With one month gone in 2013, undefeated WBO featherweight champion Mikey Garcia (31-0, 26 KOs) has already established himself as a front-runner for this year's breakout star in boxing.
On January 19, the 25-year-old captured his first world title by thoroughly dominating the very tough veteran Orlando Salido (39-12, 27 KOs), knocking him down four times en route to a unanimous, shutout technical decision.
Garcia entered the fight highly regarded, but I'm not sure very many people expected him to handle Salido with such ease. Despite Salido's double-digit loss total, in the past decade he has developed into one of the elite featherweights in the sport.
Going into the fight with Garcia, Salido's only loss in the past four years had been to Cuban phenom Yuri Gamboa by unanimous decision. Since then, he had handed Juan Manuel Lopez the first two losses of his career, both stoppages, to lock down the WBO strap and the No. 1 world ranking at 126 pounds.
I saw quite a few people's top 25 pound-for-pound lists in the last few months of 2012, and Salido was on many of them. I had him on mine.
Garcia made him look like a rough, unschooled amateur. The youngest son of one of boxing's premier families, Garcia put on a virtuoso clinic, using incredible lateral movement and dangerously accurate straight punches to batter Salido again and again as he tried to come forward and score big with his looping overhand right while moving into range to attack Garcia's body.
The ending of the bout will be viewed as controversial in some quarters, but it shouldn't be. Garcia's nose was badly broken on an illegal headbutt and his corner, knowing he was way ahead, let the decision go to the cards after eight.
The headbutt wasn't exactly a flagrant foul, but it sure looked to my eyes like it might have been what's called a "veteran" move by Salido, who realized he was way behind as the fight was entering its final third, and knew he needed to do something desperate to claw his way back into the fight.
But since he was still scrapping at the time of the technical decision, Salido's supporters will probably clamor for a rematch. If it happens, expect Garcia to win just as convincingly the second time around.
Salido is crafty, and he'll make adjustments, but Garcia outclassed him thoroughly. He'll be ready for whatever adjustments Salido makes.
Mikey Garcia won the first big fight of 2013 and captured a world title in the process. Expect him to be involved in some of the sport's biggest events in the coming years.
Thursday, ESPN's Dan Rafael reported that WBC 122-pound champion Abner Mares was vacating his title to move up to featherweight. In the last two years, the undefeated, 27-year-old Mares (25-0, 13 KOs) has emerged as a crowd-pleasing warrior who arguably deserves to be in the pound-for-pound top 10.
With Garcia holding down the top spot at 126, there is naturally going to be chatter about what Garcia-Mares would look like. These are two young, undefeated champions of Mexican heritage, each trained by elite, world-class trainers.
But anybody who follows boxing closely knows this fight is highly unlikely. For the same reason Golden Boy promoted Mares and he couldn't end up getting the fight he really wanted at 122, Nonito Donaire, he will probably not be able to make a fight with Garcia at 126: Both Donaire and Garcia are promoted by rival Top Rank.
It's a damned shame, because this fight, like Mares-Donaire, is the type of fights that fans are crying out for—two elite young champions reaching the top of their respective games.
Stylistically, this has the potential to be an entertaining war. Mares has made roughhouse, bullying pressure his trademark, and he would make a terrific bull to Garcia's matador.
Chris John (48-0-2, 22 KOs) has been the WBA featherweight champion for closing in on a decade. He is undefeated in his career and holds a win over the great Juan Manuel Marquez. But he rarely fights outside of the Asia-Pacific region, hasn't fought in the U.S. since 2009 and remains an obscure enigma to the American boxing public.
Hardcore American fans have been dying to see more of Chris John for years. At 33, the Indonesian is probably closing in on the end of his career. Perhaps he would like to make one last fight in North America before hanging it up.
Then again, I don't necessarily see him coming all the way to Las Vegas to challenge himself against a stiff young star like Garcia, with a high KO percentage.
I consider this one intriguing but unlikely.
If I were going to handicap Mikey Garcia's most likely next fight, I think I'd make this one the favorite. Juan Manuel Lopez (31-2, 28 KOs) is fighting February 2 against Aldimar Santos—a fight he should win.
That means he would line up well as an opponent for Garcia in the late spring. Consider that Lopez, like Garcia, is promoted by Top Rank and it all falls into place.
Lopez has been KO'd twice in the past 18 months by Orlando Salido, the champion who Garcia handled with such ease and aplomb on January 19. But he was a wildly popular fighter in his native Puerto Rico before Salido exposed him, and I have to think he has enough residual popularity to sell a fair amount of tickets and to capture a slot on a premium cable card.
As far as the fight itself goes, I would expect Garcia to turn Lopez and pound him all night long. I see the fight ending in the later rounds.
Earlier this month on ESPN's Friday Night Fights, Ronny Rios captured the NABF featherweight tile and improved to 20-0 with 9 KOs when he captured an easy decision against Rico Ramos, a former WBA champion at 122 who was moving up.
Just 23, Rios has an extensive amateur background. If his people feel he is ready for a challenge like Garcia, he would line up well for May or June.
Rios is 5'7", so he would be able to match Garcia in length, an area which Garcia has traditionally exploited as a tactical advantage. Rios has not shown anything close to the power Garcia has, though.
Yuri Gamboa has the kind of explosive power and feline agility that truly captures the boxing fans' imagination. Nearly every second of every fight he has, you feel like you could be on the brink of seeing something thrilling.
Mikey Garcia does not have anything like his flash and charisma. But he just might have the perfect technical game to take Gamboa apart.
Gamboa is an amazing athlete and puncher, but at times he has shown questionably balance. Giving up five inches in reach to Garcia would force him to spend a lot of time exposed to Garcia's deadly accurate punches while moving into position to deliver his own offense.
I see Garcia using lateral movement and superior reach to time Gamboa coming forward and at times legitimately hurt him when he can draw him off balance.
This would be no picnic for Garcia. Gamboa has the kind of power in both hands to turn around any fight quickly. One lapse in concentration and Garcia could find himself in deep trouble.
But even at 25, Garcia has demonstrated that he is a supremely patient, savvy fighter. Gamboa would have definite athletic advantages over him, but Garcia just might have the technical acumen to overcome them.
If he did, he would be on a fast track to super stardom.