By Rachel Aylett 

This Saturday sees the opening semi-finals of season two of the World Boxing Super Series take place in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two semi-finals are scheduled, one in the super-lightweight division and the other at bantamweight. The main event features local hero Regis “Rougarou” Prograis, in his super-lightweight semi-final against hard man Kiryl Relikh of Belarus. In support is the first semi-final in the bantamweight division, featuring “The Filipino Flash” Nonito Donaire against late substitute Stephon Young of St. Louis.

First into the ring will be the bantamweights. Nonito Donaire was originally the eighth seed for the tournament. He is facing the aforementioned substitute Young, who has stepped in at late notice due to the shoulder injury suffered by South African Zolani Tete earlier in the week and has a wonderful chance to put himself right on the boxing map if he can score the upset here. That really is a big “if” though.

All boxing fans will be familiar with Donaire, one of the most popular boxers in the sport, who is charm personified. Nonito will already go down as one of the greats of Filipino boxing, alongside Manny Pacquiao, Flash Elorde and Pancho Villa – and he hasn’t finished yet! He was on the top 10 pound for pound list between 2011 and 2013 and has held major championship belts in four divisions. There is a very good argument that he was at some point the no. 1 fighter in the world in three of those categories, flyweight, bantam and super-bantam. although his claim in the featherweight division is not so valid.

All looked lost for Donaire when he was battered to a clear points defeat by Jessie Magdaleno in November 2016, losing his WBO super-bantam title in the process. It seemed that the veteran had nowhere left to go. He wasn’t finished, however, and almost 18 months later he appeared in Belfast, challenging local Carl Frampton for an interim belt up at featherweight. Although he lost clearly on points, he was competitive. It was still a big surprise, however, when he was announced as a competitor in this tournament at bantamweight, a poundage he had not made for seven years.

In his quarter-final, Donaire was paired with the tournament top seed Ryan Burnett. We wondered how he would cope after having to cut so much weight. Unfortunately, we still do not have a concrete answer to that. After Burnett boxed beautifully to take the first three rounds, he twisted his back when throwing a punch in the fourth and had to retire on his stool at the end of that round. Although Donaire was losing the fight, he was again being competitive. It is still a shock though to see him in the semi-finals.

His opponent Young is a short and stocky southpaw, whose stoppage victories are few and far between. The St. Louis based boxer was a very decent amateur, compiling a record of 86-13, being a National Golden Gloves runner-up in April 2011 and, shortly afterwards, just missing out on a berth with the U.S. Olympic team by losing to Rau’shee Warren in the Trials for the 2012 Olympics. He turned professional in late 2011.

As an amateur, Young had boxed at flyweight, but he boxed most of his early career as a super-bantamweight. He did not fight at the bantamweight limit until April 2016 when he fought on Showtime’s ShoBox card against Russian Nikolai Potapov. This was Stephon’s first real opportunity to turn heads as a professional in front of a wide television audience. At the time of this fight, both boxers were unbeaten, so it should have been a case of “winner moves on, loser goes back”. The result, however, was a lacklustre performance from both men and a draw decision over 10 rounds.

In my notes for this fight, I wrote that “Young is one of those fighters you want to scream at” and “he needs a rocket up his backside”. This was due to the American only doing barely enough to nick rounds when, say, 10% more effort would have seen him comfortably home. I actually had him losing the fight, as did one judge, with the other two rescuing Young’s unbeaten record with draw verdicts. An interesting statistic from the ShoBox team noted that Young’s average punch output in fights is 41 punches per round. How many did he throw per round in this fight? You guessed it, 41!

Young suffered his first defeat last April, when he was widely outpointed by another Filipino, Reymart Gaballo. In his most recent fight, last October, Young outpointed Wilner Soto in another sub-par performance. Boxrec currently has the 30-year-old Young rated at no. 91 in the world. I usually agree with their rankings but feel this is a little harsh and would say that he deserves a ranking somewhere in the top 50.

So how does Young beat the vastly more experienced Filipino? According to the bookies’ odds, which have Donaire between 1/25 and 1/33 favourite, he doesn’t. He certainly isn’t busy or clever enough to outbox him and after only one stoppage defeat in 44 fights at the very top level, Donaire’s chin will not succumb to anything Young has to offer. Absent another freak injury, a la Ryan Burnett, expect Donaire to score a comfortable points victory, or possibly even a late stoppage.

In the main event, the seedings have worked out to plan as both Regis Prograis and Kiryl Relikh were the favourites to defeat Terry Flanagan and Eduard Troyanovsky in their respective quarter-final bouts. Both scored points victories, with Prograis’ win over Flanagan being slightly more impressive. Indeed, Relikh had to fight hard to overcome Russian Troyanovsky in Yokohama last October.

In that fight, Relikh seemed in control for most of the way, with his pressure fighting style proving too much for Troyanovsky. It seemed from a very early stage that Relikh would win as the Russian sat on the back foot for long spells without working. However, Relikh faded in the final two rounds, perhaps thinking he had the fight in the bag, allowing Troyanovsky to put in a big finish. In the end, Relikh took victory by only two points on the cards.

The Belarussian is a very solid boxer, without doing anything spectacular. He is well-schooled and a hard, but not devastating, puncher. As well as Troyanovsky, he has also beaten Cuban Rances Barthelemy, who he thrashed in a revenge match in March 2018, reversing a previous defeat and in turn winning the WBA super-lightweight title. He defends that belt against Prograis on Saturday. Relikh was also involved in a very hard fight with Scotland’s Ricky Burns in Glasgow in October 2016, in his first challenge for the WBA belt. Although the cards were fairly clear for Burns, I felt that the decision could have gone either way. Relikh has proved himself as a highly efficient fighter at world level.

Prograis has not fought at the same level for as long as Relikh. He went very much under the radar for most of his career, being spoken about inside the trade but nobody really knowing for sure how good he was. That didn’t change until his third appearance on Showtime’s ShoBox series, when he smashed previously unbeaten Joel Diaz Jr. to bits inside two rounds. That fight took place in June 2017 and from then on there has been massive buzz surrounding “Rougarou”.

Subsequent to his victory over Diaz, Prograis has defeated Julius Indongo in two rounds, Juan Jose Velazco in eight and Terry Flanagan over the full 12 round distance. In those victories, Rougarou has won various WBC interim and Diamond belts, but not the full monty. Of course, if he defeats Relikh on Saturday he will take his WBA belt and become a recognised world champion.

I must admit to some surprise when I discovered that Prograis is 1/8 favourite on Saturday. This is certainly harsh on Relikh, who is as hard as nails and no easy night for anybody. However, Prograis is equally adept boxing on the front or back foot and Relikh’s come forward style should be made for the American to punish him with heavy counters. The pick is for Prograis to win on points, something like 117-111, take the WBA belt and progress to the final of the tournament.

The show is to be televised in the UK on Sky Sports.


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