Alvarez-Smith possible for vacant WBO belt, and what of Verdejo’s immediate future?

I said repeatedly ahead of Saturday night’s light heavyweight clash on ESPN between Eleider Alvarez and Michael Seals that we may be in for a real banger. Top Rank also promoted the fight that way, because it was the smart way to promote the fight, as it wasn’t exactly the most competitive main event on paper. It was former titleholder long sitting in the top 10 at 175 against a 37-year-old puncher with no big wins.

For the record, I genuinely believed it would be a good fight, I wasn’t just regurgitating Top Rank’s PR. But I also genuinely believed Seals (24-3, 18 KO) would actually throw his right hand. He didn’t, really, and the fight stunk until Alvarez destroyed Seals with his own right hand in the seventh round.

That’s pretty much the end of the line for Seals as more than a gatekeeper, barring some miracle run in his old age. This was a chance to prove he could hang against a contender, and he couldn’t. He looked out of his depth and, most strikingly, a little gun-shy against Alvarez. He couldn’t let his hands go. When he tried, Alvarez (25-1, 13 KO) found it easy to evade or smother.

About a year ago, Alvarez, now 35, lost the WBO title to Sergey Kovalev in a rematch. His team said he’d come into the fight with an Achilles injury, but all the same it was a listless performance on his biggest stage to date, with the most pressure he’d ever had. Kovalev had made adjustments since their Aug. 2018 bout, where Alvarez scored a come-from-behind upset stoppage to take the strap. Alvarez couldn’t do much with him the second time around, and the barrage that brought him from trailing on all three cards to a sudden and stunning upset in the first fight never came.

Alvarez is no spring chicken, so he’ll want to get into a big fight once more as soon as he can, and talk this weekend has been that with the win, he’ll now be set up to face Joe Smith Jr (25-3, 20 KO) for the vacant WBO title, which Kovalev lost to Canelo Alvarez in November, and Canelo vacated six weeks later.

Alvarez and Smith could make for the matchup that Alvarez-Seals was hoped to be, but with more legitimate danger because Smith is better than Seals, with similar strengths. Smith, as he showed on Jan. 11 by beating Jesse Hart, will not sit and wait and sit and wait and sit and wait for a perfect opening. He’ll let the hands go and get after it. Even when we’ve seen Smith outclassed in the past, namely in a 2019 loss to WBA titleholder Dmitry Bivol, he wasn’t afraid to let it fly, and he cracked Bivol and hurt him late in that fight. He’s got legitimate, serious power.

In terms of technique, Alvarez has more than Smith. He’s a more well-rounded fighter. But Alvarez also doesn’t have any one great standout skill or ability. He’s solid all around, a B or B+ with everything, but no A or A+ grades on his scouting report.

Coming into this month, the WBO had Alvarez ranked as their No. 7 contender, with Smith not in the field. But Smith’s win over Hart, who was previously No. 3, obviously will springboard him onto the list, as he picked up the WBO NABO belt with the win.

The current No. 1 contender, Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez, is the former WBO super middleweight titleholder, but he’s also currently reported to be trying to get out of his deal with Top Rank, which is an odd move on the surface since Top Rank have contracts or at least strong affiliation with most of the top guys at light heavyweight. So Ramirez seems to be out of the way, if you’re thinking of his status as a stumbling block.

As for positioning the rankings for that Alvarez-Smith to “make sense” as a vacant title fight, sanctioning body rankings can be … adjusted when needed. Alvarez-Smith is a good fight, easy to put together (Top Rank don’t promote Smith, but have options on him thanks to the win over Hart), and would be good for everyone.

What about Felix Verdejo?

Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Puerto Rican lightweight Felix Verdejo won in Saturday’s co-feature, beating Manuel Rey Rojas by comfortable decision, at least in terms of the scores. It was not one-sided, but he did deserve the win.

Verdejo (26-1, 16 KO) actually brings a point made about Alvarez to mind: there is nothing exceptional about anything he does. His boxing is pretty good, his power is at least solid, his hand speed is decent, but nothing about him really, truly stands out. Way back at London 2012, he was one of the hottest prospects coming out of the Olympics, young and Puerto Rican with seemingly huge upside.

But his pro run just hasn’t proven he was ever truly deserving of the level of hype he was given. Once he started stepping up the competition even a little bit, he seemed good but too often a bit pedestrian. Fights you would have expected him to really shine in, he just didn’t, even though he was winning handily. And then he was derailed by a motorcycle accident, followed by a 2018 loss to Antonio Lozada, a big upset.

Since coming back from the defeat, he’s struggled to really impress. Last night was his first fight with new trainer Ismael Salas, and at 26, yes, Verdejo still has time to capitalize. And sure, he could win a title in the right circumstances. Alvarez did, after all, pulling a big upset. Less talented fighters than Verdejo win world titles all the time with the right matchups in the right divisions with the right connections.

But when you look at the 135-pound landscape, it’s rough out there right now. Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez, both titleholders, are in-house with Top Rank, and both would be picked to blow Verdejo out at this point. Young guns like Devin Haney and Gervonta “Tank” Davis are in the mix. Solid veterans like Luke Campbell and Richard Commey would be a handful, as would Javier Fortuna, as would Rances Barthelemy or Masayoshi Nakatani or Lee Selby or a few other guys.

It’s not to say Verdejo can’t beat any of those guys, but he was supposed to have long been in that mix by now, and he hasn’t been. As far as being “the future” at 135, he’s been passed on the track by Lopez, Haney, Davis, and maybe even Ryan Garcia.

Don’t expect Verdejo in too tough when we see him next. Top Rank are likely to stay a little patient with him as he hopefully meshes with Salas and produces to the best of his ability. He’s still potentially marketable as hell if it all clicks.

Personally, I wouldn’t count on anything great at any point. He’s a good fighter, but maybe simply not as talented as he was thought to be in 2012. There are veterans out there for him to face next — someone like Mickey Bey or Omar Douglas or Sharif Bogere or Petr Petrov could fit the bill as Verdejo gets more familiar with a new team. It’s not exciting, but the state of career Verdejo is at never really is. It’s past when anyone would want to hear more about “careful matchmaking,” but it’s the smart move.