(James Kirkland, with trainer Ann Wolfe)
Every couple years, boxing types get worried about whether there are new young stars in the pipeline to take over once the current standard-bearers depart, particularly here in America. There always seem to be, somehow.
Once annually, I try to guesstimate who those people will be. I did the first guesstimation back in early 2009, and that was a time of transition: Oscar De La Hoya was the only surefire megastar, and he was on his way out, with Manny Pacquiao still unproven as an “A-side” who could carry his own huge pay-per-views and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. still sitting on the sideline with a faux-retirement. Pacquiao worked out pretty well, though, right? And so did Mayweather, yeah? It’s just that both are getting a little long in the tooth, and maybe their time at the top is dwindling. We’re not where we were in 2009, but we might be getting there soon.
Do this for a few years and you start to notice patterns. If you look at the big, big draws of the last decade in the United States – the people who are capable of drawing big television ratings, selling lots of pay-per-view shows, filling up venues – most of them share one trait: They’ve proven themselves to be very good. Few and far between over that period are the big, big stars that are a notch below the elite talent level, like an Arturo Gatti. Being one of the best fighters alive is no guarantee of mega-stardom (Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley and others who claimed the pound-for-pound throne during the 00s have never been particularly consistent standouts as attractions, despite some surges in popularity here and there), but it’s a pretty big ingredient.
More often than not, too, they have proven themselves to be particularly exciting in the ring, too, these ultra-popular fighters. Mayweather is an exception, even if some fans do find his style appealing, because plenty don’t. But Pacquiao is often particularly exciting, and so is fellow current star Miguel Cotto, as are past-decade superstars like Felix Trinidad, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
That combination of factors makes this year’s list a little risky. There are people on this list who are extra-exciting, and there are people on this list who are extra-good. There are not very many who are both. Because the focus here is on younger fighters who could be around for a while – 30 and under – maybe these boxers can shore up their weaknesses as they develop.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a good list of prospects, this ain’t it. These two posts by Mark Ortega are. Nor am I going to focus on places outside the United States. There are big, big boxing stars overseas who sometimes translate domestically (Ricky Hatton) and sometimes don’t (the Klitschko brothers), so where a foreign boxer can make waves here, they’ll get a nod.
The point of this exercise is, rather, to estimate the current stardom and stardom potential of those who would be Next. As with last year, we’ll go in two installments.
Saul Alvarez, junior middleweight, 21
Upside: Of the men on this list, Alvarez contends for biggest current star at the tender age of 21. In Mexico, he is huge. In America, he is doing boffo business at both the ticket box office (more than 11,000 last year for his fight with Matthew Hatton last year) and in television ratings (multiple 1 million-plus viewer counts on HBO). It probably has something to do with his funky red hair that you don’t see very often on a Mexican, good looks that lead to glamorous romances with beauty contestants and actresses, and a semi-exciting style in the ring. He has risen, in his young life, to the #2 spot in Ring Magazine’s 154-pound ratings. Up next, he could be presented with his biggest stage yet, a fight in May with the aforementioned Mayweather, and a win would propel him into a new stratosphere.
Downside: He probably will lose to Mayweather, if he gets the fight, and badly. It won’t hurt him too much, probably, because he’s just 21 and his youth will be identified as a justifiable reason for him to have lost. He has other problems, though. There have been widespread reports of him developing an attitude, and the allegations that he attacked a junior flyweight, Ulises Solis, on the street might already have impacted his popularity in Mexico; were the fans in attendance at his last fight chanting “Chavez” because they wanted a fight between Alvarez and Julio Cesar Jr., or because they were indicating a shifting allegiance? If he doesn’t get the Mayweather fight, what does he do to move to the next level with American fans, since his promoter Golden Boy and Chavez’ promoter Top Rank are at war? Also: There remain significant doubts about whether he’s very good at all. My view is that he’s grown into a pretty good fighter, as he’s beaten some top-10ish junior middleweights, but his lack of speed figures to limit his potential.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., middleweight, 25
Upside: It starts with the name, given to him by his father, the best Mexican fighter ever. But Chavez, after being mollycoddled for much of his career, has begun to make his own name. Although he’s had the odd boring fight here and there, more often than not, his fights are fun-filled slugfests. And he’s gotten significantly better than he used to be, thanks to some coaching from elite trainer Freddie Roach and reversing his reputation for being a lazy athlete. The end result is that he and Alvarez compete for big television ratings in Mexico, and while he might be slightly behind his rival on that count, on television ratings in the U.S. and on ticket sales, he does all those things very well — all while rising to the top 5 of Ring Magazine’s 160-pound ratings.
Downside: Like Alvarez, there are reasonable doubts that he can ever be more than a “pretty good” fighter. That has kept his team from putting him in with middleweight champ Sergio Martinez just yet. While that’s a prudent decision based on each fighter’s abilities just now, it’s a bit of a turn-off that the WBC is playing favorites by protecting a popular Mexican fighter from an overdue mandatory challenge to a belt that Chavez probably never should’ve gotten on merit. Nor has Chavez proven quite the the draw that Alvarez has yet in the United States, for reasons that aren’t clear to me. Also like Alvarez, he doesn’t have an obvious path to the next level outside of fighting his young Mexican peer, and that doesn’t appear possible for the foreseeable future.
Nonito Donaire, junior featherweight, 29
Upside: There’s little doubt about how good Donaire is — the Filipino has natural born speed and power that are virtually unrivaled in the sport. He’s arguably the #3 fighter in the world regardless of weight class, and belongs in or right outside the top five at worst. He’s got a chance of scoring the Knockout of the Year every time he steps into the ring, like he did against Fernando Montiel in 2011 in a career-best victory. He’s one of the two people here, in other words, who has undisputable world-class talent and a massive excitement quotient. And he’s finally escaped the ghetto of small “Pinoy Power” pay-per-views to become an HBO regular, which could help him build on the rabid Filipino boxing fan base.
Downside: The Filipino fans dig Donaire for the most part, but they haven’t cottoned to Donaire’s personality — they view him as a bit too big for his britches, basically, despite him repairing relations with his father — quite like they have their idol Pacquiao, and as such he’s not yet fully capitalized on that market. Nor has Donaire always taken on the best challenges, and he’s been prone to long stretches where he’s facing good or OK fighters between his two marquee victories, over Montiel and Vic Darchinyan. He has fought with both of his promoters — Top Rank, last year, and Gary Shaw, before that — about getting top challenges, but he’s also demanded big money in a way that’s kept that from happening. He’s in one of those “just OK opposition” lulls right now, with his next fight against Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. in his junior feather debut, a fight he took instead of facing Abner Mares for the bantamweight championship. At least we’ll find out in that fight if his speed and power translates to a division where he doesn’t tower quite as gigantically over his competition.
Yuriorkis Gamboa, featherweight, 30
Upside: When Gamboa is “on,” there’s no one more electrifying in boxing, like he was in a performance last year against Jorge Solis that had Solis comparing Gamboa favorably to Pacquiao, who’d defeated Solis less easily. Thus his nomenclature around TQBR: YURIORKIS GAMBOA! He’s a borderline top-10 pound-for-pound fighter already, a little more than four years after he began his pro career. Like Donaire, then, he has that rare excellent/exciting blend. Given the chance, he could appeal to an audience in Florida, where a Cuban-American population could find some pride in one of their own making good as a pro in America.
Downside: He hasn’t been given the chance to appeal to an audience in Florida. Top Rank is gifted at creating ticket sellers, but it hasn’t done anything prudent with Gamboa yet, promoting him everywhere but with his natural audience. Cuban fighters may be hard to market in the United States, but there are better ways and worse ways, and he’s been marketed one of the worse ways. As such, he’s proven a weak ticketseller so far. That makes him worth less money to Top Rank, which makes it less worthwhile to put him in with other Top Rank fighters, like the over-“marinate”d fight with Juan Manuel Lopez that never came to be before Lopez was defeated in 2011. Gamboa hurts his appeal from time to time with listless performances; it’s almost like he’s bored in there. It’s unclear what he does next: There’s a chance he could face Brandon Rios in a move up to lightweight, a division where he figures to be dangerously undersized in a move that could backfire or yield him mucho macho points.
James Kirkland, junior middleweight, 27
Upside: No fighter today displays the kind of Mike Tyson ferocity that Kirkland does, and each of his fights is going to have an animalistic violence about it that once made Tyson so popular. His back story got really, really interesting in 2012, too: Fresh out of jail, he looked like a much worse fighter and lost by 1st round knockout in the Upset of the Year, then rejoined with his charismatic female trainer Ann Wolfe to score a come-from-behind stoppage of Alfredo Angulo for the Comeback of the Year in a fight that also delivered the Round of the Year. Now he figures as the #6 junior middleweight. He’s got one more advantage, too — black boxing fans have been shedding from the sport, but Kirkland, with his energetic ring style and redemptive tale could appeal to them if they get wind of his story and catch one of his fights.
Downside: As improved as he looked once more under the tutelage of Wolfe, he nonetheless is a vulnerable fighter prone to getting knocked down. What’s more, he’s yet to fight a top-notch fighter with much boxing skill, and there has to be a lingering worry that he could get badly outclassed by anyone with a knack for movement. Until he can prove he’s a good fighter rather than a competent and one-dimensional (albeit fun) one, he might suffer in public esteem. And despite being popular with hardcore fans, he’s yet to prove much of a ratings boon or live draw. Right now, that means’s he’s a high-risk/low-reward for the kind of opponent who would give him a popularity-boosting scalp, i.e. Alvarez.
Brandon Rios, lightweight, 25
Upside: This man is the current action king of boxing, what with being in three straight sizzling brawls in 2011, two of which were worthy of some Fight of the Year/Round of the Year finalist nominations and honorable mentions. Rios just can’t help himself: He is animated by some kind of rascally demons that require him to throw tons of punches and ignore all incoming. His lack of defense slightly shrouds the fact that, whatever way he’s done it, Rios has become rather accomplished in the ring. He’s the clear #1 lightweight in the world, behind champ Juan Manuel Marquez. At his best, he’s got a lovable, roguish personality outside the ring, too.
Downside: At his worst, he’s got a profane, annoying personality, as his incident mocking Freddie Roach’s Parkinson’s disease showed, although to his credit he later apologized for that. I wonder if that’s what’s holding him back; so far, his fights have been poorly attended, despite his record of producing action, his Mexican-American heritage and the resulting natural Southern California constituency. He’s had trouble making the lightweight limit, but his team is determined to make him stay there, even though they arguably are to blame for any shortcomings in his training or eating that has made getting down to 135 so hard. My thinking is he’s simply too big for the division, but time will tell. And if he does stay, we’ll see if Gamboa or someone else with fleet feet can expose the limits of his seek-and-destroy style and potentially weight-drained shell.
Andre Ward, super middleweight, 27
Upside: Of the people here, Ward is the one you can most easily envision as the best fighter in the world some day, period. He’s as complete a fighter as they come, save for world-class power, and showed off Swiss Army knife-like versatility throughout the Super Six tournament that he completed last year, hoisting the trophy. That stretch, combined with a comprehensive win over the underrated Carl Froch in the finale, was enough to win him TQBR’s Fighter of the Year award, and he’ll probably win a few more for his big 2011. That year-end/early-2012 attention could be a boost to his profile. He’s proven at least a semi-popular fighter in his hometown of Oakland, and his polished personality, U.S. Olympic gold medal, all-American thing makes him a great interview with a real star presence.
Downside: The downside is two-fold. One, Ward’s outward religiosity has both pros and cons, from the standpoint of how it can affect his popularity. See: Tebow, Timothy. Two, I consider myself something of a purist, and while sometimes I’m in awe of the things Ward does in the ring that others find boring (his lack of knockouts is disqualifying for many), other times I find his tendency to maul to be a real demerit. Although he has plenty of attractive potential fights, the one that’s most attractive, Lucian Bute, is one he’s gotten a little snobby about whether he has any obligation to take. There’s a ton of physical talent, smarts and poise in Ward, but if he’s not fighting and beating top opponents like Bute, it’s hard to say exactly how he grows beyond where he is now. It’s not like everyone says, “I can’t wait to watch Ward fight next, because I’m so enamored of his style.” But there is at least some segment of fandom that is interesting in seeing Ward’s mettle tested.