Preview: Boxing’s 10 best fights for April 2021

Putting together these “10 best coming this month” posts can be weird when you don’t have a clear number one choice, and we really don’t have a clear number one choice for April.

There are a lot of fights coming, mind you. But there is no mega-star boxing attraction in a traditional sense in action this month, and no single matchup that screams out, “That is going to be great,” either. There is quality, there are good names and world title fights and one novelty pay-per-view that will be easily the biggest event of the month by business standards, but admittedly none of this jumps off the page as truly must-see.

So let me try to give you some reasons to watch these things.

Editor’s Note (Mar. 31, 12:36 pm ET): The April 24 fight between Jaime Munguia and Maciej Sulecki would have made this list, but wasn’t made official until after the article was published. Instead of taking out something and putting that on, here’s a note about it. It’s a decent fight! Munguia is fun to watch! It would probably have been No. 8 here and I figure I would have left off Berlanga-Nicholson but not Jake Paul-Ben Askren because let’s be honest, we’re leaning on the existence of Paul-Askren to get anyone to read this as Smith-Vlasov and Ennis-Lipinets definitely aren’t box office blockbusters! — Scott

10) Jake Paul vs Ben Askren (PPV, April 17)

Let’s start with the novelty pay-per-view main event that will be easily the biggest event of the month by business standards. Nothing else will come close to attracting the attention that Jake Paul vs Ben Askren will, because Jake Paul is very internet famous, and Triller are doing their best to capture a younger, “hipper” audience to watch some fights.

Quite frankly, if you lean toward “it is the biggest” as the key factor, this should be No. 1 on the list. But while I’m not a staunch traditionalist — I think boxing’s musty ass marketing strategies could use some freshening up, and stuff like this doesn’t make me mad — I also am enough of one that I’m not putting the YouTube guy against the washed up ex-MMA guy who wasn’t even good at stand-up in that sport higher than this. It would not be respect to box.

But it’s a big event and should be some level of fun if you have the temperament for it.

9) Edgar Berlanga vs Demond Nicholson (ESPN, April 24)

Edgar Berlanga (16-0, 16 KO) has big star potential. The 23-year-old super middleweight has dispatched 16 straight opponents in the first round to start his career, and is building buzz. He’s got the ESPN machine behind him with Top Rank, but they’re also not rushing him into levels he might not be able to handle. Lanell Bellows was the right sort of step two fights ago, Ulises Sierra the right sort of step last time, and Demond Nicholson (23-3-1, 20 KO) the right sort of step this time.

Nicholson’s a solid, 28-year-old veteran fighter, been in with some decent opponents, not a top contender. Jesse Hart stopped him in seven in 2018 and a club fighter stopped him in six in 2014, but I wouldn’t really call him “chinny,” and at any rate I don’t think you have to be “chinny” to get hurt or knocked out by Berlanga, whose power is truly organic. He hurts guys on shots that aren’t even close to being loaded up.

This could be another one-round wipeout — odds would seem to be good for that, in fact — but Berlanga is a compelling young fighter worth tuning in to watch. And sooner or later, someone is going to get out of the first round, and someone is going to actually test him.

8) Emanuel Navarrete vs Christopher Diaz (ESPN, April 24)

Kind of easy to forget that Navarrete (32-1, 27 KO) was expected to lose to Isaac Dogboe in Dec. 2018, and instead won the WBO 122-pound title. He made five successful title defenses, four against less-than-stellar opposition and a rematch mauling of Dogboe, before moving up to featherweight last October and fighting Ruben Villa for the vacant WBO belt at 126.

Villa gave Navarette a good fight, because Villa’s a good boxer. But he lost it because he went down twice; if not for that, it would have been a majority draw. Navarrete is a good fighter, uses what he’s best at to the best of his ability, and is generally fun to watch fight. Diaz (26-2, 16 KO) has never really gotten over the hump; he had a fight for the vacant WBO 130-pound belt in 2018 and lost to Masayuki Ito, then moved down to featherweight and lost to Shakur Stevenson in 2019.

But he’s won his last two, and he’s got the shot with Navarrete. This certainly isn’t the best world title matchup, but it’s surely not the most ridiculous you’ll see. It was an easy fight to make in-house at Top Rank and you can expect “Pitufo” Diaz to give the effort. Navarrete is beatable, he’s far from flawless. If Diaz has a night where he puts it together, it’s not unthinkable.

7) Joe Smith Jr vs Maxim Vlasov (ESPN, April 10)

Rescheduled from February due to Vlasov testing positive for COVID, this will be Top Rank’s first show outside of their MGM Bubble in about a year, as they head down to Tulsa’s Osage Casino with fans in attendance.

The 31-year-old Smith (26-3, 21 KO) had some big positives in 2020, so he’s one of the few. As much as he made headlines years ago upsetting Andrzej Fonfara on NBC and following that up by knocking Bernard Hopkins out of the ring and out of boxing, 2020 probably was the best year of Smith’s pro career. His wins over Jesse Hart and Eleider Alvarez were really strong performances, both of them clear victories (I know the Hart win was a split, but it was a clear Smith win in reality).

Vlasov (45-3, 26 KO) is a good veteran, 34 now, and has won three straight since coming down from cruiserweight starting in 2019. He’s always been one of those guys right at the edges of world level. Both of these guys are looking to claim their first world title with the vacant WBO light heavyweight title on the line. I think there’s some quiet potential for a very good fight here.

6) Denzel Bentley vs Felix Cash (BT Sport, April 24)

A really, really good domestic-level clash, with Bentley defending the British middleweight title and Cash the Commonwealth belt, as UK fighters continue a sudden rash of attempting to unify those belts.

The 26-year-old Bentley (14-0-1, 12 KO) and the 27-year-old Cash (13-0, 9 KO) can both fight. Maybe they don’t quite make it past domestic or European level, but matchmaking is important to me. I don’t have a problem not watching THE VERY BEST MOST ELITE FIGHTERS if they’re matched properly, and this is a proper matchup between two guys at the same level who both have the hunger to go much further.

Matchroom’s Cash will sort of be the away fighter here, as Bentley is promoted by Queensberry and it’s a Queensberry show (they won the purse bid). But most important is this could really be a terrific fight; it’s cliche and a bit romantic, but domestic title fights in the UK — particularly the British title — do have a habit of going up a notch because the fighters really want those belts, really believe in the value of those belts.

5) Demetrius Andrade vs Liam Williams (DAZN, April 17)

Andrade (29-0, 18 KO) still can’t get a fight with any of the other true top names at 160. Even if you don’t like his style or watching his fights — and I don’t, personally — it’s hard not to feel a little bad for the 33-year-old “Boo Boo.” He’s done what he’s supposed to do, but he’s a legitimately good, skilled, crafty, and smart fighter who doesn’t bring a big fan base and doesn’t make for exciting fights very often.

So he’s kind of a perfect “avoided fighter” mold. Williams (23-2-1, 18 KO) is at least a pretty good opponent, though, and let’s be real here, the best opponent Andrade has had on paper since DAZN tried to push him as an attraction in 2018. (They clearly expected him to be a Canelo and/or GGG opponent at some point, so they really tried.)

Williams is aggressive, fearless, and makes for good fights. Could get him picked apart by Andrade, but it’s not like Demetrius has totally dominated everyone ever, either. Vanes Martirosyan and Jack Culcay were competitive, though those fights came in 2013 and 2017. At the very least, Williams figures to go down swinging if he’s going to go.

4) Moruti Mthalane vs Sunny Edwards (ESPN+, April 30)

Remember when Nonito Donaire was a flyweight? You might not if you’re a younger fan, because Nonito Donaire hasn’t fought at flyweight since 2009. Anyway, when he was, he was straight up dominant for a couple of years before moving up in weight. One of the guys he beat back then was Moruti Mthalane in Nov. 2008.

Mthalane was a higher-end flyweight then. 12-plus years later, he remains a higher-end flyweight, and has held the IBF title since beating Ardin Diale for the vacant belt in 2017. He had previously held the same belt from 2009-12, and never lost it. In fact, Mthalane (39-2, 26 KO) hasn’t lost since Donaire beat him; he’s won 16 straight. But he’s 38 now and the clock is ticking. His run has really been pretty incredible in some ways, to never move up, still be at this same weight, still be competing at this high a standard as he inches toward 40 as a flyweight is wild.

Edwards (15-0, 4 KO) is looking to follow in brother Charlie’s footsteps and win a flyweight world title here. The 25-year-old has a lot of personality and is a very skilled boxer; not much of a puncher, but the kid can operate in the ring, and the standard belief is he’s more skilled than his older sibling. He’s going to have to be every bit as good as his supporters think to beat Mthalane. This is a really good fight between a rising contender taking a big step up and a highly-experienced champ looking to hold off another challenge.

3) Jamel Herring vs Carl Frampton (ESPN+, April 3)

Herring (22-2, 10 KO) and Frampton (28-2, 16 KO) basically put this fight together toward the end of 2019, but 2020 passed and with COVID restrictions, the fight just couldn’t get done. It’s been delayed further into 2021 than originally hoped, too.

But it’s happening. The 35-year-old Herring defends his WBO junior lightweight title in Dubai against the 34-year-old Frampton; the fight was long expected to be held in the UK, but now it’s a neutral site on an MTK Global show.

It’s a good matchup. Herring is longer and taller, has come down from 135 to hit his stride at 130, while Frampton is going to be giving up five inches of height and a full 10 inches in reach. He’s a very good fighter at his best, but it felt at times like he was pushing it at 126, and 130 seems really tough for him. But he’s a two-division champion and wants to fight for legacy. This is that chance. Herring’s run as a world champion has been somewhat crafted, sure, but he had to win the fights, and he’s done that. And if Frampton finds himself overmatched physically, I fully expect him to empty the tank and go for the win, because this might be the last world title fight he’s getting if he loses.

2) Murodjon Akhmadaliev vs Ryosuke Iwasa (DAZN, April 3)

Akhmadaliev (8-0, 6 KO) won the WBA and IBF junior featherweight titles from Danny Roman in Jan. 2020, and hasn’t fought since. He’ll have home field in Uzbekistan here, as Matchroom look to continue expanding where we can get higher-end shows.

This is a sneaky dangerous matchup. Iwasa (27-3, 17 KO) is a former titlist and still a serious contender, and the 31-year-old Japanese southpaw is no easy out. He lost the IBF belt to TJ Doheny in 2018 at Korakuen Hall, but I personally thought Iwasa got the short end of the stick in that fight and at the very least had an argument.

He’s won two straight since. Akhmadaliev, 26, is a good, well-rounded, tough fighter, has some power, good boxing skills, well-schooled. But Roman gave him a highly competitive fight, too, he’s not unbeatable, and Iwasa’s skill set could definitely give him some trouble. A good matchup, could turn into a fantastic fight.

1) Jaron Ennis vs Sergey Lipinets (Showtime, April 10)

I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s pick. Far from the biggest fight of the month (again, Paul-Askren), no world titles on the line, nothing guaranteed to the winner. But in a month with no clear top choice, I’m opting to hype a wild card sort of choice, because I like this fight a lot.

Let me say it plain: the glorious, big money, star-studded welterweight division has been boring as hell for a while now. There’s one fight to make (Spence-Crawford), and it ain’t getting made. The division’s biggest global name (Manny Pacquiao) is an old, part-time fighter who is chasing winnable paydays now, and I don’t blame him. What more can he prove?

Basically all the top full-timers other than Crawford have fought each other, and it looks like Crawford isn’t fighting any of them. And basically all of the top fighters and top names (Spence, Crawford, Pacquiao, Shawn Porter, Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Yordenis Ugas, Mikey Garcia) are into their 30s. That definitely isn’t old, but you like to see young guys start cycling in and offering challenges.

This division needs a jolt of younger energy. Vergil Ortiz Jr is fully on the radar now. And 23-year-old Jaron “Boots” Ennis (26-0, 24 KO) is right there on the cusp, too. Lipinets (16-1-1, 12 KO) is a former 140-pound titlist and a tough, talented fighter. Ennis seems to have those next-level abilities, as Ortiz does, but like Ortiz did before Maurice Hooker, he needs a test from a legit vet. Ennis and Ortiz need to start beating down doors in this division if they’re as good as we hope them to be. This can be a big step to doing just that.

Furthermore, Lipinets is never in boring fights and Ennis is flashy, fast, and powerful. This should be good TV.

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