Notebook: Heavyweights Ajagba, Shaw hope to kick off Top Rank's 2023 schedule in style
J. Ramirez-Commey set; R. Ramirez-Dogboe to clash for title; Matchroom announces Wood-Lara undercard; Stevenson gets date; Quick hits; Show and tell
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Heavyweight Efe Ajagba is hoping for a busier, healthier schedule in 2023 than he has had as he continues his climb up the rankings.
Arm injuries, multiple surgeries and uneven performances limited his activity the past two years. In January 2021, he had surgery for a torn tendon in his left arm, though he returned in April of that year for a third-round knockout of Brian Howard.
In October 2021, Ajagba got knocked down by a right hand in the seventh round of his only loss, which was a 10-round decision to unbeaten up-and-comer Frank Sanchez on the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder III undercard. Later that month, Ajagba had two more surgeries, one on each elbow.
After 10 months off, Ajagba returned in August for a second-round knockout win over Jozef Darmos and now is set for a much more notable bout when he takes on Stephan Shaw in the 10-round main event as Top Rank kicks off its 2023 schedule on Saturday (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET with prelims streaming on ESPN+ beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET) at Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, New York.
“I have the (nickname) ‘The Silent Roller’ because I don’t talk much,” Ajagba said at Thursday’s fight-week news conference. “Since I came back from my surgery, I’ve tried to do everything to fight more. That’s why I only had one fight last year. I’ve been trying to get more fights.”
Ajagba (16-1, 13 KOs), 28, a 2016 Nigerian Olympian, was initially scheduled to fight Oscar Rivas on Saturday, but he withdrew late month due to an eye injury and was replaced by Shaw, who moved up the card from his original assignment against Guido Vianello in the co-feature.
“I’ve made adjustments for Saturday night. We’ll see how it goes. I’m ready for him,” said Ajagba, noting that he looks up to countrymen and former heavyweight titleholders Samuel Peter and Henry Akinwande. “I wanted to fight Oscar Rivas before, but that changed. But now Shaw has the opportunity to fight me. I’m ready to put on a show. I’m going to put more pressure. I can’t wait. I’m so excited to be here.”
Shaw (18-0, 13 KOs), 30, of St. Louis, didn’t hesitate to change opponents and move into the main event and hopes to make a splash.
“St. Louis has a rich history of boxing and I feel like right now I’m the pride of St. Louis,” Shaw said. “I’m looking to continue that legacy of having great world champions represent St. Louis, Missouri.”
Vianello (10-0-1, 9 KOs), 28, a 2016 Italian Olympian, remains in the 10-round co-feature and will face Jonnie Rice (15-6-1, 10 KOs), 35, a Los Angeles native fighting out of Las Vegas, who replaced Shaw.
“Jonnie has a lot of experience, more than me. But I’m ready,” Vianello said. “I’ve been training very hard. I’ve been training very hard for four years since I moved to the USA. I train all the time to fight in a war, so I’m ready for this.”
Rice, who lost a six-round decision to Shaw in 2016, a six-rounder to 2016 French Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist Tony Yoka in 2017 and a 10-round decision to Ajagba in 2020, represents a step up in opposition for Vianello.
“It’s another chance to beat another undefeated fighter and that’s what’s on my mind. I’m going to go in there and beat him,” said Rice, who rebounded from his loss to Ajagba to knock out unbeaten Michael Coffie in the fifth round of an upset in July 2021 and then outpointed him in an immediate rematch in last January.
Former unified junior welterweight titlist Jose Ramirez, who declined a chance to challenge Regis Prograis in a mandatory title shot for the WBC belt because he was unhappy about getting 35 percent of the money instead of 40 percent had the fight gone to a purse bid, instead will face — as expected — former lightweight titlist Richard Commey in a much lesser bout.
Top Rank announced Ramirez-Commey on Thursday. The 12-rounder will headline a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card on March 25 (ESPN, ESPN Deportes, ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET) at Save Mart Center, Ramirez’s home base in Fresno, California, just outside his hometown Avenal.
In the co-feature, WBA women’s strawweight titlist Seniesa “Super Bad” Estrada will face WBC counterpart Tina Rupprecht in a unification bout.
“Fresno and the Save Mart Center hold a special place in my heart, and I am blessed to be able fight in front of my Central Valley fans once again,” said Ramirez, who has fought six previous times at the 15,000-seat arena and drawn big crowds. “Richard Commey is a championship fighter with everything to gain. I expect the best version of Commey. My goal is to become champion again, and I am more motivated than ever to prove that I am the best junior welterweight in the world.”
In May 2021, Ramirez got knocked down twice and lost his two belts by unanimous decision — 114-112 on all three scorecards with the knockdowns the difference — to Josh Taylor in their meeting for the undisputed championship.
Ramirez (27-1, 17 KOs), 30, has boxed once since, outpointing former two-division titleholder Jose Pedraza last March, also at Save Mart Center. Then he turned down two title opportunities. First, he could have had a rematch of a previous defense against Jose Zepeda for the WBC title Taylor, but he said he wanted to take the rest of the year off for his wedding. Then, he turned down fighting Prograis, who knocked out Zepeda for the vacant title in November.
Commey (30-4-1, 27 KOs), 34, of Ghana, is 1-2-1 in his last four bouts, including a draw with Pedraza in his last fight in August. He lost his lightweight title by second-round knockout to Teofimo Lopez in December 2019, returned to stop Jackson Marinez in the sixth round in February 2021 and then got dropped and lost a one-sided decision to Vasiliy Lomachenko in December 2021. Now he has a chance to revive his career against Ramirez.
“I’m up for the challenge, and I intend to make Ghana and all my fans around the world proud,” Commey said.
Estrada (23-0, 9 KOs), 30, of East Los Angeles, who has also held a title at junior flyweight, will be making her third strawweight title defense and boxing for the second time since signing with Top Rank last year.
“I want to give Tina credit for being a world champion who isn’t afraid of a unification fight, unlike Yokasta Valle,” Estrada said. “Since we couldn’t get Yokasta into the ring, we decided to do one better and fight the woman who beat her. The Fresno fans are passionate, and they are in for a great show.”
Rupprecht (12-0-1, 3 KOs), 30, of Germany, will be making her sixth defense and fighting outside of her home country for the second time.
“To fight in America against a fellow world champion in a world title unification is a dream come true for me,” Rupprecht said. “Seniesa is considered one of the sport’s best fighters, and I look forward to seeing who is the true No. 1 in the division. This will be a fight of the year candidate and another huge night for female boxing. I’m going to be victorious and return to Germany with two world title belts.”
The rest of undercard features several Top Rank prospects against opponents to be determined: lightweight Raymond “Danger” Muratalla (16-0, 13 KOs) in a 10-rounder; lightweight Karlos Balderas (14-1, 12 KOs), a 2016 U.S. Olympian, in an eight-rounder; heavyweight Antonio Mireles (6-0, 6 KOs) in a six-rounder; lightweight Charlie Sheehy (5-0, 4 KOs) in a six; middleweight Javier Martinez (8-0, 2 KOs) in a six; and flyweight Jessie James Guerrero (3-0-1, 3 KOs) in a four-rounder.
Ramirez-Dogboe on tap
Two-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez (11-1, 7 KOs), a 29-year-old southpaw, and former junior featherweight titlist Isaac Dogboe (24-2, 15 KOs), 28, of Ghana, will meet in 12-round featherweight fight that will headline the April 1 edition of Top Rank Boxing on ESPN+, sources told Fight Freaks Unite.
The bout will be either for the vacant WBO interim featherweight title or the potentially vacant full title. It will depend on what happens in the Feb. 3 Top Rank on ESPN+ main event between reigning WBO featherweight titlist Emanuel Navarrete and Liam Wilson, who meet for the vacant WBO junior lightweight title in Glendale, Arizona.
After the fight, Navarrete will have to decide whether to remain at 130 pounds or return to 126 to defend his title in that division.
If he stays at 130, as is expected, the Ramirez-Dogboe winner will claim the vacant featherweight title. If Navarrete makes an unlikely return to 126, the winner will claim the interim title and be mandated to face Navarrete.
Wood-Lara undercard unveiled
Dalton Smith (13-0, 10 KOs), one of boxing’s best prospects, will defend the British junior welterweight title against Billy Allington (10-1-4, 0 KOs) in the co-feature of Leigh Wood’s WBA featherweight title defense against Mauricio Lara on Feb. 18 (DAZN) at Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham, England, Matchroom Boxing announced.
Among the other undercard fights:
Lightweight Gary Cully (15-0, 9 KOs), who recently extended his promotional deal with Matchroom Boxing, will face Wilfredo Flores (10-0-1, 5 KOs) for a vacant regional belt.
Cruiserweight Cheavon Clarke (4-0, 4 KOs) will face Dec Spelman (19-6, 9 KOs) in a 10-rounder.
Junior featherweight Gamal Yafai (19-2, 11 KOs) will take on Diego Alberto Ruiz (23-6-1, 12 KOs) in a 10-rounder.
Super middleweight Kieron Conway (18-3-1, 4 KOs), coming back from a decision loss to Austin Williams in September will face Jorge Silva (21-7, 12 KOs) in an eight-rounder.
Shakur Stevenson (19-0, 9 KOs), 25, of Newark, New Jersey, a former featherweight and unified junior lightweight titlist, will return April 8 (ESPN) at a site to be determined, Top Rank officials told Fight Freaks Unite. He will make his lightweight debut but his foe hasn’t been finalized for the likely WBC lightweight title eliminator. Top Rank is going down the WBC rankings trying to secure the leading available contender, although several fighters have already declined, including Isaac Cruz, William Zepeda and former champion George Kambosos. A possible foe, according to Top Rank, is Shuichiro Yoshino (16-0, 12 KOs), 31, of Japan. In his past two bouts he stopped Masayoshi Nakatani in the sixth round in November and won an 11th-round technical decision over former junior lightweight titlist Masayuki Ito in April.
Showtime announced it will replay secondary lightweight titlist Gervonta Davis’ ninth-round knockout of Hector Luis Garcia on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT. Opening the telecast of the replay of bouts from last Saturday’s Showtime PPV will be Roiman Villa’s dramatic majority decision over Rashidi Ellis, whom he dropped twice in the 12th round to secure the victory in the IBF welterweight eliminator. The event set the all-time gate record in the 25-year history of Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. The fight generated $5.185 million in ticket sales to the sold-out crowd of 19,731. It broke the record set by a Rolling Stones concert.
Staten Island junior welterweight Reshat Mati (13-0, 7 KOs), 24, will now faced Keith Hunter (15-1, 9 KOs), 30, of Las Vegas, in a 10-rounder on Feb. 4 (DAZN) at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, Matchroom Boxing announced on Thursday. The bout is on the main card headlined by the Amanda Serrano-Erika Cruz unification fight for the undisputed women’s featherweight title. Mati was due to face popular Long Island brawler Cletus Seldin (26-1, 22 KOs), but Seldin is out due to a contract dispute with his promoter, Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing.
Junior middleweight Fernando Vargas Jr. (7-0, 7 KOs), 26, and featherweight Amado Vargas (5-0, 2 KOs), 22, both of Las Vegas, who are sons of former junior middleweight titlist Fernando Vargas, have signed promotional contracts with MarvNation Promotions, the company announced Thursday at a news conference at the Derby Room in Pomona, California. They will have the first fights of the deals Feb. 11 at the same venue. The brothers both boxed on the Regis Prograis-Jose Zepeda card that MarvNation promoted on Nov. 26 and the fighters and promoter both had a good experience, which led to the contracts. “(They) looked amazing,” MarvNation founder and CEO Marvin Rodriguez said. “By signing these two warriors, we are demonstrating our commitment to continue making MarvNation the fastest growing promotional company in the sport.”
The Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame announced its 24-person class of 2023, which will be inducted Oct. 1 during ceremonies culminating the weekend festivities at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The living fighters being inducted are George Foreman, Shannon Briggs, David Tua, Pinklon Thomas, Tracy Harris Patterson, Doug Dewitt, Darroll Wilson, Shamone Alvarez and Jamillia Lawrence. Among contributors going in are promoter Joe Hand Sr., longtime Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels, referees Rudy Battle and Benyj Esteves Jr. and journalist Joseph Santoliquito.
Promoter Sampson Lewkowicz announced that he has signed junior middleweight prospect Raul Garcia (12-0, 10 KOs), 24, of the Dominican Republic. Garcia, who had more than 150 amateur fights before turning pro in May 2021, said he began dreaming of becoming a world champion after meeting Oscar De La Hoya. “I know that my career will take off with my promoter Sampson and manager Cesar ‘Manguita’ Mercedes in charge of my direction,” Garcia said. “I can’t wait to be in the kind of big fights I used to watch on television as a youngster. I believe I belong with the best in the division.”
Show and tell
In the early 2000s, junior lightweight was a red-hot division with star power. Floyd Mayweather held the WBC title and the late Diego “Chico” Corrales held the IBF belt but gave it up to help facilitate a big-time fight between the undefeated fighters on HBO. Over on rival Showtime, WBA titlist Joel Casamayor and WBO counterpart Acelino “Popo” Freitas were under contract, undefeated and on a collision course.
When they finally met to unify their 130-pound titles, it was an excellent and highly competitive fight at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas. Freitas, my all-time favorite fighter not named Arturo Gatti, dropped Casamayor in the third round. They both suffered cuts and Casamayor also had a point taken away in the sixth round for hitting on the break. In the end, Freitas scored the biggest victory of his career, 114-112 on all three scorecards, before moving to lightweight and winning another world title two years later. Freitas and Casamayor squared off on Jan. 12, 2002 — 21 years ago on Thursday. Here is an exceptionally rare cardboard site poster from the fight in my collection.
Ajagba-Shaw and Ramirez photos: Mikey Williams/Top Rank
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I went to Jose Ramirez’s last fight (Pedraza) in Fresno. The upper bowl was closed off. And the lower bowl was 3/4’s full. A good crowd, but far from sold out. Dude needs to quit with the excuses and step it up again this year. Commey, with all due respect, ain’t it. Bronco Lara vs Leigh Wood 🔥🔥🔥 Can’t Wait! 🚨🚨🚨
I'll take Shaw over Ajagba please.