EVER since they both turned professional with Top Rank, Shakur Stevenson and Michael Conlan have been on a collision course. The two former amateur stars made their pro debuts just one month apart in 2017. In the following three years they have compiled identical 13-0 (7) records. Yet while Conlan has worked his way into the number one contender spot for the WBO featherweight title, Stevenson has gone one better – he is the current champion.

With a highly anticipated clash between the pair presently in the pipeline, the likely future foes have an opportunity to outdo one another in their upcoming fights. On Saturday (March 14), Stevenson defends his belt against Miguel Marriaga before, three days later, Conlan takes on Marriaga’s countryman, Belmar Preciado. Both bouts take place in New York at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater. Whoever deals with their Colombian opponent more impressively will enjoy the bragging rights.

Like Stevenson and Conlan, the 29-3 (25) Marriaga is promoted by Top Rank. The 33-year-old from Arjona has challenged for world honours three times in the past, though on each occasion he was comprehensively defeated. Nicholas Walters and Oscar Valdez trounced him on the scorecards at featherweight, while Vasyl Lomachenko forced him to retire after seven rounds at super-feather. He has won four out of four (all early) since losing to Lomachenko in August 2017, though none of these contests were against taxing rivals.

Stevenson’s most recent outing five months ago saw him pick up the vacant WBO strap. In a battle of unbeatens, the Newark, New Jersey native posted a near-shutout victory over Joet Gonzalez. The new titlist is seeking to retain his crown in style this weekend.

“We’ve been trying to make this fight for a long time now,” Stevenson said. “I wanted a strong opponent for my first title defence. He’s been in the ring with multiple world champions, and I’m ready to prove that I’m the best featherweight in the world. This is my fourth fight at Madison Square Garden, but my first as a world champion, and it will be my best performance yet.”

Despite being a huge outsider in the betting stakes, Marriaga is confident that it will be fourth time lucky in his quest to become a world champ. The challenger declared: “I always wanted this fight, and the time is right now that he’s a world champion. He speaks often about how people are ducking him, but here I am. Colombia will have a new world champion on March 14.”

With over a decade of professional experience under his belt, Marriaga is far more seasoned than his 22-year-old adversary. A powerful puncher, the South American follows up long jabs with overhand rights and straight shots. His left hooks can do damage when they land, especially to the body. He will attempt to frustrate Stevenson with his perpetual movement, although he can be rather wild when on the attack. He is no stranger to suffering knockdowns, but is game and gritty nonetheless.

A supremely skilled southpaw, Stevenson fires out lightning-quick jabs supplemented by shooting lefts to the midsection and sharp combinations. The 2016 Olympic runner-up punches with spite, speed and precision. These outstanding attributes can lead him to a wide points win over Marriaga.

Though, unlike Stevenson, Conlan did not medal at the last Olympics, he did make it onto the podium at the 2012 Games, where he secured a bronze. The Belfast boxer’s stellar amateur credentials are highlighted further by the golds he captured at both the Worlds and Europeans in 2015. After achieving substantial success in the unpaid code, the 28-year-old is now targeting a world title in the pro ranks.

“I’m honoured to return to the Mecca of Boxing and fight for the fourth straight St. Patrick’s Day,” Conlan commented. “I know how tough Preciado is, but this fight is a great test as I continue on my path towards becoming a world champion. Fighting in New York City is very special for me. The fans have been very supportive right from the beginning at my pro debut on St. Patrick’s Day in 2017, and I look forward to putting on another tremendous show for them.”

Michael Conlan
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While Preciado, 20-2-1 (13), accepts that all eyes will be on Conlan rather than himself at MSG, the Barranquilla resident is determined to steal the limelight on the night. He stated: “The fans will be there to see Conlan, but mark my words, they will remember me. I’m more than just another ‘opponent’. When I win, I won’t be surprised. I’m prepared for a hard 10 rounds.”

Aside from a split verdict triumph over the dangerous Franklin Manzanilla in December 2017, there is little on Preciado’s ledger to suggest that he can pose a serious threat to Conlan. Jabbing behind a high guard and sidestepping around the ring, the spirited 31-year-old lets his hands go when in close, yet he can be tagged and has also been KO’d before. In what will be his first appearance on US soil, he is undoubtedly a massive underdog.

Coming off a dominant decision victory three months ago over his old enemy from the amateurs, Vladimir Nikitin, Conlan will be striving to maintain his momentum. The composed and versatile switch-hitter boasts a tireless work rate and zones in on the solar plexus with vicious intent. With his stiff jabs and lashing hooks, he can force a late stoppage against Preciado.

The Verdict Stevenson and Conlan will be aiming to outdo each other in their respective NYC showcases.