In a matter of days, two high-class boxers with loads of talent who have spent the better part of the past decade at the top of their games will stand nose-to-nose. One is a warrior whose uneven performances have alternated with glimmers of brilliance. Another is a boxer who’s rarely chosen tests equal to his abilities. Hardcore fans drool in anticipation of their confrontation.
You didn’t think I was talking about Floyd Mayweather-Shane Mosley, did you? It wasn’t that good a sneak attack. The headline where it says “Hozumi Hasegawa Vs. Fernando Montiel” was a dead giveaway, even if the first part was an esoteric reference to a delicious D.C. restaurant that fuses Japanese and Mexican cuisine. It is nonetheless a strange sight to think about, the idea of an elite Mexican boxer getting into the ring against an elite Japanese boxer in Japan, and nearly as delectable as Zengo.
Consider these other elements of the fight that make it sexy: It is the first bantamweight title unification in perhaps decades; Hasegawa is no worse than a borderline top-20 pound-for-pound fighter, and Montiel is in that ballpark; Montiel is the best opponent Hasegawa has faced since 2006 (Veeraphol Sahaprom), and Hasegawa is the best opponent Montiel has faced since 2008 (Martin Castillo); and Montiel was so eager to do it he very clearly bucked the wishes of his promoter, Top Rank, and traveled to foreign soil for the opportunity.
If you’re a morning person in the United States with ready access to a stream, what better reason to watch a boxing match early on Friday?
[TQBR Prediction Game 2.0 is in effect. Remember the rules, which require a prediction by Thursday at 11:59 p.m. ET.]
I’ve been mildly skeptical of Hasegawa, at least compared to a number of my fellow boxing writers who have him as high as the top 10, pound-for-pound. He has two wins over a really good opponent — Sahaprom — and a scattering of wins over opponents who are borderline top-10 in the division. Admittedly, he’s looked good detonating on their heads with punches that end matters in the 1st or 2nd round, but he SHOULD look good doing that. On the other hand, he’s looked better smashing up those types than others have. Take Alejandro Valdez. Hasegawa got rid of him easily in two rounds. Another top-10 bantam, Nehomar Cermeno, endured a life-and-death struggle against him before pulling out the 11th round KO. Even Montiel had his hands full, in a fight ruled a no contest where Valdez was whooping him and Montiel got lucky that the authorities botched what should probably have been ruled a KO loss.
But there’s no doubting he at least looks like the goods, and there’s enough on his resume to suggest it’s no illusion. What stands out about him is uncommon poise and smarts. He’s a ruthless finisher, but every time he knocks an opponent down and that opponent rises, he casually strolls over to end the job. He starts things with southpaw jabs to the head and body, which come persistently enough to keep his opponents distracted. His favorite weapon is his left hook, but he’s scored knockdowns and knockouts with his counter right hook as well, and with as straighter version of his left. He has good offensive diversity, happy to work the body as well as the head, and in the rematch with Sahaprom he was cooking the Thai fighter with counter uppercuts with both hands. When his man is hurt, he puts his punches together beautifully and with non-stop intensity. For defense, he relies on timely lateral and backward movement, plus the occasional bit of head movement, and missing him usually means you get countered quickly.
By way of flaws, he has… not much, or at least not much that anyone has exposed. Sahaprom caused him trouble in spots in both fights by getting on the inside, where he doesn’t seem to like it. Once upon a time the flaw appeared to be his power, as he only had scored six knockouts prior to 2008 in 22 fights, but he’s on a six-fight knockout streak. I can say I don’t think his speed is blinding, but I think he’ll be faster than Montiel. I can say he’s prone to getting out of position after attacking, but only occasionally. He’s contemplated a move up in weight, perhaps suggesting difficulty boiling down to 118. But really, his major problem might be experience. Montiel has it against the best of the best. Hasegawa has a lot less of it.
Like Hasegawa, Montiel has moved toward a more fan-friendly style over the years, but he’s probably still more of a natural counterpuncher. What stands out about him is his defense. With that straight-up stance, you wouldn’t think that was the case, but he catches a lot of shots on his gloves, plus he does his share of smart movement. He keeps his chin tucked, so his opponents are probably better off tagging him to the body. He likes giving out left hooks to the ribcage, and he has scored any number of knockouts that way. His left may overall be a stronger weapon, because he’ll shoot uppercuts with it and also has a nice jab. His right is good for hooks and crosses that he usually sets up with said jabs, when they’re not counters. I’ve seen it written that he has trouble with southpaws, but he’s beaten as many as have given him trouble. He’s also the bigger puncher in this fight historically, with 30 KOs in 40 wins.
What makes Montiel hard to figure is that he’s so inconsistent. Sometimes he’ll blow out someone like he should, as he did inexperienced prospect Ciso Morales in the 1st round of his last fight. Other times he’ll struggle with borderline opponents, like Valdez. Sometimes he’ll wreck a top fighter, like he did Martin Castillo. He looked brilliant that night. Other times he’s lucky to survive with a win, like he did against Z Gorres. Since returning to bantam, he’s yet to beat a top foe, with a previous loss against Jhonny Gonzalez suggesting he was better off at 115. There’s a reason he’s only ranked #9 at bantam by Ring magazine, to Hasegawa’s #1. He’s the most accomplished opponent Hasegawa has faced in a long time, but he’s not only on par with Hasegawa’s recent opponents as a bantam.
It’s commendable that Montiel is taking this fight, especially on the terms he’s taking it. But I think we’ll find out why his promoter was hoping to avoid it when Montiel gets into the ring with Hasegawa. Even with his more fan-friendly style, Montiel is more conservative in his punch output than Hasegawa, so I think Montiel is going to get outworked. He’s the shorter man with the shorter reach, so I think he’s going to be outboxed from the outside, too. And with the fight being in Japan, should the fight be close, he’ll have a hard time getting the decision. I have a tough time imagining exactly how the fight will play out, but I don’t think Montiel will get hit as often as Hasegawa’s previous opponents; I think Montiel will be competitive; I think the fight will feature many clever adjustments from both fighters, and moments of action when both fighters refuse to back down. When Montiel loses a unanimous decision, I won’t hold it against him too much. When Hasegawa wins it, my mild skepticism of him will diminish further.