Which of 2013's Breakout Boxing Stars Have the Brightest Futures?
This weekend, Gennady Golovkin enters the ring for the sixth time in 17 months when he faces Osumanu Adama in Monte Carlo. The Olympic silver medalist and undefeated WBA middleweight champion from Kazakhstan was among the biggest breakout stars of 2013.
Don't expect him to start slowing down anytime soon.
Several fighters from the former USSR had banner years in 2013. The former Soviet Republics were long known for their outstanding amateur programs.
Now, a generation removed from the fall of the Soviet Union, fighters from Eastern Europe and Central Asia are transforming the face of the sport.
These six stars from 2013 have bright futures ahead of them.
Leo Santa Cruz
Leo Santa Cruz entered 2013 undefeated and with plenty of momentum. You could argue that his true breakout fight came in September 2012 when he made former world champion Eric Morel quit on his stool after five rounds.
But prior to last year, he had campaigned as a huge, young bantamweight. In 2013 he moved up in weight and captured a world title in a second division, showing just as much dominance against opponents who were closer to his own size.
Golden Boy has made Santa Cruz a regular feature in some of its biggest cards in the past two years. His all-action style thrills fans.
Don't be surprised if he moves up to main event status in 2014.
Almost a year ago to the date, Evgeny Gradovich was offered the opportunity to fight IBF featherweight champion Billy Dib on less than a month's notice. He did not hesitate to seize the moment, and on the March 1, 2013 edition of ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, he outworked the champion to earn a split decision and his first world title in just his 16th professional fight.
He is a product of the highly respected Russian amateur system. He makes his training headquarters now in Oxnard, California, where he is coached by elite trainer Robert Garcia.
Gradovich's no-nonsense approach to his training has earned him the affectionate nickname of "The Mexican Russian" from his training partners. He's a fighter in his athletic prime who is still improving, as he demonstrated by TKOing Dib in nine in their November rematch.
Mikey Garcia came into 2013 with a lot of eyes on him. The undefeated younger brother of super-trainer Robert Garcia was one of the hottest prospects in the sport.
Before 2013 was even one month old, he had already captured his first world title, pummeling tough veteran Orlando Salido with three knockdowns to capture the WBO featherweight belt by a one-sided, eight-round technical decision.
Garcia battered the explosive Juan Manuel Lopez by Round 4 TKO in June. In November he captured his second world title of the year when he knocked out WBO super featherweight champion Roman Martinez in Round 8.
Already in 2014, he has recorded a dominant, unanimous-decision defense over Juan Carlos Burgos.
Garcia is the total package as a fighter. He is defensively solid, and on offense he is patient but dangerous. He has a ring IQ beyond his years and the finishing instincts of a shark.
Despite all the hype devoted to Adrien Broner over the past two years, I've considered Keith Thurman to be Golden Boy's true future star. In 2013, "One Time" vindicated my judgment.
Thanks to his perfect 22-0 record with 20 KOs, his punching power has never been a secret. But in 2013 against gritty veterans Jan Zaveck and Jesus Soto Karass and fellow hard-punching contender Diego Gabriel Chaves, Thurman was more impressive with his boxing skills and ability to adjust mid-fight.
He always comes off as brash and confident in his interviews. But he usually sounds thoughtful and intelligent, too.
Thurman has a stellar amateur background and the physical tools and punching power that can only be given to a fighter by God. Combine those traits with his quickly developing ring IQ, and you have the next superstar of the welterweight division.
After making his U.S. debut on September 1, 2012 with a Round 5 TKO of Top 10-rated Grzegorz Proksa, undefeated WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin proceeded to go 4-0 with four stoppages in 2013. It improved his career record to 28-0 with 25 KOs.
Very few boxers in the sport are hotter than him right now. But he's been among the most avoided fighters in the world for years now, so his promoters at K2 have chosen to keep him busy against anybody who is brave enough to climb into the ring with him.
And it would be an ignorant mistake to dismiss his opposition as a collection of tomato cans. Proksa, Lajuan Simon, Matthew Macklin, Gabriel Rosado, Curtis Stevens and Nobuhiro Ishida all fought very competitive fights against other champions and world-class opponents.
GGG mowed them all down.
Eventually anybody who wants to be taken seriously at middleweight is going to have to go through Golovkin. When he's done at 160, a superfight will likely be waiting for him with Andre Ward at 168.
While Gennady Golovkin was raining destruction upon the middleweight division in 2013, Sergey Kovalev was doing the same thing at light heavyweight.
In January he smashed former world champion Gabriel Campillo by Round 3 TKO. He did the same thing in June to 21-1 Cornelius White.
In August he made his big breakthrough by going to Wales and taking the WBO light heavyweight belt away from previously undefeated Nathan Cleverly via Round 4 TKO. Kovalev capped off his year with a frightening Round 2 knockout of Ismayl Sillakh on November 30 in Montreal.
It seems likely that Kovalev will face WBC and lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson before 2014 is over. Stevenson's 2013 campaign was even more impressive than Kovalev's, as he also went 4-0 with four KOs. In June he shocked the boxing world by knocking out Chad Dawson in Round 1.
Stevenson has far too much explosive power to be dismissed against anybody at 175. But if that fight gets made, I'll be picking "Krusher" to outbox "Superman" and unify the belts.
Like Golovkin, Kovalev is a future big-name opponent for pound-for-pound star Andre Ward. I also think the powerfully built, 6'0" Kovalev will be able to carry his power up to cruiserweight and make an impressive run there.