Thursday, January 12, 2023

A Heavyweight Doubleheader Takes Centerstage In Verona, NY January 14th

With all signs seemingly pointing towards a showdown between the two undefeated world champions in Boxing’s Heavyweight division Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk for what would be the Undisputed Heavyweight championship of the world appearing to be nearly finalized for a date in the spring, there are questions surrounding the rest of the division. Normally when a fight such as one for an undisputed world championship, the question that inevitably is asked is who might the first potential challenger be when the smoke clears for the new undisputed champion. Over the many years that this observer has covered the sport of Boxing including countries unification and undisputed world championship bouts throughout the entire sport, I have also learned to ask another question. Out of numerous contenders and prospects, who might be able to step into position to face either champion in a proposed unification bout, should the opportunity suddenly become available. 

With this in mind, there is potential for some Heavyweights to maneuver. An interesting doubleheader will take place on Saturday, January 14th at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, NY that might feature potential challengers for either Fury or Usyk either as possibly a first challenger for whomever the Undisputed Heavyweight champion might be after the title is fully unified, or as a potential challengers to step in against either should negotiations between the two champions for whatever reason fall through. These bouts, which can be seen here in the United States on digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+ features Heavyweights that range from prospect to fringe contender. 

In the first of these two headline bouts, undefeated prospect Guido Vianello will face Johnnie Rice in a bout scheduled for ten rounds.

Undefeated in eleven professional fights, Vianello has established himself as a rising “Knockout Artist.”  In his last bout however, Vianello was forced to go the distance for the first time in his  career in scoring an eight round unanimous decision over Jay MacFarlane in October of last year.

Although that fight did go the full eight rounds, Vianello was able to dictate the combat from start to finish in what was a workmanlike performance. While that fight can also be described as a step up in his overall development, now the native of Rome, Italy prepares for what could be a test in the form of Johnnie Rice. 

Rice, a veteran of twenty-two professional fights will come into the bout having built some momentum in scoring back to back victories over previously undefeated Michael Coffee in 2021 and 2022 respectively. One potential issue for Rice is his second victory over Coffie came in January of last year and he has not been in the ring since.

With a record of 15-6-1, with 10 Knockouts, Rice has shown the ability to be a spoiler for prospects on the rise having stopped Coffie in their first fight and scoring a ten round unanimous decision in their rematch. The somewhat coincidental thing that looms over this fight is prior to facing Rice for the first time, Michael Coffie was at a similar stage as Vianello is going into this fight.

Much like the task that was in front of him in those bouts, Rice will need to use his veteran instincts and experience to be successful in this fight. Vianello’s Last opponent Jay MacFarlane was able to extend him to an eight round distance largely by looking to survive. Vianello does have nine knockouts in his ten career wins having fought to a draw eighty pro fight. MacFarlane was very “Game” and able to hang in against Vianello, but at no time in that fight did it appear that he was able to make the unhealthy prospect uncomfortable. Logic would suggest that Vianello will attempt to put pressure on Rice from the outset with the intention of stopping the fight early. The task that faces Jonathan Rice will be whether or not he will be able to weather the storm early and try to take Vianello into the middle and late rounds, otherwise known as the deep waters of a fight to try and pull off another upset.

The second Heavyweight encounter on January 14 will feature prospect Efe Ajagba facing undefeated Stephan Shaw in a bout scheduled for ten rounds. Ajagba will come in this fight looking to continue to build momentum in his second bout since suffering the first loss of his career in October 2021 when he lost a ten round unanimous decision to Frank Sanchez. Much like Guido Vianello, Ajagba is known for his ability to end fights quickly having scored knockouts in thirteen of his sixteen career wins registering a career knockout percentage of nearly 77%. In his first bout since the loss to Sanchez, Ajagba bounced back and scored a second round stoppage of Jozsef Darmos in August of last year.

In Stephan Shaw, Ajagba will face a fighter that is unbeaten in eighteen professional fights having scored knockouts in thirteen of those bouts. Some may look at this fight as a bit of a step up for Shaw even though he has experience comparable to Efe Ajagba and has a victory over Jonathan Rice in his career as well. In addition to Rice, Shaw has also defeated veterans Rydell Booker and Joey Dawejko in his career. The view of those who may be viewing this as a step up for Shaw likely base that on Ajagba having more television exposure here in the United States in his previous fights, but in reality, this seems to be a fight that at least on paper might be evenly matched as both fighters have shown punching power in the past, both have scored early knockouts in their careers, and in terms of their respective standing in the division are looking to take the next step towards at a shot at a world championship.

What these two bouts come down to in the long-term is ultimately which of these four Heavyweights will be able to provide a strong argument for themselves as a potential challenger down the line. With there being no shortage of potential options for either Tyson Fury or Oleksandr Usyk, we will see, which of these four Vianello, Rice, Ajagba, or Shaw will be able to enter the mix.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

Ajagba vs. Shaw/Vianello vs. Rice takes place on Saturday, January 14th at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, NY. This Heavyweight doubleheader as well as it’s full undercard can be seen in the United States on digital subscription sports streaming network ESPN+ beginning at 5PM ET/2PM PT.

*Card and start time subject to change.*

ESPN+ is available through the ESPN app on mobile, tablet and connected streaming devices and Smart TVs. For more information about ESPN+ including schedules, list of compatible streaming devices, platforms, Smart TVs, and to subscribe please visit:

*Check your local listings internationally.*

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