THERE comes a time in every prospect’s career when potential must become something tangible and all previous performances will, as a result, suddenly seem both unrevealing and pointless. For Sunderland’s Josh Kelly, a former amateur star tipped for the top the second he turned professional, this moment arrives on Saturday (February 20) when he meets European welterweight champion David Avanesyan at Wembley Arena, London.

Until now, Kelly, 10-0-1 (6), has got by on flashes of quality, and the testimonies of coaches and so-called experts, and has been the beneficiary of that great safety net afforded to most high-end prospects. Which is to say, when he is good, he is apparently destined for greatness, irrespective of the competition, and when he occasionally flatters to deceive, he is merely a boxer for whom challenges are needed.

As well as blue chip sponsors, “Pretty Boy” Kelly is the type of prospect who receives the benefit of the doubt, usually on the condition that he is all potential, or is holding back, or that he will show the full extent of his talent when it is needed. At his best, he is a video editor’s wet dream, full of moves and looks perfect for any highlight reel, whereas when off the pace he is either beatable to some or an inspired but unmotivated genius in the eyes of others. Either way, for as long as he stays competing at a certain level, mixed reviews will be commonplace and he will continue to be someone whose entire reputation is based on potential and cameos of what-could-be brilliance.

Thankfully, this will all change on Saturday when Kelly, having waited patiently to prove himself, comes up against Avanesyan, easily the most threatening opponent of his career. This is when we will at last know whether Kelly is either as good as his supporters say or as beatable as his detractors say. After this, there will be no grey area and no ifs, buts and maybes. After this, given the challenge in front of him, we will likely have seen plenty of what Josh Kelly has to offer, with nothing held back, and will have seen a prospect put in a position vital in terms of their development: scared.

Josh Kelly vs David Avanesyan
Mark Robinson

Kelly won’t be scared in the typical sense, no, but there will certainly be a fear factor ahead of facing the first opponent plenty will be tipping to derail him. Avanesyan, after all, is a man who boasts greater experience than Kelly, and a legitimate title to boot, and is also someone who is in his prime and has just registered two of the best wins of his career. Rather than on the decline, Avanesyan, 26-3-1 (14), is a fighter who has improved in recent years and, at 32, has never been better.

His career, admittedly, has been an unusual one. It began in his native Russia, where he boxed 20 times on the spin, before eventually he found his way to Britain (where he is now based) and to America and finally to Spain, where, in 2019, he twice defeated the fearsome puncher Kerman Lejarraga (TKO 9 and TKO 1) to win his current European title.

A pro for 12 years, Avanesyan has, during this time, shared the ring with the likes of Lamont Peterson, Egidijus Kavaliauskas and Shane Mosley, whom he outpointed in 2016, and has been stopped just once (against Kavaliauskas). He has also held the WBA interim version of the welterweight title and fought for the secondary version against Peterson in 2017, losing on points.

Even if he had not conquered Spain, Avanesyan would still be considered a stern test of Kelly’s capabilities and would be viewed as the ideal opponent for somebody in search of both rounds and a test. Yet it is the two wins he scored against Lejarraga in Bilbao, when marching into the lion’s den, which really signify an added element of danger where Avanesyan is concerned. For on both occasions he was simply too much for Lejarraga, this puncher who had finished both Bradley Skeete and Frankie Gavin with ease. He was too tough. He was too fit. He also hit too hard, which, given Avanesyan’s previous form, came as a surprise to all but those closest to him.

More than that, though, Avanesyan carries a spitefulness and determination most prospects will do all they can to avoid having to face. He feels slighted to have lost some momentum of late, what with various postponements, and has never forgiven Kelly for withdrawing on the day of the fight the last time these two had weighed in to box (in December 2018). It has, to him at least, become personal and this, in theory, should make him all the more dangerous for a challenger accustomed to being in control and favoured and on top.

Yet Josh Kelly, now 26, is nothing if not confident and poised and is blessed, on the evidence so far, with an array of skills few other prospects possess. Better than that, there is a sense Kelly possesses a toughness he has so far not needed to call upon, a toughness that belies his appearance, and that it is this, rather than simply quick hands and feet, which could come as the real surprise on Saturday night.

David Avanesyan
Mark Robinson

Some will of course question his punch power and his ability to keep Avanesyan away from him. Some will also point to his draw with Ray Robinson, a decent American contender, as proof he has already found his level. But if you are picking Kelly in this fight you are doing so based as much on what is to come as what has already been and will gladly surrender to the idea that a prospect is only as good as the threat in front of him.

In this case, with the threat in front of him both real and considerable, the hunch is that Kelly will rise to the occasion and finally become everything he has been waiting to become right in the nick of time. He will survive rough spots but will be smart and, yes, tough enough to take a decision.

On the Wembley undercard, some homegrown talent might suddenly be wary of their little-known Mexican opposition given what happened to Josh Warrington last weekend: Liverpool’s Robbie Davies Jnr, 20-2 (13), meets 22-2-1 (13) Gabriel Gollaz Valenzuela for the vacant IBF intercontinental super-lightweight title while Jordan Gill, 25-1 (7), battles Cesar Juarez, 25-9 (13), at featherweight. With any feelings of complacency surely removed thanks to Warrington’s fate, Davies and Gill should be favoured to win. There’s also a tasty fight between unbeatens Florian Marku and Rylan Charlton at welterweight.

The Verdict After numerous postponements we at last get the excellent matchup between Kelly and Avanesyan.