The Most Opportunistic Fighters in Boxing Today

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2013

The Most Opportunistic Fighters in Boxing Today

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    Opportunism can mean different things to different people, particularly boxing fans.

    To some, it’s a compliment celebrating a plucky fighter who’d long toiled in the shadow—a la Rocky Balboa (pictured above)—before finally getting a big-stage shot and making the most of it.

    To others, it’s a subtle jab at those whose careers and success seem completely scripted and orchestrated rather than the product of organic performance.

    When it comes to listing such fighters, there’s a little bit of both to be included.

    Click through to see our take on which guys best embody the word—in whatever way you choose to define it.

10. Vitali Klitschko

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    The mammoth Ukrainian had operated with some success (32 wins in 33 fights) in boxing’s back rooms prior to 2003, when he landed an opportunity with universally recognized heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

    And though he didn’t emerge with Lewis’s belts—instead losing via TKO after suffering a ghastly eye cut—he takes credit for nudging the Englishman toward the exits after a particularly bruising fight.

    Lewis indeed never fought again, leaving the throne open for Klitschko, who copped the WBC title 10 months later and hasn’t lost since—a span of 13 fights, in which he's registered 10 knockouts.

9. Josesito Lopez

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    Though he had a strong local following in and around his home base of Riverside, Calif., Lopez was a little-celebrated quantity before he crossed paths with one Victor Ortiz.

    Looking for a fight after a match with Kendall Holt was scuttled, Lopez climbed the ladder to meet Ortiz, who was also seeking a fill-in foe after a return date with Andre Berto was called off.

    The two got together in June 2012, and, with a heavily favored Ortiz on the verge of securing a junior middleweight title shot with Canelo Alvarez, Lopez upset the apple cart when he broke his opponent’s jaw en route to a nine-round stoppage victory.

    Lopez got the subsequent bout with Alvarez and was beaten badly, but he’s again parlayed his opportunity into a showdown with highly regarded welterweight contender Marcos Maidana, set for June 8 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. 

8. Bermane Stiverne

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    Stiverne was playing the tried-and-true role of “final opponent to beat before the favorite gets a big fight” when he traveled to Chris Arreola’s backyard to meet the heavyweight contender in April.

    Arreola was within an eyelash of getting Vitali Klitschko into the ring with a chance to avenge a 2009 loss, but Stiverne, the Haitian import brought in as the send-off to that fight, neither embraced the characterization leading into the bout, nor did he embody it once the fight began.

    Instead, the underdog was dominant throughout, breaking Arreola’s nose en route to a wide-scorecard victory that may get him the championship opportunity, provided the 41-year-old Klitschko doesn’t choose retirement as a less threatening option.

7. Orlando Salido

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    In a sport chock full of Rocky wannabes, Salido is pretty close to an authentic match.

    A look at his record reveals that he’d suffered 11 professional losses before his 2011 opportunity with reigning and unbeaten WBO featherweight champion Juan Manuel Lopez, who was being packaged by promoter Bob Arum as one of boxing’s best young stars.

    Yet, rather than serving as Balboa fodder to the incumbent’s flashy Creed persona, Salido stunned pretty much everyone in Bayamon, Puerto Rico by stopping Lopez in the eighth round of a slugfest, then doing it again—this time in 10 rounds in San Juan—when the men met again 11 months later.

    Salido had his title snatched by another young hotshot, Mikey Garcia, in January of this year, but he remains a top-shelf commodity and is campaigning for a 130-pound title shot against another Puerto Rican, Rocky Martinez, in September.

6. Zab Judah

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    If you must, call him “Super” Judah. Or, more accurately, call him “Boxing’s Cockroach.”

    After all, the latter is far more indicative of the career that’s been had by the charismatic Brooklyn native, now 35, who’s been stomped off the sport’s main stage more times than an insistent insect.

    Still, even after ugly defeats to names like Tszyu, Spinks, Baldomir and Mayweather, Judah has remained both successful and relevant, most recently returning for yet another title fight—his 19th in a 17-year career—last month against 140-pound hotshot Danny Garcia.

    He lost on the scorecards, but his effort in defeat was lauded by many and left the fighter talking not about hanging it up, but instead about more big events.

5. Robert Guerrero

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    With Guerrero, we have an example of a guy who changed his persona to land the big fish.

    Previously a soft-spoken, Bible-toting workhorse from Northern California, Guerrero became a trash-talking opponent-baiter as he climbed the ladder from 126 pounds to 147 pounds in search of a match with the sport’s big-money fish—Floyd Mayweather Jr.

    Co-manager Luis De Cubas Jr. conceded that he’d counseled his client to break out of the humble shell, claiming that opportunities don’t always go to the guys who keep their mouths shut.

    The change in approach paid off a few weeks back, when Guerrero got his fight—and a few million in the bank—with Mayweather, though the unanimous decision loss did keep him from claiming another weight class championship.

4. Adrien Broner

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    A lighter, younger version of Floyd Mayweather Jr.—at least in his own eyes—Broner has begun leaning toward the sort of fighter who makes matches designed to boost his perception.

    He was a champion at 135 pounds and generally considered the best at the weight, but, rather than jumping to make any number of potential matches at 140, he instead chose to leapfrog all the way to 147, where he’ll meet a belt-holder, albeit a light-hitting one, in Paulie Malignaggi on June 22.

    Broner justifies the move by stressing the fact that leaping two classes is a challenge not taken by too many fighters, though critics are pointing out that Malignaggi, himself a former 140-pound champ, is hardly the heartiest of the opponents he might have plucked had he truly been seeking a test.

3. Sergio Martinez

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    Most fans these days know who Martinez is, but only a few probably realize he’d been a pro for nearly 12 years before he became a household name. In fact, considering he was fighting undercard bouts with the likes of Kermit Cintron as recently as 2009, it’s hard to imagine he’s even the same guy.

    Martinez jumped from the draw with Cintron into what appeared to be a sacrificial lamb gig against streaking Paul Williams 10 months later, then parlayed a gutty effort there—which ended in a majority decision loss—into an unlikely middleweight opportunity with Kelly Pavlik.

    And, since defeating Pavlik in a decisive 12-rounder, he’s not looked back.

    A one-shot KO of Williams in a rematch propelled him to the pound-for-pound stratosphere, and he’s remained firmly ensconced in the top five with five more wins—including a scorecard rout of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in their 160-pound summit last September.

2. Floyd Mayweather Jr.

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    Few would argue Mayweather Jr. is among the world’s best fighters.

    But even fewer would contend he’s anything but the sport’s most polarizing figure.

    In fact, those who claim the 36-year-old is more persona than production would have you believe his success has been the result of opportunistically planned climbs through weight classes—avoiding some fighters, challenging others past their vintage—all in the name of protecting an unbeaten record.

    The absence of Manny Pacquiao’s name on the opponent list provides ample fodder for the naysayers, and defeats of lesser lights like Victor Ortiz and Robert Guerrero do little to satisfy the masses as well.

    A rumored match against unbeaten 20-something Canelo Alvarez may move the needle a bit, but it’s more likely that either Pacquiao or Sergio Martinez will be the only wins that’ll make Mayweather a universally accepted star.  

1. Manny Pacquiao

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    Hard to believe it all began when opportunity knocked 25 pounds ago.

    Back then, the Filipino known as Pac Man was a little-known 122-pounder taking a slot as a late replacement for an IBF championship fight with incumbent title-holder Lehlo Ledwaba. But instead of coming in, losing and using the stunted prep time as a crutch, he won the crown with a sixth-round KO and kick-started what’s arguably been the most prodigious ladder climb in boxing history.

    Pacquiao lost just once in the subsequent 11 years while capturing world titles at 130, 135, 140 and 147 pounds and ultimately defeating the man—Oscar De La Hoya—on whose undercard the breakout fight with Ledwaba was contested.

    Similar to Mayweather, rumblings exist that Pacquiao is the product of prescient matchmaking, including a targeting of David Diaz at lightweight instead of three-belt champ Nate Campbell and catchweight matches with Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito.