One of the more common debates I have with fellow boxing fans and writers is how much boxing should be viewed on the continuum of sports, entertainment and business. My own view is that it’s not an either/or thing. Sports are entertainment, and entertainment is a business, and what entertains some people about a sport is that it’s… a sport. Many boxing fans (and I’m among them) are heavily interested in an entertaining slugfest. Many boxing fans (and I’m among them) are heavily interested in the basic sports question of, “Who’s better?” Both are valid reasons to watch boxing. Both lure new fans into spending their money on boxing, to varying degrees.
Often, I write about each major fight from both the basic sports perspective and from the action perspective. Sometimes I just write about one or the other, and here’s the part where I write about boxing from the perspective of basic sports. Insofar as boxing sometimes doesn’t appear to be a legitimate sport — bunk decisions, cloudy title pictures that make identifying a division’s champion unclear — I am interested in rectifying that. This annual exercise of grading each boxing division is me trying to treat boxing like, say, previews of NCAA conferences that compare the relative strength of each. It’s also meant to get a sense of where power is shifting around in the sport, and trying to figure out where it might go next. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s an excuse to run a picture of a sexy teacher, this year one who appears to be seriously enjoying an apple.
As usual, divisions are graded on: number of world-class talents; depth; number of big-name stars, primarily in the United States; the degree to which top boxers are facing each other; and number of exciting fights. The “now” grade covers what’s happened in the last year or so and what will likely happen in the next year or so. The “future” grades start at the “one year from now” mark and go about a year or so.
And as usual, I relied on some source material — namely, some reporting on young boxing prospects by our own Mark Ortega and Ring’s Doug Fischer, as well as Ring’s divisional ratings and those of BoxingScene’s Cliff Rold. Want to know how this year compared to last year? Click here.
Not only is junior middleweight the home or part-time home of three of boxing’s biggest ratings and gate draws — Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Miguel Cotto and Saul Canelo Alvarez — it’s got depth. James Kirkland, Alfredo Angulo, Erislandy Lara, Austin Trout… the list goes on. It’s been the home to some of the better fights of the last couple years, too, with Kirkland-Angulo and Mayweather-Cotto a couple of the highlights. With the possibility that Mayweather could set up shop here for a while longer, and with the possibility of Alvarez and Cotto squaring off, there should still be action here for the next year.
Most of the division is young enough to thrive even if Mayweather and Cotto fade, although I’d be willing to bet both will still be around the year after next. Among prospects, Demetrius Andrade seemed poised to join the division’s elite but has stalled, as has Omar Henry. Jonathan Gonzalez is very likely to lose this weekend against Serhiy Dzinziruk, and hasn’t impressed me terribly.
No division has a more talented five: Nonito Donaire, Abner Mares, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Toshiaki Nishioka and Anselmo Moreno, if you count the the last man’s impending move. It would rank higher, if not for two things: The rest of the division is mediocre, and while Donaire-Nishioka and Mares-Moreno are happening and likely to happen, respectively, there’s no guarantee we get anything more than that out of these five, owing to a rather even split of all the men between rival promoters Top Rank and Golden Boy. In the one match-up where promotional feuds don’t figure into it, the winner of Donaire-Nishioka doesn’t strike me as likely to fight Rigondeaux anytime soon, given his risk/reward ratio.
Donaire wants to climb weight every other year despite having a body that is past its ideal weight class, and Nishioka is old for the weight, but much of the rest of the division elite is still pretty young and unlikely to move up soon. Among the prospects, Carl Frampton is a U.K. prospect that a lot are high on, and Roman Morales did OK in his ShoBox appearance this year.
The two top men in the division, Manny Pacquiao and part-timer Mayweather, are also the two best and most popular fighters in the world. They also refuse to fight one another. After that, Juan Manuel Marquez visits from time to time, as does Timothy Bradley, and those two at least fight Pacquiao, and there is depth in the top 10, from talents like Kell Brook to exciting wack jobs like Victor Ortiz. As long as Pac and May are near their primes, there are big fights for them to make at 147, fights that get more competitive and interesting as they ease out of their primes.
Pacquiao is a constant retirement threat, but keeps sticking around, and I expect he will as long as he makes obscene amounts of cash. Should he depart, he’d be tremendously difficult to replace, but Brook, Ortiz, Andre Berto and others — like welterweight aspirant Amir Khan — are either in their primes or nearing them. It’s a division rich in prospects, too — Thomas Dulorme, Frankie Gavin, Raymond Serrano, Sadam Ali, Kevin Bizier.
One of the crowded fall schedule’s best match-ups is on Sept. 15, when lineal division champ/top-five pound-for-poundish Sergio Martinez faces mega-draw and exciting brawler Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. After that, no one truly stands out, but you can throw anyone else into the top 10 against each other and have a compelling bout — Gennady Golovkin-Grezgorz Proksa this weekend figures as another highlight of the fall schedule, and that one was a replacement bout for an even better fight between Golovkin and Dmitry Pirog. With money near the top of the division, there’s incentive for those next-tier middleweights to duel until they prove themselves worthy of it.
Chavez is just too big to stay much longer, Martinez will get too old one of these days before long and mainstay Felix Sturm has shown signs of getting long in the tooth. The good news for the division is it’s loaded with green talent, such as the aforementioned Golovkin, Proksa, Peter Quillin and others. Prospect Matyev Korobov hasn’t ever delivered, though; Chris Eubank, Jr. is a couple years away from making a big impact; and Billy Joe Saunders, Jr. is the U.K. prospect between himself and Eubank who’s probably closer to a step up.
Although it lacks the big names of the other divisions prior, featherweight makes up for it with top-to-bottom quality and the potential for exciting bouts, with Orlando Salido-Mikey Garcia and Jhonny Gonzalez-Daniel Ponce De Leon two already booked. Which of the others might happen is another matter; Yuriorkis Gamboa is flirting with a move up, Chris John is flirting with retirement and has avoided big fights for a while, Juan Manuel Lopez is serving out a suspension, etc. But the possibilities remain rich.
Salido and Gonzalez are among those who might follow Gamboa and John for the exits, Gary Russell, Jr. should be more than just a prospect right now, but his team has been playing it extremely safe — otherwise, he’d be a surefire plus for the division’s future, whereas now it’s a murkier picture. Luis Orlando Del Valle is stepping up against Vic Darchinyan this fall, and a lotta folk like him.
Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado in October could be special; Lucas Matthysse-Humberto Soto was already damn good; Danny Garcia-Khan was an insane thrill ride. That’s just 2012. Throw in Zab Judah, part-time resident Marquez, suspended Lamont Peterson and Erik Morales, and there’s a lot to like here in the post-Timothy Bradley/Devon Alexander/Khan/Marcos Maidana-ruled days.
Khan keeps talking about 147, and I just can’t see Morales being a factor by the year after next. One of Fischer’s prospects, Jessie Vargas, has already left for 147, and another, Vernon Paris, got blown out by Judah; Dierry Jean and Karim Mayfield have their valors, but I’m not sure how much of a long-term dent they’ll make.
Between division champ Chad Dawson, living legend Bernard Hopkins, exciting brawlers Tavoris Cloud and Jean Pascal and hard luck talent Gabriel Campillo, there is some ability here to make a mix of meaningful matches and fun ones. After that, the options diminish a good deal. Some of the fights would be fun, though. Beibut Shumenov-Isaac Chilemba, anyone? I’d take it.
Only Hopkins is aging out of the division’s elite, with Dawson, Cloud, Pascal and Campillo capable of matching up for a couple more years of good fights. Nathan Cleverly could make a move, although he’s stagnated. Our man Ortega likes what Eleider Alvarez has been up to, and at age 28 if he’s going to make a move it’ll be soon.
When the Super Six ended, it looked as though 168 had exhausted its possibilities and the king was clear. Yet that king, Andre Ward, has lured Dawson down for a fight, and there remain a number of highly viable fights — a Carl Froch rematch with Lucian Bute, a Froch rematch with Mikkel Kessler, Kessler-Arthur Abraham, Kelly Pavlik vs. somebody like Edwin Rodriguez. Super middleweight doesn’t look half bad, considering all the big bouts that have happened there over the last couple years.
Froch, Bute Kessler and Abraham are aging, but there’s some talent likely to remain, some likely to join from other divisions and one big name that might add an influx. Rodriguez and Thomas Oosthuizen are two future bright spots, and now that I think of it, a match-up between those two would be excellent if their promoter Lou DiBella decided to make it happen. If Chavez joins the 168 team, there are a lot of potential good match-ups for him. Ward seems content physically at 168. Prospects to consider: Marco Antonio Periban, Frank Buglioni.
We know who “The Man” is, and Wladimir Klitschko isn’t going anywhere soon, and that sucks a lot of drama out of the division. But brother Vitali is on the way out, and even though the bros are two of the sport’s biggest worldwide stars and that’s nothing to scoff at, there’s a decent “everybody but the Klitschkos” vibe. Alexander Povetkin-Marco Huck, Tomasz Adamek-Eddie Chambers and David Haye-Dereck Chisora were solid, competitive bouts this year, for instance.
Repeat: Nothing will change the Wlad-as-tyrant dynamic. And Adamek seems to be getting older. But there are some good up-and-comers, like David Price, and there’s a youngish “core” in the likes of Povetkin, Haye, Chris Arreola and Kubrat Pulvev. Deontay Wilder is still years away, as prospects go, and Ortega’s high on Joe Hanks.
Thought most of it is relatively anonymous on U.S. soil, there’s a semi-compelling amount of parity at 130; any division that has Juan Carlos Burgos near the bottom of its top 10 when he could very well beat the #1 man — and he’s not alone — at least offers the potential for competitive match-ups. Adrien Broner’s departure hurts on the “recognizable names” front, but Gamboa’s possible addition helps a little by way of replacement.
Javier Fortuna is a force and a half, and if he wasn’t the Prospect of the Year last year, he might be this year (although he’s a borderline contender right now). Gamboa would, naturally, be a fine addition. After that? Not so much.
Lightweight is populated by a fair number of action-friendly fighters, even with the likes of Rios, Marquez and Soto departing — Antonio DeMarco, Hank Lundy, Ricky Burns, John Molina, Raymundo Beltran. But, as with some of these other otherwise semi-interesting divisions, the lack of big names makes it less compelling than it could be. Broner could improve that a little, but I don’t think anyone sees any fights for him here that gets anyone super-juiced unless Robert Guerrero comes back from welterweight to back up his Twitter smack talk with “The Problem.”
Outside of welterweight, no division gets as much love for it prospects: Sharif Bogere, Mercito Gesta, Darley Perez, Luis Ramos, Jr., Lonnie Smith… Some of those men are ready to make a difference right now. How much of a difference? None seem as surefire as, say, Fortuna, although there’s some real talent there.
How swiftly the mighty fall. Donaire, Mares, Moreno, Fernando Montiel, Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko and Yonnhy Perez until very, very recently made this a terrific division, but some of the men have left for other divisions and some have faded, either due to age (Montiel) promotional troubles (Agbeko) or retirement (Perez). What’s left? Jorge Arce is always good for a show, and Leo Santa Cruz is a rising talent, but it’s a division heading toward obscurity.
Tomoki Kameda might make a difference overseas, but Santa Cruz is probably the prospect/borderline contender who is the man of the future at bantamweight domestically. I was once a skeptic but he’s won me over a fair amount.
Hernan Marquez-Brian Viloria next month is a beaut. It gets ugly after that. Edgar Sosa, anyone?
If Roman Gonzalez could carry his power up from junior fly, we might have something. But with men these little, sometimes a couple pounds can make all the difference. Just ask Giovanni Segura.
This is a division with one standout talent — Gonzalez — and one proven but aging vet — Ulises Solis. Many of the rest of the names in the top 10 are interchangeable, to the point that some of them only have one win of note.
Meh. If/when Gonzalez leaves, and if/when Solis gets too old, what’s left?
The things saving strawwweight from a worse grade? Two proven names at the top, Kazuto Ioka and Nkosinathi Joyi, and as fun a fighter as you can pack into a tiny little body, Akira Yaegashi. Yet despite being a division where there are few compelling match-ups, Ioka and Joyi can’t find a way to get into the ring with each other.
I don’t see much of one. Ioka is young, as is Yaegashi, but it’s hard for a division this physically small to escape boxing’s ghetto because miniscule men who can fight are hard to come by, even in lands like Latin America and Asia.
Yoan Pablo Hernandez is a promising talent, and the aforementioned Huck is always down for a punch-up (especially with Ola Afolabi), but the rest of the division is fairly hideous, from men way past their primes (Antonio Tarver, Danny Green, even Krzysztof Wlodarczyk), men practically stealing money by beating up old people (Denis Lebedev, although he’s now scheduled to fight Guillermo Jones to break the trend) and a top 10 that features perhaps boxing’s least coordinated top 10 fighter, Lateef Kayode.
More dreck. It’s hard enough for the cruiser division to retain talent as it is, with so many looking at it as a stopover before heavyweight. Steve Cunningham is the latest to depart, and Huck could join him permanently after a stop there this year.
Last year I wrote, “All this division has got is Hugo Cazares.” With the way he’s struggled in recent fights, it now barely even has that. If you see anything in that division to get excited about right now, you are a better boxing fan than I.
At least it has a highly-regarded prospect, Ivan Morales, with a family name popular among the Mexican fan base, as a relative of Erik.