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HBO Boxing Year-End Schedule Preview: Four major cards in four weeks

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As what has been a tumultuous and landscape altering 2017 in boxing comes to a close, HBO, the network long-called “The Heart and Soul of Boxing” will present a diverse and surprisingly busy schedule to close out the year. For the first half of the year, HBO’s strategy seemed to be that of quality over quantity, offering what felt like only a handful of shows under new network boxing head Peter Nelson. But HBO will close out the year with four shows over the next four weeks, and add in the two shows they have already run this month, it amounts to a busy end of the year for the Network.

This past year has seen the Network rocked by Top Rank, one of the network’s main content providers for the past twenty years and beyond, signing an exclusive deal with ESPN. With that deal, HBO lost Terrance Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko, two fighters that had been a big part of their programming over the last few years, as well as access to Top Rank’s stable of young, up-and-coming talent. With the loss of Top Rank, and Premier Boxing Champions firmly entrenched on Showtime, the network has been forced into rebuilding mode, working with new promoters and showcasing new talent, as well as throwing more steam than ever behind the stalwarts they did retain. That rebuilding process will be on full display over the next month, as HBO hopes to reestablish a foundation that will push them into 2018 and beyond.

Here is a breakdown of the next four shows:

Sergey Kovlaev (30-2-1, 26 KOs) vs. Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (19-1, 16 KOs) — 12 Rounds for the vacant WBO light heavyweight championship — The Theatre at Madison Square Garden — New York, New York 

The busy month for HBO will be kicked off by one of its stalwarts in Kovalev, as “Krusher” has been fighting main events on the network since the summer of 2013. But Kovalev will be entering the ring this Saturday with different circumstances than he’s ever faced coming into his fight, as he is coming off the only two losses of his career against Andre Ward. After being robbed in his first fight against Ward a year ago, Kovalev was stopped in eight rounds by Ward in June, and while the punches that did the job were borderline low blows, it seemed clear that Ward was in control and heading towards victory — he had finally figured Kovalev out.

The Florida based Russian will also be going into this fight with a new trainer, Abror Turnsunpulatov, an up and coming trainer from Russia who replaces John David Jackson, whose relationship with the former unified champion had grown toxic over the years.

We don’t know what Sergey Kovalev we will see at the Garden. At his best, Kovalev was a boxer-puncher destroyer with a vast array of punches and subtle defensive skills. Before facing Ward, he looked damn near invincible. But Ward seemed to take that aura along with Kovalev’s belts and undefeated record. But Turnsunpulatov has reportedly revamped Kovalev’s physical training, and Kovalev’s mind was reportedly set right after an incident at Greek monastery. But we won’t know for sure until he gets back in the ring.

If Kovalev is significantly less than he was a couple of years ago, he’s got the wrong guy in front of him in Shabranskyy, a 6’3 former amateur star from the Ukraine, a rare light heavyweight that is bigger than Kovalev. Shabranskyy rose quickly through the pro ranks and in just his fifteenth pro fight, he upset and dominated hot Cuban prospect Yunieski Gonzales. After two more wins, he stepped again to face another excellent Cuban, Sullivan Barrera, but despite putting Barrera down in the first, Shabranskyy wore down in the middle rounds and Barrera took him out with a series of right hands in the seventh. Shabranskyy has two wins since then and now finds himself on the brink of a huge opportunity.

This fight all depends on what Kovalev shows up. If it is more like the guy who was robbed against Ward in November and less like the guy who was bullied and out body punched in June, that Kovalev should use his superior skills and experience to get the win. If Kovalev has another bad night, Shabranskyy looks to have the skills to pull the upset.

Part of HBO’s new strategy seems to be focusing on certain weight divisions, such as 115 and 160 pounds. We see that here in the rest of this card which features fighters in two of their other favorite divisions-130 and 175. The co-feature features a light heavyweight battle pitting young contenders Sullivan Barrera (20-1, 14 KOs) of Cuba versus Felix Valera (15-1, 13 KOs) of the Dominican Republic, while the card opens with battle of former 130 pound champions, pitting Jason Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KOs) against Yuriokis Gamboa (27-2, 17 KOs).

Barrera fought a  Andre Ward on the comeback in March 2016 and was dominated, but he has bounced back with three straight wins, including coming off the floor to stop Shabranskyy in seven last December and outpointing Bernard Hopkins conqueror Joe Smith Jr in July. Valera is a former WBA interim champion who was dominated by Dmitry Bivol, and has two wins since. These two don’t like each other and the winner of this fight gets a shot at Bivol’s title, so there is a lot on the line here.

Sosa is a tough cookie from Jersey who scored upset win in China over Javier Fortuna to win the WBA junior lightweight title in June 2016 and made one successful defense, but literally couldn’t touch Vasyl Lomachenko in April. Gamboa was once seen as equally dominant as Lomachenko, a former unified featherweight champion who made five defenses before moving up. He won interim belts at both 130 and 135, but ruined his career when he signed with 50 Cent’s ill-fated SMS Promotions. This led to long layoffs and not getting the right fights. Gamboa tried to fix it by going right after then WBO lightweight champion Terrance Crawford in June 2014 and started out great in one of the Best Fights of 2014, but Crawford adjusted and dropped Gamboa four times in route to a nine round TKO. Gamboa is 4-1 since then, but he has not looked anywhere near the killer he was from 2008-2011. I doubt he will return to that form against Sosa.

December 2

Miguel Cotto (C) (41-5, 33 KOs) vs. Sadam Ali (25-1, 14 KOs) — 12 round for the WBO junior middleweight title — Madison Square Garden — New York, New York

If you want to talk about HBO stalwarts, you have to look none further than Miguel Cotto, who has been fighting main events on the Network since 2004 and has been one of their biggest draws over the last decade. Now he is fighting what he says will be his last fight, defending the WBO junior middleweight championship he won in August versus Yoshihiro Kamegai against Sadam Ali, a 2008 Olympian who will be moving up from welterweight to face the biggest challenge of his career.

Make no mistake, Ali is in this fight because he is a credible enough an opponent for HBO, but still an opponent that Cotto is expected to beat in his farewell fight. Ali is a career welterweight whom in his biggest fight in March 2016, was knocked out by Jessie Vargas in the ninth round of a WBO welterweight title fight. Ali has won three fights in a row since then against minimal opposition and even at this late stage of his career, Cotto is probably too much for him.

Cotto is 4-1 and has won two world titles since coming under the tutelage of Freddie Roach in the Fall of 2013. His opponents have been carefully selected for sure, but he is still probably one of the ten best fighters in the sport. Even though Ali has fast hands and good footwork, he probably wont be able to handle Cotto’s skill, speed, and power. It looks to be a fun swan song for Cotto, he will go down as one of the greatest fighters of his era.

The co-feature will feature an interesting battle of undefeated 122 pounders, as WBC super-bantamweight champion Rey Vargas battles Venezuelan-American Oscar Negrete. Vargas is making the second defense of his title, having successfully defended his title against Ronny Rios on the undercard of Cotto’s last fight in Los Angeles. He is very tall for the weight class at 5’8 and throws a ton of punches. Negrete is one of Golden Boy Promotions prized prospects, and has appeared many times on their regular cards at the Belasco Theatre in LA and the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California. He is one of the first prospects from this system to get a title shot, so it will be interesting to see how he performs against Vargas, who has the look of someone he could be a dominant champion.

December 9

Orlando Salido (44-13, 31 KOs) vs. Mickey Roman (57-12, 44 KOs) — 12 Rounds for the vacant interim WBC super featherweight title — Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino — Las Vegas, Nevada

The 130 pound weight class takes center stage on will be an interesting night for boxing, as HBO will run a tripleheader of fights in this weight class head to head with ESPN, who will have WBO 130 pound champion Vasyl Lomachenko taking on 122 pound champion Guillermo Rigondeaux in a dream matchup of two time gold medalists. HBO is continuing with a very strong card which will feature a little bit of everything.

The headliner will be a battle of two great Mexican action fighters, as former three-time world champ Orlando Salido faces Mickey Roman, a tough contender who was won eighteen of his nineteen. Why an interim belt is on the line while Miguel Berchelt, the real champion, defended his title in July is anyone’s guess, but at the same time, who cares as this is a fight guaranteed to produce action and blood and will bring the fans to their feet. Get your popcorn ready!

Before then you will get something completely different as Tevin Farmer (25-4-1, 5 KOs) facing Japan’s Kenichi Ogawa (22-1, 17 KO’s). Farmer overcame a rough start to his career and has won seventeen straight fights, all while became one of the slickest and hardest to hit fighters in boxing, and one of the few guys in boxing that can make defensive fighting entertaining as hell. Ogawa has fourteen in a row, but he has never fought outside of Japan and never fought a twelve-round fight. I will be very surprised if he touches Farmer, who will look to cash in a title shot for which he has waited a long time.

The card will be opened by another great Mexican action fighter, Francisco Vargas (23-1-2, 17 KOs) facing England’s Stephen Smith (25-3, 15 KOs). Vargas is a former WBC champion who despite only twenty-six pro fights, has occurred an Arturo Gatti level of scar tissue over his eyes from all of the wars he has fought. He has been off for ten months, so maybe that has given his face time to heal enough for him to overcome Smith, a good fighter from the fighting Smith family who despite his skills, always seems to fall short when the lights are on the brightest, having lost in two title shots to Jose Pedraza and Jason Sosa. Vargas otherwise, is the superior fighter. It will be an interesting night for the 130 pound division, which HBO is position to be one of their key weight classes.

December 16

Billy Joe Saunders (C) (25-0, 13 KOs) vs. David Lemieux (38-3, 33 KOs) — 12 Rounds for the WBO Middleweight Title — Bell Centre — Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Finally. That’s the thought that many boxing fans have when it comes to Billy Joe Saunders of England, who has one of the more mind-boggling reigns as a champion than anyone in recent boxing history. Ever since Saunders won a narrow, controversial decision over Andy Lee to win the title in December 2015, he has defended his title only two times and priced himself consistently out of big fights against both Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. But he is now finally fighting a legitimate contender in Lemieux, the former IBF middleweight champion and one of the hardest punchers in all of boxing.

Lemieux has won four in a row since losing his title to GGG, including a one punch left hook knockout of Curtis Stevens in March which is probably the knockout of the year in boxing. Saunders, despite the hate he gets from fans, is a slick boxer who also has a narrow decision win of Chris Eubank Jr, but if he has the power to keep Lemieux off of him is the question. Lemieux has also improved his footwork and defense in recent years and he touches Saunders, he wins his second world title and gets himself a position for a big fight. Most serious boxing fans will be rooting for him. Anyone but you, Billy Joe. Anyone but you.

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