Ranking the 10 Best Hopes for the Heavyweight Division
If 2014 ends without world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Kltischko and undefeated Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev meeting in the ring, boxing fans around the world will have every right to be disappointed. In a division that has wanted for serious drama for far too long, former Olympian Pulev is the best bet in the world for providing it right now.
But for the first time in years, the heavyweight division is showing exciting signs of life. With longtime champion Vitali Klitschko vacating his WBC belt to dedicate his time to the political crisis unfolding in his native Ukraine, there is a legitimate heavyweight belt on the loose.
I'm not sure a single name on this list is a future Hall of Famer. But they should be able to throw up some very engaging fights over the next few years in boxing's traditional glamour division.
10. Lateef Kayode
I'll be honest, I definitely do not foresee heavyweight gold in Lateef Kayode's future. But after an undefeated run at cruiserweight, the Nigerian native has bumped up to heavyweight at age 30. And he's an interesting addition to the division.
Kayode was a physical specimen at 200 pounds, and his 6'2" frame carries 220-225 very well. His list of opponents at cruiserweight was hardly eye-popping, but he carried some of the best punching power in the division.
So far at heavyweight, Kayode has stopped a couple of nonentities. I expect him to take on better competition in 2014. A hard-punching journeyman like Tony Grano would be a good test to see how Kayode's own pop carries up to heavyweight.
9. Andy Ruiz Jr.
In terms of physical appearance, Andy Ruiz Jr. is the least likely name on this list. I'll be blunt. The dude is fat.
But the two-time Mexican amateur champion can box. He's trained by Freddie Roach and promoted by Top Rank, so he's going to get the fights that put him in the spotlight.
And the undefeated Ruiz has been going after fellow prospects rather than simply padding his record with trial horses. Last July, he TKO'd fellow unbeaten Joe Hanks in four. In November, he stopped Tor Hamer in three.
As a gym rat, I sort of recoil at the concept of a guy with a gut like Ruiz's holding the biggest title in professional sports. But he's got the skill already. The body can be a work in progress.
8. Luis Ortiz
Luis Ortiz is a big, powerful heavyweight who has a stellar amateur background, thanks to his longtime involvement with the elite Cuban amateur program. On paper he looks as good, or better, than anybody on this list.
My own biggest reservation about him is that he's 34 and has very limited experience. He's 20-0 with 17 KOs, but he still hasn't fought anybody who would even qualify as a highly regarded journeyman. As recently as 2012, he fought a guy making his professional debut and another guy who was 1-2.
He knocked them both out in the first round, but knocking out two guys with a combined professional record of 1-2 doesn't a contender make.
Just about everybody is a dangerous puncher in the heavyweight division, so I understand the need to bring fighters along slowly. Ortiz has only been a professional since 2010.
But whenever I see a heavyweight being nursed along like this, it makes alarm bells go off. Andy Ruiz from the previous slide fought Joe Hanks and Tor Hamer last year. They aren't world-beaters, but they were legitimate heavyweight prospects who can bang.
Until I see Ortiz beat a respected journeyman or legitimate fellow prospect, I'm not going to get too excited about him.
7. Vyacheslav Glazkov
Vyacheslav Glazkov won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics for his native Ukraine. So far as a professional, he is 16-0-1, though I personally scored his draw with Malik Scott for the American.
But Glazkov is a very technically solid boxer who will not be an easy fight for many folks at heavyweight. There is very little that is flashy or exciting in his game, but he is methodical and intelligent in the ring. And I think he will get better as he adjusts to the professional version of the sport.
Glazkov has the biggest fight of his career coming up in March against Tomasz Adamek. They were supposed to fight last November, but it had to be delayed due to Adamek's illness.
How Glazkov performs against the longtime star from Poland will tell us a lot about what kind of future he has in the heavyweight division.
6. Carlos Takam
Cameroon native Carlos Takam forced his way into the conversation at heavyweight last month when he earned a majority draw against highly regarded contender Mike Perez. One judge actually had the fight scored six rounds to four for Takam.
I had it five rounds each, but if I had to pick a winner, I would go with Takam. He fought a very smart fight, refusing to give the counterpunching Perez any openings early and taking control of the fight late.
Takam is built like an NFL fullback. He's an explosive and intelligent athlete. As a French resident, I have to think he's in very good position to get a shot at Wladimir Klitschko, who has a history of fighting European contenders.
5. Mike Perez
I was very big on Mike Perez coming into 2014 and remain so. I think the former Cuban amateur standout has the skills and explosive athleticism to be a major factor at heavyweight. He's one of the few fighters in the division I can visualize finessing Wladimir Klitschko's jab and rocking him inside.
But he looked very flat against Carlos Takam last month. I will give a lot of the credit for that to the big, explosive Takam, who waged a very smart fight.
But I think a big part of it was also due to the fact that Perez was only two months removed from his victory over Magomed Abdusalamov, which left Mago in a coma and fighting for his life.
It was announced during the broadcast of his fight with Takam that Perez was wearing Abdusalamov's name on his gear and donating part of his purse to Mago's family. Inflicting that kind of permanent damage on an opponent takes a heavy emotional toll on any true sportsman.
Emile Griffith continued with his Hall of Fame career after killing Benny Paret in the ring, but his KO percentage plummeted. Ray Mancini has spoken eloquently about how his fight with Duk Koo Kim haunted him for years.
Perez has as much potential as any heavyweight in the division. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts going forward.
4. Deontay Wilder
Nobody can argue with Deontay Wilder's power. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist is 30-0 with 30 KOs. So far in his career, nobody has made it past Round 4 against him.
But his quality of opposition has been ridiculously low for the potential he has shown. When you see that kind of slow movement with a heavyweight contender who can blast opponents like Wilder can, it makes you wonder what his team is worried about.
In March, Wilder faces Malik Scott, among the most talented pure boxers in the division. He's a solid test for Wilder and has limited punching power, so he's probably not a major risk.
If Wilder had fought Scott two years ago, I'd be a lot more excited about it. As it is, I'm eagerly anticipating it.
Wilder has created as much excitement as any American heavyweight in years. But until he catches a legitimate heavyweight punch from another contender and keeps fighting, there will be lingering questions about him.
3. Bermaine Stiverne
Bermane Stiverne shot to the top of the heavyweight rankings last April when he broke Chris Arreola's nose and knocked him down in Round 3 en route to a one-sided unanimous decision. The victory made him the No. 1 contender for Vitali Klitschko's WBC belt.
With Klitschko vacating, Stiverne should be a participant in whatever fight is arranged to fill the vacancy.
In case anybody thinks Arreola took Stiverne lightly in that fight, I interviewed Arreola the week prior and he certainly didn't sound like he was taking the fight lightly. He was a mere six pounds heavier in that fight than he was against Seth Mitchell.
I'm not saying Arreola wouldn't put on a better performance in a rematch. But Stiverne absolutely deserves credit for what he did in the last fight, and I expect him to remain a factor in the division as it takes shape.
2. Bryant Jennings
Bryant Jennings has been boxing for only about five years. The progress he has made in that short time has been astonishing.
What impresses me the most about Jennings is that his knockout percentage has been improving in recent fights, as his quality of opposition has gotten better. Last month he stopped fellow unbeaten prospect Artur Szpilka of Poland, a hard-punching slugger with a decent chin.
Although he is just under 6'2", Jenning's boasts an astonishing 84" reach. He's got the arms and shoulders of a seven-foot giant on top of his six-foot frame.
That has obvious offensive advantages, but I'm more impressed by how he uses those long arms defensively. His long arms give him a nearly impregnable guard.
In historical terms, the heavyweight champion Jennings most closely resembles physically is Sonny Liston.
1. Kubrat Pulev
If Kubrat Pulev faces Wladimir Klitschko in 2014, I'll be picking Wladi. But I'll be very excited to see the actual fight and no way would I bet money I can't afford to lose.
The former Bulgarian Olympian has the perfect package to beat the younger Klitschko brother. He's got height, length and the boxing skills to reach Klitschko's notoriously vulnerable chin.
No heavyweight contender out there right now is more deserving of a title shot than Pulev. In 2012, he stopped top-ranked contenders Alexander Ustinov and Alexander Dimitrenko, who had a combined record of 59-1.
Last year he beat Tony Thompson by unanimous decision. Even at 42, you could argue Thompson is the best American heavyweight there is.
So Pulev clearly deserves his shot. No other heavyweight fight interests serious fans more than Pulev vs. Klitschko. The fact that so many American fans are hungry to see a Bulgarian fight a Ukrainian proves just how deserving Pulev truly is.