Lucian Bute, Carl Froch and the Top 15 Super-Middleweights in the World

Zachary Alapi@@ZacharyAlapiCorrespondent IMay 23, 2012

Lucian Bute, Carl Froch and the Top 15 Super-Middleweights in the World

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    Sandwiched between the middleweights and light heavyweights, the super middleweight division has historically been overlooked. 

    However, with Joe Calzaghe’s magnificent undefeated run at super middleweight, which culminated in a unification victory over Mikkel Kessler, the boxing world started to take serious notice of a division that had often been ruled by international fighters.

    It is this international flair and overall depth that gave rise to Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic. While it struggled through its fare share of speed bumps, this innovative tournament pitted six of the world’s best super middleweights against each other in round-robin (sort of) matchups with an incentive-based points system.

    The Super Six crowned American Andre Ward as the definitive, recognized super middleweight champion, which is an increasingly rare distinction given the current plethora of world titles and sanctioning organizations.

    What is so interesting about the super middleweights is the mix of quality American and international boxers. The Super Six was evenly split between three Americans and three Europeans, and this diversity and overall depth is reflected in the rankings that follow.

    A quick note on some exclusions: because he recently obliterated Allan Green in a light heavyweight fight, I have left Mikkel Kessler off this list in case he decides to pursue title opportunities in a higher weight class.

    Also, Glen Johnson’s next fight is slated to be against Andrzej Fonfara, who has fought his last nine bouts at light heavyweight, meaning Johnson is also moving up in weight.

    With that out of the way, let’s get to the top 15 super middleweights. 

1. Andre Ward

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    Andre Ward (25-0, 13 KOs) exhibits a rare versatility and confidence inside the ring. He can box, fight on the inside, outmuscle opponents and counterpunch effectively.

    While many thought Ward was moved too slowly early in his career, it is clear his promotional outfit and management team knew what they were doing.

    In winning the Super Six World Boxing Classic, Ward cemented himself as the top super middleweight in the world with resounding victories over Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Sakio Bika and Carl Froch (in the tournament final).

    Ward’s superior ring savvy and boxing ability makes up for what he lacks in one-punch knockout power. He has shown the necessary skills to adapt to straightforward brawlers, boxer-punchers and fighters who like to mix it up on the inside with extensive holding.

    Though he isn’t the most spectacular fighter, Ward, based on his Super Six triumph and incredible versatility, is the unquestionable choice as the world’s best 168-pounder.

    Hopefully, Ward will settle the score with Lucian Bute in what should be a tremendous matchup—as long as the IBF world champion can defeat Carl Froch.

    Until then, Ward sits atop the super middleweight mountain.

2. Lucian Bute

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    Lucian Bute (30-0, 24 KOs) has been criticized for fighting almost exclusively in Canada, as well as for his level of opposition. 

    Still, in making nine title defenses of his IBF super middleweight title, Bute is showing the type of longevity that is increasingly rare in champions today. Of his 10 career world championship fights, eight have ended in stoppages, which is impressive regardless of who a boxer faces.

    Speaking of opposition, Bute’s victories against the likes of Glen Johnson, Librado Andrade, Brian Magee, Edison Miranda and Jean-Paul Mendy have to be viewed as credible.

    I wrote an article about how Bute should expect to leave the confines of Montreal and Quebec City to fight elite opponents in hostile or neutral territory. Of course, Bute will be doing just that when he tangles with Super Six finalist Carl Froch in the Englishman’s hometown of Nottingham.

    After Bute fights Froch, no one will be able to say that he hasn’t faced an elite opponent. Assuming Bute wins, Andre Ward will have no choice but to fight “Le Tombeur” for 168-pound supremacy.

    Bute combines excellent footwork and movement with precise punching and knockout power. His body attack is lethal, and he is the best man in the division to challenge Ward with combination punching and naturally endowed speed. Let’s hope that fight gets made.

3. Carl Froch

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    There is perhaps no fighter on earth that has endured a tougher and more grueling stretch of fights than Carl Froch (28-2, 20 KOs).

    Starting from his WBC title-winning slugfest against Jean Pascal in 2008, Froch has subsequently tangled with Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Glen Johnson and Andre Ward. In that murderers' row of opponents, Froch has only lost to Kessler (debatably) and Ward (in the Super Six final).

    In an age where fighters are protected and titles are increasingly meaningless, Froch is a throwback boxer who takes on every challenge and isn’t afraid to travel for a title opportunity.

    Froch is a strong puncher and solid boxer whose unorthodox stance and long jab make up for his lack of speed. The former two-time WBC champion uses angles well and proved against Arthur Abraham that he can box flawlessly and intelligently when called upon.

    Froch’s fan-friendly style and hubris sometimes get the better of him, but this only makes for thrilling fights. Luckily, Froch possesses a granite chin, and there is perhaps no one more capable in the division of walking through punches.

    Unwavering confidence is another admirable attribute Froch has in abundance, and he will need every bit of this self-assurance as he hosts Lucian Bute in what should be a cracking fight in Nottingham on May 26.

    Though I give Bute the slight edge, Froch might very well be able to hurt Bute. The fight, for however long it lasts, should be a fine example of world-class boxing from two of the division’s best.

4. Robert Stieglitz

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    Robert Stieglitz (42-2, 23 KOs) currently stands, with Carl Froch, atop the heap of the many talented European fighters who populate the super middleweight division.

    Stieglitz is a well-schooled European fighter who keeps a tight guard and throws straight punches. His jab and straight right hand are a classic 1-2 weapon, and he demonstrates a good ability to move forward and land punches in close.

    Stieglitz has been in some thrilling fights, and his 11th-round stoppage of Karoly Balzsay to win the WBO title in 2009 was dramatic.

    Stieglitz has since made 6 defenses of his WBO strap, and it appears he will be fighting against countryman Arthur Abraham on August 25 in what could shape up to be a slugfest.

    Stieglitz’s stoppage defeats to Alejandro Berrio and Librado Andrade from when he was first stepping up to the world level seem well behind him, and his recent title run is certainly impressive.

    Should Stieglitz dispose of Abraham, a potential showdown against British contender George Groves could loom, and there is no shortage of elite European foes for Stieglitz to face in fights that could be easily negotiated.  

5. Andre Dirrell

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    Andre Dirrell (20-1, 14 KOs) might be the most naturally gifted fighter on this list, and while his activity has been sporadic since getting illegally knocked out of the Super Six by Arthur Abraham, his ranking on this list is a combination of accomplishments, talent and potential. 

    Dirrell possesses a unique blend of speed and elusiveness, and the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist packs a stronger punch than his compatriot Andre Ward.

    His ability to seamlessly switch between orthodox and southpaw, as well as his excellent height and reach, make the unorthodox Dirrell a matchup nightmare for anyone in the division.

    The question is whether Dirrell can harness all of his natural ability for when it counts most. Had Dirrell planted himself and engaged in more exchanges against Carl Froch, he would have likely won the bout handily.

    The evidence to counter this is that before being knocked silly (and illegally) by Arthur Abraham, Dirrell had put on an absolute boxing clinic and displayed the type of performance that could challenge or beat any current champion.

    Since the Super Six fiasco, Dirrell won a non-descript second-round TKO over Darryl Cunningham where “The Matrix” looked sharp in limited moments. The onus is now on Dirrell to stay active and earn his way back into the title picture.

6. Thomas Oosthuizen

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    This might come as a surprise to some, but Thomas “Tommy Gun” Oosthuizen (19-0-1, 13 KOs) is a rangy, athletic and awkward southpaw who could cause problems for most fighters in the division.

    Oosthuizen recently scored a decisive win over former amateur star Marcus Johnson, and he has also made four defenses of his IBO super middleweight title against the likes of William Gare, Aaron Pryor Jr., Francisco Sierra and Serge Yannick.

    Oosthuizen’s recent quality of opposition, title-retaining performances and undefeated record are what give him the nod over Adonis Stevenson and Edwin Rodriguez in this spot.

    At 6’4, Oosthuizen is long and athletic. He has an exciting style and throws excellent combinations to both the head and body.

    What is particularly thrilling about Oosthuizen is his ability to slip punches while moving forward, using the angles created by leaning and bending to spring upwards to launch his attack. Oosthuizen’s straight left hand also seems like it can land from across the ring.

    Given his awkward style, it will be difficult for Oosthuizen to land a marquee fight against the division’s biggest names. However, as long as he keeps winning and getting exposure, “Tommy Gun” will have fans desperate to see more of him. 

7. Adonis Stevenson

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    Adonis Stevenson (18-1, 14 KOs), at 34, got a relatively late start in professional boxing after an accomplished amateur career.

    Since hooking up with Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, Stevenson has looked devastating with a Knockout of the Year candidate icing of American amateur star Jesus Gonzales, as well as a solid second round stoppage of ranked veteran Noe Gonzalez Alcoba for the irrelevant WBC “silver” super middleweight title.

    Stevenson is still raw compared to many of the other fighters in these rankings, but his natural power is frightening. It is also encouraging that Stevenson is showing evidence of a more purposeful jab and tighter defense since he began working with Steward.

    Considering his age, Stevenson should expect to move quickly and will hopefully be fighting someone in the category of Thomas Oosthuizen (what a fight that would be!) or Edwin Rodriguez. Stevenson is a popular draw in Canada, so an eventual showdown with Lucian Bute would be a massive fight in Montreal.

    Unfortunately, because of his recent string of bone-chilling knockouts, many top fighters will likely avoid Stevenson.

8. Edwin Rodriguez

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    Edwin Rodriguez (21-0, 14 KOs) was a decorated amateur who won the 2005 U.S. National Championships and 2006 National Golden Gloves.

    Blessed with speed, excellent combination punching and the versatility to throw to both the head and body, Rodriguez has everything you look for in a prospect. Rodriguez is ranked by all the major sanctioning bodies, and he is poised for either an elimination bout or world title opportunity in the near future.

    Rodriguez steamrolled his early competition, and his tag as a blue-chip prospect is still viable, though it is evident that he should take a bigger step up in class for his next fight.

    In his march towards a world championship-level fight, Rodriguez has recently disposed of James McGirt, Aaron Pryor Jr., Will Rosinsky and Don George. While his last two fights have gone the distance, Rodriguez has faced some credible opposition and picked up the USBA super middleweight title.

    Rodriguez has recently expressed his desire to replace injured Anthony Dirrell in a fight against Nikola Sjekloca for the WBC title after Andre Ward was declared “champion in recess.” Let’s hope Rodriguez gets this type of opportunity soon. 

9. Arthur Abraham

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    While some might argue against this selection, Arthur Abraham (34-3, 27 KOs) deserves credit for his activity and willingness to fight the best. 

    Abraham’s participation in the Super Six ended up being forgettable (to put it kindly), but his post-tournament wins against Pablo Farias and Piotr Wilczweski have put him back into contention to challenge WBO champion Robert Stieglitz.

    This bout will be absolutely massive in Germany, and it is reasonable to expect that Abraham will give a better showing than he did against the likes of Andre Dirrell, Carl Froch and Andre Ward.

    Abraham has shown a greater willingness to let his hands go in his two recent fights, and this bodes well for his clash against Stieglitz.

    Abraham has not shown evidence of carrying his one-punch knockout power up from middleweight (I’m not counting the Jermain Taylor fight), and he finally seems to realize that sustained punching and combinations are necessary against super middleweights.

    Furthermore, Stieglitz has shown that he can be hurt, and he does not possess the same kind of slick boxing skills and blinding speed that so easily befuddle Abraham.

    Given that Stieglitz will advance and fight with a high guard, Abraham, with an appropriate game plan, should have opportunities against the WBO champion.

    Despite recent performances, Abraham is a big name and a huge draw in Europe, and any fight of his will carry a certain amount of intrigue and excitement. 

10. George Groves

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    George Groves (14-0, 11 KOs) was slated, perhaps prematurely, to challenge Robert Stieglitz for the German’s WBO belt. Groves had to pull out of the fight, and this move will help the young Brit as he continues to ascend the super middleweight ranks.

    Groves is a talented boxer-puncher, and he proved in a controversial win against countryman and archrival James DeGale that he can box effectively on his back foot with crisp counterpunching.

    More recently, Groves was seen obliterating rugged veteran Paul Smith to defend his British and Commonwealth super middleweight titles.

    In the Smith fight, Groves demonstrated good movement and a stiff jab (though he was tagged at the end of the first round with a counter right). Groves used his jab to set Smith up for a cracking right hand, which proves Groves carries one-punch knockout power.

    Groves is set to defend his British title against Kenny Anderson (16-1, 12 KOs) on June 30, and this is an intriguing matchup given that Anderson had Groves reeling in their first fight and nearly stopped the young contender.

    Groves’ willingness to put any doubts to rest about his first performance against Anderson is admirable, and I expect to see Groves climb these rankings towards a world title shot by 2013.

11. James DeGale

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    James “Chunky” DeGale (12-1, 9 KOs) is a supremely slick and crafty southpaw who won a gold medal for Great Britain at the 2008 Olympics.

    DeGale’s level of opposition after only 13 career fights is impressive, and “Chunky” has already held the WBA International, British, WBO Inter-Continental and EBU (European) super middleweight titles.

    Such accomplishments for a relatively inexperienced fighter (in terms of number of fights) is encouraging, and DeGale’s handlers have him poised to challenge for a title in 2013 should his progress continue unimpeded.

    After a debatable loss to rival George Groves, DeGale gutted out a close victory against Piotr Wilczewski for the European strap and was most recently seen defending his EBU belt against the experienced and bullish Cristian Sanavia of Italy.

    In disposing of Sanavia inside of four rounds, DeGale showed measured commitment to body punching, and his digging hooks proved especially effective.

    He often finished combinations with crisp body shots, and there was a consistent effort to vary his offensive output. DeGale also shows evidence of possessing a lethal uppercut, which he uses to time opponents as they move forward.

    While he still has aspects of his craft to hone, expect DeGale to push for a top-5 ranking sooner rather than later, and an eventual rematch with Groves looms as one of the most important fights in British boxing.

12. Sakio Bika

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    If it wasn’t for extended strings of inactivity, Sakio Bika (29-5-2, 20 KOs) would likely be higher on this list. An Olympian for Cameroon in 2000, Bika has been a top contender since 2005 and given several elite fighters grueling tests.

    Bika’s five losses, however, should not imply that he is a trial-horse or gatekeeper. While Bika has made life difficult for elite fighters like Joe Calzaghe, Lucian Bute and Andre Ward, he also held the IBO super middleweight title after a three-round destruction of Peter Manfredo Jr. and holds quality wins over Sam Soliman and Jaidon Codrington.

    Bika’s 12-round battle against Ward is especially encouraging, and despite the wide scores in Ward’s favor, Bika was competitive in every round of the fight and made life hellish for the eventual Super Six winner.

    Bika possesses brutish strength, and while he can be erratic, his power and chin are definite strong points. Based off of the Ward fight alone, Bika has to be held in high esteem as someone who could give any current champion a tough night.

    Bika is set to return to the ring and end a long layoff on June 2 against Dyah Davis (21-2-1, 9 KOs) who might have made this list had it been extended to 20. This is the perfect type of credible and game opponent for Bika to use to springboard himself up the rankings towards another world title shot.

13. Brian Magee

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    Brian Magee (36-4-1, 25 KOs) was an IBO super middleweight champion who eventually lost his belt to Robin Reid in 2004. Since then, Magee has captured the British and EBU (European) super middleweight titles, as well as the irrelevant “interim” WBA super middleweight strap.

    While Magee has had sustained success throughout his career, he has inevitably been defeated every time he has stepped up to the elite, world level.

    Still, Magee was close on the scorecards before being stopped by Carl Froch in the 11th round in a 2006 British and Commonwealth title fight, and Magee was also able to give Lucian Bute solid work before succumbing in the 10th round in a bid for Bute’s IBF title.

    Magee cracks the top 15 because he recently acquired an interim title and has already had a solid first defense against Rudy Markussen in a fight Magee ended in the fifth with a picture-perfect left hook to the body.

    Up next for Magee is a good fight against Karoly Balzsay. This is a significant second-tier super middleweight bout, and the winner should be well-positioned for bigger business within the division. 

14. Karoly Balzsay

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    Karoly Balzsay (25-2, 18 KOs) briefly held the WBO super middleweight title before enduring a rough 2009. After successfully defending his world title, the Hungarian’s corner stopped a brutal slugfest against Robert Stieglitz, and Balzsay was subsequently defeated in his next outing against Eduard Gutknecht. 

    Balzsay, however, has rebounded nicely. After a couple of low-profile victories, Balzsay claimed the awkwardly available WBA title after the putrid governing body had “elevated” Andre Ward’s WBA status to allow for more sanctioning fees.

    We can’t blame Balzsay for this, and his tough split decision win over Stanyslav Kashtanov for the WBA strap showed Balzsay can still be effective at the world level. Balzsay, who is an exciting fighter, looked better in his first defense against Dimitri Sartison, stopping the challenger in the 12th round.

    Balzsay is set to defend his belt against Brian Magee in a winnable fight. The Hungarian throws a good straight left hand, attacks well to the body and has demonstrated one-punch knockout power.

    Should Balzsay get past Magee and keep winning, he could be in position for a rematch with Stieglitz, which would be an important fight in Europe.

15. Anthony Dirrell

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    Poor Dirrell. For a man who has endured lymphoma, which sidelined him for almost two years between 2006 and 2008, the recent report that he has been involved in a motorcycle accident that will keep him out of action for six months is sickening. 

    Still, I felt compelled to include Dirrell (24-0, 21 KOs) on this list based on his potential and the assumption that he will return to fighting form. Curiously, the sanctioning bodies seem fond of Dirrell despite a lack of quality wins.

    Wins against Dante Craig and Kevin Engel are suspect when placed at the top of one’s resume, and the only legitimate opponent Dirrell has beaten as a pro was his solid WBC elimination stoppage of Renan St. Juste (due to St. Juste’s injured shoulder, though Dirrell was in control of the fight).

    Of course, Dirrell’s plans to fight for the WBC strap are now on hold. Despite a limited resume, Dirrell has done what was expected to given his opposition: score knockouts.

    Dirrell has the sort of speed, versatility, combination punching and power that is eerily reminiscent of his older brother’s skill set, and it is based on these abilities that he warrants inclusion in the top 15.

    Should Dirrell recover from the accident and get back to his old form, expect him to climb the ranks quickly as he positions himself for a title shot. Hopefully, we will see Dirrell back-flipping in celebration soon enough.