Halycon Daze: The Rise Of The British Middleweights

(Gennady Golovkin, left, Matthew Macklin, right; photo credit: GeoIMAGEZ)

When Max Kellerman stated during Saturday night’s HBO broadcast of Mikey Garcia vs. Juan Manuel Lopez that his top-ranked lightweight fighter in the world was none other than Terence Crawford, it set more than a few eyebrows into vertical motion. The man he was praising, after all, is a man so dull he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. Granted, Crawford was clearly at pains to appear more exciting at the weekend. He opened up far more than he had in his only prior “name fight,” against Breidis Prescott in March of this year, and consequently put on a far better show. Still, it was hardly scintillating stuff, and consequently it was hard not to see Kellerman’s outburst as fueled by anything other than jingoism, as well as the fact that HBO have clearly invested a great deal in the skinny American’s career to date.

Truth be told, Crawford’s a good little fighter. He’s not spectacular by any means, though, and it’s hard to argue with the consensus positioning of him as just about on the fringes of the division’s top 10. It’s possible his elevated position within the lightweight ranks of Kellerman’s mind owes as much to the paucity of competition as it does to any nationalistic allegiances he may hold within the confines of his overly gelled scalp. Lightweight’s rather lightweight, you see, especially since the best fighter — a certain Mr. Adrien Broner — moved up to welter, and other notable competitors such as Brandon Rios, Humberto Soto and Joan Guzman all outgrew the class.

This was a point emphasised by the timing of Kellerman’s outburst, coming as it did within a minute or so of a trailer for arguably this month’s most exciting matchup: the middleweight clash between the unbeaten, big-punching Gennady Golovkin and Britain’s own Matthew Macklin on June 29. Make no mistake, this is a potential Fight of the Year candidate, and the fact that it’s merely considered a “step-up” for Golovkin, a trifling obstacle in his path en route to a unification bout further down the road, is telling. There are few other divisions where a fighter of the quality of Macklin would be considered merely a test, simply a tough, game opponent capable of providing a brisk examination before the real business can get underway. Golovkin’s a special fighter, for sure. But he’s also in the midst of a very special division.

In this regard, the position Macklin finds himself in is unfortunate, yet it speaks volumes as to the current quality of the middleweight ranks. I’d wager that, were he performing in another less talent-rich weight class, a fighter of Macklin’s ability would be a titleholder, possibly even more than once. In fact, you could argue he has already captured a strap in the moral sense, given the harsh split decision loss to Felix Sturm in Germany just under two years ago. Perhaps buoyed by this, Mac The Knife has spoken recently of his belief that the match-up with Golovkin has all the ingredients for a great trilogy, given their respective come-forward styles and reputations as punchers. While I admire his bravery to potentially enter the ring three times against one of the most avoided men in the sport, I worry for him if this anticipated series comes to pass. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that three bouts against GGG could damage him irreparably.

Yet despite Macklin’s apparent desire to lay his life on the line against the pound-for-pound hardest puncher in boxing, for the time being he still finds himself one of a growing number of British and Irish middleweights in and around the top 10 in the world. A top 10 that, when you look at the quality it currently boasts, makes it hard to believe that just over two years ago HBO was rejecting proposed match-ups for the lineal champion Sergio Martinez due to a lack of interest. Since then it’s no exaggeration to say that the division has exploded.

Joining Macklin in the upper strata we have Martin Murray, who has also come tantalisingly close to capturing straps on two separate occasions, only to be robbed by a draw in Germany against Felix Sturm — who else? — before suffering a narrow defeat to Martinez in his native Argentina, in a fight that few gave him a hope of winning but ultimately could have gone either way. Following him, Barnet’s Darren Barker will get another shot at a world title later this year, when he faces the Australian Daniel Geale in New York. The fighter-cum-trainer had previously taken on Martinez, back when the division was a little thinner, and gamely absorbed a beating for 11 rounds before eventually succumbing to the volume, accuracy, and just sheer class of the Argentine star in what amounts to his only career loss.

Behind these three, just off the podium, Andy Lee is gradually going about rebuilding his career after defeat to a monstrous Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. last summer and the death of his coach and mentor Emanuel Steward soon after.  Speaking after a 1st round knockout victory over unheralded Darryl Cunningham a month ago, Lee seemed to have returned to his prior, affable self. He announced that he intends to return to the ring in the autumn, following his marriage this month, and stated his desire to take on one of the British fighters if he can’t seal a rematch with Chavez. He’s a beautiful boxer when his head’s right — perhaps the most naturally gifted of them all — so he’ll only add to the lustre of the division if he can recapture the confidence and self-belief he used to exude when Manny was by his side.

As if that wasn’t enough, British middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders continues his swift rise through the ranks, and has drawn attention to himself recently for the odd achievement of having not one but two fights scheduled over the coming months, taking on unbeaten Irishman Gary O’Sullivan before stepping in against fellow undefeated Brit John Ryder in what should be a cracking fight this September. I believe we’ve got a future superstar in Billy Joe. He’s slick, crafty, capable of hurting you from a variety of angles, and, perhaps most importantly, mean enough to ruthlessly hunt you down once he’s sniffed blood. Add to that the fact that he’s tremendously entertaining in interviews, in that bubbly colloquial style not dissimilar to the one Ricky Hatton made his own, and I am left with no doubt that he’ll take to the world title press circuit like a duck to water when the time comes.

Lastly, and strangely cyclically, there’s the small matter of Chris Eubank, Jr., another impossibly youthful, undefeated British fighter whose name is an appropriate epilogue to this list given the images it conjures up concerning the last golden era for middleweight boxing in the U.K. It’s hard to separate Jr. from his dad for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps most important is the promise that he might one day follow in his father’s footsteps and square off in a series of thrilling domestic contests. Chris Eubank, Sr., after all, is inextricably bound to a time fans on this side of the Atlantic look back on with misty eyes, when he faced off repeatedly with the likes of Nigel Benn, Steve Collins and Michael Watson, in a brutal round robin over the best part of a decade. These were truly the halcyon days… days when — whisper it — the great U.S. fighters would often travel over the pond in search of the biggest prizes, although they’d get nothing from Benn, who never lost to an American during his career. It was an era informed by a set of circumstances that don’t come together all that often but may just be repeated soon: namely a group of guys with elite skills, each at or around his peak, and all willing to fight one another.

As yet, the current crop of middleweights from the British Isles haven’t turned their sights on their neighbours, and it would be disingenuous to claim that they host the same levels of acrimony that their counterparts did 20 years ago. While Benn, Eubank and Collins all genuinely despised each other and used that to fan the flames, I can’t help feeling that as soon as one of the current crop lands a world title — and I believe Barker has a decent chance if he can maintain his discipline against Geale — then the others will begin snapping rabidly and irresistibly at their heels.

The lure of big fights in London or Manchester will prove too tempting to resist, and before we know it we could all be transported back to that golden age of middleweight prizefighting. Although it’s not comparable to what went before, Barker and Murray have made no secret of their disdain for Macklin, whilst Saunders and Eubank, Jr. have exchanges threats in recent weeks, with each predicting a knockout inside five rounds should they meet in the ring. The animosity is growing and the stakes are upped, and with the big names in the division unable to ignore the swelling contingent from across the waters the horizon appears gloriously red. Just look at the names they’re ranked alongside: Martinez, Chavez, Golovkin, Geale, Quillin, Sturm. The talent is there — it has to be if you are to hang with that sort of company — and recent performances prove that the desire is, too. Now all we need is someone to cast the first stone, to make the glass explode into a thousand splinters and ensure we’re all thoroughly dazzled, before the real warfare can begin.