Ahead of Richard Riakporhe’s return to action on Saturday, we take a look at the major players in a cruiserweight division poised to provide incredible drama during 2023.
Former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk’s move up to heavyweight after beating Tony Bellew in 2018 left a void, but four years on there are several 200lb fighters elevating the division once more.
The good news for boxing fans in the United Kingdom is that several of those names are British, and will be fighting on Sky Sports over the next 12 months, potentially even against each other.
The first to get a chance to shine is Riakporhe, who takes on former world champion Krzysztof Glowacki on the undercard of Liam Smith and Chris Eubank Jr’s British showdown on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Box Office.
Ahead of a fight that Riakporhe hopes will be his last before a shot at a world title, here are the current titlists and the contenders most likely to challenge them in 2023.
Who are the champions?
WBO: Lawrence Okolie – 18-0 (14KOs)
Britain already has a cruiserweight world champion in Lawrence Okolie.
The 30-year-old beat Riakporhe’s upcoming opponent, Glowacki, in March 2021 to claim the then-vacant WBO title.
Okolie has twice defended his belt with wins over Dilan Prasovic and Michal Cieslak, and will make a long-awaited return to the ring in March, against unbeaten New Zealander David Light, live on Sky Sports.
The 6ft 5in Londoner has the build to eventually advance to the heavyweight ranks but has designs on first utilising his power to clean up the cruiserweight division.
A win over Light could set Okolie up for a unification fight with one of his fellow titlists, or a British blockbuster with one of his contending compatriots.
While Okolie’s inactivity has prevented him from fulfilling his unbounded potential, the Hackney fighter will hope an impressive return can put him back on the path to stardom he has appeared to be on since his 2017 debut.
IBF: Jai Opetaia – 22-0 (17KOs)
Many British boxing fans may not have heard of Opetaia before he produced a huge upset to beat Mairis Briedis and become world champion in July last year.
Opetaia thrilled his home fans at the Gold Coast Convention Centre in Australia by outpointing the Latvian, whose only previous defeat had come in a competitive clash with Usyk.
Despite emerging victorious, Opetaia suffered a broken jaw in the fight and has consequently not yet defended his title.
Plans for a first defence in 2023 are afoot, with both Riakporhe and fellow Brit Chris Billam-Smith having been mentioned as possible opponents.
The fact that Briedis is the only high-profile name on Opetaia’s record means some are still to be convinced of the 27-year-old’s pedigree, but as the man who beat the man, he deserves ultimate respect.
While Opetaia’s win over Briedis came via a decision, 17 of his 22 wins have come via stoppage, which means heavy-handed fighters such as Riakporhe and Billam-Smith would need to have their defensive skills primed in potential matchups.
WBC: Ilunga Makabu 29-2 (25KOs)
British boxing fans are likely to best remember Makabu for one of the two defeats he’s suffered during his career, which came in the most dramatic fashion against Tony Bellew at Goodison Park in 2016.
Fighting for the vacant WBC cruiserweight title, Makabu made a brilliant start in front of a partisan crowd in Liverpool, knocking Bellew down in the first round, but then succumbed to a third-round onslaught from the Brit and was brutally knocked out.
The Congolese fighter has admirably rebuilt his career since that night, reeling off 10 successive victories, including a 2020 triumph over Cieslak for the – once again – vacant WBC belt.
The last two victories of Makabu’s winning run have been defences of his titles, but his level of opponent in those fights doesn’t match up to the ability of several contenders hoping to get a shot at his title this year.
Makabu was scheduled to make a mandatory defence of his title against Germany’s Noel Mikaelian on January 21, but that fight has been called off without a clear reason offered.
It remains to be seen whether the southpaw could be persuaded to return to Britain after his chastening defeat to Bellew, but he perhaps stands out as the most vulnerable of the current title holders.
WBA: Arsen Goulamirian – 27-0 (18KOs)
The final champion is Armenian-born French fighter Goulamirian, who returned to the ring in November after almost three years without a fight.
The 35-year-old shook off the rust by beating Russian Alexey Egorov on points, but his inactivity makes it tricky to assess where he stands in relation to his rivals.
The best victory of Goulamirian’s career came in 2018 as he handed Belgium’s Ryad Merhy the only defeat of his career, but the quality of his four opponents since then has been underwhelming.
The big question is whether Goulamirian’s inactivity makes him a relatively fresh 35-year-old, or whether his best years are now behind him.
As with Makabu, several contenders will be queuing up to fight Goulamirian with great confidence that they can hand him the first defeat of his career.
Who are the contenders?
Richard Riakporhe – 15-0 (11KOs)
Riak is back! The man bringing glamour back to the cruiserweight division is hoping to move a step closer to a world title shot when he takes on Krzysztof Glowacki on Saturday night.
Let’s start with Riakporhe’s exploits inside the ring, where he has swept through the domestic scene on his way to amassing a 15-0 professional record.
There was a notable victory over fellow British contender Chris Billam-Smith (more to come on him) in 2020, which has looked more impressive with everyone bludgeoning victory the Bournemouth fighter has pulled off since.
Riakporhe, who has often trained alongside two-time heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua in Loughborough, has won his last three fights in fine style, most recently knocking out tricky opponents Fabio Turchi and Deion Jumah.
Away from the grind of boxing, Riakporhe is a passionate Crystal Palace fan and is loyally supported by the Selhurst Park faithful, while the 33-year-old Londoner has also established himself as a major player in the fashion world, modelling for leading brands and regularly popping up at exclusive events.
Chris Billam-Smith – 17-1 (12KOs)
Billam-Smith has bounced back from that narrow defeat to Riakporhe with a run of eight victories, and perhaps more importantly, a series of improving performances.
Working under the tutelage of highly regarded trainer Shane McGuigan, Billam-Smith has catapulted himself to the verge of a world title challenge.
The Bournemouth fighter’s thrilling all-action style has caught the imagination of his local community, with his last two victories – over Armend Xhoxhaj and Isaac Chamberlain – playing out in front of full houses at the Bournemouth International Centre.
Next up potentially is a world title shot at Jai Opetaia at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, which would fulfil a lifelong dream for Billam-Smith to fight at the home of the Premier League side.
Known as “The Gentleman” for his well-mannered approach to life outside of the ring, it’s hard not to root for the 32-year-old to continue his ascent to the top of the game.
Mairis Briedis – 28-2 (20KOs)
The former champion has yet to return to the ring following his shock loss to Opetaia in July.
Briedis remains a big name and major draw within the division, and is undoubtedly worthy of a shot at becoming a three-time world champion.
The Latvian is likely nearing the final stages of his career at the age of 38, and has recently expressed his keenness on a heavyweight matchup with Derek Chisora.
That suggests Briedis’ focus may be on securing a high-profile opponent to return against, rather than getting his belt back. Time will tell.
David Light – 20-0 (12KOs)
New Zealand’s David Light will be the first contender to get a shot at a cruiserweight world title in 2023, when he takes on Okolie in March.
Light, who has claimed the vast majority of his 20 victories on home soil, will fight in the UK for the first time when he faces the Londoner.
The 31-year-old, who is unbeaten with 12 knockouts on his record, will undoubtedly start as a major underdog, but a win would change his life.
Sergei Kovalev – 35-4-1 (29KOs)
Having spent his highly decorated career competing at light-heavyweight, Sergey Kovalev in May 2022 made a long-awaited return from two and a half years of inactivity at cruiserweight.
His 200lbs debut saw him comfortably outpoint Tervel Pulev, the then-unbeaten younger brother of heavyweight Kubrat Pulev.
The former world champion’s pedigree has earned him places in the top 10 with three of the four governing bodies, while his big-name status makes him a potentially attractive – and lucrative – option for plenty of others in the division.
The question is how much Kovalev has left. He turns 40 in April, and with just one fight in the last three years it’s almost impossible to know where he’s at.
Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez – 58-2-2 (39KOs)
This time last year all signs were pointing towards Alvarez stepping up to cruiserweight to face Makabu with a chance to become a five-division world champion.
The WBC sanctioned the fight, but Alvarez ultimately opted to face Dmitry Bivol at light-heavyweight and suffered just the second defeat of his career.
The Mexican returned with a victory over Gennadiy Golovkin in their trilogy fight in September, and for now appears keen on a rematch with Bivol.
That leaves his step up to cruiserweight on the backburner, but the 32-year-old still has plenty of time to move up in a potentially historic move.
The best of the rest
Two-time former world champion Yuniel Dorticos (25-2) undoubtedly remains one of the most dangerous fighters in the division.
The 36-year-old Cuban, whose only professional defeats have come to Briedis and fellow former champion Murat Gassiev, returned after a year out of the ring with a knockout win in December.
Dorticos sits at the top of the WBA rankings, and is therefore one of the favourites to land a shot at Goulamirian this year.
Noel Mikaelian (26-2) looked to have earned a shot at the WBC title when he was named Makabu’s mandatory in November, but the cancellation of their January 21 bout has left his hopes up in the air.
The 32-year-old German possesses solid pedigree, with his most recent defeat – in 2018 – coming in close encounter against Briedis.
Mateusz Masternak (47-5) has been around for a while, and British fans may remember his narrow 2015 points defeat to Tony Bellew.
His only defeat in the seven years since that bout came against Dorticos in 2018, and he remains a very solid test for any fighter with aspirations of reaching the top of the division.
Badou Jack (27-3-3), former opponent of Britain’s George Groves, James DeGale and Nathan Cleverly, is another fighter campaigning at cruiserweight in the latter stages of his career.
The 39-year-old Swede has strung together four wins at 200lbs and is ranked in the top three with both the WBC and WBO, with the former having recently ordered an eliminator between him and two-time former title challenger Thabiso Mchunu (23-6).