USA Today and Ring magazine both did features recently on who might become a breakout attraction in 2009. They were both good pieces — you can read them here and here — and timely, too, since we’re going into ’09 without anyone who’s really well-established as a name in the United States on the level of Oscar De La Hoya or Roy Jones, Jr., both of whom proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2008 that their time anywhere near the top is over. (And some of the other names in the second tier of recognizability, like a Joe Calzaghe, are aging and may not be around much longer.)
Despite those two pieces being praiseworthy, I wanted to add my two cents.
For starters, it’s not that easy to define the terms here. When we talk attraction, do we mean people who can break through into the mainstream? Or are we talking about people who will become popular where once they were lesser-known? And are we talking just in the United States, or elsewhere? Should there be an age limit involved, or should it all be about “the next generation?” Everyone seems to agree that there should be some combination of ability and the potential to be more popular than they are now.
Both of the other lists are kind of all over the place. I like Timothy Bradley, nominated by Doug Fischer. But the question Fischer asks is, “Aside from pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, who will make up the next generation of boxing attractions?” And Pacquiao and Bradley aren’t anywhere near on the same level in that regard, and unless Bradley gets a shot at and defeats Pacquiao, a remote possibility, I strongly doubt they’ll get anywhere near each other on the attraction scale in 2009.
So for my list, we’ll have a couple tiers. Everyone will be 30 or younger. Everyone will be a proven commodity — a quality fighter as opposed to a sideshow like, say, a Butterbean. All of the boxers will have potential to become a much bigger attraction than they are now, one way or another. The emphasis will be on fighters who can become bigger attractions in the United States. And all of them have to be making a big move in 2009 specifically.
In limiting the list to those confines, it’s worth noting that a couple people who might otherwise make the list won’t. For instance, if Floyd Mayweather, Jr. returns, he’s immediately one of the three biggest stars in the sport with room to grow, but he’s nearly 32. And some fighters get a late start on stardom — Juan Manuel Marquez has never been more popular than he is now even though he just turned 35, and he’s got room to grow as an attraction, still, I think. I also realized once again that the landscape for surefire young American fighters is a little dismal right now, so I’m putting some faith in the ability of American fans to root for someone who isn’t from here.
And there’s no magic number to the 23 I picked. I just put everyone in one of two tiers, in the approximate order I thought they belonged, and however they ended up, that’s how they ended up. The first two are heads above everyone else, so they get a little more attention, and the second tier gets even less. Feel free, as usual, to suggest ommissions or overestimates.
(NOTE: I mention ethnicity and country of origin because for purposes of what audience a boxer appeals to, that matters.)
1. Manny Pacquiao, 30, junior welterweight (140 lbs.)
Upside: He’s the best active boxer alive, and his boxing style — tornado, whirlwind, pick your weather condition — makes for really excellent television. He had a “changing of the guard”-type fight with the last biggest star in in the sport, Oscar De La Hoya, which gave him major exposure around the world. His home country and the people who hail from it adore him. If he beats the ideal lineup of 2009 opponents — Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather — he’ll become a mega-mega-star and move considerably up the list of all-time greats. If those fights don’t happen, he has his pick of opponents like Marquez, Antonio Margarito and others, and if he beats them, worse-case scenario, he still becomes a bigger star. He’s got a hell of a story: Boxer, politician, musician, actor, college student, all-around idol from the poorest of poor backgrounds. And he’s a charitable man and gracious sportsman who’s easy to root for.
Downside: He may only fight one more year and then go run for political office. His English is coming along, but it’s not quite there yet. In part because of that and in part because he’s prone to easy athletic cliches, his interview skills are lacking. In his last two negotiations for fights, including his current one for Hatton, he has demanded more favorable revenue splits, which makes you worry that some big opportunties might slip away as he tries to appease his ego (although some have argued that he’s just susceptible to pressure from members of his team and remains humble). If he takes on a Mayweather or another welterweight (147 lbs.) like Antonio Margarito, who knows if he’ll suffer a momentum-stilting loss to a naturally bigger opponent who’s in his prime, since De La Hoya definitely showed he was over the hill. And he’s not an American, which could hurt his growth potential here; go ahead, name the last time the most popular boxer in America wasn’t born here.
2. Ricky Hatton, 30, junior welterweight
Upside: Hatton has a devoted fan base in England that follows him wherever he goes and won’t… stop… singing. His personality is a major selling point — he’s a beer-drinking, pub-loving, down-to-Earth type who actually has moonlighed a bit as a stand-up comedian, and while he’s very British, he’s a relatable chap no matter where you’re from. His increased exposure in the United States in recent years has helped his worldwide profile, and fighting Pacquiao would ensure that profile would rise yet more. He wants to challenge himself, which is why he fought Mayweather in a largely excusable loss in 2007, and that’ll win you fans. At his best, he fights in an energetic, fan-friendly, all-attack style, and after a couple years of fights where he didn’t look his best, he rebounded strongly in 2008 with one of his best and most aesthetically pleasing career performances, enough to propel him back in to some top-10 lists. Beating Pacquiao would be a huge coup that maybe might not make him THE face of boxing, but it would make him one of the only ones in the discussion.
Downside: There’s a really strong chance he’ll get pancaked by Pacquiao if the fight happens, and while one loss to the best of the best hasn’t hurt his career much, losing twice to the best of the best could prove to some that he’s the limited, overrated hype job his critics think he is. If the fight doesn’t happen, he’s got no opponents on deck who can make him as much money or help his profile as much in the United States, unless he fights Mayweather instead. If he fights and beats Pacquiao, it would be on to a near-certain pancaking, for the second time, to Mayweather, unless Mayweather’s rusty and Hatton’s really improved that much under his new trainer, Mayweather’s father, Floyd Sr. Like Pacquiao, he’s flirted with the idea of leaving the sport sooner rather than later. It all points to the end being near one way or the other, unless he pulls off a miracle 2009 and beats both Pacquiao and Mayweather and then keeps fighting unexpectedly.
3. Antonio Margarito, 30, welterweight
Upside: Being the biggest star from Mexico automatically makes Margarito a major force in America among Mexican-American fans, who are driving the sport domestically these days. His Fight of the Year-caliber defeat of Miguel Cotto in 2008 won him a ton of fans, both those of Mexican heritage who surely appreciated the ultra-macho style in which he won and people who hadn’t heard of him before but won’t soon forget the way he ignored 11 rounds of power punches from Cotto to gut out the TKO win. It helped make him the first major box office draw of 2009 — they’re opening the rafters at the Staples Center for his fight with Shane Mosley. His potential slate of opponents for the rest of 2009, starting with a likely Cotto rematch, offers more opportunities for growth. That he fights for his deceased brother gives him a touching backstory to contrast with his in-ring Terminator-ness.
Downside: He apparently has no interest in speaking English. He’s gotten a little picky from time to time during negotiations for big fights, including a rematch with Paul Williams, who scored a win over him that Margarito has shown little interest in avenging, a bad trend. His fighting style — his only defense is that he can take
a punch really well — doesn’t make for long careers. He’s been inconsistent at times, but it hasn’t been a problem for the last year and a half or so. There’s a chance a slick boxer could embarrass him, like, say, a Mosley.
4. Kelly Pavlik, 26, middleweight (160 lbs.)
Upside: He’s got loyal fans of his own in Ohio, where the local stadium is expected to host a sell-out crowd for his February bout despite a lackluster opponent and Pavlik rebounding from his first career loss. His ties to economically depressed Youngstown are catnip for writers looking for a hook. He’s a confident yet humble lad who still sleeps over at his parents’ house sometimes. He’s a knockout machine. And he’s white. That’s why he’s so high on this list despite the recent loss, and not just because I believe he can bounce back; his growth potential is huge because of the color of his skin.
Downside: Bernard Hopkins showed the kid he needed to work on his skills — it was as one-sided a defeat as a man can get short of getting KO’d — but he doesn’t seem to have learned that lesson, from the way he discusses what happened that night. He’s naturally powerful, but not naturally fast, and so he’s going to be vulnerable to slicksters even if he does hone his skills. One loss brought out the haters; who knows what a second loss would do.
5. Miguel Cotto, 28, welterweight
Upside: He’s beloved by purists who like how he’s all business in the ring and out of it — fights whomever’s put in front of him, crushes them — and despite a debilitating first loss to Margarito last year, I’m wagering he has maintained the support of those purists and his fan base in boxing-mad Puerto Rico. He’s a boxer-puncher, so he has appeal with fans who are oriented toward knockouts and those who appreciate the sweet science. For three of the last four years, he’s been in fights that were finalist for Fight of the Year, so he brings the drama, too. He’s let his fun-loving side come out a little recently, which make him more relatable. I’d guess he’ll bring out a pretty big audience to New York City next month despite fighting a no-name opponent and coming off a loss.
Downside: That shaky chin of his makes him exciting, but it also makes him a knockout waiting to happen when he’s in against big punchers, and too many of those could erode his fan base. Despite showing flashes of personality, he’s still basically robotic in public. And he always seems to have some kind of family drama distracting him. There’s also a fine line between “not making excuses” and “being in denial,” so he better not continue to believe he had the right game plan against Margarito the first time when it comes to the rematch.
6. Chad Dawson, 26, light heavyweight (175 lbs.)
Upside: Dawson’s only the second American so far on this list, but that counts for a lot for starters. He also could energize the black American fan base, more specifically, if he catches on. He’s got talent for days, so much so that Mayweather calls him the best pound-for-pound fighter today. Mayweather’s wrong, but Dawson does have that kind of potential. Every fight out, it looks like he’s getting better. His vulnerability is in some ways an asset because he always gets back up after a knockdown and proves his heart. His trash-talking skills are improving, too, which could help sell fights.
Downside: I love his fighting style, but some find it a little boring. That’s contributed to him not really having a harcore constituency yet, which translates into having a hard time convincing bigger names to get into the ring with him until recently — why fight an ultra-skilled, super-fast young guy if there’s no money in it? And there is justifable skepticism about whether he can continue to evade getting knocked out, given how frequently he gets hurt in fights.
7. Paul Williams, 27, junior middleweight (154 lbs.)
Upside: Williams is another young, black American who appears to just keep getting better and better and who has heart for days, plus he’s as unique a physical specimen as you’ll see in the sport, with crazy-long arms and a build that allows him to fight in multiple weight classes… where he wants to fight everyone. Unlike Dawson, though, Williams has a granite chin — his adversity has come in the form of cuts (like the one he ignored against Verno Phillips), having to bounce back from a loss (Carlos Quintana ouboxed him then Williams knocked him out in the 1st round of the rematch) and a staggering courtesy Margarito (who staggers everyone at minimum, and whom Williams fought off down the stretch even though he was hurt). He’s either swamping people with activity or, increasingly these days, knocking them out, so one way or the other, he brings the action.
Downside: I honestly can’t figure out why he’s not more popular than he is, and I really want to understand. But he isn’t all that popular yet, and until he gets that way, his risk/reward ratio is way too high for most boxers. His likely next opponent, Winky Wright, is dangerous, because he could give Williams a momentum-killing loss a la Hopkins-Pavlik.
8. Juan Manuel Lopez, 25, junior featherweight (122 lbs.)
Upside: It’s all knockouts all the time with Lopez, three in a row in the 1st round against usually sturdy opponents, but people who enjoy technicians (like me) dig him, too. He fully arrived in 2008 with his knockout of Daniel Ponce De Leon — the day before, he was a very untested prospect. He arrived so fully that he was able to headline his own small pay-per-view in his next fight. He’s got more potential to take over Puerto Rican fans than Cotto because he’s passionate and charismatic, something Puerto Ricans reportedly wants out of their boxers.
Downside: America’s warmed up to smaller fighters in recent years — see the big weltwerweight and lightweight (135 lbs.) pay-per-view numbers in some recent fights — but embracing someone this small? He’s clearly got the natural power to move up some, but how far is the question. I guess other than that you can say he’s still a little untested, seeing how he hasn’t fought a pound-for-pound caliber opponet yet, or like for some other folk here, he doesn’t speak much English.
9. David Haye, 28, heavyweight (unlimited)
Upside: Some people are really high on Haye, and I’m one of them. He’s an athlete with a serious knockout punch and he’s rightly been described as perhaps the fastest heavyweight since Muhammad Ali. To top it off, he’s got model-caliber looks (he’s actually done some modeling) and he’s a mouthy mofo who knows how to draw attention to himself. Hell, he even plays up the fact that he could get knocked out at any time, which gives him some of that drama factor. If he becomes the dominant heavyweight, he gets a massive perch just by virtue of the division’s glamour.
Downside: I readily admit that there’s a strong chance he gets knocked out the first time a real, prime heavyweight hits him, so his downside is just as high as his upside. Some think he’s really a cruiserweight (200 lbs.) who never should have left the division he once ruled. And his mouthiness annoys the piss out of some people.
10. Juan Diaz, lightweight
Upside: Mexican-American; college student/boxer/aspiring politician who wears his heart on his
sleeve; has a furious work rate in the ring, and is still learning
Downside: Coming off his first loss in 2008; may be headed for his next against Marquez in February
11. Andre Berto, welterweight
Upside: A black American; has showy offensive skills, often throwing quick, powerful, dazzling combinations; a good smile and amateur pedigree have helped make him a subject of discussion in some national publications of late
Downside: Totally untested against big punchers or taller, longer-armed welterweights; stepping up against his first surefire top-10 opponent this weekend, so he’s kind of untested generally
12. Mikkel Kessler, super middleweight (168 lbs.)
Upside: Dane was featured as a future star in ESPN the magazine two years ago, but his subsequent loss to Calzaghe didn’t set him back much; Good-looking, big-punching, skilled fighter; sounds eager to make a mark in the United States
Downside: Squandered some good will by pulling out of that Edison Miranda fight and currently enduring some promotional squabbles, so is he a prima donna?
13. Arthur Abraham, middleweight
Upside: German is everything you could want in the ring — power, ability and enough heart to once win a fight with a jaw broken in two places
Downside: Says he wants to fight Pavlik, but there are reports that his financial demands are outrageous because he can make so much money in Germany, so he may never make a big mark here
14. Nonito Donaire, junior bantamweight (115 lbs.)
Upside: Filipino who’s relocated to the United States wants to be great, and has punching power, size for his weight, skill and especially speed
Downside: Snakebitten? Drama-prone? Both? Whatever the reason, he hasn’t been able to get the big fights to fully capitalize on his 2007 Knockout of the Year over Vic Darchinyan; divisive with Filipino fans for a variety of personality-related/gossip in the news-related reasons; the smallest fighter on the list
15. James Kirkland, junior middleweight
Upside: Black American; fghts like a mini-Mike Tyson, all impatient to knock out his man, and usually succeeds; has overcome a prison stay
Downside: Slowed for a while by promotional feuds; now beginning to step up his opposition but still relatively unproven (remember what happened to Jeff Lacy, the last mini-Tyson clone)
16. Alfredo Angulo, junior middleweight
Upside: Born in Mexico, lives in the United States; has that Margarito Terminator-ness
Downside: Slow-handed, not that it’s stopped Margarito; a little untested, but he’s moving his career along very quickly
17. Victor Ortiz, junior welterweight
Upside: Mexican-American; has some charisma to go along with his credentials as the 2008 Prospect of the Year in some publications; reports of him roughing up De La Hoya as a sparring partner are probably true
Downside: Was knocked down in a recent fight, but rebounded quickly; the least tested man on this list, but he has the ability to make the kind of leap Lopez did in 2008
18. Robert Guerrero, junior lightweight (130 lbs.)
Upside: Mexican-American; savage fighter in the ring who can box or punch but increasingly is knocking out his opposition
Downside: Was a little erratic before righting the ship, and now may be rusty from a long layoff that could spell trouble in his next fight; a touch on the unproven side
19. Yuriorkis Gamboa, featherweight (126 lbs.)
Upside: Decorated Cuban amateur who defected to become a pro; guaranteed excitement in the ring — knocks people out with speed as much as power, often after getting knocked down himself
Downside: Gets knocked down way too much and hasn’t shown much capacity to correct his mistakes; may be moving his career too quickly because he’s older than most prospects
20. Michael Katsidis, lightweight
Upside: Australian Arturo Gatti heir-apparent who has a knack for getting into wild, multiple knockdown slugfests; personality-wise, theatrical and down to Earth all at once, somehow
Downside: Two losses in a row, although both against excellent competition, raise questions about whether he’s got the talent to match the excitement he brings
21. Kendall Holt, junior welterweight
Upside: Black American; has the talent and skill level to put him among the elite; pals around with Brandon Jacobs (acceptance from athletes outside of boxing sometimes translates to broader acceptance); was in one of the best fights of 2008
Downside: Shaky chin; alternates between wild slugfests and boring snoozefests; still looking for that career-defining win against an upper-upper-crust opponent; has his skeptics, or else his next opponent, Bradley, wouldn’t be on Ring magazine’s own list
22. Edwin Valero, junior lightweight
Upside: Venezuelan transplanted to America is as pure as a knockout puncher gets, with 24 KOs in 24 fights; finally getting licensed to fight in the United States after a failed medical test kept him outside the borders for years
Downside: A common refrain — somewhat untested; wild, wide-armed puncher, although he’s reportedly improving on that front; will some be hesitant to support a boxer with a brain bleed, even if it was from a motorcycle accident and not fighting?
23. Jorge Linares, junior lightweight
Upside: Venezuelan based in Japan; has the kind of talent that screams “pound-for-pound” top 10
Downside: Injury woes have hurt his career; and why hasn’t he been on American television more than he has?