Preview: Selby must be wary of banana skin in Eric Hunter

Preview: Selby must be wary of banana skin in Eric Hunter

In Welsh boxing’s first major fight of 2016, Barry Town’s ‘Sugar’ Lee Selby (22-1, 8KO) defends his IBF world featherweight title at a happy hunting ground in London’s O2 Arena, live on Sky Sports Box Office.

The combined record of Selby’s last 12 opponents, at the time he faced them, is 256 wins, 20 losses and six draws. It’s fair to say that Eric ‘The Outlaw’ Hunter (21-3, 11KO) is one of the least recognisable names on Selby’s journey through domestic and international levels.

Is it what the Welshman needs following a trickier-than-expected points victory over former three-weight belt holder Fernando Montiel in October? Well, the positives are that today’s task will keep Selby on his toes and the pressure is partially lifted as he shares the spotlight on a card stacked with mainstream names.

The last unfamiliar opponent Selby faced was Romania’s Viorel Simion. The ex-Olympian provided an unexpected test and it was a credible win that Selby received little credit for. Overcoming this sort of examination, against an unknown visitor, can be a thankless task. If you win then you’re supposed to and if you don’t, it’s unthinkable. However, as said by Selby’s manager Jamie Sanigar says, “win first and then worry about performance second.”

Hunter enters his chance sharing just as much expectation from British fans as Simion had and just as little is known about him. The reality is, anything other than a dominant performance from Selby is unlikely to earn the 29-year-old plaudits comparable to his dethroning of Evgeny Gradovich 11 months ago. Hunter, a mandatory challenger, had been due to face Jonathan Victor Barros in a final eliminator but when he withdrew, the number three contender sailed to a straight shot as first and second places have been vacant since April 2015.

The challenger’s most challenging asset is his ability to switch-hit, slipping between stances as naturally as other fighters change their walk-in robes. To prepare for Hunter’s approach, Selby hasn’t travelled to America like most camps; he’s stayed in Britain to spar. In Sheffield, Selby’s found the most unorthodox gym on domestic shores in the Ingle camp, where British maverick trendsetters Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham and ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed were sculpted.

There, he’s found Kid Galahad, a super-bantamweight talent who has bagged a trio of titles. At present, the stylist is serving the end of a drugs ban but he’s stayed in shape, recently sparring tens of rounds with Selby. The other chief sparring partner has been his young sibling, Andrew. The flyweight, a former Olympian, has made rapid progress in his four professional outings so far and there are few more gifted purists at Selby’s disposal.

It should be enough to prepare Selby for his first switch-hitter since Ryan Walsh, though Hunter’s skillset is more expansive than just that. Hunter has impressed the people of prominence on his local fight circuit in Philadelphia, often training at the gym of two-weight world champion Danny Garcia and headlining shows hosted by Golden Boy’s history defying Bernard Hopkins. He’s enjoying a four fight winning streak and ended two of them early but enters tonight’s fight with just one round under his belt in the last 11 months – a blowout of Antonio Escalante, a victim of six other stoppages.

What else is known of Hunter’s ability is that while he owns no outstanding attributes, he’s able to do a bit of everything else at a steady standard. Hunter can sway both sides to be elusive but often holds his feet for too long, standing in the pocket for longer than necessary – that’s where the champion must take advantage.

Should Selby retain distance and not fall-in or overreach, the target will be there waiting. Hunter will try to tempt Selby in to exchanges while concealing counters; it’s the home corner’s task not to fall in to those traps. When not hitting a clean target, it will be important to hit something, working towards breaking down Hunter’s shell defence.

If there’s a criticism to be made of Hunter’s questionable temperament, it can be related to his work rate. On both occasions that Hunter’s been disqualified, it’s happened when opponents have applied a high intensity output or rushed him. Selby will be subtler than Luis Franco and Mike Oliver but he’s capable of setting an uncomfortable pace, whether Hunter responds with low blows or hits after breaks remains to be seen. The out-spoken American has appeared petulant at times during fight week and there are signs that he can be unsettled, especially in front of 20,000 opposing fans.

Hunter could argue that he holds the advantage of hand speed but he too often throws single punches and he potshots, while Selby can put his combinations together with a more effective fluency. Tony Borg, head coach of St Joseph’s Boxing Club in Newport, will instruct Selby to apply intelligent pressure, fighting in flurries before moving off and forcing the American to reset his feet – tactics that can force a late stoppage victory or clear points win.

It will be Selby’s fourth appearance at the venue and observers can expect the pair to be in the ring around 8:00pm as there are three fights scheduled to take place after the IBF world championship fight. The bouts following Selby’s include the debut of Conor Benn, son of two-weight world champion Nigel Benn, two-time title challenger George Groves’ supposed routine meeting with David Brophy and of course, Anthony Joshua’s huge IBF world heavyweight title challenge to Charles Martin.

Selby’s prominence, or lack of, on the show’s running order may be an alarming sign of his seemingly fragile relationship with Matchroom Sport’s Eddie Hearn, a partnership strained since August by the involvement of American advisor Al Haymon. Enjoy watching ‘Sugar’ on home soil, or near enough, because a return to America is strong possibility.

Image by Matchroom Sport.