By Graham Houston
Mexico’s Miguel Vazquez has been an underrated fighter for much of his career, and after seven successful defences of the IBF lightweight title he is finally getting the respect he deserves. However, I believe that Vazquez’s four-year reign as champion is in considerable jeopardy when he meets Russia’s Denis Shafikov on neutral ground in Macau on Saturday — China’s Olympic gold medallist Zou Shiming tops the bill as far as the local populace is concerned but for boxing fans around the world the Vazquez-Shafikov fight is the true main event.
Shafikov, a 28-year-old southpaw, is unbeaten in 34 fights. Although held to a draw by Italy’s Brunet Zamora, he beat Zamora quite comfortably on points in a rematch two years later, which indicates to me that Shafikov is an improving fighter.
Top Rank is promoting Saturday’s show, and it might be significant that Shafikov joined the Top Rank roster last year. (Shafikov made his debut for the company with a seven-round TKO win in Texas last August.)
Vazquez is the favourite, and rightly so. He is an accomplished boxer with an excellent left jab, and very difficult to hit cleanly with his constant movement: his looseness of style, limbs always in motion, makes his nickname of “Puppet” quite apropos. Vazquez is a frustrating boxer to fight. His long left hand scores points while keeping his opponents from closing in on him, and he is adept at pulling away from punches and countering after making an opponent miss.
Shafikov, though, just might have the recipe for success with a style that is based on intelligently applied pressure. I think that he will be the stronger man in the fight because he boxed as a junior welterweight before moving down in weight to box at 135 pounds late in 2012.
When I watched Shafikov defeating fellow-Russian Alisher Rahimov last March I noted his classy, relaxed way of punching and excellent variety of punches. He pressed forward behind a tight guard, showed head and upper-body movement, and he came back strongly whenever Rahimov seems to be getting some momentum going.
Rahimov, a highly competent fighter who had a 25-1 record going into the bout, was losing the fight and getting worn down, and he resorted to throwing blatantly low right hands, which brought his disqualification in the 11th round.
Shafikov also impressed me when he stopped local favourite Lee McAllister on a corner retirement after seven rounds in Aberdeen in February 2012. McAllister boxed quite stylishly but couldn’t keep Shafikov off and was getting disheartened by the sixth round, then bailed out at the end of the seventh, claiming an injury to his left arm.
Vazquez has the height and reach advantages, but Shafikov closed the distance extremely well against the tall Albert Mensah — who, like Vazquez, has an excellent left jab — and he hammered the boxer from Ghana to the body when he backed up Mensah on the ropes. Vazquez has much more of a mobile style than Mensah, but Shafikov was able to negate Mensah’s jab by staying low, bringing pressure and making fast attacks. While Shafikov has never met anyone as skilled and dififcult to hit as Vazquez, I think it’s fair to say that Vazquez has never met anyone quite like Shafikov.
I see Shafikov as a very determined, hungry fighter. This bout is his big opportunity and I am sure that he will be fighting with everything he has — leaving it all in the ring, as they say.
Vazquez wasn’t impressive when winning by split decision over the Mexican southpaw Marvin Quintero in October 2012. While I had no doubt that Vazquez won the fight he struggled at times with Quintero’s attempts to bring pressure. Vazquez easily outpointed the southpaw Mercito Gesta in his last fight, in December 2012, but Gesta was a huge disappointment, giving Vazquez far too much respect and seeming to lack the confidence to go in and throw punches. I believe that Shafikov is a level above Quintero, and I very much doubt if he will be intimidated, which Gesta appeared to be. I think that Shafikov is going to be taking the fight to Vazquez from the start, and I think he has the workrate, the mental and physical toughness and the smart-pressure style that could bring him success.
I see this as being a close contest, with Vazquez moving, jabbing, shooting the right hand, while the shorter Shafikov tries to crowd him, make him uncomfortable, and hopefully keep the punches flowing so that if some miss, others will land.
Shafikov is, I believe, a better all-around fighter than boxers such as Breidis Prescott, Jihoon Kim, Lenny Zappavigna and Mercito Gesta, all of whom Vazquez defeated.
Vazquez would be my pick if the two men were meeting in Mexico, but Macau is a neutral site and Shafikov, who I believe is of Mongolian heritage (his “Genghis Khan” nickname is a clue there) might feel more at home in this part of the world.
Vazquez’s boxing ability, movement and excellent left jab make him tough to beat, but I’m going with Shafikov for the upset. I think he has the style to disrupt the evenness of Vazquez’s boxing and I see him landing enough punches to win most of the rounds to eke out a narrow win on the scorecards.