Who is the best boxer who identifies as a junior welterweight? If this question were asked a few months ago, the answer would be a no-brainer. Terence Crawford was not only regarded by many as the top pound-for-pound boxer in the sport, but he also owned all of the significant 140-pound hardware. Currently 32-0, Crawford acquired four belts and held them simultaneously, joining a very select group that includes Thomas Hearns and Bernard Hopkins.
When Crawford abandoned the weight class to compete at 147, things returned to normal – which is to say that things became muddled once again. Each sanctioning body decreed who would fight who for their vacant strap and there was no overlap.
The IBF struck first. On Nov. 4, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Sergey Lipinets snared the IBF version of the 140-pound title in his 13th pro fight, winning a unanimous decision over Akihiro Kondo. Born in Kazakhstan, raised in Russia, and currently living in Southern California, the 28-year-old Lipinets, a former champion kickboxer, was slated to defend his title against Mikey Garcia on Feb. 10, but he incurred a hand injury in training that forced a postponement.
In light of the injury, the promoters elected to postpone the entire show. That pushed back a second 140-pound world title fight as Rances Barthelemy and Kiryl Relikh were set to compete for the WBA diadem.
BARTHELEMY – RELIKH (WBA)
This is a rematch. The Cuban defector based in Las Vegas and his unsung opponent from Belarus fought an entertaining 12-round fight in May of last year. Barthelemy advanced to 26-0, winning a unanimous decision by scores of 117-109, 116-110, and 115-111, tallies widely ridiculed as misleading. The crowd booed the decision and Relikh actually “won” the CompuBox punch stats.
Barthelemy previously held world titles at 130- and 135 pounds. Relikh (21-2, 19 KOs) came up short in a previous stab at a world title, losing a 12-round decision to Ricky Burns in Scotland.
PROGRAIS – POSTOL (WBC)
The WBC selected Regis Prograis (20-17 KOs) and Viktor Postol (28-1) to fight for their vacant strap. The match is expected to play out on March 9 at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma.
Postol, a 34-year-old Ukrainian who trains at Freddie Roach’s famous Wild Card gym in Hollywood, forged a big upset in 2015 when he stopped Lucas Matthysse in the 10th round, earning a shot at Terence Crawford, who outclassed him in a fight that went the distance. It is the only blemish on his record.
Prograis (20-0, 17 KOs) is something of a wild card because he’s never had to go 10 rounds, let alone 12. But in the eyes of some very knowledgeable boxing fans, he’s the next big thing.
Nine of his 17 knockouts have come in the first two rounds. In his last outing, he blew right through Joel Diaz Jr., knocking him down four times before the match was halted in the second round. Well-schooled on the California amateur circuit, Diaz was 23-0 going in.
Prograis, a southpaw, also has a good back story. His family escaped New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina and found shelter in various places before finding a permanent home in Houston. Even his nickname “Rougarou” is a good back story. It is the name of a werewolf-like creature in Bayou folklore.
FLANAGAN – HOOKER (WBO)
The WBO will fill their 140-pound vacancy on April 14 at the O2 Arena in London when Terry Flanagan (33-0, 13 KOs) takes on Maurice Hooker (23-0-3, 16 KOs). This will be Flanagan’s first fight at 140. He had a nice little run as a lightweight, making five successful defenses of the WBO world title. Hooker hails from Dallas.
Flanagan is slick southpaw, inviting comparisons to Billy Joe Saunders who may also appear on the bill. A Mancunian, he will have the home field advantage, but would be favored even if this bout were being contested in the U.S. Hooker’s ledger is bereft of a signature win and he received a gift draw in his match with Columbia’s Darleys Perez.
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The 140-pound division, in its current mode, is tailor-made for a WBSS-style tournament. If there were such a tournament and it started today, Mikey Garcia would likely decline the invitation as he has indicated that his future plans include unifying the lightweight title. Filling his slot to flesh out a strong 8-man field would be no problem as some of the hottest prospects in boxing compete in the 140-pound weight class. There’s Shohjahon Ergashev, Ivan Baranchyk, Alex Saucedo, and Josh Taylor to name just four.
Uzbekistan’s Ergashev, who has won all 11 of his fights by knockout, had his coming out party earlier this month against previously undefeated Sonny Frederickson. Ergashev took charge from the get-go and dominated every minute until the bout was stopped in the third frame.
Ivan Baranchyk is poised to challenge the Prograis-Postol winner (or perhaps Sergey Lipinets) assuming Ivan gets by Sweden’s Anthony Yigit, his next opponent. The “Beast” from Belarus came to the fore in March of 2016 when he knocked out Nicholas Givhan in 21 seconds. He’s exhibited less power as he’s moved up in class – his last four fights have gone the distance – but remains undefeated (17-0).
Alex Saucedo (26-0, 16 KOs) hails from Oklahoma City and trains in Big Bear, California, under the tutelage of Abel Sanchez. Promoted by Top Rank, he is ranked in the top four by the WBA and WBO.
Josh Taylor, the “Tartan Tornado,” is on the fast track. Up next for the 2012 Olympian is 66-9-2 Humberto Soto, a former world champion in two weight classes. The match will be contested on March 3 in Glasgow. Promoted by Barry McGuigan and trained by Barry’s son Shane, the 27-year-old Scotsman is 11-0 with 10 KOs.
There are bigger names north of 140 at 147, but the junior welterweight class is deeper and replete with talented boxers who seemingly haven’t yet reached their peak. Regis Prograis strikes us as the best of the lot, but that’s not an assessment we can advance with great confidence.
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