Undefeated junior lightweight contenders Rances Barthelemy and Arash Usmanee will open the 2013 season of "Friday Night Fights" (10 ET) this week on ESPN2 and WatchESPN.com.
Cuba's Barthelemy, 26, will climb into the ring at the Magic City Casino in Miami as the favorite, but nothing indicates he'll take an easy victory. Left-handed, with good technique and height, Barthelemy (17-0, 11 KOs) will have to overcome the pressure of an opponent who, although technically inferior, possesses a style that can make things difficult on the competition. Afghanistan-born Canada resident Usmanee (20-0, 10 KOs) is a stalker with brawling tendencies. His good assimilation of punches and strong exchanges will test the limits of the fighter many view as Cuba's next professional star.
Barthelemy's skills and 5-foot-11 frame make him a formidable force, at least on paper. He showed his vast potential in his three fights in 2012, in which he clearly defeated Hylon Williams -- another undefeated prospect -- Robert Osiobe and Alejandro Rodriguez.
And although he is still considered a prospect, Barthelemy has the instincts of an athlete who comes from a family of fighters. Older brother Yan (12-3, four KOs) won the Olympic gold medal in 2004, and younger brother Leduan (2-0, two KOs) also shows promise. (Both fight at junior featherweight.)
Friday's fight could be the most difficult challenge of Barthelemy's career. Usmanee, 30, a former national amateur champion for Canada, is coming off two knockout victories in as many fights. The Kabul-born fighter says he has grown as a professional and added assets to his repertoire. But after promising a long battle and a KO victory, it also sounds as though he isn't inclined to change his stripes.
"I like to go to war in every fight, even when I shouldn't," Usmanee said. "I am an aggressor with good technique, and this coming Friday you'll see a great fight."
If Barthelemy can dictate the fight with his length and technique, he'll likely win on the scorecards -- and by a great margin. But if he succumbs to Usmanee's crazy rhythms and winds up trading leather in close quarters, he may have problems. A cool head, patience and lots of jabs will be the Cuban's keys to victory.
For his part, Usmanee needs to pressure constantly, overwhelming his opponent with combinations. His frantic pace could puncture the plans of Barthelemy, who, for the first time in his career, will be engaging in his first scheduled 12-round fight. (He has never gone beyond eight rounds.) That's no minor bit of data.
In the co-main event, another war could be brewing that's worth paying attention to: Puerto Rico's Jonathan Gonzalez (15-0-1, 13 KOs) will attempt to position himself for another title shot after drawing with Sergiy Dzinziruk in September, a fight for which Gonzalez didn't make the contracted weight. He will have to convincingly defeat a difficult opponent in Derek Ennis (23-3-1, seven KOs), a good test for the Puerto Rican fighter in a junior middleweight bout.