An injury-induced layoff is never timely, but when WBA / IBF super bantamweight champion Murodjon Akhmadaliev was put on the shelf after breaking his left hand against Ronny Rios last June, it put an immediate pause on the momentum “MJ” built in his quest to get all the belts at 122 pounds. 

Meanwhile, the man with the other two titles in the division, WBC / WBO boss Stephen Fulton, is scheduled for one of the most highly-anticipated fights of 2023 against Japanese superstar Naoya Inoue on July 25.

There is a bright side to the story, though, as Akhmadaliev will return on April 8 to defend his belts for the fourth time when he faces former world champion Marlon Tapales in San Antonio. It hasn’t been an easy time on the sidelines for the Uzbekistan native, but he stayed as active as he could as he waited for the green light to get back to work.

“For some people it's a little bit frustrating, but I had injuries before, so I tried to stay focused on my fundamentals and I was still working out any way I could,” said Akhmadaliev through translator Aliko Frolov. “This time it was my hand, so obviously I couldn't punch the bag, but I've still been working out and working on my strength and stuff like that. As far as mentally, it is just the way that God presents it to me, and I'll take it the way it is. There's not much I can do about it. Things happen the way they happen and I try to stay positive, try to stay focused and God bless, I'm ready for this fight and everything should be good.”

The win over Rios, which came via 12th round TKO after Akhmadaliev broke his hand early in the fight, was the third time in four fights that he heard the bell sound to begin the 12th round, valuable experience for a young man whose record currently stands at 11-0 with eight knockouts. Sure, there was the extensive amateur background that included a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics but, as we all know, the pro game is a different animal, and in facing off with the likes of Rios (36 fights), Jose Velasquez (37), Ryosuke Iwasa (30) and Daniel Roman (30) in his last four, the 28-year-old has gotten a crash course in the punch for pay ranks.

“Starting at the beginning of my career, every single guy I fought was more experienced than I am in the pro ring,” Akhmadaliev admits. “But I definitely have my own experience and I'm trying to use it as much as possible, the experience of big stages in the amateur levels and World Series of Boxing and stuff like that. But you can see how they adjust, how they do their things differently than I used to. I can see that they've been preparing to use some of what they think are my weaknesses. But, so far, I've been able to adjust and, of course, every time I'm stepping into the ring, I’m also learning. I'm a champion, but it's a work in progress. I never stop learning, I'm always trying to get better, and I feel very confident in growing as a boxer with every single fight. I know that, up to this point, I've been getting better and better in the ring. So every round in the ring benefits me. I learn new stuff, I'm getting more confident, and I'm getting better.”

In Tapales (36-3), Akhmadaliev will get another veteran test, and even though the Filipino battler has only fought once in each of the last three years, he’s got experience, he’s held a world title at 118 pounds, and he’s facing a champion who has been out for nearly 10 months. In other words, it’s another chance for 12 rounds of learning for “MJ”.

“So far, everything’s been pretty good, and me right now and me when I fought Roman are two different fighters. I feel that I’ve matured so much since then and I have so much experience because obviously that fight was my first 12-round fight and there were a lot of questions inside my head, which I already answered to myself since that fight. But I'm still asking other questions and I'm trying to learn new stuff. And, as I said, I'm feeling like I'm growing with every single fight, every single training camp.”

As for the 800-pound gorilla in the room, does Akhmadaliev believe a win over Tapales will set the stage not for another title defense, but a unification fight against the winner of Fulton-Inoue? Obviously, there are promotional and network hurdles to overcome no matter who leaves Ariake Arena with the WBC and WBO straps, but as far as Akhmadaliev is concerned, he’s ready to call “next” after April 8.

“Right now, I’m purely concentrating on April 8th and the guy that I have in front of me, who is a legit number one contender and former champion,” he said. “So, I'm only worried about that. The people calling or not calling my name or respecting or disrespecting me, I don't really care. I don't follow any of that stuff and I'm not hearing any of that. If someone is calling me out, obviously I'm a champion; people are going to call me out. If someone is thinking otherwise or whatever, there will be time and I'll prove it in the ring. I'll do my best to prove that I'm a better fighter inside the ring, not outside the ring. Other than that, as a champion, as a boxer, as someone who has goals, obviously I want to be an undisputed world champion. That's my goal. And if God blesses and everything goes well, my goal is to defend my title against Tapales and move on to unification for all the belts, whoever is it going to be. It doesn't matter to me. I just want to get an opportunity to become an undisputed world champion.”

And as good as Fulton-Inoue is expected to be, Akhmadaliev against the winner should be equally explosive, if not more, with perhaps the most enticing part about both 122-pound showdowns being that it’s elite boxing at its purest. No nonsense, no Twitter battles, no pushing, no shoving, just the best in the world doing what they do best. Just the way Akhmadaliev likes it.

“I don't need any compliments,” said Akhmadaliev. “I'm good. I'm a Muslim. I don't think about trash talking. I don't care about what people think. This is my job and my job is to beat other people and to defend my titles and to become a world champion. All I'm trying to do is just become a great boxer. That's my ultimate goal, and the rest doesn’t matter to me. I know that I'm having the third mandatory in the row and having three more scheduled. It's kind of weird, but from what I understand, after this fight there is a possibility for me to fight for the other titles and that's my goal. Defend this title first and then move on to the other titles.”