Guided by Canadian Olympians, the time is now for boxer Zsolt Daranyi to realize his potential

Toronto boxer Zsolt Daranyi has felt like a future champion since before he turned pro. Now he realizes that the future is here, writes CBC Sports senior contributor Morgan Campbell.

28-year-old from Toronto looks to bounce back in upcoming bout in Brampton, Ont.

A male boxer wearing a hooded robe walks to the ring.
Zsolt Daranyi, nicknamed 'The Phenom,' has 18 knockouts in 20 pro bouts. The World Boxing Organization Global title is at stake in his bout against Alejandro Barrera on Saturday, but Daranyi says he's fighting for a lot more.  (@zsoltdaranyijr/twitter)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A glance at Zsolt Daranyi's stats tells you why every trainer and manager who has worked with him has viewed the Toronto resident as a future world champion.

He stands six-foot-one but competes at 147 pounds, dimensions that remind his current trainer of welterweight legend Tommy Hearns. While Hearns, also known as "Hitman," possessed once-in-a-generation punching power, Daranyi, nicknamed "The Phenom," also hits hard — 18 knockouts in 20 pro bouts.

At 28, Daranyi is in his athletic prime. His amateur pedigree, which includes national titles in Canada and his native Hungary, suggests he's world-class, as does his professional peer group. Between bouts, Daranyi serves as a reliable sparring partner to top-ranked welterweight contender Jaron "Boots" Ennis.

Fighting for more than a title

So why is his next bout, scheduled for this Saturday, taking place in Brampton, Ont., instead of Las Vegas, against a fringe contender named Alejandro Barrera, instead of a brand-name world champion?

Daranyi blames bad luck, bad timing, and one bad night.

In December 2020, he made his debut on Showtime, the U.S. cable network. A win would have boosted his value to among the sport's heaviest hitters, but Daranyi lost an eight-round decision to journeyman Benjamin Whitaker.

That loss sent Daranyi to the back of a long line of welterweight contenders, and put him on a path that led to Saturday's bout against Barrera. The World Boxing Organization Global title is at stake, but Daranyi says he's fighting for a lot more. 

A world ranking, and the opportunities that come with it.

"Being in the top 15 in the world is going to put me on the top of the map," Daranyi said in a phone interview. "With my record, I think we can get some big phone calls, and hopefully fight for the WBO [world] title shortly after this."

Daranyi turned pro in 2014 with backing from Top Rank Boxing, and high-powered manager Cameron Dunkin. His second pro bout took place on the undercard of an HBO broadcast where Terence Crawford, who is currently the WBO welterweight champion, defended his lightweight title.

Personal, professional setbacks

But Daranyi's career has largely been defined by setbacks.

In March of 2018, Daranyi was booked in the main event of a card in downtown Toronto. Daranyi was midway through his pre-fight warmup when he learned the bout had been cancelled. The event's promoter had reneged on a contractual promise to pay U.S. cash to Daranyi's opponent, Diego Marocchi, and another Argentine fighter, so they left the arena.

From there, personal and professional setbacks piled up.

He split with Top Rank, and took a two-year hiatus after the unexpected death of his younger sister, Szabrina.

By the autumn of 2020, Daranyi was a promotional free-agent, seeking to return to the ring. He was still physically imposing, undefeated and highly skilled, but, at 25, he risked becoming what baseball people call a permanent prospect — somebody who never manages to convert early promise into sustained success.

'I let myself and everybody down'

In December, Daranyi entered the ring for what was supposed to be his breakthrough bout, against Whitaker live on cable TV. Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza attended, as did executives from the high-powered managerial outfit Premier Boxing Champions, one of whom, Daranyi says, personally wished him luck.

Their interest in Daranyi fizzled after his eight-round decision loss.

"That fight really set me back," he said. "If I would have won, I believe great things would have happened with Showtime. They would have wanted to sign me. I let myself and everybody down." 

Two weeks before that bout Daranyi had signed with a new promoter, Gabriel Fanous, head of Red Owl Boxing. But instead of using the loss as a reason to cut ties, Fanous deepened his investment in the boxer.

"Part of my frustration with boxing is that people are written off after one loss," said Fanous, who also owns the Scarborough Shooting Stars of the CEBL. "If you have one bad night at your job, why is your career over?"

Guided by Canadian Olympians

While Daranyi ended his amateur career competing for Hungary, he credits several Canadian Olympians for helping build — and rebuild — his career. He spent much of his youth under the tutelage of Chris Johnson, who won a bronze medal in 1992.

Daranyi and Johnson split up after the loss to Whitaker, and Lennox Lewis, the 1988 gold medallist and former world heavyweight champ, stepped in as Daranyi's main mentor. When Lewis's hectic schedule prevented him from training Daranyi full-time, the boxer connected with Howard and Otis Grant, Lewis's teammates from the 1988 Games, who now run a gym in suburban Montreal.

Otis, a former middleweight champion as a professional, handles Daranyi's strength and conditioning most afternoons, while mornings belong to Howard, the retired lightweight contender who concentrates on fine-tuning Daranyi's skills.

"We've been working on a lot of fundamentals," Howard Grant said. "Fundamentals work in boxing."

Chance to crack the top 15

Saturday's bout, Daranyi's third as a Grant Brothers protégé, has stakes beyond the WBO Global championship. The winner is also guaranteed a slot in the WBO's top 15, a ranking that makes a shot at Crawford's title possible. To return to the baseball analogy, a jump into the top 15 is like a promotion from triple-A to the major leagues.

And the welterweight division?

It's like the American League East — competitive and full of big names.

Crawford, the WBO champion, and Errol Spence Jr., who holds the three other major titles, have been trying, and failing, for more than a year to agree to a megafight. The stalemate is a disappointment to boxing fans eager to see the world's two best welterweights square off.

But Crawford and Spence still have to fight, even if it's not against each other. Daranyi is one of several fighters jostling to position themselves for a payday if Crawford and Spence opt to delay their meeting — again.

"I know the phone is going to start ringing from top promoters soon," he said.

A win on Saturday isn't guaranteed.

Barrera, a rugged 36-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, enters the bout with a game plan and ambition. His resumé includes losses to Spence, and to current middleweight champion Carlos Adames. A win on Saturday could lead to more big-name opponents, and big-money bouts.

"If I win like I think I will, we'll see what they offer me," Barrera said in an interview. "Maybe a rematch with Errol Spence."

Still, if Daranyi is the phenom his backers think he is, he should dispatch Barrera the way Spence and Adames did. 

He has felt like a future champion since before he turned pro, but he realizes that the future is here.

"It could be the next fight. It could be two fights after this," he said. "In the next two years, I'm going to be fighting for a world title."


Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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