Features

Olympic stars destined to shine in the pro ranks

After a thrilling boxing tournament in Japan, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston pinpoints the Tokyo Olympians who are destined to become the pro stars of the future.

And so it’s over. The Olympics was fun even in this Covid-restrictions era. Now let’s turn to the matter of which boxers are likely to become stars in professional boxing.

Obviously, Uzbekistan’s Bakhodir Jalolov, gold medallist in the super heavyweight division, and lightweight silver medallist Keyshawn Davis of the US are going to become big attractions — and both have already boxed professionally.

And Birmingham’s Galal Yafai has the potential to become a British flyweight superstar. Brothers Khalid and Gamal have won world and European pro titles but Galal, 28, has the cachet of an Olympic gold medal. Galal is getting on a little for a flyweight but could be fast-tracked as a 112lbs contender.

Right out of the gate in Tokyo, Yafai was all business. He took the fight to everyone he met. Yafai looked powerful and his pressure was unrelenting. The “refuse to lose” expression is bandied about, but, really, that was Yafai in Tokyo. Whenever things got tough, Yafai responded by digging down and pushing forward.

Yafai is exciting. He brings the heat and he hits heavily from out of his southpaw stance, whether with the left hand or the right hook, and he’s an excellent body puncher. Armenia’s Soghomonyan was overwhelmed, given three standing counts and pulled out in the final round, in Yafai’s opening bout in Tokyo. 

Next up was Zambia’s Chinyemba, who provided spirited opposition in a bout where a standing eight count proved mightily important in Yafai’s 3-2 split decision win.

But then Yafai seemed to reach another level as he clearly outfought and outpointed Cuba’s Yosbany Veitia in an all-southpaw bout. Veitia wasn’t given a chance to employ his flashy skills — Yafai was all over him.

On to the semi-finals, and a tough battle with Kazakhstan’s Saken Bibossinov in another all-southpaw contest and Yafai’s second 3-2 split win of the Games. With the fight on the table heading into the last round, Yafai just kept punching.

The gold-medal bout against Carlo Paalam of the Philippines looked like being a really tough fight against a skilled opponent but Yafai got off to a dream start, dropping his opponent with a left hand in the first round. Although Paalam came back strongly and even got the vote of one of the judges it was bout in which Yafai looked a winner all the way.

Other members of Britain’s Tokyo squad also seem to have bright futures as professionals.

Gold-medal favourite Pat McCormack, 26, looks headed for pro stardom even though settling for silver. McCormack was unfortunate to run into Roniel Iglesias on perhaps the best night the Cuban southpaw has ever had in the welterweight final. Iglesias boxed and fought superbly. It didn’t help McCormack that he went into the bout with a cut over the eye from an earlier contest. 

Pat’s twin brother, Luke McCormack, and Liverpool’s Peter McGrail didn’t reach the medals round but have the talent to win pro championships. 

GB’s light-heavy silver medallist Ben Whitaker has skills and swagger but his elusive, hit-and-move style might not appeal to followers of pro boxing. However, Whitaker could always adapt his ring method to become more fan friendly in the manner of 1968 British gold medallist Chris Finnegan, who overcame fears that he might have too much of an “amateur” style for pro boxing.

Frazer Clarke, GB bronze medallist in the super heavy division, has the fighting style that should go down well in the pros. Clarke was game and stubborn against the seemingly unbeatable Bakhodir Jalolov, even forcing a standing count when he landed a right hand that sent the towering southpaw into the ropes. Although cut over both eyes, Clarke stuck to it until the doctor decided the bout should be stopped. If only Jalolov had stayed away from Tokyo this could have been a gold-medal Games for Clarke. He’s 29 so we’ll likely see him on the fast track as a pro.

I liked the swift, stylish boxing of Ireland’s Kurt Walker, who came oh so close to beating Duke Ragan of the US in the featherweight quarter-finals. Walker, 26, went into the bout with a cut over the eye from his upset win over Uzbekistan’s world champion Mirzakhalilov in the Round of 16. The cut reopened in the second round. It was an obvious handicap but Walker fought through it. Really, this one could have gone either way. 

Brazil’s Hebert Sousa scored perhaps the most dramatic win of the Games when, behind on points and seemingly well on his way to defeat, he blasted Ukrainian punching machine Oleksandr Khyzhniak out of the fight with a beautifully timed left hook in the final round. 

Sousa can box and he can punch and he has a flashiness and touch of bravado that will appeal to pro boxing’s aficionados. Even when under intense pressure against Khyzhniak he never stopped trying to find a way to win. And the relentless, all-action Khyzhniak surely has the qualities that will find favour with pro-boxing followers.

Imam Khataev of Russia is another who just seems made for the pros. Ben Whitaker was too slick and slippery for Khataev in the light-heavy semi-finals but the Russian tank had overwhelmed earlier opponents. It was just that Whitaker — very sensibly — refused to stand still. As mentioned in earlier Tokyo round-ups, Khataev has the clubbing power that reminds me of his pro-champ countryman Artur Beterbiev.

Lightweight bronze-medallist Hovhannes Bachkov, of Armenia, also has what could be called a pro style. Bachkov steams straight ahead, hands high, and lets the punches fly when he gets in range. Old rival Keyshawn Davis was a bit too speedy and smart for him in Tokyo but three judges had the bout even. (The advantage was awarded to Davis when the three 28-28 judges were asked to name a winner).

California’s slugging southpaw Richard Torrez Jr, 22, silver medallist in the super heavy division, clearly has the right stuff to be a money-spinning pro heavyweight. Torrez goes right at his opponents with a swarming, slam-bang style, and he can hit with either hand — he wobbled Kazakhstan’s Kunkabayev with a right hook to force a standing count in their semi-final contest and busted open the bridge of his opponent’s nose with a left hand to bring the referee’s intervention. While on the small side for a heavyweight, Torrez’ crouching stance works in his favour. Torrez is guaranteed to be a fan-favourite as a pro.

Moving along, Albert Batyrgaziev, Russia’s featherweight gold medallist, looks like a future pro champion. A southpaw who brings bell-to-bell pressure, Batyrgaziev was a little too insistent for Duke Ragan in a keenly contested gold-medal bout.

And Japanese flyweight bronze medallist Ryomei Tanaka (brother of pro three-weight champion Kosei) is a southpaw with a pressure-fighting style who could be built into a fan favourite in his homeland. 

Others who caught my eye included:

Yuberjen Martinez (Colombia). A silver medallist in Rio, Martinez lost narrowly to Tanaka in the flyweight quarter-finals in Tokyo. Although Tanaka got the win he took a lot of hard shots and looked jaded when losing to Filipino Paalam in the semis. I think it’s fair to assume that the fight with Martinez took a lot out of Tanaka. Martinez has the come-forward, willing  style that will go down well in the pros.

Carlo Paalam (Philippines). Although he lost the decision, Paalam gave a very determined showing against Yafai in the flyweight gold-medal bout. Paalam upset Rio gold medallist Zoirov, of Uzbekistan, in the Tokyo Round of 16. Sure, Zoirov got a bad break when he was cut over the eye from a clash of heads, but Paalam was landing right hands against the veteran left-hander and was up 20-18 on four of the five judges’ cards. Paalam has the look of a fighter who can go a long way in the pros.

Samuel Takyi (Ghana). Tall and somewhat colourful with his blond-dyed hair, Takyi has an all-action style. Duke Ragan was a bit too polished for him in their featherweight quarter-final bout but Takyi was always in it, and one of the judges favoured his whole-hearted effort.

Stephen Zimba (Zambia). Only 20, Zimba fights with high energy and boundless enthusiasm. Russian southpaw veteran Andrei Zamkovoy was too experienced and crafty for him in their welterweight Round of 16 contest but Zimba, upbeat and eager for the fray, was right in it and actually won all three rounds on one judge’s card. With his gold-tinted hair and coming-at-you style, Zimba has the look of a fighter who could make a mark in the pros.

Leaving out the Cubans, who need an escape route to pursue a pro career, which Olympians are most likely to succeed as pros? Here’s a list of 10, in reverse order, including those who have already boxed professionally.

10. Kurt Walker

9. Richard Torrez Jr

8. Imam Khataev

7. Duke Ragan

6. Albert Batyrgaziev

5. Pat McCormack

4. Galal Yafai

3. Hebert Sousa

2. Keyshawn Davis

1. Bakhodir Jalolov

Main image: Galal Yafai. Photo: Alamy/Press Association.