This weekend HBO and Showtime spread six fights across two networks, with four of the fights Saturday of mysterious competitive merit — the Zou Shiming bout that headlines HBO2, for instance, is headliner-worthy only because it gets China on board for a card Macau is hosting. Those four will either surprise us with their quality or the relatively anonymous "opponents" in each match-up will demonstrate why they were anonymous, then return to the fog. The other two fights are worth a lengthier look in advance.
The Showtime headliner features welterweight Andre Berto, who has obtained, in two Fight of the Year-caliber wars, a more nuanced public profile. Used to be he was just the most spoiled kid in the Al Haymon stable, a talent feasting on easy HBO dates. Now he's got some action hero credentials, although some are still bitter about how he came by them: Given lackluster competition, the argument goes, his speed and power never lived up to their billing because he never developed properly. Jesus Soto Karass is nearly the opposite, a boxer who was was born with action credentials but never given a damn thing other than spectacularly difficult match-ups, although there was a thought that he, too, never developed as well as he could've due to his work habits. He put it all together in his last fight, a win over Selcuk Aydin, and that leaves us with an ascendent force vs. a boxer struggling to prove worthy of his early hype in what ought to be an appealing style clash.
The best fight on the HBO2 card features flyweight Juan Fransico Estrada, who, after a win over Brian Viloria and a near-win over Roman Gonzalez, hinted that he was the future of the lower weight classes. That he has big power, a determined come-forward approach and is just 23 years old has the bloodthirsty amped up for what kind of crimson he'll be withdrawing from his foes for years to come. His opponent, Milan Melindo, has not yet proven himself on the level of Viloria or Gonzalez, but he's young himself at age 25 and already a top 10 fly according to the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. He's also a smart, tough boxer who could, conceivably, give Estrada some fits.
ANDRE BERTO-JESUS SOTO KARASS
Berto's losses to Robert Guerrero and Victor Ortiz said a few things to boxing fans: He had become a fairly terrible technician, if he ever was better than "terrible"; he could be roughed up by men moving up in weight; he had a lot more guts than anyone realized, although he hinted at them in the Luis Collazo war; and since both Guerrero and Ortiz got Floyd Mayweather bouts next, Berto had become the unofficial gateway to the pound-for-pound king.
Berto left his longtime trainer Tony Morgan for Virgil Hunter before this bout, so he's working on the terrible technician part. Morgan got him reasonably far, but Berto's regression and ill-advised experimentation — has the shoulder roll defense ever been executed so hilariously? — and evidence that Berto was tuning his coach out meant a parting made sense. Since gaining a rep due to training super middleweight champion Andre Ward, Hunter has yet to really replicate his work with his prized pupil with the flocks that have joined his stable since. But if he can make Berto more defensively responsible and give him the figment of ability to fight on the inside, two fortes of Ward, then the pairing will be fruitful. Whatever you think of how overhyped Berto was vs. how much he deserved to be, he's quick and hits hard and therefore has a natural explosiveness that could yet be tapped so he can live up to his former hot prospect status.
Soto Karass has been more of a gatekeeper himself than a contender over his career, but a helluva tough one. He's thrown a scare into plenty of up-and-comers or contenders but rarely has scored the upset, which made the Aydin win a stirring one. He also showed off some improved skills to go along with his usual long arm, pressure fighting, volume punching, no defense game. For the longest time, he couldn't be stopped, but Marcos Maidana and Gabriel Rosado both beat him by technical knockout in 2012. Yet the Aydin win showed he wasn't finished, if the competitive Maidana performance didn't do the trick, and now he's on the cusp of becoming a contender if he can beat Berto convincingly.
The career arcs of both men make the fight's outcome uncertain. Berto has more natural talent, yet he's a fighter with two losses in his last three and is in transition. Soto Karass is coming off a confidence-boosting win. Combined with Soto Karass' better infighting ability, it's tempting to pick Soto Karass for the upset. In fact, screw it. Soto Karass by close decision in a wild fight that holds us over through this boxing drought we're going through in July.
JUAN FRANCISCO ESTRADA-MILAN MELINDO
These are both unproven little men, but Estrada at least has two showings against world-class fighters to date. Melindo's best win is over Carlos Tamara, who established himself as a contender against the aforementioned Viloria but hasn't done much of anything since.
Melindo's biggest impediment here is his lack of fight-ending pop, although he scored a rare knockout in his last bout. He's a fine boxer, however. He should have the speed advantage against Estrada. He likes countering, he likes being inside (thanks to his 5'2" height), he likes digging to the body and he likes picking off incoming punches with his gloves or avoiding them by stepping away.
It's difficult, though, to imagine Melindo holding up to the kind of punches Estrada will land if he lands them as often as Tamara did. Tamara was slappy and ran out of steam pretty fast, in part because Melindo was countering him to death. Melindo was the better infighter, but he was also getting tagged. Estrada can punch, and he's relentless, and he does his own share of body work, and he's not too shabby on the inside.
It almost feels like Melindo is on some "Filipino Vengeance For My Fallen Compatriot Viloria" kick since Estrada beat Viloria, too. It worked the last time. It will be harder this time. Too hard, in fact. He'll get stopped by Estrada somewhere after the midway point of the fight.