Foregone conclusion? Smith vs Holzken preview
J. Oddy & LG. Williams
Can late substitute Nieky Holzken from the Netherlands somehow upset the World Boxing Series applecart and England's Callum Smith on Saturday night? James Oddy and Luke G. Williams preview a somewhat bizarre super-middleweight clash...
One of the key appeals of boxing is how often it provides us with an in-built narrative - the boxer vs the puncher; the southpaw vs the orthodox. Or, perhaps most satisfying of all, the 'hot prospect' stepping up against the 'old stager' - a well-worn narrative trope which the second super-middleweight World Boxing Super Series semi-final showdown was all set to offer us ... until 39-year-old Jürgen Brähmer pulled out of his clash with 27-year-old Callum Smith earlier this week, citing illness.
In to the vacancy left by Brähmer's withdrawal has stepped the unheralded and hitherto virtually unknown Dutchman Nieky Holzken, a kickboxer of - apparently - some repute, who has also accumulated a 13-0 (10KOs) record in traditional pugilism during intermittent square circle appearances since 2013.
Cue a hastily rewritten preview and the substitution of the 'hot prospect' vs 'old stager' narrative with the 'hot favourite' vs 'massive underdog' label. (At the time of writing, Smith is listed as short-priced a favourite as 1/100 with some bookmakers, while the odds on Holzken stretch as far as 22-1).
Mind you, labelling Liverpool's Smith (23-0, 17KOs) as a hot prospect in the first place may not have been entirely fair. 'Mundo', the youngest of the four fighting Smith brothers, has been campaigning in the pro ranks since 2012 and big things have long been expected of him. The World Boxing Super Series has provided him with the stage upon which he can finally, perhaps, fulfill those great expectations.
Tall at the weight at 6’3, Smith has had a stop-start few years. He won the prestigious Lonsdale belt with a scintillating one-round stoppage of Mersey rival Rocky Fielding (then undefeated) in the summer of 2015. He then claimed the European title via another first-round stoppage, this time against Hadillah Mohoumadi, who had previously taken James DeGale the full 12 rounds for the same title.
Since then, he has defended the Lonsdale against the tough Luke Blackledge, a tenth-round stoppage, and fought in a couple of keep busy fights. He seemed set to make the step-up to world level in a WBC title fight against the American Andre Dirrell, but stalled negations led to Smith abandoning that pursuit for a spot in the Super Series instead. He progressed past the first round after a surprisingly tough encounter with Sweden’s hitherto unbeaten Erik Skoglund, who was moving down from light heavyweight.
Participating in the WBSS may prove a shrewd move; should Smith reach the final, as virtually everyone outside the Holzken household expects, he is due to meet George Groves at the O2 in London on 2 June in a potentially huge domestic clash, albeit a showdown that is dependent on Groves recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered in the final round of his impressive schooling last week of Chris Eubank Jr in Manchester.
To indulge, for one moment, in the realms of conjecture, Smith vs Brähmer might well have proved a tighter contest than many had anticipated. After all the stocky and pugnacious Stalsund native from the east of Germany has, in the past, proved himself somewhat reminiscent of the Minotaur of Greek mythology - with many a decent European and fringe world level fighters having seen their winding maze to the top of the sport halted by the former WBO and WBA ‘regular’ light heavyweight titlist. With his experience, toughness and ring smarts Brähmer would have asked questions of Smith that the Englishman would have been favoured, but not certain, to answer.
Holzken, however, is a different proposition altogether. The Dutchman may have won seven kickboxing world titles, but his only win of note in boxing was a two-round TKO of Viktor Polyakov, a Ukrainian who fought at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and has a win against Italy's former WBA 'regular' 168lbs titlist Giovanni De Carolis on his record.
Of course, there have been kickboxers in the past who have successfully transitioned into traditional boxing. Among others, Alexander Povetkin, Marco Huck, Vitali Klitschko, Chris Algieri and female pound-for-pound number one Cecilia Braekhus all won either amateur or professional titles as a kickboxer (or both) before focusing on the Queensbury Rules. Closer to home, Pele Reid famously KO'd the iron-jawed Vitali with a kick to the jaw in a kickboxing contest prior to a much-hyped but ultimately disappointing boxing career at heavyweight.
Of course, the 34-year-old Holzken has nothing to lose and everything to gain on Saturday, and is speaking like a man who knows this, declaring earlier this week: "I signed up as a substitute fighter so I'm in great shape and prepared for Saturday. I've watched Callum fight many times. I study everyone in my weight division. He's a good, solid fighter. We're both big body punchers. It will make for an excellent fight. Callum, you better be ready, because I am, and I'm coming to beat you!"
Although it is disappointing that Brähmer has withdrawn, the WBSS's 'show must go on' philosophy is to be applauded, even if Dmitri Chudinov - Holzken's original opponent on Saturday's undercard - may have been a more logical and testing match for Smith.
Nevertheless, the choice of Holzken certainly brings an unexpected and mysterious flavour to proceedings. Nicknamed 'The Natural', the Dutchman can certainly dig, particularly to the body, and his best chance of securing a monumental upset would seem to be to start fast and try and catch Smith cold and force an early stoppage, in much the same way that another kickboxer, Frenchman Cedrick Peynaud, almost secured an upset victory against Conor Benn late last year.
The 21-year-old Benn, however, is a novice compared to Smith, who enjoyed a successful amateur career before turning pro. As such, the Liverpudlian is unlikely to be fazed by Holzken's likely fast start or as puzzled by the idiosyncrasies of his kickboxing influences in the way that Benn was against Peynaud.
Yes, late replacements have, on occasion, pulled off significant surprises in the boxing ring - Steve Robinson defeating John Davison for the vacant WBO featherweight title in 1993 springs to mind. However, far more often than not, despite the potential disruption that a late sub can cause to an opposing fighter's routine and preparations, the favourite ends up prevailing - witness, for example, Anthony Joshua's recent victory against Carlos Takam, who stepped in for Kubrat Pulev 12 says before their heavyweight title fight last October.
All things considered, Smith's solid fundamentals and vastly superior boxing experience should see him win with relative ease. Although Holzken will most likely put up a spirited effort, our pick is for Smith to prevail, probably within the first five or six rounds, to set up a truly intriguing final against George Groves.