Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Grading The Divisions

Aficionados of other sports -- the NFL, college basketball -- regularly rank which conference or which division is best. Contrary to the general public's belief, there are divisions in boxing other than heavyweight, so I thought I'd give this grading thing a try for the sweet science.

It's a timely endeavor: This week is bookended by mega-fights in boxing's best division, the welterweights (147 lbs.), and perhaps the sport's second-best division, the super middleweights (168 lbs). As good as this past Saturday's super middleweight bash featuring Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler was, the upcoming Saturday welterweight bash between Miguel Cotto and Shane Mosley should be even better. But the super middleweights bolstered their case Tuesday night when "The Contender" finale produced a legitimate fight of the year candidate.

My criteria in ranking those two divisions and all the rest: How many truly good fighters are in the division? Where are the best potential match-ups? Are those potential match-ups coming to fruition or likely to come to fruition? How many of each division's boxers are stars with big names, deserving or no? How good is the division now compared to its history?

If there's a flaw in this list -- OK, there might be many, but if there's a flaw I see fit to note -- it's that it's nearly impossible to get a look at some of the lowest of the low weight divisions, since they aren't often featured on television in the U.S. So, I may be missing some of the evidence required to accurately assess them. But given that one of my measures is the number of big names, and there are few truly big names at strawweight, I think I'm doing this as fairly as it can be done.

Now: A+
Welterweight is home to the sport's biggest superstar, Oscar De La Hoya; its best all-around fighter and a crossover star in his own right, Floyd Mayweather, Jr.; the fastest rising commodity in boxing, Cotto; 2005 Ring Magazine fighter of the year and British national hero Ricky Hatton, who's moving up from junior welterweight to fight Mayweather Dec. 8; and another well-established boxing superstar in Shane Mosley. How's that for starters? Then there are potential superstars in Kermit Cintron and Paul Williams; formidable former division champs Zab Judah and Antonio Margarito; ascending youngsters Andre Berto, Victor Ortiz, Alfonso Gomez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.; and tough contenders Luis Collazo and Josh Clottey.
All of them are fighting each other already, but the mathematical possibilities for marquee fights over the next year or two are mind-boggling -- Mayweather-Mosley, anyone? How about De La Hoya-Cotto? Even if some of the division's best move up or down in weight soon, there's enough young blood to replenish the welterweight ranks.

Now: A
Kessler, whose stock should not be much diminished for fighting valiantly in a loss to Calzaghe, is still here. Big name middleweights Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor are technically fighting a rematch next year of their dramatic first clash at super middleweight, since the contracted catch-weight of 166 lbs. is above middleweight. For one night later in November, the division will host Fernando Vargas, one of the most popular fighters of his era, and his opponent, flamboyant Ricardo Mayorga. A slew of contestants from this season of "The Contender" will soon flood the division with popular names. Lucian Bute is making waves in Canada and may be ready for tougher assignments, while mouthy power-punchers Edison Miranda -- slated for superstardom by HBO before Pavlik derailed the plan, but still entertaining -- and Jean Pascal could soon fight one another. And don't forget Jeff Lacy, on the comeback trail to stardom, popular ex-"Contender" contestant Peter Manfredo Jr., and the talented Allan Green.
Losing Calzaghe to the light heavyweights will hurt the division's star power, but there's plenty left to like here for the next couple years, especially if Pavlik and and Taylor put down stakes soon after their rematch.


Now: A-
Pound-for-pound brawlers Rafael Marquez and Israel Vasquez have lifted the division with two straight all-action slugfests against each other, and both are strong nominees for 2007 fight of the year. Knockout artist Daniel Ponce De Leon is an HBO favorite, and lower-profile Steve Molitor and Celistino Caballero would be tough outs for anyone.
Future: B
Marquez and Vasquez will fight once more in 2008, but Vasquez will probably leave for higher weight classes thereafter, and Marquez may be nearing the end of his career. Still, gifted young Juan Manuel Lopez may be boxing's best prospect, and green power-punching Rey Bautista will likely rebound from a tough KO loss to Ponce De Leon. Then rugged veterans Gerry Penalosa and Jhonny Gonzalez will likely step up from bantamweight, Penalosa for a rematch with De Leon, and Gonzalez because he can't make 118 lbs. anymore.


Now: B+
The entertaining and engaging Juan Diaz holds all the straps here, and he could be a big ticket-seller sooner rather than later. Joel Casamayor may not be the most likable or watchable fighter out there, but he's one of boxing's underrated best. Hit-and-get-hit Michael Katsidis is making a bid to replace Arturo Gatti as his generation's "Human Highlight Film." The division's other two Diazes, David and Julio, are still in the mix, with David being popular in Chicago and Julio looking to rebound from his defeat by Diaz. And the talented Nate Campbell is lurking here, too.
Future: A
Casamayor is getting long in the tooth, but most of the other division talent is in its prime or very young. If Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao moves up soon from 130 lbs., and he will eventually no matter what, watch out. And British prospect Amir Khan is on the verge of becoming a contender.

Now: B
Two of the world's pound for pound best, Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, lace up their gloves at junior lightweight, at least for now. Later this month, lesser-known but fan-friendly Joan Guzman and Humberto Soto will engage in one of the year's most promising fights. Cult favorite Edwin Valero is a contender for the hardest-hitting boxer in the sport.
Future: B+
That's assuming Pacquiao stays for another year to take on the likes of Valero or the winner of Guzman-Soto. If not, it's a C. And with Marquez nearing retirement, and Valero confined by medical problems to fighting outside the United States, there will be difficulties in cementing junior lightweight as an elite division. The rise of Anthony Peterson could help, though.

Bernard Hopkins just keeps chugging along down the path of greatness, ignoring Father Time. Calzaghe, coming off his win over Kessler, is the kind of fighter who can draw 50,000 Brits to a stadium and Wales, and now he's on the verge of conquering America. A faded -- but still somewhat popular -- Roy Jones, Jr. will soon square off against fellow all-time great Felix Trinidad at a fight that's technically a light heavweight battle at the catch-weight of 170 lbs. Chad Dawson is among the best younger fighters there is, and he's plenty fun to watch, too. Proven veterans Antonio Tarver, Glen Johnson and Clinton Woods are still around, each popular to some degree or another.
Future: C
Outside of Dawson, it doesn't look very good after early 2008. It's a severely aging light heavyweight division. But if promoter Gary Shaw pulls off his audacious reported plan for a mini-tournament featuring Dawson, Johnson, Tarver and the winner of a super middleweight fight between Lacy and Manfredo, it looks much better.

Now: B-
A year or two ago, junior welterweight was the hottest division of all. Mayweather, Cotto and others went up to welterweight, but the division has reloaded quickly. Some of the division's best have been fighting each other,, and will continue to -- crafty Junior Witter defeated lanky, powerful Vivian Harris in September; KO specialist Ricardo Torres controversially defeated slick Kendall Holt the same month; charismatic Paulie Malignaggi is the most captivating feather-fisted boxer around, and he's defending his title against the game Herman Ngoudjo early in 2008.
Future: B+
Some of the best junior welterweights are only beginning to make a name for themselves. It doesn't look like division champ Ricky Hatton will be returning anytime soon from his adventure at welterweight, which hurts some.

Now: C+
Too many people forget about the cruiserweights, but there have been some great battles there in the last year or two. Another is coming up Saturday, when two vulnerable brawlers in Jean-Marc Mormeck and David Haye face one another. Darnell Wilson may have scored the knockout of the year for 2007. The names may be unfamiliar to some, but hardcore fans know that O'Neil Bell, Steve Cunningham, Enzo Maccarinelli are pretty legit fighters, and Tomasz Adamek has a chance of making some noise here after leaving the light heavyweight ranks.
Future: C-
Age and departures could soon diminish the cache that the cruiserweights have built up of late, with Bell and Haye both flirting with heavyweight, and with Mormeck having gone through a lot of wars at 35. Still, Maccarinelli's best days are probably ahead of him, prospect Matt Godfrey has a chance of breaking through soon and there is a chance someone like Dawson could move up to cruiserweight from light heavyweight. Chris Byrd may move down from heavyweight, but he's getting old and may not stay for long.

Now: C
There are some good fighters here -- Robert Guerrero has put some of his troubles behind him, Olympian power puncher Rocky Juarez is returning after some misadventures at 130 lbs. -- but arguably the best, Chris John, is difficult to lure away from his home in Indonesia.
Future: B-
Jorge Linares is impressive, and Vasquez and others could soon move up from junior featherweight.

Now: C
If you take away Taylor and Pavlik -- and Taylor looks like he's gone for sure now, while Pavlik may return after he and Taylor rematch at 166 lbs. -- there's a big drop off at middleweight. Sure, Winky Wright is still one of the toughest outs in boxing. And Arthur Abraham is pretty good. Let's assume Pavlik comes back for a little while; otherwise, the middleweight ranks are getting awfully thin.
Potential: D-
Pavlik is leaving sooner or later, and Wright's nearing the end of the road. Causes for hope -- um, Andy Lee is a great prospect...?

Now: C-
Junior bantamweight is a deep division, if not one loaded with amazing pound-for-pound fighters. Jorge Arce is the biggest star, but Martin Castillo, Fernando Montiel, Cristian Mijares and others are for real.
Future: B-
An Arce-Castillo fight would be pretty big, and Mijares, Arce's recent conqueror, is young and promising. Vic Darchinyan and Nonito Donaire may soon make a permanent home at junior bantamweight.

HEAVYWEIGHTS (unlimited)
Now: C-
There's probably only one truly good heavyweight who could stand up against those in previous eras, Vitali Klitschko, but he's also flawed. The rest are flawed-to-deeply-flawed. But, give them credit -- at least they're all finally fighting each other, for the most part. The IBF's tournament, the likely unification fight between Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov and a few other developments are positive.
Future: D+
There are a number of good, young heavyweights -- Sam Peter, Chris Arreola, Eddie Chambers, Alexander Povetkin -- but are any of them significantly better than the reigning crop? The magic eightball says "probably not."

Now: D+
Ivan Calderon, boxing's best tiny warrior, finally moved up to 108 and knocked off Hugo Cazares. Ulises Solis had an amazing knockout recently. Brian Viloria and Omar Nino had a close, enjoyable fight. But it's hard for boxers this little to captivate the public.
Future: D+
Calderon looks like he's going to make his home here for a while, and may rematch with Cazares.


Boring-but-good Cory Spinks is probably the best at 154 lbs. Vernon Forrest might be, and performed well against Carlos Baldomir this year, but he's been too injury prone to sustain excellence. There are some fighters on the borderline, like Joachim Alcine and Roman Karmazin, but they've not captured much of anyone's attention.
Actually, the future's quite good. Top prospects Joel Julio and James Kirkland have demonstrable fan appeal, and it's only a matter of time until giant-sized welterweights Cintron and Williams move up to the division.

FLYWEIGHTS (112 lbs.)

Now: D-
Donaire, a flyweight, scored the other major contender for KO of the year when he decked Darchinyan. Still, Darchinyan remains a draw for fans, and there are few other decent names here.
Future: D-
Donaire and Darchinyan -- Darchinyan in particular -- may not last much longer at flyweight. Darchinyan's already had one fight a division higher.

Now: D-
Good luck naming many bantamweights besides Penalosa, who will depart as soon as De Leon agrees to a rematch, and Gonzalez, who's already announced his intentions to leave.
Future: D-
Good luck naming anyone on the bench, either.

Now: D-
With Calderon gone from a division he thoroughly dominated, there's very little left.
Future: D-
I can't even imagine it.

I'm on a math joke hot streak.


dammrod said...

The Heavyweight division pains my soul. There are a lot of magnificent fighters in boxing, but without an exciting, and vibrant Heavyweight division, the fight game may not become a mainstream sport again for a while.

Tim -- said...

I think it's on the verge, dammrod. It's been a pretty good year of boxing, and some of it has caught the imagination of the public despite the soul-paining tendencies of the heavyweight division. But it sure would make it easier if the heavyweights became vibrant again, to use your words.

dammrod said...

I think the Heavyweight problem would be solved if Klitschko unified the titles. Unfortunately, that seems like a long, long way off. Hopefully the little guys, where the best boxers have traditionally been, will elevate the sport into the public mindset. There are certainly enough quality fighters to do it.