Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn yesterday revealed that Burnett’s first defence of his IBF world bantamweight crown on October 21 will also be a world-title unification contest against WBA belt holder Zhanat Zhakiyanov of Kazakhstan.
The bout, which will take place in the Belfast native’s hometown at the SSE Odyssey Arena, is also the first unification fight ever to take place on Irish soil, north or south, as the two rival title holders clash in an effort to determine who may be the best 118lb fighter in the world.
“In terms of what it means in boxing, it’s definitely the biggest fight to ever happen in Ireland,” insisted former world middleweight champion Lee, a stablemate of Burnett under trainer Adam Booth.
“Hopefully people recognise that and get behind him and support the fight because it’s a fantastic fight,” added the Limerick man, who compared the significance of the bantamweight bout to September’s world middleweight title fight between Gennady Golovkin and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alavarez, in Las Vegas.
“It’s huge,” Lee said of the Belfast showdown. “It’s the biggest fight in the world in Ryan’s [118lbs] division — it’s comparable to Golovkin-Canelo.
“It’s the biggest fight that can be made at his weight division and you have to give credit to both of them, but to Ryan especially,” said Lee, referring to the fact that his gym-mate claimed his portion of the world title just last month.
Former Olympic youth champion Burnett became Ireland’s only reigning professional world champion with his IBF title win over Bristol’s Lee Haskins less than eight weeks ago, while victory over Zhakiyanov would see him become only the island’s second unified world champion after fellow Belfast fighter Carl Frampton.
The undefeated 25-year-old will put his newly won crown and perfect 17-0 record on the line against former sparring partner Zhakiyanov, who is trained by Burnett’s former coach, ex-world champion Ricky Hatton.
“I can see the way they’re going to match up, their styles, they’re going to gel together so well,” said Lee, who has carved out a sideline career as a respected boxing pundit to complement his prize-fighting day job.
“It’ll be a real spectacle of a fight because it’s exciting and could end at any minute. Both guys can punch, both guys are very talented with their reflexes. It’s going to be an excellent fight,” added the 33-year-old.
While the Hatton factor adds extra spice to the match-up, Lee believes his gym-mate’s decision to take on 33-year-old Zhakiyanov should be recognised on its own merits. The Kazakh carries a 27-1 record, having defeated former US Olympian Rau’shee Warren to claim the WBA version of the world title last February.
Dangerous Puerto Rican Emmanuel Rodriguez had been floated as one potential challenger for Burnett’s IBF title, but Lee insists that the Belfast Boy has not taken on a difficult task in opting to fight his rival champion.
“Ryan’s just won the title, it’s hard to get it, and you couldn’t fault him if he had’ve taken a couple of fights where he was favourite to win,” said the former middleweight champ. “For this one, he’s probably going to be a slight underdog, but he’ll fancy himself.
“I’ve saw footage of them sparring together before and I know Ryan will fancy himself. You have to give him huge credit — he wants to be the best,” added Lee, who is also back in training ahead of a potential ring return later this year.