The Hottest Boxing Storylines Heading into 2014
With the clock ticking toward the end of 2013, we've spent the past few days ruminating about the year that has been in the sport of boxing.
All the great fights, fighters and storylines that dominated an epic year are now in our collective rearview mirrors.
So what do we do now? Look forward, of course.
The year 2014 has all the potential to be even better. Here we set you up with all the top storylines heading into the new year.
Which 2 Fighters Will Win the Floyd Mayweather Lottery?
It's become something of a New Year's tradition to wonder which fighters will get lucky enough to hit boxing's equivalent of the lottery and secure a fight with pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather.
With four fights remaining on his massive contract with Showtime, "Money" is slated to return to the ring twice in 2014—in May and September—against, as yet, undetermined foes.
The most likely scenario—at least for his date in May—will see him opposite either Amir Khan or newly crowned WBA welterweight champion Marcos Maidana.
The Argentine is a tough, hard-nosed and a highly aggressive fighter who always seems to perform at his best when the odds are stacked against him. He would enter the ring as a massive underdog, but he's gritty and provides Mayweather with the opportunity to unify titles at 147 pounds.
Khan, for all his flaws, would present Mayweather with an interesting stylistic challenge. You'd be hard pressed to find many—if any—opponents who can match—or in Khan's case, perhaps even exceed—Floyd in hand speed. That alone could provide an interesting wrinkle.
Assuming he beats either Maidana or Khan in May, Mayweather's September date remains something of a wild card. It's possible that he could face whichever of the two men ends up the runner-up in the May lottery, or he could look for someone bigger, like Danny Garcia.
The most likely scenario puts Mayweather vs. Maidana on the schedule for May 3 with Garcia meeting Khan in a rematch, either on the undercard or as the headliner of their own Showtime event. The winner will get Money in September.
It's the best of both worlds. A victory for Garcia would reassert him as a legitimate threat, while a Khan win—which would have to be considered an upset—would give the Brit instant credibility as an opponent.
How Will Canelo Alvarez Rebound from a Lopsided Defeat?
In the lead-up to his showdown with Floyd Mayweather at the MGM Grand in September, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez developed quite the following. At a pre-fight event, his promoter Richard Schaefer described the phenomenon as "Canelomania," and it was hard to disagree with him.
At each stop along the ambitious 10-stop promotional tour in the Summer, thousands of adoring fans greeted Canelo. Being from the fighting-crazed nation of Mexico certainly helped, but Alvarez, with his youth and good looks, also drew many new fans into the fold.
But then he lost badly to the best fighter in the game.
In the ring after the fight and at the post-fight press conference, Canelo was visibly dejected. Ironically, Mayweather who got in his ear and attempted to cheer up the man whom he had just thoroughly dismantled.
It wasn't so much that he lost. Many expected that he would, but worse for him was that Money completely shut him out—at least to those watching with working eyes (sorry, judge CJ Ross). Save for a few moments in the first round or two, Canelo was never in the fight and mounted virtually no effective offense against his elusive foe.
How he rebounds from such a devastating mental and physical loss will tell us a lot about his character and ability to become an elite pound-for-pound fighter.
The good news is that he's still only 23 years old. The bad news is that he's always been hyped as so much more than that. His return bout should come against someone who will challenge but not overwhelm him. There's no reason for him to jump into the deep part of the pool again this quickly.
Erislandy Lara has been mentioned as a potential opponent, but it's unfair to expect Canelo to face Austin Trout, Mayweather and Lara in consecutive bouts. He'd be better served by trying to regain a belt at 154 pounds by taking on the tricky but not overly threatening Carlos Molina.
Has Adrien Broner Been Exposed, or Will He Bounce Back in 2014?
Up until December, 2013 had been kind to Adrien Broner.
He kicked off his campaign with an impressive stoppage of former junior welterweight champion Gavin Rees in February. He then went into hostile territory to secure his third world title in as many weight classes with a narrow split-decision win over Paulie Malignaggi in June.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to his coronation as boxing's next Floyd Mayweather: Marcos Maidana.
The Argentine dropped and nearly stopped "The Problem" on Dec. 14 in a fight that was largely one-sided. Given Broner's status as an elite-level prospect, it was a stunning outcome and raised one of the ugliest words a young fighter can hear after a loss.
The questions swirling around Broner and his team right now are about as serious as they get in boxing.
Did he just have an off night? Was Maidana simply the better man? Or was Broner finally exposed for being a better talker than he is fighter?
And, perhaps most importantly, will he ever even come close to the lofty expectations placed on him by, well, himself?
A lot of those queries will have to be answered in the weeks and months ahead.
Some fighters come back stronger from their first loss. It tends to be a humbling experience. But, given his decision to run from the ring rather than answer questions once the verdict was read and the limited drop-off in his self-hype since, we can remain skeptical of whether anything can humble Broner.
Will Gennady Golovkin Become HBO's Next Big Star?
If you could fast-forward a hundred years from now in Kazakhstan, you'd probably hear kids crying to their parents about the Gennady Golovkin who haunts them by hiding under their bed.
And why not?
The 31-year-old WBO middleweight champion has developed something of a boogeyman reputation since bursting onto the American fight scene in 2012. He's had a hell of a time securing meaningful fights, and none of the top names at 160 pounds seem in any hurry to climb in the ring with him.
And can you blame them? His style is extraordinarily violent, and he hits with Ivan Drago-esque power. In January, he busted Gabriel Rosado's left eye and rearranged his face en route to a stoppage victory. He then went on to score spectacular knockouts over three more solid—if unspectacular—foes.
GGG's potential is immense, and HBO is going all-in on making him one of the faces of the network.
But can he become a star while the bigger name fighters remain reluctant to fight him? No disrespect to the Curtis Stevens and Matthew Macklins of the world, but those names don't move a fighter onto the elite plane of the sport.
Try as it may, HBO is going to need to find a compelling challenge for the Kazakh nightmare before we can assess where the hype stops and the reality begins.
Does Manny Pacquiao Have 1 Elite Run Left in Him?
A year ago at this time, Manny Pacquiao's career seemed to be in jeopardy. He had just suffered a second consecutive defeat—this one decisively and without a shred of controversy—and was unconscious in a crumpled heap, courtesy of a missile right hand from his longtime rival.
There was legitimate speculation about whether or not he'd ever fight again—much less at or near an elite level. And if he did re-enter the ring, people wondered if he'd be diminished by one of the scariest knockouts they had ever seen.
After a year away from the sport, Pacquiao successfully returned with an easy victory over a game but overmatched Brandon Rios in Macau. It answered some of the more pressing questions, particularly about his ability to remain aggressive and take a punch, but it didn't show whether or not he remains elite.
Granted, Rios is as tough as they come and was perfect for what amounted to a comeback fight, but he's not near an elite level.
For Pacquiao to prove that he can still hang with that group of fighters, he'll need to take on someone more dangerous his next time out.
In that respect, a rematch with Timothy Bradley would be perfect.
Will the Russians Save HBO?
After spending much of his career with HBO, Floyd Mayweather spurned the network and signed a massive, exclusive deal with rival Showtime earlier this year. The move sent shock waves throughout the cable boxing world and completely rearranged the landscape.
Showtime, long the forgotten stepchild, was suddenly the place to be for big fighters and big fights, and it cashed in by providing fans with quality cards that featured more than one good fight.
Since then, HBO has seemed to place a greater emphasis on building depth rather than making one or two big splashes to regain momentum.
In the process, it has discovered a pair of Russian combatants who have the exciting styles that make them must-see TV every time they fight.
Ruslan Provodnikov became a household name when he pushed WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley to the limit in March. He put the champion on the canvas in the opening frame, but it was questionably not ruled a knockdown.
He came back to decisively score a clean knockdown in the closing seconds of the fight before dropping a narrow decision. The "Siberian Rocky" proved his performance was no fluke in October by making junior welterweight titleholder Mike Alvarado quit in front of his hometown fans.
Then there's WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.
He is just plain scary. He captured a share of the 175-pound title earlier this year by annihilating the previously unbeaten Nathan Cleverly in his own backyard.
He followed that up with a knockout of Ismayl Sillakh that was so impressive that lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson did verbal gymnastics to avoid saying he'd like to face him next.
Can these two single-handedly put HBO back on top? Probably not.
But they definitely help.
Can Andre Ward Break Out?
Andre Ward faces a conundrum.
He's recognized as one of the two best fighters in the sport, has cleaned out his weight division and recently returned from a long absence with a dominant performance that showed no signs of rust.
But for all of his talents and accomplishments, he has struggled to gain traction beyond the hardcore boxing community. He's failed to appeal to the masses, and he'll enter 2014 in need of an opponent who can help him to do so.
Part of Ward's problem is that he rarely travels far from the San Francisco/Oakland region for his fights. Now, to a certain extent, that becomes something similar to the chicken or the egg question.
Does Ward stick around the Bay Area because he can't sell his fights elsewhere? Or can he not sell his fights elsewhere because he rarely leaves that area?
It's an interesting question to ponder.
Either way, he is in need of a compelling foe in order to reach a larger audience. Luckily for him, those types of fighters do exist.
Gennady Golovkin for one—should he move up in weight—or Adonis Stevenson—should Ward jump to light heavyweight—could provide the challenge and storyline that Ward needs to break out.
Will the Heavyweight Division Become Meaningful Again?
The heavyweight division—once the premier weight class in the sport—has become a mess.
There is literally next to nothing going on north of 200 pounds—perhaps short of Wladimir Klitschko's pursuit of Joe Louis' title defenses record—that gives the fans any reason to watch.
Up until recently, the Klitschko brothers held all of the titles. While Vitali's retirement leaves the WBC strap vacant, no compelling challengers have emerged lately who have a real shot of ending Ukrainian dominance of boxing's once glamour division.
Now that's not the Klitschkos' fault. They've presided over a weak crop of heavyweights, but they are not guilty of doing anything more than fighting the men placed in front of them.
And until a threatening challenger emerges, the heavyweights will remain the dominion of "Dr. Steelhammer" and his safety-first—some would say questionably legal—style, and the majority of American fight fans will stay away.
You can hope that Deontay Wilder—who sits at 30-0 with 30 knockouts—turns out to be that guy. But the Alabama native is so raw and untested that we just don't know yet. He hasn't been in the ring with anyone remotely resembling a top-20 heavyweight, and his style is so unrefined that it's easy to see how Wlad would pick him apart.
But he has the type of punching power that could provide some drama if he's able to connect on the historically chinny champion. And that might be good enough to get this once towering division somewhat back on its feet.
Will Rigondeaux Become the Best Boxer Nobody Cares About?
In terms of his in-ring accomplishments, 2013 was generous to Guillermo Rigondeaux. He captured the biggest victory of his career by dominating Nonito Donaire in April and followed that up by easily dispatching Joseph Agbeko in December.
But he's quickly become the boxing equivalent of the age-old question: If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
He is finding it difficult to get people to watch his fights and to find a network willing to put them on television. His performance against Donaire was a technical masterpiece, as was his win over Agbeko, but neither was aesthetically pleasing.
If you enjoy the technical aspects of boxing and the subtle beauty of the sweet science, then Rigo is your man.
Nobody is more skilled in those facets of the game. And I mean nobody.
But boxing is a business. As long as no one can get inside his defensive guard and force him to fight—which he is also very good at doing—there is only so long that networks will continue to be interested in a fighter who doesn't draw the fans.
Who Will Be 2014's Breakout Star?
There are a lot of good contenders for this award heading into next year.
On HBO, Mikey Garcia might be the most likely to take the next step to superstardom.
The 26-year-old fighter won all of his fights and two world championships in 2013. He defeated three dangerous opponents—Orlando Salido in January, Juan Manuel Lopez in June and Roman Martinez in October—each more impressively than the last.
He has a plethora of attractive options for fights heading into 2014. Yuriorkis Gamboa remains a possibility at just one weight class north, and so does current featherweight and former top-10 pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire.
Either of those fights could be potentially explosive and help turn Garcia into a star.
On Showtime's side of the river, you need look no further than Keith "One Time" Thurman. The current interim WBA welterweight champion has stopped 20 of his 22 foes—most inside the first three rounds—and drastically improved his competition by stopping Diego Gabriel Chaves and Jesus Soto Karass in 2013.
If anything, he has even more options going forward than Garcia does.
Golden Boy Promotions presides over a loaded welterweight division, and fights with Marcos Maidana, Robert Guerrero, Paulie Malignaggi and Adrien Broner are potential options in the new year.
With his knockout power and improved boxing skills, Thurman is primed for a huge 2014.