<
>

Boxing reset: Will Gary Russell Jr. have a unification fight? How good is Emanuel Navarrete?

Will featherweight world titleholder Gary Russell Jr. fight again in 2020? Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the boxing world to a halt. Fight cards have been cancelled through May and more postponements are expected to be announced as there isn't a clear end in sight.

For a year-round sport that never has an offseason, this is a first. As we continue to take a look at where the sport stands at the break, today we'll check in on the featherweight and junior featherweight divisions to see what's ahead when the action resumes.

Featherweight

What's the biggest question you have about this division?

Will Gary Russell Jr. ever have a meaningful title defense or a unification fight? He is super talented and has held a 126-pound world title since March 2015, but he has defended it only five times. That is a woefully inactive schedule. And even when he does fight, he has faced mostly lesser opponents while maintaining a schedule of one fight per year. That said, he made a solid mandatory defense in February against Tugstsogt Nyambayar, so there was hope that he would fight again this year. But who knows now. Russell has said that he will look to move up to junior lightweight sooner rather than later, so he could wind up leaving the division with a long but very forgettable title reign.

Who is the star? Who is the biggest competitor?

play
0:31

Stevenson, Gonzalez trade blows in fifth

Shakur Stevenson and Joet Gonzalez trade punches in the fifth round of their main event bout in Reno. To watch more Top Rank and catch the rest of this bout, sign up for ESPN+.

There are several quality fighters in the division, but none qualify as a bona fide star. World titleholder Josh Warrington can draw a big crowd in his hometown of Leeds, England, but his profile does not really extend beyond the United Kingdom. Titleholder Shakur Stevenson has a growing fan base, but he has not quite reached stardom, even though he has a good chance to get there. We would have had the opportunity March 14 to see how well Stevenson, from Newark, New Jersey, could draw in his first title defense against Miguel Marriaga in the main event of a Top Rank card at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City. But that show was the first of many that have been called off due to the pandemic.

As it turns out, there has been talk of a Warrington-Stevenson unification bout. They have called each other out, their promoters have talked about a summer fight, and Stevenson has embraced the idea of going to fight Warrington in the U.K. But will it happen? It is totally up in the air with boxing shut down for the time being, and Warrington's camp is now talking about a fight with secondary titlist Xu Can.

Who is a potential dark horse?

It could be Xu Can (18-2, 3 KOs), of China, who has had three fights in the United States but has virtually no profile here. He could give anybody in the division a tough night in the ring. He is a relentless, aggressive fighter with a decent résumé that includes a win over Jesus Rojas to claim a belt in January 2019, followed by defenses against former junior featherweight titlist Shun Kubo and then-undefeated Manny Robles III in November. Featherweight is not a very deep division at the moment, and Xu might be able to make some noise.

What is a fight you want to see next in the division?

I'd like to see Warrington-Stevenson, but I'm not dying to see it. I have also wanted to see Gary Russell Jr. take on Leo Santa Cruz in a long-discussed title unification fight, but I have come to realize that despite their talk, it's not going to happen. I have wanted to see that match for the longest time, but Santa Cruz has moved up in weight and now owns a junior lightweight belt. He is probably not returning to featherweight and is apparently headed to a fight with titlist Gervonta Davis.

Junior featherweight

What's the biggest question you have about this division?

play
0:29

Navarrete finishes Santisima in Round 11

Emanuel Navarrete turns on the agression in Round 11 vs. Jeo Tupas Santisima, and the fight eventually gets called off. Buy Wilder vs. Fury II on ESPN+.

How legit is world titlist Emanuel Navarrete? He burst on the scene with an upset decision victory over Isaac Dogboe to win a 122-pound title in December 2018, and between May 2019 -- when he badly punished Dogboe in a 12th-round knockout in an immediate rematch -- and February, he has defended the title five times, making him the busiest active titlist in the sport. But other than the wins over Dogboe, Navarrete has faced extremely weak opposition.

In his four non-Dogboe defenses, Navarrete has looked good, scoring knockouts, but they came against the unimpressive likes of Jeo Santisima, Francisco Horta, Juan Miguel Elorde and Francisco De Vaca. We won't know how good Navarrete is until he faces a serious challenger.

Who is the star? Who is the biggest competitor?

Secondary titlist Brandon Figueroa has a chance to develop a following in the region around Weslaco, Texas, where he drew a decent crowd in November. Murodjon Akhmadaliev, who won a belt from Daniel Roman on Jan. 30, became a national hero in his native Uzbekistan with the win. This is such a fractured division that there is no natural big fight. The closest thing would be any kind of unification fight, none of which seems realistic.

Who is a potential dark horse?

Philadelphia's Stephen Fulton (18-0, 8 KOs) has been on the rise and is coming off his biggest win, a clear unanimous decision over then-unbeaten Arnold Khegai in a title elimination bout in January. The win moved Fulton a step closer to a title opportunity against Navarrete, though that is probably still a fight or two down the road.

What is a fight you want to see next in the division?

There is no single fight I need to see next. There is nothing very spicy in the division. However, how about this fight (which has virtually no chance of happening, by the way): a unification bout between Akhmadaliev and Figueroa?