(LAS VEGAS — Deontay Wilder poses by his corner after going 12 rounds with Bermane Stiverne during their fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Jan. 17 [Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images])
With Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao right around the corner, there’s already been speculation about who, if anyone, is “next” in boxing, after the eventual departure of the two superstars who have ruled the sport’s box office and pound-for-pound throne since the late aughts.
It’s a fickle guessing game. Annually, we assemble a list like this one, where we look at the 30-and-under boxers who could be on the rise in any given year, at the ticket gate/in the television ratings/on lists of the best boxers in the world/on lists of the best boxers in their division. We started drawing up the list two weeks ago; since then, two men who might’ve featured more prominently — Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. and Danny Garcia — have lost or were seen to have lost, respectively.
Because the criteria for this list gets guff each year, allow this explanation. Whether one thinks a boxer who is 30-years-old is “young” or not is a matter of perspective. But one thing that’s gotten obvious is that boxers these days, for whatever reason, are able to fight at a high level for far beyond that. Mayweather and Pacquiao are 38 and 36 years old, and are the consensus two best fighters in the game. Only two fighters on one representative pound-for-pount top 10 list are below the age of 31. Top boxers are still very much in their physical primes at age 30, so the cutoff is a somewhat arbitrary number, but well within the range of when a fighter might still be on the rise and still be considered “young,” in boxing terms.
Nor is it a list of prospects. Some prospects do appear on the list, but we’re mostly looking for people who have proven themselves at least a little. At the same time, we’re looking for people who will be around for many more years; while Gennady Golovkin might be one of boxing’s purest rising stars, he also has less room to conquer and grow.
Some of the names on this list are familiar. Some might already have been considered to have “made it;” some might be, at this exact moment, on a decline from their highest moment in their careers thus far. The list is looking at people who have the potential to improve their standing over the rest of 2015.
The emphasis is slightly on the United States, but everyone gets consideration, no matter their location.
Canelo Alvarez, junior middleweight, 24
Upside: The only proven pay-per-view draw in the United States right now not named Mayweather, Pacquiao or Miguel Cotto has taken the pole position in cementing the Mexican and Mexican-American audience as all his, a place he once fought for with Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. Canelo, whose looks give him appeal with the fairer sex, has, against Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout, proven he can win fights against difficult opponents that others would rather avoid, and he’s the best pure junior middleweight, by resume, as a result. And here’s the most important part: After a great deal of “will they/won’t they,” he now looks poised to face Cotto in the fall, which would be a mammoth Mexican/Puerto Rican showdown of the kind that could vault Alvarez into the role of boxing’s U.S. moneymaking heir apparent.
Downside: There are people who will tell you he didn’t deserve the win against either Lara or Trout, and his allegedly record breaking PPV audience against Mayweather saw him get absolutely plastered, resembling a deer in the headlights more than a boxer. One school of thought says, “Everyone looks bad against a trio like that,” while another school of thought raises doubts about his actual boxing ability. Also, a lot of Mexican fans don’t like their boxers pretty. And finally, if he sticks to PPV from here on out, he’ll be limiting the ability of his audience to grow beyond the hardcore U.S. fan base that buys everything.
Terence Crawford, junior welterweight, 27
Upside: Coming off what was in the eyes of some a 2014 Fighter of the Year campaign, Crawford got a hot start in a new division this past weekend by destroying top-10 contender Thomas Dulorme. So, after establishing himself as the lightweight king, he immediately put to rest any notion that he wouldn’t carry his power up to 140 pounds. He seems like a good kid, and his home state of Nebraska has embraced him, turning the Cornhusker State into an unlikely boxing hotbed. He might already be a pound-for-pound top 10 fighter; it’s hard to ignore his versatile skills, his mixture of speed and power, his ability to adjust mid-fight and his desire to leave no punch unanswered. Finally, he appears to have quieted all the talk from early in his rise that he was “boring.”
Downside: If you can find a personality anywhere, let us know. He’s quiet to a fault, and he doesn’t even seem to have much of an interesting story outside the ring. His family and friends get more attention from the press, and, while it might be unfair, it usually takes some charisma for a fighter to make it at the top level as an attraction. There also were some diminishing returns on his second homecoming fight in Nebraska, and he didn’t even headline the HBO card where he took Dulorme apart. And while Dulorme was a legit contender, he is not the class of the division; he can further diminish the “unproven” label at 140 if he takes on Lucas Matthysse next, a bout that fans were already salivating about after Saturday’s outcome.
Anthony Joshua, heavyweight, 25
Upside: He’s the total package: Speed, power, size, Olympic pedigree, a little bit of an edge with his cockiness, and after years of boxing fans being forced to look at flabby heavyweights, Joshua is some kind of ultra-mesomorph. The U.K. seems to be fully united behind him, and he’s widely seen as the country’s best shot at producing an elite heavyweight since Lennox Lewis. It’s easier to imagine him taking down heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko than anyone else in a few years. If he does that, he’ll be a huge star. Klitschko isn’t beloved by everyone in the United States but still does great television ratings, compared to other modern day boxers. An exciting heavyweight champ from the U.K.? Nationalistic pride is such that Klitschko remains a sore spot, but the United States fan base would probably trade Klitschko for Joshua in a second.
Downside: He is, by far, the least proven fighter in this small, top tier. All signs point to a checkered flag for this guy on the way to excellence, but he is, at best, a borderline contender, maybe more of a prospect. He’s trouncing journeymen and gatekeepers who don’t get trounced that easily, sure, but he’s hardly the first to trounce that kind — and we’ve seen it happen too often where a hotly-touted young fighter eventually runs into a style that derails him. His chin has shown no signs of dings yet, and it’s the higher-level fighters who would give him those dings, if the dings can be dinged at all.
Deontay Wilder, heavyweight, 29
Upside: Wilder’s the second heavyweight on this list already, and he’s not the last. If you’re looking for a potentially big follow-up act to Mayweather-Pacquiao, it might be a (finally!) resurgent heavyweight division, more often than not the cash cow of boxing. Wilder has a lot of the qualities of Joshua, only he’s more proven. He withstood the adversity of a hurt hand against Bermane Stiverne, a certified contender, and whatever uncertainty was out there about his ability to take a punch now stands diminished. Oh, yeah, and he’s an American, the last male Olympian to medal. An American heavyweight champion with a superstar makeup is a freaking golden ticket.
Downside: Because he got a late start in the sport, whatever qualities he shares with Joshua, one of them he does not: polish. Make no mistake, Wilder has grown by leaps and bounds as a pro fighter in the last couple years — he’s not the guy who once more closely resembled an Andy Kaufman wrestling windmill than a professional prizefighter. But you do wonder what would happen if he ran into someone with the fundamentals of Alexander Povetkin or the size of Tyson Fury (not that there are many heavyweights beyond those two who have much of either). One more thing is that some found it a bit unsavory for him to beat up some mentally ill fellow off the street and then brag about it to TMZ, and there’s another unpleasant mark on his outside-the-ring resume, too.
Artur Beterbiev, light heavyweight, 30
Canada has, for some time now, had one of the best boxing fan bases in the world, and Beterbiev might be the successor to Lucian Bute, Jean Pascal, Adonis Stevenson and others as a big attraction there. He’s a highly polished young fighter with big power who’s beating top competition at a very early juncture of his career, and he appeared on CBS recently, so he’s getting a U.S. push, although he did have a scare with a knockdown against Jeff Page, Jr. that should give everyone a little pause.
Kell Brook, welterweight, 28
After years of inconsistency, Brook delivered a star-making turn against Shawn Porter in 2014, then further established his fortitude by coming back spectacularly from being literally stabbed. He’s got that explosive mix of speed and power that some of the best have, and now he’s got the poise and the battle-hardened stance he needs to take it to the next level. But who will give him a chance to keep moving? A showdown with Amir Khan would make megabucks and cement him as the king of British boxing (assuming Carl Froch remains semi-retired), but his U.K. rival doesn’t seem to want any of it.
Carl Frampton, junior featherweight, 28
The only fight that rivals Brook-Khan on domestic soil is Frampton-Scott Quigg, a great regional fight in a quality junior featherweight division. Frampton has the best all-around, do-everything stature in his division other than 122-pound champion Guillermo Rigondeaux. It’s too bad that he seems to be balking at terms for a Quigg fight that seem quite generous, frankly. He’d likely win the fight, and then could advertise his ticket-selling potential to any future opponent and leverage it for a very bankable career.
Tyson Fury, heavyweight, 26
If you’re talking about U.K. marketability, the ginormous Fury is off the charts. And he’s shown that he’s more than just a love-him-or-hate-him big mouth, beating difficult opponents time and again and even showing off flexibility against Dereck Chisora he had never before shown. A Fury-Klitschko fight looks increasingly winnable, even if Fury would still rightfully be the sizable underdog. It’s kind of too bad he’s flirting with mixed martial arts, because, like the other big men on this list, he could lead a resurgence in heavyweight boxing. Or maybe it’s just more of Fury’s savvy self-marketing, to put himself in the MMA discussion — let’s hope.
Juan Francisco Estrada, flyweight, 25
Estrada has the opposite problem of the heavyweights, who are not as talented as they used to be but have built-in appeal: He’s an exciting boxer-puncher who gave one of the best fighters in the world, Roman Gonzalez, his hardest fight since his rise. It’s too bad many boxing fans, even some of the most devoted, look down on boxing’s little men. Perhaps that’s about to change. When we get to Gonzalez, we’ll explain why. Hey, look!
Roman Gonzalez, flyweight, 27
Gonzalez, whom some consider possibly the second best active fighter on the planet, is finally poised to appear on a big U.S. network, HBO, in May. Gonzalez’s acclaim in boxing circles is justifiably outsized for his frame — dude can fight, dude can box, dude is the ruler of the little men. We’ve seen boxing embrace sub-heavyweight fighters for stretches in the past several decades, be it welterweight and middleweight in the 80s or welterweight now, but if the sport can embrace men who are outweighed by female supermodels, it’ll be a quantum leap for the range of quality match-ups they can enjoy. If anyone can do it, it’s probably Gonzalez-Estrada — especially if they stop making big money demands and sign for a rematch.
Naoya Inoue, junior bantamweight, 22
Among all the talented pros on this list who are simultaneously gifted and proven, Inoue has the earliest combination of both in even measure. He was a viable contender for 2014 Fighter of the Year, having halted the endless, dreary junior bantamweight run of Omar Narvaez by KO, and taking out two flyweights by stoppage while he was at it. Japan, which does absurd TV ratings for boxing compared to the United States, has a vacancy among pugilists to watch in droves with the suspension of the Kameda clan, and Inoue could fill that role. Ultimately Inoue’s size and lack of visibility in the United States hold him back.
Vasyl Lomachenko, featherweight, 27
Talk about total packages: There might not be a more all-around complete fighter right now than Lomachenko. His domination of Gary Russell, Jr. looks all the better after Russell’s most recent sterling showing. He won his last fight with one hand, and he’s due for a showcase on the undercard of Mayweather-Pacquiao. The United States seems to have fully embraced the Soviet Bloc invasion, so that won’t hold him back, and like Frampton, he has the ability to make his mark in a deep division, plus he has the backing of HBO. The only hold-up might be that he’s still very early in his career, and featherweights are currently below the Maginot Line of broad fan appeal.
Gary Russell, Jr., featherweight, 26
What an odd career arc. Russell went from acclaimed prospect to much-maligned Al Haymon welfare queen to bubble-burst Lomachenko-victim to oh-wait-he-is-still-real-Jhonny-Gonzalez-smasher. What’s interesting about the Gonzalez win is that it showed not only his talent in a bit of a style mismatch, but that he had grown. Even in his loss to Lomachenko, he demonstrated heart. There’s a lot to work with here, if his team is brave enough to keep making challenging matches for him (because he’s going to keep getting a push from influential adviser Haymon). That’s the biggest question — “Will he be in tough anytime soon?” — other than perhaps the size question that the other featherweights face.
Errol Spence, Jr., welterweight, 25
Spence is the clear top prospect among the 2012 U.S. Olympians, which counts for a lot. His transition from amateur to pro has been the most seamless among that crew — he’s really very talented. He’ll be in the running for Prospect of the Year if he keeps up what he’s doing, even though he was last year, too. All he needs is seasoning, and for us to find out if he can make the transition from top prospect to top contender. It might not happen in 2015.
Keith Thurman, welterweight, 26
The hype train for Thurman — once seen as a mouthy, funny, powerful welterweight with substantial boxing ability — has slowed a little based on his last two fights. He’s not knocking out guys like he used to, is the main problem, which suggests he was taking advantage of inferior opposition. But his power is far from non-existent, his personality is far from dull, and his boxing ability might still be coming along. As the debut main event fighter for Haymon’s “Premier Boxing Champions,” he was exposed to the biggest live U.S. boxing audience in a long time, “The Contender” excluded. If he can get some top opponents and win, he’s still very much in line for stardom.
Felix Verdejo, lightweight, 21
Verdejo is probably the most-ballyhooed prospect in boxing, and not without reason. He’s got that all-around boxer-puncher thing, with the ability to score big knockouts and a Puerto Rican fan base ready to riot on his behalf. As with some of the others on this list, all that’s holding him back is his level of competition. We’ll see what he’s made of for sure once he steps it up.
Demetrius Andrade, junior middleweight, 27
Skilled, less boring in each of his last fights than before, and a good interview, Andrade just needs the right competition to step it up to the next level.
Adrien Broner, junior welterweight, 25
Once in the first tier, he’s fallen here thanks to many lackluster performances and various distractions, yet he frequently makes mainstream media headlines, isn’t without ability and is getting the PBC push, albeit with some censorship.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., light heavyweight, 29
Still a big name in Mexico because of his dad, still a fun fighter to watch, his laziness and his loss to Andrzej Fonfara are troubling signs, as is the beer bombardment after he quit and utter denial of what happened in the bout.
James DeGale, super middleweight, 29
If DeGale can beat the athletically gifted Andre Dirrell in his next fight, he has crossover appeal beyond the U.K.
Danny Garcia, welterweight, 27
One of the biggest PBC beneficiaries, Garcia can’t seem to definitively win a fight anymore, keeps playing with weight and no amount of his father-trainer saying controversial things can cloak his results in the ring.
Marco Huck, cruiserweight, 30
Somehow still under the age threshold, Huck is a borderline top-20 pound-for-pounder with a big German fan base and Garcia’s knack for close results that make you wonder how good he is when he’s squeaking by.
Amir Khan, welterweight, 28
He can punch the heck out of an empty bottle, and has again asserted his abilities with a win over Devon Alexander, but his dodging of Brook while waiting for Mayweather or Pacquiao is getting mighty old.
Joseph Parker, heavyweight, 23
The latest heavyweight talent invited into the Klitschko training camp is showing signs of efficient effectiveness as a pro, and can do some things if his New Zealand homeland doesn’t hold him back on the international scene.
Lee Selby, featherweight, 28
The popular Welshman is the featherweight with the hardest fight on the current books, against Evgeny Gradovich in May, a mean, sturdy grinder who almost made this list.
Oleksandr Usyk, cruiserweight, 28
He’s got a crazy haircut, which is either a plus or a minus from a marketability standpoint, while his results in the ring so far — very early, albeit against top opposition — are pure, and he could take over cruiserweight soonish.
Oscar Valdez, junior lightweight, 24
Valdez is like a more brawling-oriented version of fellow 2012 Olympian Latino prospect Verdejo, and with a Mexican fan base to draw upon, too.
Nicholas Walters, featherweight, 29
It’s been a long time since a Jamaican fighter was a big star (uh… Glen Johnson, kinda?) but he has the punch and the passion and the HBO backing in the ultra-deep featherweight division.
Julian Williams, junior middleweight, 25
Some aren’t sure about him, but the versatile prospect has recently graduated to borderline contender and has a lot going for him in the ring.