Saturday was a boxing fan’s dream, as long as they had enough screens to watch it all. Vergil Ortiz Jr. survived an early scare from Egidijus Kavaliauskas and pushed his record to 18-0 with 18 knockouts, putting himself directly into the welterweight world title conversation. And after a second fight between Joshua Franco and Andrew Moloney went awry, and likely should’ve cost Franco his secondary 115-pound title, Franco emerged from Saturday’s trilogy fight against Moloney the clear victor, ready to challenge the other top fighters in the division.
The 118-pound title fight between John Riel Casimero and Guillermo Rigondeaux was decidedly less exciting, but Casimero ultimately escaped with his title intact. The big question lingering over Casimero following that performance is whether he’s ready for the other bantamweight titleholder — Naoya Inoue or Nonito Donaire.
Beyond the evening’s main events, there was the debut of a fighter carrying the name of arguably the most legendary boxer in the history of the sport. Nico Ali Walsh, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, enjoyed a successful debut on the Franco-Moloney 3 undercard, earning a first-round KO. Did that fight tell us enough about what Ali Walsh might ultimately achieve as a fighter long-term?
Our panel, which features Mike Coppinger, Ben Baby and Jeff Wagenheim, breaks down the most important things we learned on Saturday.
Vergil Ortiz weathers first serious scare of his career, proves his mettle
Wagenheim: Ortiz didn’t just earn a passing grade in the biggest test of his career. He made the honor roll.
He handled a significant step up in competition, facing Kavaliauskas, whose only previous loss had come against champion and pound-for-pound great Terence Crawford — and Crawford needed one more round to get the job done. Ortiz knocked down Kavaliauskas five times on the way to keeping his knockout percentage at 100% — 18 KOs in 18 wins.
However, it was what didn’t go so well that told us the most about Ortiz. When he was staggered in Round 2, and again to a lesser extent in Round 3, he did not panic. He did get a bit overaggressive, seeming to want to immediately deal out to his opponent what he had been dealt, and that can be dangerous in some cases. But it worked for Ortiz, who scored his first knockdown before that third round was over.
From there on, the fight was all his, and his takeover was not explosive, it was poised. That was impressive coming from a young fighter. Ortiz used his hard jab to both hit Kavaliauskas and also negate his offense. He slowly picked apart the Lithuanian. Then, when he had Kavaliauskas hurt, Ortiz swarmed for the finish with flurries of varied and well-placed punches. It was a mature performance.
So is he ready for Crawford? I’d prefer to have the 23-year-old get a little more seasoning, but his feelings and his performance are calling out for something big. Postfight, Ortiz spoke not only Crawford’s name, but also Errol Spence Jr.’s, and Manny Pacquiao’s. In other words, he wants a big fight. Let’s hope he gets booked for one.
John Riel Casimero says he’s ready for Naoya Inoue, but is he?
Baby: Casimero had choice words for Inoue following his victory over Rigondeaux.
Well, it was really a finger — the one you can only show on certain cable TV channels. The 32-year-old from the Philippines clearly has strong feelings about Inoue, the unified 118-pound champion from Japan.
But even though Casimero won in his title defense against Rigondeaux, there seems to be a gap at bantamweight between Inoue and Donaire at the top, and Casimero in the second tier.
Based on what we’ve seen recently from Inoue and Donaire, including their incredible fight in Nov. 2019, they just seem to be on another skill level than other bantamweights, including Casimero.
And to be honest, that separation was unlikely to change regardless of how Casimero-Rigondeaux turned out. Donaire turned back the clock to get a big knockout victory over Nordine Oubaali back in May, and Inoue just keeps looking impressive.
But Saturday’s fight did Casimero no favors. Casimero landed only 47 punches against Rigondeaux, and the judges scored the fight in the defending champion’s favor because he was willing to press the action. While some might disagree, activity should be rewarded, to an extent, in prizefighting.
He emerged the winner, but Casimero struggled with a quality game plan for Rigondeaux when he should have been prepared. Before the bout, Casimero talked about Rigondeaux’s habit of running around the ring. However, despite this knowledge, Casimero consistently failed to cut the ring off and let the 40-year-old Cuban defensive mastermind keep shuffling to his right. Casimero never really had an answer for Rigondeaux, who also never really felt like throwing punches.
Casimero showed on Saturday that he has the persistence to chase down what he wants. He’ll need that type of attitude and fervor if he gets the fights against Inoue and Donaire that he’s looking for.
Joshua Franco is ready to fight the best at 115 pounds
Coppinger: Franco delivered the best win of his career Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, leaving no doubt in the trilogy fight with Moloney. The 25-year-old showed off a new dimension to his game: a jab that set up his power shots, better footwork and more craft.
It’s no surprise, really. He’s trained by one of the best in the game, Robert Garcia, who stayed with Franco rather than join his prized fighter, Ortiz, for his TKO win over Kavaliauskas in Frisco, Texas.
With this decisive victory, Franco called out the cream of the crop at 115 pounds, one of boxing’s best weight classes. It’s a division that features a “Big Four” that arguably sits amomng the top 20 pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Franco believes he deserves a shot at that quartet that includes Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada, Kazuto Ioka and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai.
It’s hard to argue that he hasn’t earned the opportunity, but it’s less certain he can actually knock off one of them. With his performance Saturday, Franco showed that he he can probably hang with the best. His best chance likely will come against Thailand’s Rungvisai, a wild-swinging puncher, but Rungvisai’s power is dangerous enough that he once knocked out Chocolatito, a future Hall of Famer, in the fourth round of their second fight.
If Franco can authoritatively box on his feet the way he did against Moloney, he’ll have a shot against anyone. But there’s a big difference between doing it against a solid fighter like Moloney, and performing that well against one of the sport’s elite.
Nico Ali Walsh, grandson of Muhammad Ali, wins his Top Rank Boxing debut via TKO vs. Jordan Weeks.
Nico Ali Walsh’s potential will be hard to gauge for some time
Coppinger: It’s far too soon to say just how good Ali Walsh will be. He’s clearly raw, and a work in progress. Muhammad Ali’s grandson will surely be moved along at a snail’s pace by Top Rank’s expert matchmakers, and we saw the first stage of that slow process on Saturday night in Tulsa.
Against Jordan Weeks, a no-hoper who was there to be knocked out in the opening round, it was tough to gauge Ali Walsh at all. He did what he was expected to do: let his hands go and got his foe out of there in the opening frame.
What is clear from Saturday night is that Ali Walsh has the kind of charisma that would make his grandfather proud. He’s charming and generous, and has a flair for the dramatic.
When he dropped Weeks, he motioned for the crowd to cheer him on, sensing the end was near. They acquiesced him, of course. We surely won’t know how good Ali Walsh is for some time. Top Rank will likely match him at the most gradual of inclines in competition for the next few years and build him into an attraction. This is what they do best.
At some point, we’ll find out if Ali Walsh can really fight. But that time isn’t coming anytime soon.