Adrien Broner has reached a stage in his career where an article about him headlined "The Future of Boxing?" is to be taken seriously, yet the kind of opponents in his weight class who are both willing to face him and who will usher in a Broner-led boxing utopia/dystopia (depending on your view of the brash 23-year-old lad) are few and far between. Into that breach steps Gavin Rees Saturday night, and while he's the willing kind of opponent, he's not the other kind.
That is no slight against Rees. He's an authentic top 10 lightweight, albeit in a division light on talent. He has remade his career by ditching his weekend love of the pint and moving down from junior welterweight, where he once was mere seconds away from having an argument for beating a prime version of Andriy Kotelnyk, before he was stopped in his only loss. He'll give an honest account of himself in his voyage from the U.K. to the U.S.
But having a credible claim to being the future of boxing doesn't come easily, even in a hype-driven sport like this one — there are too many pessimists eager to tear down the Next Big Thing to let such a claim float around unchallenged, and yet, that's where Broner is, both in reputation and in reality: unchallenged. There are a few holdouts, naturally, who point out that Broner's skepticism-abolishing victory over Antonio DeMarco was a win against an opponent who played right into Broner's hands, stylistically, and Rees is one of those skeptics. They have a point. But as much as Broner didn't get where he got for nothing, Rees also didn't end up an 80-1 underdog for nothing, and those two facts are related.
HBO is in the odd position of televising a mismatch that is defensible because 1. They tried to find a higher class of opponent, Ricky Burns, and even that fight would've been viewed as a mismatch; and 2. Broner has been one of the top-tier ratings-makers for the network already, so what are they gonna do, turn down Broner against a top-10 opponent? People want to see Broner. They want to see him because of his sublime talents, and they want to see him because he's a colorful loudmouth — even if half of the people want to laugh at his antics and the other half want to see his teeth bashed in for them.
On the other hand, it is still a mismatch, and that's no fun. I'd actually like to see Rees against any other lightweight in the world. His favorite tactic is to smother his opponent with two-fisted flurries, and he gets hit plenty because of it, which makes for some quality action. He's been tough enough to make the tactic work over a 15-year career in every bout but one, and even that one, the loss to Kotelnik, it worked well enough for almost the entirety of the 12 rounds before he got caught. He's beaten a handful of notable names over that stretch, including Souleymane M'Baye, Andy Murray and Derry Matthews. Against Matthews, he looked better than he did against Kotelnik; faster, better defensively, adding some guile into his makeup like head movement or a varied attack to work his way into the range he needs as a little fella (although usually he starts with a jab). He doesn't counter so much as he trades until he doesn't want to anymore then holds, so he's still not ultra-sophisticated, but he isn't fully one-dimensional, either. He has faded late in fights even in his "only drinking when not training" phase, though, most notably against Murray.
Broner won't let him get to late in the fight. He's too fast, too powerful, too good. Every fight, Broner gets closer to achieving the intimidating perfection of Floyd Mayweather, whose inside-the-ring/outside-the-ring style he very clearly and deliberately dopplegangs — only Broner hits harder than Mayweather ever did. That means he barely gets hit while fighting with that shoulder roll stance, and when his man misses he gets a blindingly fast, accurate counter in his mug or belly. Rees thinks he can tag Broner with a right hand that will knock him out, but Broner's never been shaken in the ring, let alone by a guy who usually does his damage on volume — and volume won't be on the table against Broner's defense. Even if Rees does manage to bring enough nuance to the fight to hit Broner more than previous opponents, it's not going to be enough to hit Broner enough.
The only mystery offered by this fight is whether Broner will add yet another wrinkle to his arsenal, after growing fight by fight from a shaky outing against Daniel Ponce De Leon into full-blown dominance against DeMarco; whether Rees can find some previously hidden vulnerability that offers the potential of someone else beating Broner later; and what round Broner will stop Rees in. I don't have a favorite number, but I bet it's in the first half.