Following Avni Yildirim’s abject performance at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at how undeserving mandatories damage the sport of boxing.

The Canelo Alvarez vs Avni Yildirim mismatch last weekend underlined what many in the boxing fraternity have been saying for years: sanctioning bodies nominating no-hope challengers is hurting boxing.

No one gave Yildirim any sort of a chance. Canelo was a 50-1 on favourite. He was 14-1 on to win by KO/TKO. 

The WBC somehow made Yildirim their mandatory challenger for Canelo’s 168lbs title. But why? Chris Eubank Jr destroyed Yildirim in three rounds. Yildirim had fought well against Anthony Dirrell in his last fight before meeting Canelo, but that was two years ago. And the fact is that Yildirim didn’t win the fight.

One can’t blame Canelo for going through with his mandatory title defence. The Mexican superstar did what he had to do. He took care of business. But on a stage such as this, with worldwide TV, boxing fans deserved a better fight. (Deserved a fight, to be accurate.)

The big problem here was that Yildirim was worse than anyone could have expected. He showed nothing. After three one-sided rounds, trainer Joel Diaz told Yildirim he’d give him one more round. But the “Turkish Wolf” didn’t want another three minutes of Canelo. As the DAZN commentary rather cruelly put it, Yildirim was a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Before the fight, Eddie Hearn did what a promoter is supposed to do. He did his best to build up Yildirim’s chances. “I think you’re going to see a great performance from Yildirim,” Hearn told Fight Hub TV. “I don’t think he’s going to be good enough, but I think he’s going to wear his heart on his sleeve. I think he’s going to try and give it a great fight.”

Comments such as this increase a veteran observer’s cynicism (if it’s possible to be even more cynical than is already the case), but to be fair it was reasonable to expect Yildirim to give it a good go and, at worst, go out fighting.

But Yildirim looked lost before the first bell sounded. It didn’t help that he had to wait some seven minutes in the ring while a pre-show took place, with Colombian musical performer J Balvin belting out lyrics in Spanish, pyrotechnics, and dancers throwing themselves around on the stage. This was unfair on Yildirim. He looked apprehensive enough making his ring walk. By the time Canelo had finally entered the ring one suspects that the hapless Yildirim was suffering off-the-charts pre-fight nerves. Certainly he seemed frozen in the moment.

The whole thing reminded me of when Roy Jones Jr made a series of mandatory title defences on HBO. This included a one-round win over IBF No. 1 contender Antoine Byrd in a 168-pound title defence. Another IBF No. 1 contender, Tony Thornton, went out in three rounds. My notes on that one: “Thornton can’t do a thing.”

When Jones moved up to light-heavyweight, the mandatory mismatches continued, with New York police officer Richard Frazier, WBC mandatory, blown away in two rounds. “This was a fight between a great fighter and an ordinary fighter, to put the best face on it,” Larry Merchant remarked in his HBO summation.

However, the southpaw Richard Hall, the WBA’s No. 1 light-heavy title contender, put up a very game showing against Jones, surviving two knockdowns in the first round and lasting into the 11th, although the fight had by then become so one-sided that HBO’s Jim Lampley was calling for it to be stopped, exclaiming: “This isn’t competition any more — this is a blood-letting!”

And IBF light-heavy title contender Eric Harding was a mandatory challenger with credentials. The southpaw Harding had an undefeated record going into his bout with Jones, which included a win over future Jones rival and then-unbeaten Antonio Tarver. Harding put up a very respectable showing before retiring at the end of the 10th round with a torn left biceps.

But for the most part, Jones’ mandatory challengers shouldn’t have been in the same ring as him.

And this is the thing with too many mandatory defences. Time after time, the challenger doesn’t belong. We saw it when Gennady Golovkin stopped IBF No. 1 Kamil Szeremeta in seven rounds last December. Szeremeta had an unbeaten record and he was very game but Golovkin easily handled him, dropping Szeremeta four times. But the Polish fighter kept doing his best to fight back and, as they say in the trade, had no quit in him.

I was ringside for a mandatory mismatch when Oscar De La Hoya knocked out Patrick Charpentier, of France, in the third round outdoors on a windy night at El Paso, Texas, in June 1998. Such was De La Hoya’s drawing power that a crowd of 45,368 turned up even knowing that Charpentier had no chance. While Charpentier was good enough to win the European welterweight title, De La Hoya was levels above him. 

The CompuBox punch stats showed Charpentier making only five connections. “Charpentier seemed full of fight at the outset, parading the French flag around the ring, punching a first into the air,” I reported for Boxing Monthly. But as soon as Charpentier got hit he seemed to give up mentally. 

“De La Hoya was a 17-1 on favourite in Las Vegas, but even those odds were nowhere near indicative of the chasm in class between champion and challenger,” I wrote. The Golden Boy dropped Charpentier three times in the third round and referee Laurence Cole waved the finish after the third knockdown. There was no need to count. 

Now, 23 years later, it would be impossible to get odds of 1/17 (-1700) on a mismatch such as De La Hoya vs Charpentier. Today it would be in the 1/50 (-5000) range that we saw in the Canelo vs Yildirim affair. 

Mismatches in championship fights are nothing new, of course. They have been around for a long time. In the 1950s, for instance, lightweight champ Jimmy Carter dropped the unfortunate Tommy Collins 10 times in a four-round TKO win. The bout, nationally televised in the US, provoked something of an outcry. UPI news service reporter Oscar Fraley reported in purple-prose words that the fight was so one-sided that it “carried fearful horror into the nation’s living room”.

“Nowhere, among members of the fight mob, could you find anyone who gave Collins even the slightest chance,” Fraley added.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

But here’s the thing with mandatory mismatches. They give promoters an out for making one-sided fights and they give champions a ready-made excuse for taking what in reality are easy assignments.

In the interests of fairness, it should be said that not every mandatory challenger is overmatched. There have been some very capable and worthy mandatory challengers. Some earned a title bout by winning an elimination match, such as George Kambosos Jr, the undefeated Aussie who will be challenging Teofimo Lopez for the IBF version of the lightweight title, and you can’t knock that.

But then we get the Canelo-Yildirim affairs.

One might think that a sanctioning body wouldn’t put forward a challenger who is clearly in over his head. But that’s not the way things work in boxing. 

Title bouts mean sanctioning fees. If, every so often, a no-chance challenger gets a title opportunity, well, that’s just the nature of the business. The situation has been ridiculous for years and never more so than it is now after Yildirim’s non-challenge, but don’t hold your breath expecting things to change.

Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.