If one canvases boxing’s 17 weight classes, it is striking to note just how many fighters have become “world champions.” Counting the four major sanctioning bodies—WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO—boxing can collectively have up to 68 belt-holders at a given time, and that doesn’t even include absurd tags like “regular,” “interim” or “super” champion.
This is certainly a far cry from the days when boxing crowned only one genuine world champion in the eight traditional weight classes.
But such is the sport’s present reality, and there is no sign that the assembly line list of champions is going to shrink. The plethora of world champions in boxing is both problematic and beneficial; the sheer numbers create confusion as to who is the genuine champion in each weight class, while the opportunity to win belts provides some less marketable fighters with the chance for exposure.
Of course, the problems greatly outweigh the benefits. Most boxing fans can easily spot a fraudulent champion, and the sport’s most interesting fighters are the ones who create the best matchups, as opposed to belt-collectors (it is rare for fighters to accomplish both simultaneously).
A perfect example of this was the recent Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado bout, which certainly has the inside track for Fight of the Year. No major belts were at stake, and yet fans and pundits were buzzing about this fight as soon as it was made. Rios-Alvarado delivered (and then some), and it was abundantly clear that despite the confusion of so many world champions, boxing fans understand what actually makes an important, quality fight.
Exposure in boxing can seem arbitrary. If a fighter lands with the right manager, he can work his way onto major networks at the expense of a more deserving pugilist. While some fighters have the personality to capture the public’s imagination, others, for whatever reason, can never become marquee attractions, even if their skills suggest that they should.
With that, what follows is a short list of current champions who have flown somewhat under-the-radar in terms of marketability and landing big fights. For various reasons, all these champions appear poised for breakout campaigns in 2013, and this has to do either with who they are fighting next or their immanent opportunities.
For this list, “interim,” “regular” and “super” champions (etc.) were ignored. While those labels certainly apply to some interesting, rising fighters (Richard Abril and Austin Trout, for instance), there is enough confusion in boxing as it stands.
So, let’s examine some under-the-radar champions who should have big years in 2013.
A 2004 Olympic silver medalist representing Kazakhstan, Gennady Golovkin (24-0, 21 KO) has toiled since 2010 with the “interim” and “regular” WBA middleweight title as one of boxing’s most feared fighters. Recently, when Daniel Geale opted to forgo a mandatory fight with Golovkin to face countryman Anthony Mundine, Golovkin became the only WBA champion at 160 pounds.
This is excellent and deserved news for Golovkin, a fighter who continues to impress as his exposure has increased. Every one of Golovkin’s title fights has ended inside the distance, and he is currently riding an 11-fight stoppage streak.
In his last fight, Golovkin made an emphatic debut on HBO. Fighting European middleweight champion and legitimate contender Grzegorz Proksa, Golovkin scored three knockdowns en route to a fifth-round TKO victory. The win put the middleweight division (and adjacent weight classes) on notice; Golovkin is ready for anyone, including lineal champion Sergio Martinez.
What is so frightening about Golovkin is his combination of power and technical ability. As a standout amateur, Golovkin has a world-class boxing pedigree, and he is able to harness his power and unleash it with pinpoint punching accuracy. Particularly impressive against Proksa (28-2, 21 KO) was Golovkin’s left hook to the body, a punch that consistently landed with brutal force.
Having made his HBO debut so impressively, the network will certainly be clamoring to have Golovkin back. This bodes well for a potential breakout 2013, which could see Golovkin eventually unify belts against Daniel Geale. The winner, having further increased their profile, would make an excellent opponent for Sergio Martinez.
Someone with Golovkin’s talent can only fly under-the-radar for so long.
It’s rare for a boxer with only 11 professional fights to stir as much interest and debate among fans and pundits as Guillermo Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KO). However, when one considers Rigondeaux’s amateur accomplishments—two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Amateur Champion—it is easy to understand how he has moved so fast and why so much is expected of him.
Rigondeaux defected from the Cuban boxing team and made his professional debut in 2009. In only his seventh fight, Rigondeaux captured the “interim” WBA super bantamweight title, which he defended once before shedding his “interim” status.
Rigondeaux has appeared on some significant Top Rank undercards, but his sublime boxing skills have sometimes left fans scratching their heads. Though his talent is undeniable, Rigondeaux has had a combination of predictably dominant or somewhat uninspiring decisions (Robert Marroquin, Ricardo Cordoba) and decisive knockouts.
When Rigondeaux is firing on all cylinders, the results are devastating. His string of three consecutive stoppages where he defeated Willie Casey, Rico Ramos and Teon Kennedy were downright frightening, and Rigondeaux registered 10 knockdowns during that string of fights.
Few fighters appear more comfortable in the ring than Rigondeaux, which is why his name is consistently mentioned for a fight with pound-for-pound stalwart Nonito Donaire. While Donaire has been insistent that Rigondeaux increase his profile before such a fight is made, it will be hard to ignore the Cuban by the second half of 2013.
Rigondeaux will next defend his WBA 122-pound title on December 15 against Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym. Assuming Rigondeaux wins and fights three or four times in 2013, it is almost assured—given his skills and the fact that he has the backing of a major promoter—that he will find himself in a unification or mega-fight at 122 or 126 pounds.
Rigondeaux appears on the verge of being a top pound-for-pound entrant, and at 32, 2013 should be the year where he justifies all the talent and flashes of brilliance he has shown by testing himself against multiple marquee names.
Brian Viloria (31-3, 18 KO) and Hernan Marquez (34-2, 25 KO) are two of the more recognizable names in boxing’s smaller weight classes. That said, it is almost unheard of for fighters campaigning around the flyweight division to headline major cards or get the widespread notoriety they deserve.
Viloria, a 2000 U.S. Olympian, has really hit his stride after two brief light flyweight title reigns earlier in his career. Recently, Viloria captured the WBO flyweight title by defeating Julio Cesar Miranda, and his two subsequent defenses over Giovani Segura (TKO 8) and old nemesis Omar Nino Romero (TKO 9) were excellent. At this point, Viloria could be on the cusp of widespread pound-for-pound recognition.
Marquez’s quality power is somewhat of a rarity in the smaller weight classes. Since a two-fight losing streak in 2010, the latter of which was an eighth-round TKO setback against Nonito Donaire, Marquez has been on a tear. In 2011, Marquez captured the WBA flyweight title and has since made two defenses via stoppage. Though his past two fights have been non-title bouts, his upcoming unification clash with Viloria carries major implications.
Viloria and Marquez will meet to unify the WBO and WBA flyweight titles on November 17. The fight will headline its own card from Los Angeles, but it will likely be somewhat overshadowed as Adrien Broner and Carl Froch are also fighting that Saturday. But make no mistake; Viloria-Marquez should be the weekend’s best matchup.
As a unified champion, the winner will be nearly impossible to ignore when compiling top-20 pound-for-pound lists. And to the victor will go the spoils in 2013: either man should be in line to further unify titles against WBC and Ring champion Toshiyuki Igarashi, or perhaps they will opt to fight our next entrant (should he move up in weight)…
Nicaraguan banger Roman Gonzalez (33-0, 28 KO) might be the hardest puncher in boxing’s smaller weight classes. As a two-division, undefeated champion, the 25-year-old Gonzalez appears poised to continue his dominance at light flyweight, while perhaps eyeing an eventual move up to 112 pounds.
Some might already consider Gonzalez a pound-for-pound worthy fighter, and with good reason. In 2008, Gonzalez scored a quality stoppage over long-reigning 105-pound champion Yutaka Nida to capture the WBA strap. The win sent Nida into retirement, and Gonzalez would defend his belt three times before moving up in weight.
At light flyweight, Gonzalez claimed the “interim” WBA title by knocking out Francisco Rosas. In his next fight, Gonzalez shed the “interim” label by defeating Manuel Vargas, and he has since made three additional defenses of his WBA 108-pound title.
How good has Gonzalez been in title fights? His record stands at 9(6)-0, and all of those six knockouts have come in seven rounds or fewer. Gonzalez is undoubtedly dynamic and explosive, and the only thing working against him getting more mainstream recognition is his size.
This could change in 2013. Gonzalez will perhaps not-coincidentally defend his WBA light flyweight title against Juan Francisco Estrada on the same card as the Brian Viloria-Hernan Marquez unification fight. Should Gonzalez win, he could opt to clean out his weight class—other belt-holders include Donnie Nietes (WBO), Adrian Hernandez (WBC) and Johnriel Casimero (IBF).
However, the more intriguing option would be for Gonzalez to move up in weight and challenge the winner of Viloria-Marquez. In his last fight, Gonzalez weighed 112.5 pounds and scored a third-round TKO over Stiven Monterrosa. Given his strength and power, Gonzalez can clearly be a major factor at flyweight.
Gonzalez facing the winner of Viloria-Marquez is an impossible fight to ignore. If this bout gets made, boxing fans will be much better for it, and the last man standing will be recognized as a top pound-for-pound fighter.
Don’t begrudge Daniel Geale (28-1, 15 KO) too much for vacating his “super” WBA middleweight title. As ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael argues, Geale’s decision to defend his IBF title against Anthony Mundine in Australia is an interesting option and will prove more lucrative than making a WBA mandatory defense against Gennady Golovkin.
Before dissecting Geale’s next move and how 2013 stands to be a big year for him, let’s take a few steps back. Before becoming a legitimate world champion, Geale was the IBO middleweight belt-holder when Anthony Mundine defeated him via split decision in 2009.
Since that setback, Geale has rebounded nicely, and he captured the IBF title in 2011 by defeating Sebastian Sylvester (also via split verdict). Two defenses against Eromosele Albert and Osumanu Adama would follow before Geale travelled to Germany to unify titles with then-WBA champion Felix Sturm.
The fight against Sturm (37-3-2, 16 KO) has helped bring Geale into the public consciousness, and there is reason to believe that his run will continue. At the time of their fight, Sturm was in his third middleweight title reign, and he was making the 13th defense of his WBA strap. While he had been accused of ducking Gennady Golovkin, Sturm was still a skilled champion, and Geale did what many thought was impossible by winning a split decision in Germany.
Geale’s proposed bout against Mundine (44-4, 26 KO) will likely take place in January, which should also be the month Golovkin returns to the ring. Before looking too far ahead, Geale-Mundine does accomplish two things.
Firstly, the fight will be a huge domestic showdown in Australia, and both fighters stand to make a handsome profit. Secondly, the fight gives Geale the chance to avenge his only career blemish, and it should provide a litmus test for just how much Geale has improved since becoming a champion.
At 37, Mundine is certainly past his best, and Geale seems poised for an impressive win. Given that Golovkin should also be fighting in January, the timing is perfect for a Geale-Golovkin unification fight on HBO later in 2013.
Such a fight would greatly enhance the profile of both fighters, and the winner will have a strong case for securing a fight with lineal middleweight champion Sergio Martinez.