Last year around this time, in the similarly titled 2012 list, I floated a slightly scary thought: The lifespan of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao as the era's superstars might be coming to an end. And this year, the signs are stronger than ever. Mayweather, in his last fight against Miguel Cotto, was more easily cornered than usual and was made to actually bleed his own blood. Pacquiao, in his last fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, got blasted with the kind of knockout punch that ends careers.
But never fear. Why not? For historical reasons: The Next Big Superstar is always, always, always around the corner, even when there are lulls for a year or two here or there. For meritorious reasons: There's a crop of youngsters here that has been growing for a while and, I think, one or more of them is ready to step in and take the mantle.
The idea isn't just to look for superstars, though, but to examine which young boxers — 30 and under — could be rising overall. Thus, we'll go in two installments. This first batch, I wasn't sure where to cut it off; there are four clear possibilities in my book for "superstar" status, the first four listed here, but there are a few others who could maybe horn in on that kind of status, so they'll fall into tier one.
There are different kinds of stars in boxing, but most of them are either excellent or exciting or both, and most of them have some kind of outside the ring appeal. I'll break down the upside and downside of each fighter.
Andre Ward, super middleweight, 28
Upside: Arguably the best pugilist in the world of any weight right now, lineal super middleweight champion Ward followed up his 2011 Fighter of the Year campaign with one of the best couple wins of his career, a beatdown of light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson that was more aesthetically appealing than Ward's knack for defense-first, rule-breaking muggings. He's really fuckin' good; he can beat people in any old way. If he can add excitement to his boxing clinics, watch out. He comes off as perhaps the smartest boxer in the ring and out of it, too, as he is more than a passable ringside commentator in stints for Showtime and then HBO. HBO adores him, which never hurts a boxer's profile, and has invested a lot of money in turning him into a superstar, plus his hometown of Oakland likes him pretty well, too, alternating between respectable live gates and excellent ones.
Downside: The biggest thing that seems capable of stopping Ward is his own body. He's now had three prolonged stretches recovering from injuries, first to his knee, then to his hand and now to his shoulder. There are other reasons he might not keep rising, but that's the biggest one. Another is that he has no clear threat or rival, so acclaimed is he within and around his division. Another is his fighting style, assuming we don't see a continuation of the reasonably aggressive, non-mauling style he showed off against Dawson. It looked for a while like he might embrace his religiosity in a very public and vocal way, a tact that has its own upsides and downsides (see: Timothy Tebow), but he's kind of toned that down.
Adrien Broner, lightweight, 23
Upside: Broner long had flashed the physical talent and personality that could make him a star, but until last year, he was untested against any kind of top competition. His near-perfect destruction of #1 lightweight Antonio DeMarco changed all that. Like Ward, HBO loves Broner to the point that they were indulging some so-so to shameful match-ups and have sought to sign him to an exclusive deal, but having powerful adviser Al Haymon in your corner is a good thing for his fighters, mostly, although those two things (Haymon/shaky HBO match-ups) tend to go hand-in-hand. His hometown of Cincinnati has shown signs of turning him into a regional draw, although his promoter Golden Boy is determined to showcase him around the country. He's as close to a Mayweather clone as Kobe Bryant once was a Michael Jordan clone — like Mayweather, Broner will happily play the villain, and Broner has even adopted Mayweather's shoulder roll defense — only less accomplished and with more punching power.
Downside: Although he passed a big test in DeMarco, he still could stand to beat a fighter who is more athletically or technically inclined than DeMarco was in order to prove that he's really one of the best fighters in the world rather than one of the best talents in the world. It doesn't look like that will happen until Broner again moves up in weight, possibly until he gets up to welterweight, so we might be entering another lengthy period of Broner fighting so-so guys. His act outside the ring draws groups of fans who like him and groups of fans who despise him, a time-tested formula for making people want to watch either way, but some of it is so corny as to test the patience of both groups; he recently was nearly booed out of the ring at a show where he performed a rap song.
Saul Alvarez, junior middleweight, 22
Upside: Alvarez is one of two youngsters on this list who draws in massive, massive numbers of Mexican and Mexican-American fans, be it to live shows or via HBO ratings and pay-per-view buys. On the scale of these first four men on the list, Ward does pretty good ratings, Broner does very good ones and Alvarez and the next man on the list do amazing ones, at least by current standards. He's already nearly as big as a fighter gets in this era of the sport, with only PPV dominance remaining. His fighting style is basically of a fun offensive fighter, even if he's not downright thrilling, and there are those who think he has talent that he has only scratched at so far. The "Mexican with red hair, what?" angle doesn't hurt, nor does him being thought of as cute by the ladies.
Downside: He's even less tested than Broner. His best win is over… Ryan Rhodes, maybe? He's beaten a couple of junior middleweights with arguable top-10 talent, but he's also beaten an array of old men (Shane Mosley) and undersized opponents (Josesito Lopez). In other words, we have no solid clue yet of what we have in Alvarez short of eyeballing him against substandard foes. The good news there is we might soon find out, because there are some good junior middleweights for him to fight if he can avoid cursing future opponents (Miguel Cotto, Victor Ortiz) by showing up ringside and watching them lose. He's also being groomed for a Mayweather showdown, which would've been ridiculous a couple years ago, but now would be one of the biggest fights in the sport. Also, allegedly getting into a scuffle with junior flyweight Ulises Solis was not a good look.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., middleweight, 26
Upside: He and Alvarez are, along with Marquez, the big attractions in the energetic Mexican/Mexican-American market. The black fan base might yet mobilize behind Broner and Ward, and there are signs they have gotten behind Broner, but that fan base has not been as big recently as it once was. Chavez fights massive underdogs and still does huge numbers. He once was thought of as a coddled, crappy boxer living off his dad's name, but he's come a long way in that regard, to the point that he recently fought and nearly knocked out the middleweight champ/pound-for-pound top 10 Sergio Martinez. In the ring, he's instant excitement, more than willing to take punches in order to give them as an offensive powerhouse. He's already carried a major PPV and the buy rate was encouraging for his potential to do even better numbers down the road.
Downside: Of the first four men on this list, Chavez is the one who has the most limits to his boxing makeup; he gets by a lot on sheer size, which is worth a good deal but he's not fast and doesn't defend himself at all. Making matters worse, while he isn't just a guy living off his father's name anymore, he's also lazy and unmotivated to the point that he's now famous for waking up at 6 p.m. and eating cereal in his underwear before he starts training. Substance abuse also looks like it could be a problem — he's been busted with a diuretic and marijuana in his system, and also had a DUI arrest on his record. Just from pure fan appeal, Chavez has the most upside of the current group of young fighters, but it's also easy to imagine him losing a ton of fights and eventually hurting his popularity by not giving a damn about it. He's currently without a trainer, and doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get one.
Nonito Donaire, junior featherweight, 30
Upside: Donaire is the reigning Fighter of the Year with most outfits (including TQBR), a stellar talent coming off a four-win 2012. He's in the pound-for-pound top 10, if not the top five, based in large measure on his intoxicating combination of speed and power. He could be the heir apparent to Filipino idol Pacquiao, although he hasn't quite caught on with that group yet. He's also earned himself some plaudits by volunteering for year-round drug testing, running counter to a year's worth of people being busted for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Downside: It took a fight against popular Mexican Jorge Arce for Donaire to do any kind of solid ratings on HBO; he had been decidedly below average in that regard. Being a smaller fighter probably contributes to the low ratings, but also so does the tendency of Donaire's opponents to spoil in order to exploit his resistance to playing offensive aggressor. And for all his talent, he's only fought two P4P-level opponents, Vic Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel — with years between them — and has either frustratingly not been interested in fighting more of them or has been cockblocked by his promoter Top Rank. Or both. One hopes it won't be another few years before he takes on the likes of Abner Mares or Guillermo Rigondeaux, the top threats in the junior featherweight division where he is lineal champion. Beating those guys, especially Mares, would take him to a new level of acclaim and popularity.
Brandon Rios, junior welterweight, 26
Upside: This man is the most exciting fighter in the sport right now, period. Nearly every outing promises a Fight of the Year contender — he's a power puncher who wants to fight and out-macho other power punchers, and seems to be the rare breed who actually enjoys getting punched back. I'd contend he's a top 20 pound-for-pound fighter, too, although most others have lower estimations of his ability. He fights with passion and fire and outside the ring is an oft-lovable rogue, with a personality like a particularly funny, particularly hyperactive kid. Being a Mexican-American from California offers the potential of becoming a big live gate draw.
Downside: Mysteriously, Rios doesn't seem to attract big crowds or reach even average ratings on television. I can only guess it's a lack of extended exposure, because I'm not sure how much more watchable Rios could get. Sometimes, HBO and Showtime give exposure to low-audience pugilists that they think will develop into boxers who do big ratings, which sometimes pays off (Mayweather, Broner) and sometimes doesn't (Andre Berto, although even he retains a kind of action cachet). Maybe some folk want to see more steak to go with the sizzle, given how much RIos struggled with Richard Abril? I dunno. But that personality of his means he could be ripe for another PR misfire along the lines of his extensively criticized mockery of esteemed trainer Freddie Roach's Parkinsons disease.