Boxing Fight Weekend: What to watch, picks for Sept. 19

LAS VEGAS — The numbers are good, even sensational, on paper. Efe Ajagba won his first 13 professional fights, including 11 via knockout.

He was the dark-horse of a promising group of heavyweights to come out of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with potential to seemingly win a heavyweight title. He had a howitzer for a right hand and had an athleticism few men who are 6-foot-6 and over 240 pounds and not in the NBA or NFL possess.

But after a quick start out of the gate, Ajagba kind of has been stuck in quicksand his last few fights. He’s won, but he hasn’t reminded anyone of an elite heavyweight.

On Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+), he’ll face veteran Jonnie Rice in the co-main event of a Top Rank card at the MGM Grand Conference Center.

He’ll do it with a new coach in his corner, Kay Koroma having taken the reins from Ronnie Shields.

“I didn’t feel I was at a championship level, which is why I changed my trainer,” Ajagba said.

Shields is one of the game’s elite trainers, and like many coaches, he paid the price when the athlete underperformed. Koroma is urging Ajagba to box and to no longer be hung up on his power.

In that regard, he compared him to long-reigning former heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.

“When Klitschko finally learned how to use his power behind his boxing, that’s when he really took off and things got so much better for him,” Koroma told Yahoo Sports. “Muhammad Ali was great with his power, but he used it wisely. He knew how to box and that set up his power. He just didn’t come out using power right away. Efe’s learning to hide it behind his boxing. That’s when he’s really going to show power. The basic power is there, but when he uses it with his boxing is when you’ll see a difference.”

Ajagba was a soccer player in Nigeria, and Koroma has used that point with him repeatedly. As a pro, he’s largely been flat-footed and stalked his opponents. 

Koroma has tried to get him to go back to his soccer roots and move around the ring and use his athleticism. If Ajagba can pull it off, he’s going to be a handful for anyone.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 07: Efe Ajagba celebrates after defeating Razvan Cojanu by KO during their Heavyweight Championship bout at Barclays Center on March 07, 2020 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 07: Efe Ajagba celebrates after defeating Razvan Cojanu by KO during their Heavyweight Championship bout at Barclays Center on March 07, 2020 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Efe Ajagba celebrates after defeating Razvan Cojanu by KO during their heavyweight bout at Barclays Center on March 7, 2020, in New York. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Koroma said Rice is a mover, which makes him happy because he’ll get to see how Ajagba acts under duress when an opponent isn’t standing frozen in front of him.

“We want to break him down and use the ring and cut the ring off,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see if he reverts to the old Efe or if he’ll stay with the program and stick to what we have been working on.”

Ajagba insists he’s going to stick with the program no matter how things go because he likes what he sees from Koroma’s plan, and he believes it’s the best for him.

His goal, he said, is simple, and Koroma is there to help him achieve it.

“I want to be the heavyweight champion of the world,” he said. “I know I can achieve [that goal], but I have to do the right things.”

The first step toward becoming a legitimate contender will be Saturday. 

Pedraza back on ESPN+

Super lightweight contender Jose Pedraza is hoping to earn another title opportunity when he meets veteran Javier Molina, a 2008 U.S. Olympian, in Saturday’s main event at the MGM Grand.

He held world titles at super featherweight and lightweight, losing the belts to two of the top talents in those divisions, Gervonta Davis and Vasiliy Lomachenko. His only other loss in 30 pro fights was to Jose Zepeda.

“I’ve been looking for a fight against Javier Molina for a long time,” Pedraza said. “I also had him on my radar because we were supposed to fight earlier this year, but the whole situation with the pandemic changed those plans and the fight was postponed. I kept training hard to keep improving and I ended up fighting against another opponent and had a great performance.

“This fight will bring me even closer to a world title opportunity. My goal is to become a three-division world champion, and Javier Molina will not stop me from achieving my dream.”

Lubin headlines Showtime card

One-time top prospect Erickson Lubin will headline a card Saturday (9 p.m. ET, Showtime) at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, when he faces ex-U.S. Olympian Terrell Gausha. It is Lubin’s most significant fight since he was stopped three years ago in the first round by Jermell Charlo.

He changed trainers after losing to Charlo and has been working with the highly regarded Kevin Cunningham.

“Coach Cunningham and I are working great together,” Lubin said. “Everyone knows that he’s a no-nonsense type of trainer, so that mindset is contagious. I’ve done everything that’s been demanded of me so far in training. I’m in great shape and will be ready to go into deep waters if the fight goes the distance.”

The fight on the card I’m most interested in is a welterweight battle between veteran Juan Carlos Abreu (23-5-1, 21 KOs) against hot prospect Jaron “Boots” Ennis (25-0, 23 KOs).

Ennis is only 23 and has the kind of ability that could put him into the top tier of welterweights.

He doesn’t lack confidence and told Brian Custer on his podcast, “Last Stand with Brian Custer” that he believes he’d beat IBF-WBA-WBC champion Errol Spence and WBO champion Terence Crawford now.

“I definitely believe that 100 percent,” Ennis told Custer. “What they don’t understand is the better the fighter is, the better I’m going to be, and the smarter I’m going to be. If I ever get a chance to fight those two guys, you definitely are going to see a totally different Boots. Y’all going to say this kid looks sharper, smarter, on point. Everything is going to be right where I want it to be.”

Kevin’s picks

MGM doesn’t have any of Saturday’s bouts up at this point, but as far as winners, I like Pedraza, Lubin and Ennis.

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