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Weekend betting angle – James vs Butaev, Zepeda vs Vargas

IBHOF inductee and boxing gambling expert Graham Houston weighs up this weekend’s betting action including WBA Regular 147lbs champion Jamal James vs Radzhab Butaev.

While there are the usual lopsided favourites, we also have three highly competitive bouts this weekend where it’s difficult to pick a winner. The great thing about these fights is that bettors don’t have to get creative by poring over numbers in the proposition market. A straight-up bet on a boxer simply to win will be good enough from a value perspective. Let’s get to it.

Unbeaten 130lbs prospect Youssef Khoumari gets a real test on the Matchroom show at the O2 Arena today. He’s paired with US import Jorge Castaneda, a 24-year-old from Laredo, Texas. And Khoumari has been matched tough in this one.

Castaneda is a gritty and capable fighter. He pulled off an upset in his last fight when battling his way to a unanimous eight-round decision over prospect Otha Jones III, a former US national junior champ who was 5-0 going into the fight. 

I thought that Castaneda looked a bit open to right hands but he was constantly taking the fight to the flashier Jones and he closed out the contest with a huge last-round onslaught. Jones, 21, lacked the physical strength to stay with Castaneda. 

But Khoumari, 25, is bigger, stronger, more of a physical presence than Jones and, I believe, a better puncher. Khoumari had a rough time against veteran Vicente Rodriguez in his last fight but it was a good learning experience against a willing opponent who never left him alone. I think we’ll see an improved version of Khoumari today. 

Betfred offers Khoumari at 8/11 (-138), with Castaneda priced at 11/10 (+110). Khoumari has skills and hand speed and I think he’ll likely be a tad too talented for Castaneda but, as the odds reflect, it’s far from a sure thing and I can perfectly understand anyone taking a stab on the visiting boxer at plus-money odds.

Across the pond, on opposite coasts, we have a couple of fights where, again, it’s really difficult to find a winner. Jamal James vs Radzhab Butaev for James’ welterweight title is as close to a coin-flip as it gets. That fight takes place at the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas. And over on the East Coast, 140lbs prospect Josue Vargas faces by far his stiffest test when he meets Mexican veteran Jose Zepeda in a 10-round bout at Madison Square Garden’s theater. And that’s another either-way match-up.

I’ve gone back and forth on James vs Butaev and I can see ways either man can win. 

The long and lanky James could use movement, keep the jab working and fire off bursts of punches to stay a step ahead. Or Russia’s Butaev could keep the pressure on James and eventually get to him, hurt him to the body, slow him down and overpower him late in the fight. 

Butaev has been training in the California desert city of Coachella under the guidance of Joel Diaz. So we know Butaev will be in tremendous shape and ready to fight. He is strong, competent and tough, and he can punch. However, the southpaw Alexander Besputin showed Butaev can be outboxed. 

It’s possible Butaev learned a lot from the bout with Besputin. It was his first significant fight as a pro although he was a powerhouse in the quasi-professional World Series of Boxing in the amateurs. Butaev was bothered by Besputin’s speed and shiftiness. He didn’t really apply pressure in an intelligent way in that fight although I thought he always looked dangerous.

James, proud to represent his home city of Minneapolis on the big-time boxing stage, is an improved fighter from the one who lost to Yordenis Ugas five years ago in his only defeat. He just looks a stronger, more complete fighter now, able to rip in body punches up close as well as using a stick-and-move style, and he’s on a run of seven wins in a row. This includes decision wins over solid pros such as Abel Ramos, Antonio DeMarco and Thomas Dulorme. If you feel James can hold off the rugged Butaev, Betfred offers the defending champ at 5/6 (-120), with Butaev listed at 10/11 (-110).

Now we turn to Josue Vargas vs Jose Zepeda for the weekend’s third pick ’em match-up. Of the three toss-up fights this weekend, this is the one where I feel most comfortable risking my money. I’m swaying towards Vargas, who is available at odds of 4/5 (-125) after actually opening as a slight underdog. (Zepeda is priced at 11/10.)

This is something of an experience vs youth, all-southpaw match-up. Zepeda is a tough, skilled veteran from Mexico who can box and bang while Bronx-Puerto Rican Vargas is slicker and quicker.

Vargas is basically undefeated in 20 bouts. His only loss was by DQ in a fight he was winning. I was impressed with Vargas’ performance when he outpointed tough Kendo Castaneda last October. Castaneda seemed to rock him a couple of times but Vargas stayed cool and composed and came back with smart, classy boxing. He scored a flash knockdown early in the bout and he won almost every round.

No question Vargas is moving up in levels against Zepeda but I think his jab, movement and fast hands can give him the edge. Vargas is on home ground in New York, and at 23 he has youth on his side. Although Zepeda prevailed in his wild shootout with slugger Ivan Baranchyk, I fear that this multi-knockdown war might have taken a little out of him. It seemed to me that Zepeda looked a little “flat” in his last fight when outpointing crafty Hank Lundy. I have enormous respect for Zepeda, but give me Vargas’ youth and speed in this excellent pairing. (And if betting the weekend’s fights, don’t forget to cover the draw with a small sprinkle, just in case.)

Main image: James (left) defends his WBA belt against Butaev (right) on Saturday night. Photo: Esther Lin/Showtime.