For the past two-and-a-half years or so, boxing pundits have been raving about the talent-laden junior welterweight division. From top to bottom, the division has been considered the best in the business, and also boasted more promising prospects than any other weight class. After two-and-a-half years of talking about the division’s potential, we finally get to witness it all in the span of the next four weeks.
Atop the division is Kostya Tszyu, whom many still consider to be the undisputed champion despite having been stripped by two sanctioning bodies in recent years. This Saturday, June 4, live on Showtime at 9PM/ET, he travels to Manchester, England to take on hometown hero Ricky Hatton. So determined to prove that he is willing to take on all comers, Tszyu agreed to not only travel to Hatton’s backyard, but to put his title on the line at the odd time of 2:00 AM to comply with Showtime’s request to air the superfight live to the US boxing audience.
This bout represents the second in a row in proving Tszyu’s willingness to enhance his legacy. Last November, Tszyu returned from multiple injuries that sidelined him for nearly two years, and silenced Sharmba Mitchell once and for all in their IBF-mandated rematch. Mitchell lost his title to Tszyu in a February 2001 unification match, when his knee gave in and was forced to quit on his stool at the end of the seventh round.
After embarking on a comeback in mid-2002, Mitchell campaigned for a rematch, suggesting that their first fight was riddled in controversy due to an injury he suffered prior to the fight. He got what he asked for, and a beating to go along with it, as Tszyu dropped him four times before stopping him inside of three rounds. The controversy was permanently removed, as were Mitchell’s days as a player at junior welterweight; Sharmba announced immediately after the fight his intentions to move up to welter.
With Mitchell out of the picture and Tszyu injury-free and fully ready to once again clean house at junior welterweight, the rest of the division has seemed to follow suit. Once Tszyu and Hatton throw down across the pond, both will be able to kick back and survey the landscape, as Arturo Gatti, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Vivian Harris and Miguel Cotto all look to stake their claim as the biggest threat to the top spot all within the month of June.
Fittingly enough, all four of the major junior welterweight bouts this month can all be traced back to Tszyu in a “six degrees of separation” sense.
Had Tszyu never suffered multiple injuries in 2003 and 2004, he would possibly still reign as official undisputed champion. Perhaps he fights and beats Mitchell way back in September 2003, and goes on to defend against WBA mandatory Harris early in 2004. Such would have prevented Harris from twice traveling to Germany and perhaps also months of feuding with promoter Main Events and eventual split with longtime manager Shelly Finkel.
It would not have prevented the WBC from moving in and declaring their title vacant. Such a fate was sealed the moment Showtime rejected Tszyu’s wishes to defend against mandatory challenger Gianluca Branco. Respecting the wishes of the network with who he was contractually bound, Tszyu elected to vacate the WBC strap, which allowed the human highlight film known as Arturo Gatti back into the title picture.
Gatti and his handlers initially removed themselves in pricing themselves out of a Tszyu fight – Showtime offered $5 million; Gatti’s handlers wanted that much just for their fighter. The IBF ordered a contingency plan: a four-man tournament to determine a final mandatory challenger for Tszyu. Gatti wanted no part of that, either, and eventually removed himself from the IBF rankings altogether in favor of a third fight with Micky Ward.
After beating Ward, Gatti received a three-fight contract with HBO, thus permanently squashing any hopes for a Tszyu-Gatti fight to ever materialize. The first fight under the contract was the vacant WBC fight with Branco, the same challenger Showtime deemed unfit to fight Tszyu on their network, was given the green light by HBO. Twelve rounds later, Gatti was a titlist, and had only two fights to go on his contract.
His next fight came against former lightweight champ Leo Dorin, but not before longtime pound-for-pound entrant Floyd Mayweather, Jr. entered the picture. Having moved up to junior welter, Mayweather twice dropped former WBO champ DeMarcus Corley in cruising to a unanimous decision and a mandatory ranking atop the WBC rankings. Such an honor meant an eventual showdown with Gatti.
Mayweather long ago earned a reputation for always seeking out the best. However, with the best – Tszyu – already slated to face Mitchell, Floyd instead opted for instant fortune against the rest. He campaigned for a shot at Gatti the moment Arturo dispatched Leo Dorin with a single body shot last July.
Gatti paused at first. He expressed interest in such a fight “as long as you (HBO) are willing to pay me a lot more money.” HBO was eventually willing to oblige, but not before allowing Gatti to make an optional defense against Jesse James Leija and for Mayweather to take on a soft touch in Henry Bruseles. The fights were staged on back-to-back weekends. When all was said and done, HBO was left with twelve rounds worth of junior welterweight mismatches – and almost no superfight to show for it.
Tszyu, meanwhile, had once again confirmed his status as division leader, easily dispatching Mitchell in three rounds. Having been out of action for so long, Tszyu was forced to honor back-to-back mandatories. No problem for Tszyu, who stood to make $4 million to face Hatton.
Hatton became IBF mandatory late in 2004 after having himself removed as both WBO and WBA mandatory earlier in the year. Had promoter Frank Warren conducted his business on the up and up, matters would have been squared away for Hatton’s alleged April 2004 vacant WBO title fight with then-undefeated Kelson Pinto. Instead, Pinto was asked to travel to England without an official contract. Sensing shenanigans, Pinto declined to fly to England for a fight that was never guaranteed, leaving Warren with some last minute scrambling in order to preserve the April 2004 Showtime date and the title shot.
Warren went one-for-two; Showtime stayed on board, though it was the last time they would play ball with Warren. The WBO dropped out once Warren announced Dennis Holbaek as the last minute challenger to face Hatton. Instead, Hatton was forced to make another WBU title defense against another no-hoper.
Pinto resurfaced in Puerto Rico in September, facing fellow undefeated 2000 Olympian Miguel Cotto for the same vacant title. Much like Hatton, Cotto earned a mandatory ranking with one sanctioning body by willingly having his name removed from two others. After defeating Lovemore N’Dou in May 2004, Cotto was named the mandatory challenger to the winner of the eventual Tszyu-Mitchell rematch. He was also mandatory challenger to WBA champion Vivian Harris, who received an upgrade from interim to full-fledged champ after Tszyu allowed too much time to pass by without honoring his mandatory.
Harris was set to travel to Puerto Rico for negotiations with Cotto before receiving the news that the Puerto Rican star in the making opted to challenge Pinto for the WBO title. Cotto’s name was immediately dropped from the mandatory slot, bumping up Hatton.
Harris then set his sights on Hatton, though then-manager Shelly Finkel was waving an Urkal rematch in his face. Wondering why he should accept a mid-level six-figure payday off American TV when he could secure double his career-high for a Showtime fight with Hatton, Harris decided to take matters into his own hands. Finkel was out and Hall of Fame trainer and manager Emmanuel Steward took his place.
Unfortunately for Harris, no sooner was Steward brought in then the Hatton fight disintegrated. Harris and Steward began talking and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it for him to travel to England for $750,000 when he was the champ. Instead, they looked to have the fight go to purse bids in hopes of a bigger payday – or at least a guaranteed greater split of the pie – and the fight landing in the States. That dream vanished the moment Hatton and Warren demanded the WBA remove the Mancunian from the mandatory ranking.
Hatton went on to face Michael Stewart for the IBF mandatory slot. Harris’ previous mandatory, Cotto, dispatched Pinto in six on HBO to claim the WBO crown. Harris was right back where he started – no fights lined up, no American TV networks looking his way.
Harris’ last chance at an instant shot at fame came when the WBA named Mayweather as the next mandatory. But Floyd already had his sights set on Gatti, and allowed the thirty-day free negotiations period go by without so much as a peep. In a span of two months, Harris watched three blockbuster challengers allow themselves to be removed from the top spot.
Harris ultimately settled for a rematch with Urkal in Germany. He won by eleventh-round knockout, though to little fanfare. Steward promised bigger and better things to come, in hopes of keeping Harris focused on the big picture.
Such a picture presented itself, though with conditions. HBO finally looked Harris’ way, offering him a co-feature slot to Gatti’s defense against Leija in January 2005. The opponent was to be Mohammed Abdullaev. Harris didn’t mind the fight; what he did mind was the modest payday that came along with it: $200,000, which was considerably less than what he made to travel to Germany for the Urkal rematch.
Harris declined, and hasn’t fought since. Abdullaev took a less notable fight in Germany before being invited back to HBO to face Cotto next Saturday, June 11, live from Madison Square Garden. The Garden is a mere subway ride away for the Brooklyn-based Harris, though seemingly an eternity away when it comes to securing a big fight.
He is hoping that will change by month’s end. Finally checking his pride in at the door, Harris accepted very short money for a chance to appear in the co-feature to the long-awaited Gatti Mayweather showdown (June 25, live from the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on HBO PPV). The $100,000 payday is nowhere near as valuable as the opportunity to fight on one the most anticipated cards of the year, which comes a week after his twenty-seventh birthday.
Harris was originally slated to face Arturo Morua. Ironically enough, Morua received a profile upgrade in scoring an impressive points win on HBO Latino six weeks ago. So it was only fitting that Morua would opt to not take the June 25 fight with Harris. No worries for Harris, though, as Carlos Maurra was subsequently named his challenger. The downside is that Maurra has been beaten by Morua and stopped by Cotto. The good news is Harris finally gets the opportunity to reintroduce himself to American audiences.
More importantly, he has the chance to send an immediate message to the winner of Gatti-Mayweather: a young, hungry champ lurks in the division, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Whether Mayweather and Gatti decide to stick around long enough to take him up on his offer remains to be seen. After all, the two barely stuck around long enough to secure their own superfight.
As has been well documented throughout the media (and most notably by The Sweet Science’s own David Mayo), the efforts involved in finally nailing down the superfight were nothing short of an epic struggle. The on-again, off-again bout nearly became off for good when Mayweather failed to resolve his legal issues in a timely manner. Such was a final sticking point in the agreed upon contracts in finalizing the bout, but Floyd marched to the beat of his own drum. It nearly came back to bite him in the butt when he plead no contest earlier this year to charges stemming from a December 2003 incident in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The judge initially delayed sentencing until mid-March. The maximum sentence Floyd was facing was 93 days, which would have jeopardized his June 11 date with Gatti. Fortunately, the sentence imposed did not include jail time, and Floyd was cleared to resume negotiations. After a lot of give and take – resulting in a postponement and a $500,000 purse reduction for Floyd – the fight was finally made, two weeks later than the originally intended date.
The bump back freed up scheduling space for HBO to stage Cotto-Abdullaev in New York City the night before the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Should Cotto prevail, it will help kick start a banner weekend that also includes his role in the Parade the next day. It will also confirm his status as a bona fide star (early reports indicate a huge turnout at Madison Square Garden).
Huge turnouts are already guaranteed for Tszyu-Hatton, and the Gatti-Mayweather PPV card. Both fights have long sold-out, with the June 25 PPV card selling out in thirty hours. Tszyu-Hatton sold out two hours after tickets went on sale.
Where the six major players go from here is largely dependent on the outcome of their respective fights. Chances are, Harris will still have to travel to the destination of his opponent’s choice, though this time with a larger fan base and higher demand. Cotto will be considered a star, though the demand and pressure to make a fight with one of the division’s elite will certainly increase. The winners of Gatti-Mayweather and Tszyu-Hatton will have scored career high paydays and career-defining victories and will be in control of their own destiny.
Mayweather and Tszyu have both flirted with the idea of moving up to welterweight should they emerge victorious. Gatti and Hatton remain focused on their tasks at hand and have been mum in regard to the future.
The boxing world will continue to speculate and debate who beats who among the remaining junior welterweights once the month of June is over. Only this time, actual results will finally supplant the mythical matchup forum the junior welterweight division appeared to have become.
At long last, the junior welter-wait is over.