This is the time of year when boxing writers begin to forecast who’s “next” in the sport. Ring’s Doug Fischer has already done a great job of running down the list of up-and-coming prospects. Maxboxing’s Gabriel Montoya has compiled a nice list of boxers a notch above that: prospects who could be graduating to contenders. Me? I’m thinking of more proven — but still young — fighters who could be making a quantum leap, be it from promising talent to stardom or, perhaps, from stardom to the standard-bearers for professional pugilism.
Last year, I did something quite similar. As before, I’m limiting those I considered to 30 years old or under. There are always late bloomers who develop into big stars after they turn 30 — think Juan Manuel Marquez or Israel Vazquez suddenly becoming ticket-sellers later in their careers — but for the most part I’m looking for people who could stick around for a while. And what do I mean by stardom, exactly? I mean boxers who could become members of boxing’s elite, the pound-for-pound types, or could advance on that list if they’re already there; I mean boxers that hardcore fans or even casual fans want to watch perform. It’s a kind of mix of each. I’ve got two tiers: one for the particularly strong candidates and another for good candidates, the former getting more extensive treatment than the latter. They aren’t in much order besides that. I’ve also limited my focus to stardom in the United States. I love boxers in Japan and everywhere else, but as global as boxing has become, most everyone still wants to become a star in America, when it comes right down to it. It remains the biggest stage for the time being.
To say the least, this is an inexact science, as it requires predicting the future. (Ask HBO, which inaugurated a similar list in 2009 and saw some of its candidates suffer setbacks.) Some will advance to the next level and some won’t. Some will lose and bounce back in 2011. Some people who didn’t make my list last year made unexpected quantum leaps in 2009, so somebody not even on my list may emerge. All I’m doing here is trying to give my guide to people to watch out for, in my opinion, of people who have a chance of making it bigger.
Andre Ward, super middleweight, 25
Upside: Ward (pictured above) is the last American to win Olympic gold, and he had a good enough 2009 as a pro to win consideration as one of my finalists for Fighter of the Year. He’s personable, has that confident-yet-humble vibe and appears to be of high character. He could grow into a role as boxing’s ultimate “babyface,” to use pro wrestling terminology, and I’m told the ladies consider him handsome. He sells gobs of tickets in Oakland, Ca., and it’s always a good start toward broader stardom to have a regional fan base. As a contestant in the Super Six tournament, he has a platform that has drawn considerable media attention. Despite not having major knockout power, he fights in an appealing style — he possesses impressive skills and is aggressive offensively. Some already consider him a pound-for-pound top-20 fighter.
Downside: His association with the disgraced Victor Conte is troubling, to say the least. As a Showtime fighter locked into the Super Six tournament for the next couple years, he’ll be exposed to fewer viewers than if he was fighting mainly on HBO. His next opponent, whoever replaces Jermain Taylor, is unlikely to deal him any setbacks, but his second 2010 opponent, Andre Dirrell, can match and even exceed him in speed, which could give Ward, who thrives on quickness, big trouble. He has suffered some career-hampering injuries in his career, and if they resurface he could end up on the shelf again.
Timothy Bradley, junior welterweight, 26
Upside: He’s very similar to Ward in several meaningful ways for the purposes of this list: the 2009 Fighter of the Year finalist nod; personable, confident-yet-humble and of high character, although he’s also got a nice sense of humor as a bonus; high character, apparently (he’ll even change your muffler); a regional fan base in California, albeit a smaller region than Ward’s; an appealing “power boxing” style even without significant knockout power; and an absolutely loaded division where he can fight and beat excellent opposition. He’s already the top man at junior welterweight, and while the division is packed enough that anyone at the top level can beat anyone else at the top level, I don’t think I’d pick him to lose to anyone but divisional champion Manny Pacquiao, who’s really more a welterweight these days anyhow. Some have him in on their pound-for-pound top-10 lists.
Downside: As with Ward, there’s that Showtime thing, although I don’t think Bradley’s as locked in contractually as Ward. I’m not dissing Showtime — it’s a great network, boxing-wise — but it’s the smaller of the two networks, is all. There’s also the smallness of his regional fan base. As good as the junior welterweight division is, it’s made up primarily of very talented, younger fighters who aren’t yet established as stars themselves; Bradley briefly sought to put himself in the mix for a Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather fight when negotiations for Mayweather-Pacquiao faltered, and he remains a rumored candidate for Mayweather, but while he received some ink from it, it’s hard to see how he gets a shot at a major, major name in 2010.
Paul Williams, middleweight, 28
Upside: I’ve talked him up so much, it’s borderline disgusting, so I’ll give you the short version… he’s damn good — #4 pound-for-pound here, top 5 in a lot of places; he fights in an exciting, action-oriented style and was in TQBR’s 2009 Fight of the Year, against Sergio Martinez; he’s unique, with his bizarre bodily frame, lefty stance and volume punching style. I have a feeling people who used to not be fans will now be tuning into his next fight now that they’ve seen him in an indisputable classic, and I have a feeling that his old problem with selling tickets will have gone away some, too. His lineup of potential opponents includes a rematch with Martinez and a fight with middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, both of which would count amongst the biggest fights of 2010 if they happened.
Downside: He looked very vulnerable against Martinez. Kid needs to work on his defense big time. If he keeps fighting at middleweight or even higher, as he might against Pavlik in 2010, his chin is going to get tested again, too, even if he does shore up his D. I should clarify here that while I don’t think a loss should hurt a fighter too much if he challenges good opponents, it does stand a chance of preventing a fighter from moving forward in a way that matters to this list. Also, while I like his personality — there’s something entertaining to me about all his verbal tics, fashion sense, all of it — his communication skills have prompted some to wonder whether he speaks English. He’s less likely to get the welterweight fights he wants in 2010 against Shane Mosley, despite Mosley saying he would fight Williams, and against Pacquiao or Mayweather, despite some public clamoring for Mayweather-Williams.
Chad Dawson, light heavyweight, 27
Upside: Of all the people on this list, it’s easy to imagine him being the one most likely to take over the #1 pound-for-pound spot before anyone else. He really has that kind of combination of skill and athletic quality. And he’s improving still. Last year, after looking slightly stagnant in his rematch against Antonio Tarver, he performed far better against Glen Johnson in a rematch of what had been his hardest fight to date, beating Johnson with not much trouble at all. He’s another high-character guy. Although there are some major knocks on him, which I’ll get to in a sec, people do seem genuinely enthused about him fighting a fellow speedster, Jean Pascal, probably in the summer. He’s an HBO fave, like Williams.
Downside: I happen to like his fighting style, but there aren’t many of us. When you get booed in your hometown, as Dawson did when he fought Johnson in Connecticut, that’s trouble. Even he and his trainer concede he didn’t press the opportunities he did have against Johnson, but, and this is very noteworthy, neither of them see any point in changing that, since he got the win. And while promoter Gary Shaw insists he has better punching power than he’s shown lately — and I agree; nobody has knocked out Tarver or Johnson, so it was unreasonable to expect him to KO those two — he doesn’t hit terribly hard. If you’re going to fight in what is viewed as a safety-first style and you can’t punch all that well, you’d better come up with something to draw attention to yourself, a la Mayweather. Instead, he’s rather boring outside the ring.
David Haye, heavyweight, 29
Upside: From the standpoint of popularity, Haye has the biggest upside on the whole list because of the division he fights in — heavyweight. Even better, he usually fights like and carries himself the way Americans want their heavyweights to fight — brash, going for broke, knockout power for days. America still wants a heavyweight savior. He mitigated some of that recklessness when he fought and beat Nicolay Valuev, probably to a fault, but against the big boys, the chinny Haye is probably going to have to fight like that to have a chance of victory. Since it was his first try at fancy footwork and moving in and out smartly, and since he hurt his right hand badly, I think he will be a touch more aggressive next time. He remains the only person other than Vitali Klitschko I’d give much of a chance of beating Wladmir Klitschko, because Haye has the speed and power to maybe get inside against Wlad.
Downside: His chin looked improved against Valuev, so maybe he’s growing into the role, but he still might be a knockout loss waiting to happen. He also has been as poorly managed as any fighter in boxing. Everyone who deals with his management team — like the Klitschkos, who had to endure two different fight pullouts by Haye, and even his own American promoter, Golden Boy, who didn’t learn of the second of said pullouts — can’t believe how amateurish they are. He also lost some of my affection this year by talking big against the Klitschkos only to bail. Talk big, by all means, but don’t pull that junk if you do.
Juan Manuel Lopez, featherweight, 26
Upside: With Miguel Cotto seemingly on the decline and Felix Trinidad but a bloated memory whose name resurfaces every few months, Lopez is poised to seize the attention of the potent Puerto Rican market. Some have him as high as the pound-for-pound top 10, but everyone has him in their top top 20. He possesses a fan-friendly mixture of power and boxing skill; he was in his first Fight of the Year-worthy battle late in 2009 against Rogers Mtagwa. After largely being sheltered since arriving as a legitimate force in the summer of ’08, he’s got a tough early 2010 opponent, Steve Luevano on Jan. 23, and if all goes as planned he’ll be in a summer showdown with Yuriorkis Gamboa that has everyone pretty much drooling on themselves.
Downside: Against Mtagwa, it looked as though he’d regressed — like he’d fallen in love with his power. Mtagwa’s not that good, but he had Lopez on the verge of being KO’d. That regression probably won’t pay off as he moves up one division to 126 this year, because Mtagwa stood up to his punches just fine in a move down to Lopez’ junior featherweight division. I also remain a little disgusted at the way he was calling out Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez while they were recovering from injuries and complaining nobody wanted to fight him, when Celestino Caballero, the best junior feather other than himself, wanted Lopez badly. I don’t like to use the word “ducked” very often, but if ever anyone was ducked, Caballero was, because the amount of money Lopez was demanding to fight Caballero never was ever going to materialize, never ever.
Kelly Pavlik, middleweight, 27
Upside: Pavlik’s still white. That’s not the only thing he’s got going for him, but it is a huge modifier to how big a star he can become, and it’s why he remains here after a horrid stretch since his last meaningful win back in February of 2008. It’s ugly to say it, I know, but this is an ethnic sport where black fans like black fighters and Mexican fans like Mexican fighters and yeah, white fans like white fighters. Not exclusively, but… Anyway, Pavlik’s other appealing traits include huge knockout power, a hit-and-get-hit approach and a fascinating relationship with his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. He’s still pound-for-pound top-20, even with some recent setbacks and lackluster wins, so he’s not all hype. As previously mentioned, a prospective fight with Williams is one of the most coveted fights in the sport for 2010.
Downside: I can’t express enough how brutally mismanaged his career has been. He was being featured in ESPN the Magazine in 2008 and getting all kinds of mainstream love. Then he took an ill-advised fight with Bernard Hopkins for short-term cash, and B-Hop made him look bad, which he does to people even when they beat him. Then Pavlik kept postponing fights, to the point that Williams got sick of waiting around for him. He missed doctor’s appointments for the staph infection on his hand, and barely scrounged together an audience in Youngstown for his late-2009 small pay-per-view against Miguel Espino. And while I thought he looked much like his old self against Espino, whom I think was largely responsible for the fight being more competitive than it probably should have been, the B-Hop blueprint of speed, movement and trickeration is a blueprint that Williams, Martinez or even Felix Sturm — his most prominently-mentioned next three potential opponens — could very well exploit to do major damage to the notion of Pavlik as an elite fighter.
Arthur Abraham, super middleweight, 29
Upside: Check out any list of the best knockouts of the previous decade, and you’ll keep finding Abraham listed as a frequent author. He sends people to the hospital to be tested for memory loss, or else he did Taylor, anyway. He’s knocking on the door of pound-for-pound top-10, too. With his methodical steamrolling — you know he’s going to lose the first four rounds, and you know he’s going to slowly find his rhythm as the fight goes on and likely end it with a KO — he’s a deceptively effective fighter. He’s also as tough as they come, having fought through ailments like an injured rib and a jaw broken in multiple places. As no worse than the co-favorite of the Super Six with Ward, he’s got that prominent platform from which to excel. From what I’ve seen of his personality, like naming his dog “Tyson” after Mike or the joking he did in a Super Six doc with the cameraman about a buxom female fan, he’s a cool dude.
Downside: Has there ever been a German superstar in America? He wants to be, because he’s worked on his English, but he’s still only fought here once, and he’s the second-oldest fighter on this list. His next fight, against Dirrell, is here, and while I’m not as convinced as I once was that Dirrell was the man to beat Abraham, I still see Dirrell’s speed and movement and think it an effective foil to Abraham’s difficult style, so it’s not out of the question that he loses in March.
Yuriorkis Gamboa, featherweight, 28
Upside: He’s like nitrogylcerin with that combination of speed and power. He appears to be the most popular of the recent Cuban defectors, and there’s a market for that. He also seems to have figured out how to fight more intelligently, which will be crucial as he moves up in competition in 2010 (see: Lopez).
Downside: Lately it seems like he suffers a knockdown in every other fight, so his chin is a liability. In fact, it could prove his undoing in his very next fight, a bold match-up with Mtagwa, who gave Lopez six different kinds of hell.
Andre Berto, welterweight, 26
Upside: He has speed and technique, and in my opinion, albeit not that of others, he’s been developed well. His great smile can sell in middle America but he’s still got some street cred. If he beats Mosley Jan. 30, he’s got it made; he even could be in line for a Mayweather or Pacquiao meeting.
Downside: The consensus is that he won’t beat Mosley. And he earned some animosity from fans for his hit-and-hug performance against Juan Urango, plus he hasn’t developed a regional fan following or anything of the sort.
Nonito Donaire, junior bantamweight, 27
Upside: He’s got the same kind of explosive mix of speed and power Gamboa does. He’s become a headliner of several small pay-per-view shows, owing in part to his Filipino heritage and the Pacquiao-primed nature of that fervent market. You won’t find a boxer more accessible to his fans on Twitter.
Downside: He appeared to regress in his last fight, although some of that might have to do with fighting someone who came in over weight; he’s hired a legit trainer, though. He’s been fighting competition that is very much beneath him for too long, like next month. And lower weight classes are a difficult sell.
Amir Khan, junior welterweight, 23
Upside: Khan has grown by leaps and bounds under the tutelage of Freddie Roach, and his speed and Olympic pedigree gave him plenty to work with to start. He’s popular in the U.K., and being a Muslim of Pakistani heritage will make him stand out when he begins storming America.
Downside: You still have to worry about his chin, which is shaky. In fact, his team is so worried he’ll probably drop his alphabet belt rather than fight big-punching Marcos Maidana. You can get away with choosiness for a little while, but if he keeps avoiding anyone with power, he’ll suffer scorn.
Daniel Jacobs, middleweight, 22
Upside: He’s the 2009 Prospect of the Year here at TQBR, and some other places, too. He steadily moved up the competition ladder in 2009, and minus some difficult adjustments, he looked an improved fighter for it. He’s got speed, skill and, when he puts his punches together, more power than I think he’s given credit for.
Downside: Jacobs is amongst the least experienced fighters on this list. He’s also in a middleweight division that’s utterly barren outside the top two or three men. He may have to wait a while for some other promising young prospects to come along. But I think he’ll be ready for an alphabet title, thus him being here.
Alfredo Angulo, junior middleweight, 27
Upside: There is no one left to truly galvanize the Mexican fan base, and Angulo’s the only one on the near horizon. That would be enough, but he also fights in such a destructive manner there aren’t many hardcore fight fans that don’t enjoy seeing him in action.
Downside: It’s hard to say which is faster — a sunrise, or waiting for an Angulo punch to arrive on its target. He’s kind of the opposite of Khan; while Angulo has the chin to hang with punchers, his team may try to keep him away from anyone who can move laterally, and choosiness could make it harder to take him seriously.
Devon Alexander, junior welterweight, 22
Upside: Speed, technical polish, self-confidence and passion are all assets. Alexander broke out in 2009 with a win over a top junior welter, Junior Witter. He’s got the backing of St. Louis, a fervent fight town, and a tragic but uplifting back story.
Downside: He’s my kind of fighter, so I don’t see much, but he’s been in a couple fights that some have described as ugly. I blamed his opponent. It being a deep division helps him, but I suppose it could mean someone — maybe him — is the odd man out.
Brian Viloria, junior flyweight, 29
Upside: Viloria can energize the Filipino fan base and he’s got Hawaii excited about boxing, but he’s charismatic and fights in an exciting fashion — had a KO of the Year and Fight of the Year candidate in ’09. He’s also knocking on pound-for-pound status.
Downside: He’s small. He revitalized his career in 2009, but the lapses in effort that derailed his promising young career for a while could return. If he gets Ivan Calderon, Calderon at his advanced age has an easier time beating a lackluster version of Viloria.
Guillermo Rigondeaux, junior featherweight, 29
Upside: As one of the most decorated Cuban amateurs of all time, Rigondeaux hasn’t failed to impress since turning pro. Grizzled scribes say he holds his own in Roach’s Wild Card gym. He appears to be the real deal.
Downside: He’s much older than most one-year prospects, which means he will have to move faster than some — but moving too fast could be risky. Caballero is who he’s targeting in ’10, but he may have trouble getting an opponent of that caliber this year.
James Kirkland, junior middleweight, 25
Upside: More than anyone today, he resembles Mike Tyson — speed, power and a ferocity that borders on animalistic. His female trainer, Ann Wolfe, also gives him a compelling story.
Downside: It’s unclear whether he’ll get out of jail in time to do much in 2010. Then, it’s unclear how much longer until he’s back in jail, a la Tyson. Kirkland loves his guns, and another strike means he won’t get to come back to boxing anytime soon.
Yonnhy Perez, bantamweight, 30
Upside: He had a Fighter of the Year honorable mention kind of campaign in 2009, showing great versatility in two wins. Making matters better, both were among the best fights of the previous year. He could soon take over the top-heavy 118-pound division.
Downside: He got a late start to his pro career, and only recently got a high-profile win in America, where widespread interest in smaller fighters tapers off at around junior featherweight.
Erislandy Lara, junior middleweight, 26
Upside: Of the three Cubans here, he has the best mixture of potential and pro experience. His next fight, against Grady Brewer this month, will be the toughest that any of them have faced so far.
Downside: There have been complaints out there that he doesn’t always take the opportunities to impress that are given to him, but I guess the biggest thing that could hold him back is if he doesn’t get a top-10 154-pounder in the ring in 2010.
Lucian Bute, super middleweight, 29
Upside: Already wildly popular in Canada, Bute has grown his audience as he’s improved his game, winning by inconceivable knockout over iron-jawed Librado Andrade in a 2009 rematch of their controversial first fight.
Downside: He inexcusably was left out of the Super Six, so if he’s to find opponents who can put him into the pound-for-pound mix, he might have to move up to light heavyweight against Dawson or Hopkins.
Abner Mares, bantamweight, 24
Upside: He does everything well, really; Mares just looks so natural in the ring. I love his body punching, I like his amateur pedigree, I like his aggression, I like his composure. Oh, and he’s Mexico-born.
Downside: He’s significantly further back on the horizon than Mexican-born Angulo. He’s a bantamweight. And he’s had some injury problems that slowed him, which is always a worry.
Marcos Maidana: Power in spades, but in my mind’s eye, any particularly skillful boxer toys with him.
Hozumi Hasegawa: He’d be on the list if I was convinced he’d ever fight in America.
Robert Guerrero: Looks like the goods one fight and mediocre the next. Dunno why he’s so erratic.
Edwin Valero: So much baggage has accumulated on this mega-puncher, I’m not sure he’ll get a mega-fight.
Eddie Chambers: If he beats Wladimir Klitschko, a long shot, the heavyweight crown returns to America.
Chris Arreola: Tons of fun. And that’s the problem; I can’t imagine him being elite with that gut.
Jean Pascal: Actually, nothing wrong here. I just had to leave out someone, and I see Dawson beating him.
Joseph Agbeko: Also just barely edged out, in his case because Perez beat him.
Koki Kameda: See Hasegawa, above. Huge attraction in Japan, though.
Marco Huck: Plenty exciting, but I question whether his talent is up to snuff.
Tavoris Cloud: Still obscure, and I’m not sure why. He fights in a fan-friendly fashion.
Roman Gonzalez: One pint-sized power puncher is probably one too many to make the list.
Vanes Martirosyan: I’m warming up to him, but I worry about his lack of speed as he steps up the competition.
(P.S. For a look ahead at the British scene, including stars-in-waiting and prospects for 2010, I’d remind you to check out Andrew Harrison’s TQBR post here.)