.
Let’s dive right in now to the questions and predictions from “Morning Kombat” hosts Brian Campbell and Luke Thomas as well as staff writer Brent Brookhouse.
Will we end 2021 with an undisputed heavyweight champion?
Brian Campbell: Yes
It will take some maneuvering from the powers-that-be to make sure the remaining mandatory obligations are either taken care of or paid handsome step-aside money, but there really isn’t anything outright dire to prevent Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury from fighting in 2021. Provided a clear winner was crowned, fans should expect to enter 2022 debating the outcome of a Joshua-Fury rematch.
Brent Brookhouse, Luke Thomas: No
There are just too many political elements at play to see it happen. Not only between fighters, promotions and networks, but with sanctioning bodies that set mandatory challengers based on financial decisions more than legitimate rankings. For example, Devin Haney already has two mandatory challengers set, ruling out a lightweight unification with Teofimo Lopez. It’d be wonderful to see Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury face off before the end of the year with all four recognized world titles on the line, but I don’t hold out much hope that all the pieces fit together in the next 12 months. — Brookhouse
Not a chance. As a general rule of thumb, it’s wrong to be so pessimistic about boxing’s architecture and incentive structure to assume big fights will never happen, but it’s equally foolish to think it’ll happen in a timely manner. There is virtually no way there will be enough speed behind the forces at play to unify all the belts. There’s even a case where if you get Tyson Fury vs. Anthony Joshua, you get it by virtue of belts being vacated. I would be shocked to see titles unified in a year where both heavyweight have mandatories and every other reason to delay gratifying the fans. — Thomas
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Which division delivers the most in 2021?
Campbell, Thomas: Lightweight
This is where the future brokers of the sport for the next decade currently reside. Ryan Garcia, Gervonta Davis, Devin Haney and Teofimo Lopez Jr. are all young, unbeaten and poised to become household names should they all agree to fight one another multiple times in the coming years similar to the “Four Kings” of the 1980s. Add 130-pound sensation Shakur Stevenson to that group and the still capable Vasiliy Lomachenko and Jorge Linares to round out an absolutely loaded division that also includes Luke Campbell, Javier Fortuna and George Kambosos Jr. — Campbell
Heavyweight and welterweight are almost certain to give us big fights that we enjoy and are important for the sport, but there are at least four high-end lightweights (and arguably more) who can produce so much to the extent they stay healthy. That’s true even if they don’t fight each other and at least some of them are likely to do so, the first being Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia. There’s nothing exactly wrong with the other divisions, but lightweight is on fire and full of young guns ready to take on the world. — Thomas
If I hold out any real hope, it’s that welterweight continues chugging along until Terence Crawford can get free of his Top Rank contract to line up the most appealing welterweight fights possible — including Crawford vs. Errol Spence. Crawford and Top Rank seem ready to be done with each other, and the sheer amount of compelling fights that could be made once that hurdle is removed gives a lot of hope. Beyond that, lightweight is interesting, but there’s some concern that too many rising superstars won’t be put against each other immediately and fans will have to wait another year or two to see those young guns matched up.
Do we get any closer to Spence vs. Crawford?
Campbell, Brookhouse: Yes
It might come down to simple math at this point. Provided Terence Crawford concludes what has the look of a bitter exit from Top Rank and ESPN once his contract reportedly ends after one more fight, a subsequent signing with Premier Boxing Champions would be the final step. The only remaining debate would surround whether Al Haymon wanted to make the fight in 2021 or gamble with one more setup fight for each. — Campbell
I believe we see the fight signed before the end of 2021, maybe not in the ring during the year, but at least pen put to paper for the fight to happen in early 2022. All, of course, depending on if Crawford cuts ties with Top Rank following the end of his contract. — Brookhouse
Thomas: Most likely not
As I indicated with my answer about the heavyweight division, I’m extremely skeptical. Spence might say he wants it, but doesn’t really need it, especially to maximize earning potential. Crawford, unless he buys himself out of his deal, is still on the hook until at least October with Top Rank, who are seemingly incapable of making this fight work with PBC. We cannot rule it out, but I’m not going to wait around for it either.
Where does Manny Pacquiao fit into the 147-pound picture?
Although Pacquiao, who turned 42 in December, seemed to benefit the least from the lack of live crowds that led to him sitting idle in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, he remains the most profitable B-side in the sport. Expect Pacquiao to add at least one more super fight to his legendary resume either against Spence or Crawford. A fight against UFC star Conor McGregor also isn’t out of the question to end the year.
Brookhouse: Wherever he wants
The simple reality is that Pacquiao is still a fighter who makes his opponent a big payday. Anyone at the top of the game — and signed with PBC — who wants Pacquiao can likely get him. He probably doesn’t remain champion against those top stars, but he likely has his pick of opponents. Of course, that opponent could be Conor McGregor in the second half of the year.
Thomas: Takes on Spence
He’s the reason why Spence-Crawford won’t get made. There’s an outside chance he doesn’t really fit into the picture at all and takes a boxing bout against Conor McGregor, but the bigger threat is Spence decides to stay in the PBC family for most of the year only to venture out and fight Pacquiao when he doesn’t. The Filipino boxer is still a credible threat to anyone in the division and while off-peak in terms of popularity, nevertheless is much more popular than many other top choices.
Who is the breakout star of 2021?
Campbell: Shakur Stevenson
Should the former featherweight champion secure the kind of fights he’s talking about, including a showdown against Lomachenko, it’s not out of the question that he ends 2021 as the Fighter of the Year. That would be a substantial leap from where he is now, of course, but Stevenson really does appear to be dynamic enough for this kind of talk to not be hyperbole. His speed and swagger has often been compared to a young Floyd Mayweather.
Brookhouse: Edgar Berlanga
He is already a must-watch attraction, but he’s not really a “star” yet. That’s more a product of being given time to develop than anything else. He’s going to get big main event spots in 2021 and nothing creates a star in boxing like true knockout power. Sixteen first-round knockouts in 16 fights? That’s the easiest sell in combat sports. Seeing him take that power into the ring with bigger threats in the coming year is going to launch him to the level of being viewed as a true star.
Thomas: Berlanga/Jarron Ennis
Ryan Garcia is already on his way with his electric finish of Luke Campbell, but two names that stand out to me are Edgar Berlanga and Jaron Ennis. Berlanga has freakish power and is already attracting celebrity interest and promoter favoritism. He’s very much an underdeveloped product, but he might be poised for a huge 2021. “Boots” Ennis is a remarkable boxer whose skills jump off the screen when you watch him. Athletic and smart, he is a nightmare for opponents. He’s still young and working his way up in terms of opponents with names people recognize, but 2021 could prove a major turning point in his career.