Ranking the Most Untested Stars in Boxing Today
Deontay Wilder and Gary Russell Jr. have both shown the kind of explosive power that thrills fans. But both undefeated rising stars have frustrated boxing fans, as well, due to their reluctance to step up the level of their competition.
Developing a boxing star is a tricky process. If a fighter's team matches him too tough too soon, catastrophe can result.
On the other hand, fans begin to grow impatient when an obviously talented prospect spends too much time fighting trial horses and second-tier journeymen.
Some of the fighters on this list will be among the biggest stars in the sport in the years ahead. But they all need tougher competition to reach their fullest potential.
10. Leo Santa Cruz
Leo Santa Cruz is undefeated and has won world titles at bantamweight and super bantamweight. The all-action fighter has turned in some great performances against some very good fighters.
But his best wins have all come against fighters who were fighting quite a bit above their own best weights. Eric Morel was a former flyweight champion. Alex Munoz was a world champion at 115 pounds.
Santa Cruz is a popular young fighter and with good reason. But to truly fulfill his star potential, he's going to need to beat some full-sized super bantamweights and featherweights who are in their prime.
9. Keith Thurman
I've been calling Keith Thurman a future superstar for a while now. And for his age and years as a professional, his quality of opposition has been respectable.
Jesus Soto Karass and Jan Zaveck are crafty veterans, and Diego Chaves was a fellow unbeaten prospect with dangerous power. These three opponents were all important tests for Thurman, and he passed them with style.
But from here on out, Thurman should be fighting mostly world champions and elite contenders. The winner of the Marcos Maidana-Adrien Broner rematch would be a great opponent for Thurman and so would undefeated IBF welterweight champion Shawn Porter.
Long term, Thurman needs to be looking for fights with the top stars in the sport.
8. Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev went 4-0 with four stoppages in 2013, winning the WBO light heavyweight title in August, taking it from Nathan Cleverly. He enters this year as one of the hottest names in the sport.
But fans are anxious to see him step up and fight a higher quality of opposition at this point. Kovalev destroyed former world champion Gabriel Campillo by Round 3 TKO last January, but Campillo was in the middle of a three-fight losing streak.
Cleverly was unbeaten, as well, when Kovalev dispatched him by Round 4 TKO. But Cleverly was largely untested himself prior to that fight.
Kovalev has come on quickly, and there's no reason to criticize his quality of opposition. But to reach true elite status, he's going to need to beat higher-quality opponents in 2014.
7. Kell Brook
Kell Brook is an undefeated welterweight contender with great athleticism and legitimate power. Fighting in the high-profile welterweight division, he's in perfect position to become a breakout star in the sport.
So far his best win has come against former WBA champion Vyacheslav Senchenko. He's also beaten Matthew Hatton and Carson Jones twice.
Those are decent fighters, and Senchenko was coming off from a stoppage of Ricky Hatton. But if Brook wants to demonstrate that he truly belongs in the discussion about elite fighters at 147, he needs to beat some higher-ranked opponents.
6. Tyson Fury
Tyson Fury was scheduled to face David Haye twice, so it's not as if the gigantic Brit isn't looking for big-name opponents at this point. The big-talking Fury is a confident fighter.
Fury has decent wins, but they can all be nitpicked. Dereck Chisora was overweight and appeared unmotivated when he lost to Fury in 2011. Kevin Johnson was a former world-title challenger, but that was three years before Fury beat him, and Johnson has lost to 14-3 Christian Hammer since.
Against former cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham, only Fury's tremendous size advantage allowed him to be victorious. Until Fury beats a legitimate heavyweight contender, he'll be hard-pressed to find many fans and writers who agree with his own bold self-assessment.
5. Bryant Jennings
Undefeated heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings has only been a professional fighter since 2010, and he has been boxing less than five years total. So the quality of opponents he has beaten so far is certainly impressive, when put in perspective.
But if Jennings is going to be the man to restore glory to the American heavyweight scene, he's going to need to fight even better opponents. Artur Szpilka, Bowie Tupou and Siarhei Liakhovich are respectable wins, but they are all a definite step or two below the world-class level.
One promising sign for Jennings is that his ability to finish fights has seemed to get sharper as his quality of opposition has improved. So he seems to be a fighter who is getting better as he goes along.
4. Jessie Vargas
At just 24, undefeated light welterweight Jessie Vargas has to be viewed as a potential future star. He's shown a good combination of skill and natural talent.
But so far his best wins are a contested split decision over Josesito Lopez and a unanimous decision over undefeated Wale Omotoso, who was even more untested than Vargas. Vargas has been on the radar for a couple of years now, and he's overdue to step up his quality of competition.
The 140-pound division badly needs fresh blood. Later this year Vargas is due to face fellow undefeated fighter Khabib Allakhverdiev for the WBA light welterweight title.
But this is alphabet-soup nonsense at its worst. The WBA light welterweight champion is Danny Garcia. Just because the WBA wants to refer to him as a "super" champion doesn't mean that it can arbitrarily name another "regular" champion and expect anybody to view that as a legitimate world title.
3. Terence Crawford
My inclusion of lightweight Terence Crawford on this list isn't intended as a criticism. It's merely an acknowledgement that his opposition to date rates well below his vast potential.
Veteran Breidis Prescott and fellow unbeaten prospect Andrey Klimov are very respectable wins for a fighter of Crawford's experience. In March he will travel to Scotland to challenge WBO 135-pound champion Ricky Burns.
But Crawford has the look of a fighter who might be in some of the sport's biggest bouts in the years ahead.
2. Gary Russell Jr.
Only a couple of years ago, Gary Russell Jr. seemed like a sure thing to become one of the sport's next superstars. He has an elite amateur background and explosive athletic ability.
And he's still just 25, so it would be ridiculous to dismiss the undefeated Russell. But if he does want to reach his amazing potential, he's way overdue for fighting a big-name opponent at either 126 or 130 pounds.
Russell is promoted by Golden Boy and managed by Al Haymon. You can't be better connected than that, so there's no good excuse for him not pursuing world-championship level fights.
1. Deontay Wilder
It's no secret that hardcore American boxing fans are desperate for a heavyweight who can bring the world title back to North America. With 30 knockouts in 30 professional fights, Deontay Wilder has made himself a prime candidate for that job.
Wilder can knock a house down with his overhand right. But his best win so far has been against an over-the-hill Siarhei Liakhovich.
For a man who has been pinned as the savior of the American heavyweight scene, Wilder's level of competition has been embarrassing.
Wilder has a better test coming up, as he'll face Malik Scott in March. Scott is not a big hitter, but he's one of the more talented pure boxers in the division.