[Sep 14, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Danny Garcia (red gloves) and Lucas Matthysse battle during their junior welterweight fight at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports]
Floyd Mayweather sits alone atop boxing, its best and richest fighter, his crown refurbished after a brief flirtation with the threat of dethronement posed by age. New life has been breathed into the career of Manny Pacquiao. Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko glowers at the horizon, unthreatened. Bernard Hopkins fights at a high level, still. Miguel Cotto remains one of boxing’s biggest attactions, Sergio Martinez holds the middleweight championship by a thread… These are good days for fighters over 30, so much so that even some of boxing’s up-and-comers, like Gennady Golovkin and light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson, are into their third decade.
But around this time annually, we stop to examine which young men might quest upwards — in marketability, ring esteem or both. The endeavor, from one year to the next, resembles a shipwrecked crew where few survive.
What follows is not a list of prospects poised for success in 2014; for that, consider the list in the recent issue of Boxing Monthly by Mark Ortega, currently of Behind the Gloves. This is a list of boxers below the age of 30 who have established themselves as no worse than contenders or prospects with a chance to become contenders in 2014, thus the absence of the likes of blue-chippers like Felix Verdejo or Anthony Joshua who are a ways off. Some of the men on this list didn’t have great 2013s, but exhibit the possibility of recovering in 2014. It is inevitably incomplete, so your suggestions are welcome.
Saul Alvarez, junior middleweight, 23
Upside: Canelo finally proved himself against a prime contender in 2013, Austin Trout, a fact that made it hard to dismiss him as a red-headed Mexican hype job who was skating by on his good looks. Some thought Trout deserved the win, but Canelo showed off some authentic boxing ability. He did it in front of the biggest live audience for any U.S. boxing event of the year. Then he got to a whole new level of exposure in the year’s biggest pay-per-view, which doubled as one of the two biggest PPVs ever. Now Golden Boy Promotions is trying to establish him as its next PPV star, starting with what many expect to be a fan-friendly bout against Alfredo Angulo. And he’s still just 23 years old.
Downside: Floyd Mayweather, Jr. makes everyone miserable, but Canelo was particularly hopeless, not the last impression you want to leave if you’re hoping to get people to buy your next fight. And that “three PPVs in 2013” idea will shrink his television audience rather than expand it. Not only are their still questions about how good he is, but he isn’t the most energetic performer in the ring, style-wise. So far, the segment of the Mexican fan base that hates pretty boys and cheers ultimate machismo hasn’t inhibited his ability to sell tickets or deliver steroidal TV ratings, although it could bite him if he loses a few.
Timothy Bradley, welterweight, 30
Upside: After languishing for years as a top talent with no clear fan base, then getting blowback for a disputed decision win against Manny Pacquiao that wasn’t his fault, 2013 marked Bradley’s breakthrough. First came the unexpectedly thrilling war with Ruslan Provodnikov, then came the chess match win over one of boxing’s best, Juan Manuel Marquez. After he beat Marquez, he declared that he was one of the top three fighters in the sport, behind Mayweather and Andre Ward, and it wasn’t empty bragging. He’s eloquent, he has a charismatic intensity, he can make a fight as fun as he chooses and he’s damn good. And in 2014, he’ll get a rematch with Pacquiao, a fight many now think he can win. If he does, he can siphon off some of Pacquiao’s stardom.
Downside: Somehow, he keeps getting booed at the end of his fights — some thought Provodnikov won, some were Mexican — so clearly he hasn’t quite won over all the fans. Nor has he really established that clear fan base; he is not a proven draw as an A-side, and despite tons of coverage from his hometown paper he hasn’t developed any regional following in Southern California, while African-American fans haven’t massively mobilized behind any black fighters not named Mayweather in recent years. Losing to Pacquiao wouldn’t hurt him much because he should still come in as the betting underdog, but it could ding the appeal of a rematch with Marquez or Provodnikov. Certainly he’d be better off beating Pacquiao.
Danny Garcia, junior welterweight, 25
Upside: Garcia also had a banner 2013, a Fighter of the Year-worthy campaign just like Bradley’s, winning the real junior welterweight championship against Lucas Matthysse on the undercard of Canelo-Mayweather and beating a still-vital version of Zab Judah in front of a big crowd in New York. The Matthysse performance was a revelation. It’s not that no one thought Garcia could beat Matthysse so much as few saw him defanging the fearsome puncher so completely. He arrived in the pound-for-pound top 10 in some quarters, setting himself up as arguably the most viable Mayweather opponent in 2014. He’s got a natural constituency among Philadelphians and Puerto Ricans.
Downside: Perhaps we should start with his clothes, which are comedy fodder on social media. Or his music, which serves the same purpose. It’s superficial, to be sure, but one of the last things you want to do as a fighter is to become a laughingstock to boxing fans, because they can converge on you in a grueling fashion that damages your marketability. Then there’s the matter of Garcia’s father/trainer, whose racist diatribes come at the rate of one every other week, a new ethnic group or nationality every time. And while he’s stayed clear of most offensive stuff himself, Danny did recently suggest on Twitter that Justin Bieber’s drunk driving was no big deal. Maybe Garcia can seize on some of this family offensiveness to play the villain, a profitable role for the likes of Mayweather and Adrien Broner, but it doesn’t feel planned.
Mikey Garcia, junior lightweight, 26
Upside: Few young fighters flash as much talent, technique and composure as Garcia, who methodically mows down all opposition, even scoring knockouts as he began to step up to the level of contender. He has real power (28 knockouts in 34 wins), having jumped from featherweight to junior lightweight and stopping Rocky Martinez in 2013 — something nobody had done before, and Martinez had faced some hard punchers. Right now, he’s getting a big push from Top Rank, which keeps mentioning him as a future Pacquiao opponent. It might be a ploy, but that they’re giving him such a push at all means they are high on him. If he fights Yuriorkis Gamboa next, it’ll be a big event.
Downside: That word “methodically” doesn’t do him favors. He heard some boos during his last fight against Juan Carlos Burgos. For all the push they’re giving him, Top Rank keeps putting him on the East Coast, a situation they’re correcting with his next fight planned nearer to his West Coast base (which could also help him connect more with his Mexican-American compatriots). Also, as solidly as he has finished his two fights at junior lightweight, it has been disconcerting for his prospects at higher weights to see him get shaken by both Burgos and Martinez early on in those fights.
Andre Ward, super middleweight, 29
Upside: The previous Fighter of the Year in 2012, Ward is still one of the two best active fighters alive alongside Mayweather. He is still the last Olympic gold medalist from the United States. He still has a deal with Nike — an appearance in one of their commercials was a 2013 highlight — and he still appeals to purists who love watching him pick apart top 10 contenders like flies. He still has a commentating gig on HBO, which keeps him in the spotlight. He still is one of the better regional ticketsellers in the United States when he sets up shop in Oakland.
Downside: Why all the “stills?” Because with the kind of year Ward had in 2013, it’s easy to forget what kind of tools he has in the ring and outside it. The HBO gig hasn’t exactly ingratiated him to all the network’s viewers. For as composed as he is, he’s prone to weird flubs like criticizing Carl Froch for wanting to fight Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. when Ward had earlier said he wanted the same thing. He can’t stop suing his promoter, Dan Goossen, which along with an injury and choosiness over his fall opponent kept him largely on the sidelines in 2013. He didn’t do the kind of ticket sales or TV ratings in 2013 that he did in 2012, for a variety of reasons — and the biggest impediment to him growing in 2014 remains a style that is anathema to the all-action crowd. He might get a big fight in 2014 — Chavez, Froch, Gennady Golovkin — and that could heal a lof ot what ails his commercial and competitive potential.
Adrien Broner, welterweight, 24
You worry about his work habits, you worry about whether he’s really a welterweight after that loss to Marcos Maidana, you worry about whether he’ll be in jail at any point in 2014 — but until proven otherwise, he’s one of the biggest ratings attractions in boxing. Half or more of the people want to watch him get beaten up, and maybe they’ll not tune in to such a degree now that he has been. But if he avenges the loss to Maidana, he’ll have restored some of his luster as one of the brighter young talents in the sport.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., super middleweight, 26
We’re only one fight removed from the days of Chavez as must-see TV, when he nearly stopped middleweight champion Sergio Martinez in a fight Martinez was dominating. Even then there were questions about his work habits, but they went to a new level as he repeatedly rescheduled his fight with Bryan Vera and kept asking for higher weight limits. Then once he got into the ring, the fans didn’t come out in the usual numbers, and he didn’t perform well in what should have been a loss. The facts remain: He has that name, he has Mexico, and a ton of people were around their TV sets for the Vera fight. Don’t count on him finding discipline beyond the Vera rematch, but GGG, Chavez or Froch could be around the corner for him in big bouts, possibly (unfortunately) on PPV.
Terence Crawford, lightweight, 26
As the man holding the title of “best American fighter in waiting,” Crawford has to be in this tier, despite a cautious style that doesn’t appeal to every fan. Ward, Bradley and a few others once held the title and the “despites” haven’t always held them back. He’ll get his big chance to prove himself against Ricky Burns in his next fight, although the bout not being televised on HBO is confusing — he was getting a push from the network but then they say no to his biggest fight? It doesn’t feel like a breakup yet, but if it is, Crawford will be without his biggest platform and hurting.
Juan Francisco Estrada, flyweight, 23
If Estrada was 20 pounds heavier, he’d be a staple on HBO or Showtime by now. He’s exciting and talented — an elusive combination. He has proven himself against the best of the lower weight classes (a close loss to Roman Gonzalez, wins over Brian Viloria and Milan Melindo) and could be poised for all kinds of competitive action fights in 2014, like Giovanni Segura or Viloria and Gonzalez again. We could be talking about a p4p top-10 fighter by year’s end, if he wins them all. But yeah. Being a flyweight hurts him a lot.
Carl Frampton, junior featherweight, 26
Anytime you’re packing them in to the tune of 8,000 or so at age 26 — as Frampton did twice in 2013 in Belfast — you’re off to a helluva start. When one of the bouts is one of the most impressive wins of 2013, a knockout of the rock-hard Kiko Martinez (who himself had a very impressive win in 2013, over Jhonatan Romero), you’re cooking with gas. And should Frampton beat Hugo Cazares, as he ought to, then he could be in line to face Leo Santa Cruz. With his style, given his ability to both box and punch and Santa Cruz’s problems with the former, he’d be a popular pick to win.
Roman Gonzalez, flyweight, 26
Everything that goes for Estrada goes for Gonzalez (exciting, talented, 20 pounds heavier and he’s an HBO/Showtime staple, the right break and he’s in the p4p top 10), only Gonzalez is significantly more accomplished overall — heck, he beat Estrada. An Estrada rematch could be up in 2014, and if ever there was a “little man” fight for the big networks to care about, it would be this one. Doubt they will, but it’s a formula for Gonzalez to rise in the ring, at least.
Sergey Kovalev, light heavyweight, 30
Kovalev just narrowly missed the top tier. Anytime your name is one half of arguably the most desirable fight in the whole sport — Kovalev-Adonis Stevenson — you are in a position for big stardom. Kovalev could take the light heavyweight championship from Stevenson in 2014 in a meeting of two of boxing’s biggest punchers. That punching power is, of course, a huge element of Kovalev’s appeal. The only reason he didn’t make the top tier is because for all the love he gets from HBO, he hasn’t yet proven himself a draw. But on ability, aesthetics, personality (he’s funny!) and potential to make it really big in 2014, he’s right there.
Ruslan Provodnikov, junior welterweight, 30
What a 2013 for Provodnikov, who graduated from ESPN2 Friday Night Fights fan favorite to legitimate threat, first by rattling Bradley to the core of his being and then by knocking off Mike Alvarado coming off the win of his career. Now he might be in line for a shot at Pacquiao, Marquez or Bradley again. Can he beat any of them? He wouldn’t be most folks’ pick, but then, he wasn’t against Alvarado, either. Provodnikov is for real, and he’s really fun to watch. A win over one member of that trio would vault him into full-on stardom as opposed to the cult version he has at this moment, where even his mother is revered on soclal media.
Leo Santa Cruz, junior featherweight, 25
Mini-Antonio Margarito sometimes looks a certified killer yet occasionally struggles with anyone who doesn’t stand right in front of him and get punched. Like the larger version of himself, he never stops throwing punches with his long arms, never much cares how much you hit him back — although he’s probably a little less powerful and a little better on defense. Beating Cristian Mijares would help his reputation for struggling with slicksters, and beating Frampton would confirm he’s a handful for anyone, even the bigger names at 126 like Abner Mares or Jhonny Gonzalez.
Keith Thurman, welterweight, 25
With his big power and his loquacious interview antics, Thurman is always a good time. He’s dangerous, too, to most anyone in a loaded division, and this year could be the one where he gets a serious contender, like Shawn Porter. About the only knocks on him are that he’s unproven, which obviously can change, and he’s from the non-hotbed of boxing known as the state of Florida. If all breaks right for him in 2014, we could be looking at a viable Mayweather opponent in 2015.
Deontay Wilder, heavyweight, 28
He’s green as all get-out. He’s sloppy at times. But ask yourself this: Is there anyone else with a better chance of knocking out heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko with one punch? His size, speed and his devastating right hand could be a real threat to Wlad by year’s end, if he steadily steps up the competition as he has with his first scheduled opponent of 2014, Malik Scott, and bests it. Then we’d be talking about a massive star. It’s all very speculative, but the payoff is enormous.
Kell Brook, welterweight, 27
Shaky sometimes, stellar others, Brook has a load of talent and is poised to use it in 2014 against Shawn Porter — assuming he doesn’t pull out with some injury or another.
Jermell and Jermall Charlo, junior middleweight, 23
The men known as #twincharlo on Twitter are exceptionally skilled boxers, prospects vying for contender status. Jermell just proved himself as a contender against Gabriel Rosado, while Jermall has a chance to do same against Carlos Molina soon. Ring aesthetics are a negative, though.
George Groves, super middleweight, 25
If Groves’ bout with Froch had only counted through five rounds, we’d be talking about Groves as a major future talent to watch. As it is, “the enemy has a vote,” and Froch voted in typical Froch style to surge back into contention. Groves lost unfairly on a poor stoppage, and might have lost anyway, but as much as the ending cast doubt on Groves’ ceiling, he moves U.K. audiences and could get Ward next.
Omar Figueroa, lightweight, 24
He hasn’t exactly faced anyone who could be considered a contender yet, but Figueroa has established himself as a big deal in the state of Texas and his bona fides as a warrior were firmly entrenched by his even-watching-it-hurt battle with Nihito Arakawa.
Yoan Pablo Hernandez, cruiserweight, 29
Sometimes, the Germany-based Cuban is a world-beater. Other times, he gets taken to the brink by lesser fighters. But he’s the present and future of cruiserweight with Marco Huck wanting to chase bigger game at heavyweight.
Kazute Ioka, junior flyweight, 24
He’s fun. He’s young. He’s good. He’s small. Three of those four work for him. He might not have been ready for the likes of Gonzalez in 2013, but it might not be much longer.
Erislandy Lara, junior middleweight, 30
For a significant contingent of boxing fandom, Lara is the biggest viable, conceivable competitive threat to Mayweather. Too bad his promoter, Golden Boy, isn’t a big fan, and too bad his contemplative style turns off a great many other non-fans.
James Kirkland, junior middleweight, 29
So long as the Texan isn’t in jail and is spending his free time with trainer Ann Wolfe, there is no more visceral a fighter than Kirkland, and that’s the kind of fighter who can get the adrenaline pumping. There’s no guarantee of either, and a middleweight move to face Golovkin could be disastrous.
Vasyl Lomachenko, featherweight, 25
When was the last time a one-fight prospect was the betting favorite against a top-10 contender? Yet Lomachenko, a decorated amateur, could be just that against Orlando Salido in his next fight, so significant is his ability and Olympic pedigree.
Jessie Magdaleno, junior featherweight, 22
The greenest prospect on this list, Magdaleno has been blowing through the competition in a bloody fashion. He might be a better candidate for this list in 2015, but he’s an early pick for Prospect of the Year in 2014, and that’s worth something.
Marcos Maidana, welterweight, 30
No, it’s not fair for Maidana to be in this tier when the man he beat in his last fight is in the one above. It’s because he isn’t the same kind of ratings draw Broner is. But if Maidana can beat Broner a second time, we’ll be saying his name as a Mayweather opponent, so it’s a good consolation prize.
Abner Mares, featherweight, 28
It wasn’t so long ago that Mares was a top-10 p4per. A 1st round knockout loss can change things pretty quickly. But you can’t ignore what Mares accomplished prior to the Gonzalez loss when considering his future.
Lamont Peterson, junior welterweight, 30
Perceived by many as just a notch below elite, Peterson nonetheless commands a quality fight town in Washington, D.C. and has given elite talents other than Matthysse everything they could handle. He’s also never in a bad fight.
Peter Quillin, middleweight, 30
Is Quillin, with his speed and power, the biggest threat to Golovkin at 160? We might never find out, given the divide between the two networks upon which they fight. But Quillin could challenge Golovkin as the top contender to champion Martinez with wins in 2014 over Curtis Stevens and Danny Jacobs.