A List Of Young Boxers Who Could Be On The Rise In The United States In 2011 (Part I)

Each new year is a time of renewal, when the hedgehogs awaken from their hibernation to shamble out of their hedgehogholes, when the hyacinths bloom in Turkmenistan, and… maybe that’s the spring, actually, and maybe some hedgehogs don’t hibernate. But when the calendar turns from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1, I do get to thinking about who’s “next” in boxing.

I’m not alone. Ring’s Doug Fischer is in the midst of his own such excellent, annual lists. But mine is a bit different than his and the others. I’m looking for more fully-formed fighters than Fischer’s list of prospects. I’m looking for people who are under-30 still, though, the kind of people who could be around for a long while. And I’m looking for people who have shown potential to rise, either in the pound-for-pound standings or in the ticket sales/television viewership/Q Score categories or both.

What I notice from year to year is how wrong I often am, but that’s why the caveats “could” and “potential” are attached. Another thing I’ve noticed from 2010 to 2011 is how many of the people on my list didn’t drop because of some loss, but because the boxing public turned on a fighter with pre-existing popularity problems in a hard, hard way (Andre Berto) or because of personal problems (Kelly Pavlik). Maybe sometimes they deserved it and maybe sometimes not. But it did suggest to me that the boxing public is a fickle breed, prone to disliking a fighter for reasons unrelated to their actual, like, boxing. Don’t get me wrong, some guys dropped because of losses, too, but the other reason was a bit more revelatory.

As in the past, there are two tiers, with the first being a better one, obviously. Within those tiers, they are in no particular order. Each boxer’s upsides and downsides are weighed. The first tier comes today, with the second tier and honorable mentions tomorrow.


Miguel Cotto, junior middleweight, 30

Upside: Arguably the most proven ticket seller in the United States outside of pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, Cotto’s exciting style and Puerto Rican fan base make him a star right now, and I rank him in the top 10 pound-for-pound. This time last year, Cotto’s career was in a bit of doubt, having lost two of his last three by knockout. But he signed on new trainer Emmanuel Steward and rebounded well with a quality win over Yuri Foreman in 2010 at a Yankee Stadium show that did a bit worse than expectations but that still drew more than 20,000 fans. 

Downside: After all his ring wars, there are plenty of doubters about how much he has in the tank now, let alone how much he has left. Most don’t put him in the pound-for-pound top 10. Fighting now at a new weight class, he’s a bit undersized, so if his chin has become totally unreliable, it’s going to get even more risky fighting 154-pounders. Either way, he almost assuredly is an “old” 30.

Juan Manuel Lopez, featherweight, 27

Upside: Like Cotto, he has the television-friendly style and Puerto Rican fan base, but at this point he’s even more exciting than Cotto and his personality resonates in PR more than Cotto’s. He is a true contender for the most fun fighter in the sport at this point — every bout is rock ’em sock ’em, where Lopez is too macho to back down despite having shown a tendency to get decked or wobbled. He’s also a bit more of a consensus pound-for-pound top 10 fighter than Cotto. He had a 2010 Fighter of the Year nominee-worthy campaign, too, beating three top-10 feathers. He’s also the handsome lad in the picture above, if you didn’t know.

Downside: For as good as his year was, he didn’t fight any of the three people he should’ve — Celestino Caballero, Yuriorkis Gamboa or Chris John. And returns are not encouraging that he’ll fight Gamboa or John this year, either (Caballero has dropped out of the picture). He’s looking at the likes of Teon Kennedy, Jason Litzau and Ricardo Cordoba. Basically, Top Rank is going to milk him for as long as he can without putting him in against the top challenges. You can say, “that’s business,” and you’d be right, but I think it’s terrible business in the long-run and as a fan I can’t stand it, either. His team is also talking about him fighting smarter, which could make him less fun, but I doubt it’ll take and even if it does, Lopez will still be fun. Also — and this rule applies to everyone else on this list who’s smaller, so I’m not going to keep repeating it — anyone under lightweight is going to have trouble drawing in the United States.

Nonito Donaire, bantamweight, 28

Upside: Long one of the most purely talented fighters in the game, Donaire is finally going to stop wasting everyone’s time on mismatches when he fights Fernando Montiel in February. We’ll get to see just how good he is against top competition, and it’s mouth-watering. Combine it with Donaire’s engaging personality, a tendency to do the kind of things that draw “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s” from crowds and a Filipino fan base to draw upon, and the sky is at long no longer the limit — it’s attainable.

Downside: He could, of course, lose to Montiel, not that we should dock him too much for taking a challenge and falling short against a fellow pound-for-pound top-10-worthy fighter. The real question is what happens after that bout. He’s already talking about moving up to 122 lbs. which is a wasteland outside of Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. I suppose he could jump to 126 after that, but you wish he’d hang around and take on the winner of Showtime’s awesome bantamweight tournament, where the division is exceptionally interesting.

Amir Khan, junior welterweight, 24

Upside: Khan is only beginning to tap into the potential offered his unreal physical assets — mainly, speed — under the tutelage of Freddie Roach. But we always knew he was good. The knock on Khan was that he couldn’t take a punch. Well, he took a real punch or two from Marcos Maidana in December, as good a puncher as you’ll find, and he lived to tell the tale, however barely. Now, many believe he’s the class of one of boxing’s best divisions, and he’s been mentioned as a potential opponent for Floyd Mayweather, Jr. without anyone laughing. He’s already massive in the U.K., and he’s trying to invade the United States. Will it be a positive for him in the “what a neat story” way that he’s a British Muslim born to Pakistani parents?

Downside: Will it be a negative for him in the “America’s opinion of Muslims isn’t so high right now, according to the polls” way that he’s a British Muslim born to Pakistani parents? Other than that, things are really looking up for Khan. If he can’t get a quality opponent in 2011, like a Mayweather or the winner of Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander, then maybe his momentum stalls some.

David Haye, heavyweight, 30

Upside: For all the knocks on him, he’s still in many ways what America wants in a heavyweight: Brash, charismatic (even if it’s negative sometimes) and a real puncher who knocks people dead. That he has model good looks and a British accent can’t hurt him with the ladies, either, were he to become the king of the the division. His upside is huge. Too bad his downside is, too.

Downside: For the third time, talks between Haye and the Klitschkos recently broke down. Let’s say you don’t blame Haye. It’s still a bummer that none of the three best heavyweights — Haye’s #3 — can face one another (the Klitschkos because they are brothers), and it really limits the worldwide potential of the division. If you do blame Haye? Well, the guy is practically public enemy #1. He’s at least top 5. And there’s no potential for him to fight in the U.S. in 2011, especially if he follows through on his plans to retire this year, never a safe assumption with a boxer.

Devon Alexander, junior welterweight, 23

Upside: He’s the only young, black American ticket seller outside of Mayweather, given his popularity in his native St. Louis. He has talent and the drive to fight the best, and his back story about being one of the few survivors from his neighborhood gym is the stuff of television news magazine features. When he decides to, such as against Juan Urango, he can be really good entertainment in the ring. He’ll get his chance to fight the best when he faces Alexander later this month.

Downside: That narrow win over Andriy Kotelnik has some believers turning to doubters, and because some people think Kotelnik got robbed in Alexander’s hometown, some of the animosity has rubbed off on Alexander. It’s not his fault, but that’s boxing for you — a fighter can get blamed for a decision. If he loses to Bradley, he might not take too much of a hit, but he’ll need to remain competitive at least.

Timothy Bradley, junior welterweight, 27

Upside: He’s currently “the man” at 140, a deep division, and a pound-for-pound top 10ish boxer. He’s got a lot of charisma himself — almost all of it positive, unlike Haye — and is telegenic, with his Adonis-like build and pearly white smile. Some of that charisma comes from character; he appears to have a strong self-belief without being arrogant, and he’s shown that when the going gets tough in the ring, he’ll get real gritty right back. Talent-wise, he’s mostly just fast, but he’s clever, has a ton of stamina and is hard-nosed, and that makes up for a lack of power and a tendency to be a bit awkward.

Downside: Of all the first-tier guys, Bradley’s fighting style is the ugliest. His head flails about willy-nilly, he isn’t a finisher and his most fun bouts are grinders that moderately entertain at best. He simply hasn’t connected with fans, to the point that he even had trouble filling up a 2,000 seat facility near his hometown of Palm Springs in his last fight. Maybe a win over Alexander gets him there.

Yuriorkis Gamboa, featherweight, 29

Upside: There’s something elemental about Gamboa — or YURIORKIS GAMBOA! as we call him here — to the point that his nickname “The Cyclone” is fitting. The Cuban is so fast and powerful that, to quote HBO’s Bob Papa, even his slow-motion replays seem to be in fast motion. That naturally makes him quite watchable. He appears to have pound-for-pound level talent, if he could fight and beat a top opponent; that man might be John, against whom Gamboa is tentatively lined up to fight later this year. He’s something of a draw in Miami given his Cuban heritage.

Downside: For every “oh my God did you see that” bout, Gamboa turns in the occasional lackluster performance when he faces an opponent it’s clear he can’t knock out and who poses any kind of threat. It’s a reasonable adjustment given how often Gamboa was getting dropped for a while — the other problem with Gamboa is that he gets knocked down a lot and his chin is an open question. Given his lack of pro credentials, it’s understandable that he hasn’t faced a really top-notch guy yet, but if he doesn’t do it this year, he’ll be another Top Rank milk job.

Abner Mares, featherweight, 25

Upside: Mares is the only Mexican in my top tier, and being Mexican is a recipe for selling tickets in the United States. He’s on the verge of breaking through as a pound-for-pound guy, especially if he wins Showtime’s bantamweight tournament in his spring match-up with Joseph Agbeko. Each of his fights in 2010, when he emerged as a really solid contender rather than just a promising prospect, were quality performances in bouts that were a heckuva a good night of television.

Downside: He’s still learning, still improving, having only recently been thrown in there with the wolves, as his come-from-behind performances against Yonnhy Perez and Vic Darchinyan showed. But that’s arguably a good thing — it means he’ll only get better. The question is whether he’ll do it in time for the Agbeko bout, who’s proven himself a savvy pro. 

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.