Usually with this annual exercise that's modeled after what writers do in other sports — akin to, say, write-ups of "power conferences" for the NCAA — it's all spread out, with some bigger boxing divisions mixed with some smaller divisions at the top.
Not this time. The highest-graded weight classes all inhabit one particular range, from 140 to 160.
Welterweight warrants a special note: As I was discussing with friend of the site Manila Ice recently in the comments section here, we are in a prolonged period of the welterweights being one of, if not the, premier divisions. We'll get to the considerable roster of who's there now soon enough, but just think about all the big names and pound-for-pound talents that have come through and left the division as contenders, for the past five years or so: Ricky Hatton, Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Paul Williams, Shane Mosley. It compares well to the period in the 1980s helmed by Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns (although it is not superior to that group), and the period in the 1990s helmed by De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Pernell Whitaker.
Here's how we usually do things for this. There's the sexy teacher, which you can plainly see. You'd think we wouldn't be running out of sexy teacher pictures to choose from, but we kind of are, at least that aren't x-rated. Divisions are graded on: number of world-class talents; depth; number of big-name stars, primarily in the United States; the degree to which top boxers are facing each other; and number of exciting fights. The "now" grade covers what's happened in the last year or so, relying on the top 10 divisional rankings as they stand at this moment according to the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and what will likely happen in the next year or so. The "future" grades start at the "one year from now" mark and go about a year or so. You can read last year's rankings here.
(We got a special consult from our old friend, Ring writer Mark Ortega, on the "future" sections, because Ortega does a wonderful job of paying close attention to boxing prospects, so a hat tip to him. He identified four weight classes for us — junior featherweight, middleweight, junior middleweight and welterweight — as having particularly strong prospect classes. In other words: three of the four weight classes that already top the class.)
As usual, tell me where it's wrong and we will strongly consider adjustments. I adjusted a few times as I went, after an initial assessment. It might not be perfect.
Anytime you start with Floyd Mayweather, Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao, you're starting pretty strong, both when it comes to talent and star power. But another two fighters in the top 10 are in my top 20 pound-for-pound: Timothy Bradley, Adrien Broner. And there's depth, too. Jesus Soto Karass or Kell Brook could just as easily be in the top 10. It would be an A+ if Mayweather and Pacquiao had ever fought. But outside of those two, they're meeting up with each other a good deal — Marquez-Bradley is one of the highlights of the 2013 fall schedule. And it might even get better before it gets worse.
The weight class just below this one, 140, is set to invade 147 before long. It's already started, even. The winner of Danny Garcia-Lucas Matthysse could face Mayweather next. Brandon Rios is stepping up to face Pacquiao. Amir Khan is moving up to face Devon Alexander. Ortega's prospect picks: Frankie Gavin, Kevin Bizier, Frankie Gomez, Sadam Ali. So, yeah. Gotta wear shades. Maybe Pacquiao is near the end, but so long as he beats Rios we'll be hearing from him for a while. Also, Broner might shift around in weight classes, but it's hard to deny his drawing power and ability, and other young guys like Keith Thurman are making noise.
We're due to get a new 140-pound champion with Garcia-Matthysse in September. And just look at the round robin we've had with these kids — Khan-Lamont Peterson, Peterson-Matthysse, Garcia-Zab Judah, Rios-Mike Alvarado twice. Here's another one where it might be an A+ "but for": think about how much sexier 140 would be if you could mix and match Matthysse, Rios, Alvarado and potential future part-timer Broner, separated by promotional rivals Top Rank and Golden Boy? There are fewer established pound-for-pound talents and all-out ticket/ratings draws than some other divisions, but it's one of the go-to divisions for hardcores who like action and parity. It's a division where new big names are being made.
Khan's already gone, and while the winner of Garcia-Matthysse might soon be too, if the experiment is unsuccessful he could come back, and Broner could play here while he figures out whether he's a lightweight or welterweight. Marquez is only here in name only, for sure. Still, there's enough uncertainty to bump them down a notch.
Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez in September is the biggest fight in the sport, period, and will crown a new lineal champion. Miguel Cotto still probably is one of the sport's biggest stars, though it's a fading star. From there, it's all depth and parity and frequent pairings — Austin Trout-Canelo, Trout-Cotto, Erislandy Lara-Vanes Martirosyan and upcoming bouts like Ishe Smith-Carlos Molina and Martirosyan against aspiring contender Demetrius Andrade.
Even if Canelo loses to Mayweather, he'll still be one of the biggest stars in boxing, and he's very young; the only worry would be him leaving for 160, because he's so tank-like. There aren't any 147 contenders likely to move here full time anytime soon, but the young talent is deep. Ortega's partial list of names to watch: Andrade, the Charlo twins, Julian Williams, Hugo Centeno, Glen Tapia, Liam Smith, Eddie Gomez, Domonique Dolton.
MIDDLEWEIGHT (CHAMPION: SERGIO MARTINEZ)
Give a look at that star wattage: champ Martinez, Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., Felix Sturm, Gennady Golovkin. One problem — Martinez and Sturm are on their way out because of age and wear, and Chavez won't be able to make 160 much longer if at all. Thus, the first "B." The secondary names remain pretty good, especially overseas, with the likes of Martin Murray, Daniel Geale, and Matthew Macklin populating the 160 ranks well, and Peter Quillin remaining a talented youngster who could match well with almost any of the men above.
It's difficult to imagine Martinez, Sturm and Chavez still among the 160-pound contenders two years from now, and Golovkin might be lured to 168 for the right fight. Then what? It gets thin, but again, the prospect class is strong. Ortega's picks: B.J. Saunders, Chris Eubank, Jr., Patrick Nielsen, Gilberto Sanchez, John Ryder.
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT (CHAMPION: ADONIS STEVENSON)
Stevenson stormed into the division to give it some new blood, but he's not the only new-ish blood (Sergey Kovalev, Tony Bellew, Lucian Bute) to give the division a jolt when mixed with established types like Bernard Hopkins, Jean Pascal and Chad Dawson. There's also a strong middle class, with names like Nathan Cleverly and Tavoris Cloud ready to mix and match with the others.
Maybe Andre Ward moves up one day, but Carl Froch is more likely to do so. The biggest likely loss is Hopkins, although you can't count on it what with him showing signs of being at least a contender at age 60. All in all, things are looking about the same for a while, with maybe some swapping here and there for the indefinite future. With everyone fighting each other the way they have been lately, who will be a contender and who won't is subject to fluctuation.
SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHT (CHAMPION: ANDRE WARD)
If you thought the Super Six would kill the division, think again. It's given us years worth of intriguing match-ups, given us a legitimate champion who might be the next big up-and-comer in America if he can overcome some of the dings on his style and personality, and given us savory bouts like Froch-Mikkel Kessler II. That tournament did a number of fighters favors, only finishing off those who were basically already done.
The youngsters are pretty solid: Edwin Rodriguez, George Groves, Brandon Gonzales, Thomas Oosthuizen, possibly Anthony Dirrell. You figure the only real candidate to depart soon is Froch, and even that's not a guarantee.
You've got to like young talent like Mikey Garcia and Abner Mares at the head of the class. When Daniel Ponce De Leon and Orlando Salido and Jhonny Gonzalez there to match up with each other or test that young talent, it's not a bad division. Too bad we can't see Garcia-Mares because of the Top Rank-Golden Boy feud.
Mares has set up shop and Nonito Donaire, who has weight division wanderlust, could soon too. Less established fighters like Javier Fortuna and Evgeny Gradovich are already enriching the division but could do so soon even more, and Leo Santa Cruz probably isn't far from joining the crowd.
FLYWEIGHT (CHAMPION: AKIRA YAEGASHI)
In assessing and re-assessing, I've already moved this division up once. Maybe I should again. Juan Francisco Estrada is a bright young talent, and Milan Melindo showed he was worth watching in a loss to him last weekend. Brian Viloria is a big name who's still around, while the Hernan Marquezes and Luis Concepcions of the world are there to make entertaining bouts. And who might step to the lineal champion, who moved up in weight and upset the previous champ?
Roman Gonzalez is taking his sweet time getting to 112, but once he's there, watch out. He instantly makes the division better. Some of the names in the division are getting a bit weathered, or the future would look even brighter.
Look, as long as the Klitschko brothers are ruling the division without ever fighting, it sucks some life out of the weight class, and their competition has been on a steady decline. But there are, still, frequently good fights here, albeit featuring a lot of flawed fighters like the rematch of old Tony Thompson against busted prospect David Price or Bermane Stiverne against former semi-contender Chris Arreola. There are also big stars by nation, with David Haye and Tyson Fury huge in the U.K. and the faded Tomasz Adamek representing Poland.
Vitali is flirting with retirement, which would leave Wladimir to contend for the undisputed division crown sooner rather than later, finally. If ever a division having "clarity" might be bad for it, this is it, but at least then everyone would have one target or one person to avoid, rather than all this footsie with guys playing one brother against the other. There is, also, young talent here, as Andy Ruiz, Jr. showed last weekend, as Price could show by bouncing back, as Kubrat Pulev could show against Thompson, etc.
JUNIOR FEATHERWEIGHT (CHAMPION: GUILLERMO RIGONDEAUX)
Maybe people weren't wild about the outcome of Donaire-Rigo, but any division where a fight of that caliber can happen isn't all bad. A rematch is possible. Look a little lower and established vets like Cristian Mijares and Vic Darchinyan are in the mix.
Things might be worse if you figure Donaire and Darchinyan could be gone before long. But this was Ortega's top pick for prospects: Jessie Magdaleno, Roman Morales, James Dickens. The young contenders, who might be considered prospects by some, include the esteemed Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg.
It's all about parity and a tendency toward good fights at cruiserweight, although Marco Huck is almost single-handedly responsible for all of it. He's equally capable of life-and-death bouts with once-highly rated Ola Afolabi and fringe contender Alexander Alexeev. That said, we've had a couple really good ones at cruiser of late — Guillermo Jones-Denis Lebedev, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk-Rakhim Chakhkiev.
Cruiserweight is always threatened by departures for heavyweight, although Huck thankfully returned and Eddie Chambers, a former heavyweight , is moving down.Yoan Pablo Hernandez is a youngster who could hold down the division for a while he wanted, but some of the other names, lke Huck or Wlodarczyk, are aging.
It's mainly about Roman Gonzalez here, although Kazuto Ioka is another asset. After that, it's a mix of relatively unproven youngsters Adrian Hernandez and Pedro Guevara and veterans like Ulises Soils and Donnie Nietes.
Once Gonzalez is gone, the division will struggle a good deal for talent. Gonzalez is a huge factor down there — he has been the best little man in the sport for a while now.
Adrien Broner is here in name only, and Ricky Burns is the only other boxer with any qualifications as a draw. A lot of the names after that are frustrating, like Miguel Vazquez or Richard Abril, or somewhat damaged goods, like Antonio DeMarco or Sharif Bogere, or thoroughly untested at 135, like Terence Crawford or Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Things do, at least, look better with Crawford and Raymundo Beltran in the top 10.
#1 man Shinsuke Yamanaka is for real, Anselmo Moreno is making his return soon and Koki Kameda is big in Japan. After that, it's a vet of uncertain status, Joseph Agbeko, and anonymous types, although types who could make fun bouts if they met up.
If Agbeko gets back into the picture, or some of the younger names like Jamie McDonnell or Stephane Jamoye can establish themselves, we could be seeing room for improvement. There's no reason to get fired up that it will turn around, though.
It's not that there aren't some decent fighters here — Takashi Uchiyama, Argenis Mendez, Juan Carlos Burgos, Rocky Martinez — it's just a division that is somewhat bland in its lack of identity.
Most of the top talent is young, at least.
This was once a division owned by a couple fighters, among them Nkosinathi Joyi, but he got upset by Hekkie Budler, so now we're back to parity among the very little-est fighters. It's not so bad. But look, it always has had to get excited about 105-pounders unless there's someone completely riveting there, and it's not clear who that is.
It's a miserable division and has been for years now. Boring, annoying Omar Narvaez leads the weight class, and only hardcores could identify most of the rest of the names. I've always been OK with the expansion of weight classes beyond the original eight, but 115 is so shitty I wonder if we can get rid of it.
F is for "Fuck you Forever, junior bantamweight."