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January 16, 2017

The Monday After the Fights Before - Jan 16

Orlando Salido, Francisco Vargas

Image credit: Tom Casino/SHOWTIME.

by Shaun Brown

Fight of the year contenders, round of the year contenders, a superstar in the making, an upset and some missing teeth. The boxing in Brooklyn on Saturday night set the bar pretty high for the rest of 2017.

After the stale bread appetiser that was Erislandy Lara v Yuri Foreman on Friday night, all eyes turned to the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn 24 hours later for a main course that we're still savouring 48 hours later!

With the UFC product thriving there is undoubted pressure on boxing in 2017, and fans couldn't have wished for a better start after only 14 days into this year.

Unbeaten records were on the line when Ukraine's Ievgen Khytrov (14 wins) went at it like his life depended on it against Immanuwel Aleem (16 wins) for the vacant WBC silver middleweight title.

Khytrov, nicknamed 'The Ukranian Lion' was in full-on gazelle hunting mode from the first bell, but Aleem wasn't acting like the prey in this fight, and had Khytrov in trouble in the first round throwing big right hands that were just part of an early onslaught that the much fancied Khytrov did well to survive.

Khytrov, who was ranked number 2 with the WBC and chasing an Eastern European showdown with Gennady Golovkin, must have pulled many a neck muscle in the build-up to this fight because his head only seemed to move when he was rocked by Aleem.

The two men were content to slug it out from beginning to end in this 10-round bout. Aleem had the faster hands, the better movement but had a shaky moment of his own in the second that saw Khytrov get back into the fight. A quick one-two from Aleem followed by a double left hook had Khytrov down in the third round for the first time in his career. To his credit the 28-year-old rallied, firing back and wobbled Aleem after a left hand that buckled the Virginian's knees. Mark it down: Round three will be a round of the year contender come the end of 2017.

Round four saw Aleem countering with Khytrov undeterred by everything being thrown at him. Aleem began to create some space in the fifth session, in what was probably the quietest three rounds of the fight.

A Khytrov uppercut in the sixth, a punch that would prove popular with fighters throughout the night at the Barclays Centre, troubled Aleem - the table looked to be turning. Wrong! Aleem answered four-fold. An overhand right, a jab and two right hands put the tired Khytrov down to the canvas for the second time. A burst of action that not only stopped Khytrov's momentum in the round but the fight itself. 

Aleem (17-0-1, 10 KOs) was rightly overjoyed with the victory. One that thrusts him into the middleweight picture and into the mix for bigger fights and bigger purses. As for Khytrov (14-1, 12 KOs), a decorated amateur, the drawing board needs to be thrown out with a new one in its place. Number one in things to work on should read 'Head Movement'.

Khytrov v Aleem was a tough act to follow for Jose Pedraza and Gervonta Davis. The former making the third defence of his IBF Super Featherweight title against a Floyd Mayweather Jr. protege. A 22-year-old star in the making who was having a 12-round fight for the first time in his career.

Davis, who did have over 200 amateur wins behind him, showed maturity beyond his years and looked to use a wicked uppercut from early on. Davis' shots sounded hurtful, complete with a sound effect that Hollywood would happily use in a fight scene. The kid from Baltimore took the fight to the seasoned 27-year-old Puerto Rican, and in doing so ripped the title from his grasp.

The difference in power and speed of hand were just two attributes that Davis showed to be far superior in. Davis' confidence, something that doesn't need a lot of work, blossomed in round three with a lead uppercut testing every ounce of Pedraza's resolve. The champion was bleeding from the nose, the challenger full of ferocity and angles that Pedraza had no answer for.

Head down, barrel forward was the predictable tactic from Pedraza throughout. He finally got on the front foot after success in the fifth with a burst of shots that gave him a pulse in the fight, but it was feint and rarely threatened to quicken.

The punishment to Pedraza rarely let up. His answer? Noises that Michael Jackson would have been proud of. The end was nigh and it was when not if. A booming right hand from Davis, who seemed to get stronger with every round, sent the pummelled champion through the ropes. The fight was over, Pedraza's 19-month reign as IBF 130lbs champion was over. A star was born, however, and his name is Gervonta Davis. 

The 10,000 strong crowd inside the Barclays had been treated to a little bit of everything thus far, with the main event still to come.

The best versus the best, champion versus champion... something that boxing used to pride itself on providing. Badou Jack (WBC Super Middleweight champion) and James DeGale (IBF Super Middleweight champion) took everything that they had worked for all their life, and put it all on the line. 

The versatility of DeGale against the simplicity yet effectiveness of Jack. DeGale got himself a fast start when he won his belt back in 2015 against Andre Dirrell, putting the American speedster down in round two. The Brit went one better in round one, against Jack, sending the American-based Swede with a sneaky short left hand. The ideal beginning for 'Chunky'. 10-8.

There was no dent in Jack, more an embarassment at what had just happened. The WBC king took the centre of the ring determined to show his opponent who was the real boss. Big right hands whipping in against DeGale's busier, flashier work. A tone was set but that tone would change later on.

Jack looked the stronger and the heavier handed of the two. It was a case of less is more for the Swede. He rarely wasted a shot and those that did land seemed to take more out of DeGale. Jack's left hand was beginning to become a key player in the fight. Even-stevens on this scorecard after four rounds.

Referee Arthur Mecante Jr. became a YouTube moment, a dream for social media users in the fifth when he copped a shot from Jack just after the end of the round. Mecante's whiskers held together. Well played, sir.

A body shot from Jack looked like it unsettled DeGale in the sixth. Jack was coming on strong. DeGale wasn't switching off as he had done in previous fights, his conditioning wasn't letting him down. Jack was simply taking over. DeGale by one point at the halfway stage.

DeGale was digging deep from the seventh but wasn't doing enough of what he was good at. Content to fight on the inside and show machismo against Jack. The wrong tactic but the heart was taking over the head.

A devilish uppercut from Jack knocked DeGale's gumshield out in the eighth. Was that when the tooth came out? DeGale didn't care, bloodied from the mouth, he continued to give as good as he got. But what he was giving was exactly what Jack wanted. 76-75 to Jack after eight.

A DeGale tooth was definitely missing in the ninth as his trainer Jim McDonnell confirmed. Chunky's gumshield fell out again, more down to the gums not being able to hold the mouthpiece given that some pearly whites were missing. 

Both men slung leather at one another in the 10th. DeGale was finding something from deep down, something that only a fighter can find. A will to win, a refusal to lose. Jack's trainer Lou Del Valle sounded concerned at the end of those 180 seconds of thrills and spills. "We came too far for this!" Music from 'Rocky' played during the 60-second sit down. Brilliant.

By this time DeGale had abandoned pre-fight tactics and chose to slug it out with Jack. It was working. Jack didn't like it. The IBF champion was meant to fade late on. What was going on? 105-103 DeGale after 11.

A cluster of shots from DeGale in the final round looked like the beginning of a triumph for the Londoner. Jimmy Lennon's words of "And the new unified champion..." could probably be heard somewhere in DeGale's mind. Words that were crushed with a Badou Jack right hand from hell that staggered DeGale. It became an onslaught. A short uppercut put DeGale on his backside. He would claim he was off balance. It didn't matter. Incredibly DeGale's fists threw caution to the wind in a final ten seconds that simply took your breath away. It was a draw on this card, a majority card overall on the offical scorecards. 

Six men had delivered in front of more than 10,000 people. The plaudits will go to Jack and DeGale, but Khytrov, Aleem, Pedraza and Davis can look themselves in the mirror - lumps and bumps on display - and be proud of what they had produced for fight fans. They delivered, boxing delivered.