I'm a sports fan who grew up in the United States, so I love football and baseball. As a product of northern New England, I follow my Patriots and Red Sox with devotion.
But deep down I've always been more drawn to the individual combat sports, both as a fan and a competitor. "Once you get out there, nobody can help you but you," one of my old wrestling coaches liked to say, when chiding us to push harder in the training room.
To me, the struggles of one-on-one competition represent the highest athletic drama.
And because of weight classes, the combat sports offer opportunity to all athletes, regardless of size. Even the smallest competitor has a chance to chase glory on even terms.
Still, even in boxing, the smallest fighters often get overlooked. It's a shame because there is plenty of great action taking place at 112 pounds and below.
Just how overlooked the little guys are came home to me as I compiled this list. It was honestly a challenge.
If I were going to make a list of my top 10 fighters at junior welterweight and welterweight, it would be a relatively straightforward affair. I would have seen the most recent fights for almost everybody worth discussing on HBO, Showtime, ESPN or NBC Sports. Any holes in my notebooks would be easy to fill in with a few hours on YouTube.
For the best small fighters on the planet, the task is more difficult. Many of the top fighters from strawweight through flyweight fight in Asia or South America. Even a former U.S. Olympian and dominant world champion like Brian Viloria doesn't get the media exposure he deserves.
YouTube helps here a lot, of course, but not as much as in the more high-profile, heavier divisions. Even some of the most highly rated small fighters have a limited amount of video uploaded to the web.
Still, for me the big draw of writing about boxing is to praise and promote a sport that rarely gets the attention it deserves. Because of that, I think it's important to spend time telling the stories that are often ignored even by those who do follow the sweet science.
The top of the rankings at flyweight and junior flyweight are loaded with Filipino fighters. Undefeated, 24-year-old Milan Melindo (28-0, 11 KOs) is one more star on the rise.
Melindo is a very solid boxer technically. He works the body well and has a patient, intelligent approach. The big knock against him has been his lack of power, with his KO rate coming in at well below 50 percent.
But there is evidence that is changing. Melindo has stopped six of his last eight opponents. I take that as a sign that he is maturing and gaining confidence to sit down more on his punches.
To me, the big three at flyweight right now are Brian Viloria, Hernan Marquez and Moruti Mthalane. Although he has been out of action since getting his jaw broken by Viloria last December, I would add former pound-for-pound entrant Giovani Segura to that mix.
Any of those fighters would represent a steep challenge for Melindo. Still, he has time on his side and should remain a major factor in the division for at least the next several years.
Not so long ago, Giovani Segura was regarded as a budding superstar, the man most likely to force a spotlight onto the lightest divisions. He was ranked in the pound-for-pound Top 10 by The Ring. He appeared on a Ring cover and was the subject of an extensive feature interview.
He was viewed as a Julio Cesar Chavez clone in miniature, a fearsome body puncher unafraid to plod into range and unload with punishing attacks. He made his reputation by twice KOing Ivan Calderon, the first two losses of the Puerto Rican legend's career.
Then last December he moved up to 112 pounds and challenged for Brian Viloria's WBO crown. Hawaiian Punch gave the young Mexican star a boxing lesson, busting his jaw and TKOing him in Round 8.
Among boxing fans and writers, the consensus was nearly unanimous that Segura had been overrated, that he had caught up with Calderon when he was more past his prime than was previously believed.
I agree that is partly the case, but I would also add that Viloria was generally being sold short. Segura ran into a more experienced, technically adept boxer with power. Many fearsome young stars have meant similar fates over the years.
Segura is scheduled to fight Nonito Donaire's brother Glen on December 8. The less heralded Donaire is a solid opponent for Segura's return to the ring.
I expect Segura will work his way back up the rankings. He remains a dangerous puncher with tremendous strength and power for a little guy.
Last month, Hernan Marquez was knocked down three times by Brian Viloria before being stopped in Round 10. He lost his WBA belt.
He still deserves to rank among the elite at 112. He has a 34-3 record with 25 KOs. Prior to his loss against Viloria, his only losses were to Richie Mepranum, which he avenged, and to Nonito Donaire, when Marquez moved up to challenge for the title at 115.
Nicknamed Tyson due to his exciting, power-punching style, Marquez should continue to be a major player in the flyweight division. Still, his loss to Viloria was a beatdown and had to have been entirely unexpected, so he might have some difficulty coming back.
In October, Adrian Hernandez stopped Kompayak Porpramook in six, avenging his Round 10 KO loss from last December and recapturing the WBC 108-pound belt.
While the lightest weight fighters tend to go overlooked in the States, this is not the case in boxing mad Mexico. And the same Filipino-Mexican rivalry that will be on display in a couple of weeks when Manny Pacquiao meets Juan Manuel Marquez for the fourth time regularly extends down to 108 and 112.
That means Adrian Hernandez could potentially find himself in some thrilling wars with national pride at stake. The athletically explosive but raw Johnriel Casimero would make for a terrific fight. So would Donnie Nietes, who The Ring currently ranks one spot above Hernandez at No. 2.
The lower weight classes are dominated by Filipino fighters, and Denver Cuello is a classic example of the type. He turned professional at age 17 and was basically tossed to the wolves. After 10 fights, his record stood at 4-2-4.
Now 25, he is among the most experienced fighters in the strawweight division, with a record of 32-4-6 (with 21 KOs). Since 2006, he has fought 28 times and lost just once, by DQ.
He has speed and power but might need to move up in weight to get a title shot. 105 pounds is a division that tends to be dominated by young prospects. The Ring No. 1 ranked fighter at the weight is Kazuto Ioka, who is undefeated in just 10 fights.
Cuello is a dangerous veteran, and few trainers are willing to throw their boys in the ring with him.
The WBO light flyweight champion, Filipino Donnie Nietes (31-1-3, 17 KOs) hasn't lost since 2004. The Ring currently ranks him No. 2 at 108, directly behind undefeated Roman Gonzalez.
Nietes is an entertaining fighter to watch. He moves into range behind a terrific jab and excels at taking angles and pivoting.
He would be an excellent test for the budding superstar Gonzalez, with the winner establishing himself as the clear No. 1 guy at 108.
Toshiyuki Igarashi is The Ring champion at flyweight, a title he won by virtue of beating Sonny Boy Jaro via split decision in July.
I rank Igarashi at four because it's hard for me to view a split-decision victory over Jaro as truly significant.
It's true that Jaro beat Pongsaklek Wonjongkam to take the title, knocking the most dominant flyweight champion of the past decade down four times before TKOing him in Round 6.
But Jaro is a 34-11-5 journeyman. He's been knocked out seven times. As recently as February 2011, he was nearly shut out over 10 rounds by a fighter with only four professional fights.
Wonjongkam meanwhile got stopped in three rounds last month by a fighter with a 17-20 record and subsequently retired. So while he might have been great once, it was no longer the case when Jaro beat him.
The fact that Igarashi could only manage a split decision against Jaro, fighting in his own country no less, makes it impossible for me to rank him higher than four here.
Still, Igarashi has legitimate tools. He is 17-1-1 with 10 KOs and would make a tough matchup for anybody else in the division.
South African Moruti Mthalane is the IBF flyweight champion. I would rank him as one of the most overlooked fighters in the sport.
He has a career record of 29-2 with 20 KOs. His first loss came in 2004 against fellow South African Nkqubela Gwazela. Ahead on the cards, he fell to a TKO in Round 10.
Since then, he has lost just once, to Nonito Donaire in 2008.
Among his most recent victims are tough veteran Julio Cesar Miranda in 2009 and explosive prospect Johnriel Casimero in 2011.
Twenty-five-year-old Roman Gonzalez of Nicaragua is one of the most exciting young fighters in the sport, sporting a perfect 34-0 record with 28 KOs. If he fought at a higher weight, he would be getting Adrien Broner-type attention.
As it is, we could be looking at the second coming of Ricardo Lopez. He is a brutal, punishing puncher who doubles up his right hook to the body with a right uppercut upstairs in a manner that reminds one of a prime Mike Tyson.
Gonzalez tore through the 105-pound weight class and has been similarly unstoppable since moving up to 108. He could be matched up against veteran Donnie Nietes, with The Ring title at stake.
But I think the true test for Gonzalez will come when he moves up to full flyweight. Hard-punching Giovani Segura would be a great first test.
For the past two years, Brian Viloria has been as dominant as any fighter in the sport. His career record is 32-3 with 18 KOs. The former Olympic bronze medalist has had some struggles in his career but appears to have fully hit his stride in his early 30s.
In July 2011, he captured the WBO flyweight title from Julio Cesar Miranda. He followed that up in December by breaking Giovani Segura's jaw and stopping him in Round 8. At the time, Segura was ranked in The Ring pound-for-pound Top 10.
Last May, he avenged one of his three career losses by stopping Omar Nino Romero in Round 9. Last month, he faced Hernan Marquez in a unification bout.
Marquez vs. Viloria was the sort of matchup that should have found a home on a premium cable channel. It was a legitimate superfight on paper that delivered in the ring.
In a thrilling, action-packed war, Viloria imposed his will and beat his rival down. Marquez had his moments, but Hawaiian Punch was simply too physically dominant.
Viloria's recent run pushes his career towards Hall of Fame territory. To me, the best possible matchup for him would be against 108-pound top dog Roman Gonzalez.
It would be a classic matchup, the explosive athleticism of youth versus the shrewd, measured power of experience. If that fight couldn't find a spot on HBO or Showtime, it would break my heart.