The 10 Most Underappreciated Boxers of the Past Decade
Bernard Hopkins is true boxing royalty. "I see myself as the Godfather," he told me in an interview last year. "Maybe I'm not the top pound-for-pound guy at this point, but I'm still the Godfather. I'm the guy, when I'm back stage and I say something, the young guys all step closer to hear."
So the ageless Hopkins gets his respect. But I'd argue that he's still underappreciated and has been not just for the past decade but for much of his nearly 30-year career. This boxing wizard is routinely dismissed as "boring" by the casual fan who cares only for stand-and-trade wars.
Defensive geniuses like Hopkins are a common theme on this list. In earlier decades, a guy like Willie Pep could be appreciated as a major star. In today's climate, the fighter who has mastered the art of hitting without getting hit is charged with being a "runner" by video-game-desensitized fans.
Little guys, too, don't get the credit they deserve and figure prominently here. In a nation that seems to get fatter every year, fans don't even seem to want to pay attention to a small guy who can throw down.
Ultimately, of course, "underappreciated" is a matter of subjective opinion and perspective. Every fighter on this list has a big group of fans. But the casual fans, if they've heard of these guys at all, seem downright indifferent to how hard it is to do what these guys do.
10. Adrian Hernandez
The improbably tall, longtime WBC light flyweight champion Adrian Hernandez does seem to enjoy a respectable popularity in Mexico. Videos for many of his televised fights can be found on YouTube, and the crowds that he draws are large and enthusiastic.
The lack of appreciation for him has more to do with a lack of appreciation for the smallest weight classes in general. The 5'8" Hernandez is a smooth, combination puncher with excellent control of range. I rank him as among the most talented fighters in the world below 115 pounds.
It is a shame that he has never fought Roman Gonzalez. With so many obscure fighters in the smallest weight classes, not grabbing the chance to fight a fellow star seems like a missed opportunity.
Hernandez's only loss in the past five years, to tough veteran Kompayak Porpramook, was avenged via stoppage.
9. James Toney
Too many current fans view James Toney as a sort of cartoon character. He's the overweight, bald-headed, smack-talking old man who got choked out in about a minute by Randy Couture in the UFC.
But fans my age and older have a different perspective. I rank Toney as one of the three most talented boxers of his generation, behind only Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins. If he had wanted to make a run at middleweight or super middleweight, he would rank as one of the all-time greats in either division.
Even what he's done in the last decade doesn't get the appreciation it deserves. Fighting well past his prime and about 50 pounds over his ideal weight, Toney remained among the most dangerous heavyweights in the world.
Certainly it's a comment about how weak the heavyweight division has been. But it's also a testament to the skill and natural punching power that "Lights Out" possesses.
8. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam
In November 2012, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam of Thailand was stopped in three rounds by 17-20-3 Rey Megrino. Wonjongkam has actually fought and won three times since, but it's clear that the longtime flyweight champion's glory days are behind him.
But few fighters in this century had a better run than him. From the late 1990s up until 2011, Wonjongkam racked up over 80 wins against a single loss to his Japanese rival Daisuke Naito, who finally beat him in 2007 after losing to him twice previously.
Wonjongkam's record is certainly fattened by inexperienced prospects and journeymen. But that's pretty standard for the lightest weight divisions, where paydays are smaller and fights happen more frequently.
To keep winning as often and for as long as Wonjongkam was able to is a remarkable achievement in a sport where two men are attempting to batter each other into unconsciousness.
7. Amir Khan
Amir Khan retains a degree of popularity in the United Kingdom, but in North America, the Brit is like Rodney Dangerfield: He gets no respect.
He is cursed with a substandard chin by world-class boxing standards. It's a flaw, to be sure, and the results of that flaw can be rather dramatic.
But to overlook the rest of the package is unfair. Khan has elite speed, great technical skill and very good power. He's a former world champion who has beaten some very good fighters.
But to hear him talked about on this side of the Atlantic, you would think he was total garbage. Don't get me wrong: I'm certainly not interested in seeing him fight Floyd Mayweather. But the guy does deserve a certain level of appreciation for what he has done in the sport.
6. Carlos Molina
While fighters like Amir Khan get unfairly maligned, others like Carlos Molina simply get unfairly overlooked. The IBF light middleweight champion is routinely lost in the shuffle and handed unfair decisions by judges and referees.
It's a pattern that started early in his career, when he was matched with 23-0 Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. as a 8-1 prospect. Molina gave the superstar's son a boxing lesson and came away with only a draw. Chavez Jr. got the nod in a rematch that Molina again deserved to win.
He was robbed by the judges again in 2011 when he earned only a draw against Erislandy Lara. In March 2012 he was the victim of a bizarre disqualification in a fight that he was winning against James Kirkland.
Molina has a world title and is very relevant to the picture at 154 pounds. But that's thanks almost entirely to his own efforts. He has had little help from the boxing world at large.
5. Chris John
Indonesian star Chris John's long undefeated run came to a halt last December when he was stopped by Simpiwe Vetyeka of South Africa in Round 6. It was the end of an era, and one that has been mostly ignored by North American and European fans.
The lack of appreciation for John in America should really not be surprising. He fought virtually his entire career on the other side of the world, largely against opponents who were unfamiliar to American fans.
But it's always a mistake to be dismissive of somebody simply because you haven't heard of him. There is too much boxing talent spread across the globe for anybody to keep track of everybody.
And John is one of very few fighters to beat Mexican great Juan Manuel Marquez in Marquez's prime. I'd be the first to admit that I've always had trouble determining where John should rank. But I have no doubts that his career deserves appreciation.
4. Ronald "Winky" Wright
When boxing fans discuss the greats of this century, Shane Mosley and Felix Trinidad are inevitably among the first names mentioned. Winky Wright seems to enter the conversation much more slowly.
Yet within the past decade, he recorded victories over both of those men. He beat Mosley twice.
Wright is on this list for the same reason a number of fighter are on this list. Casual fans in today's era don't sufficiently appreciate a great defensive boxer.
In addition to his wins over Mosley and Trinidad in the past decade, he also drew with Jermain Taylor in a fight that he deserved to win. He gave Bernard Hopkins an extremely competitive fight as well.
3. Guillermo Rigondeaux
Last April, in just his 12th professional fight, two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux handed pound-for-pound superstar Nonito Donaire a boxing lesson. It was a masterful exhibition and should have been one of the most heralded performances of the year.
Instead, much of the boxing world reacted with a collective yawn. I'm predicting now that some commentator on this story will accuse Rigondeaux of "running" during the fight.
Well, Donaire's face afterward looked battered and swollen. So clearly Rigo stopped and threw some punches along the way.
Donaire has been among the most dangerous pound-for-pound offensive fighters of the past decade. He has recorded highlight-reel stoppages of world champions and future Hall of Famers.
Rigondeaux made him look toothless. Anybody who claims to love boxing should appreciate a performance like that.
2. Roman Gonzalez
The best current example for the lack of appreciation and respect shown to boxing's smallest fighters is Roman Gonzalez of Nicaragua. He has spent his career terrorizing the straw and light flyweight divisions, compiling a record of 37-0 with 31 knockouts.
Even as he prepares to move up to full flyweight, he already has a decisive win on his resume over WBA and WBO 112-pound champion Juan Estrada.
The fact that pound-for-pound top-10 lists omit Gonzalez proves that he is criminally overlooked. The talent pool is certainly not as deep in the smallest weight classes, but what he has done is special nonetheless.
He's the type of fighter who could bring some much-needed attention to the flyweight ranks. A battle between him and fellow knockout artist Giovani Segura would be a potential Fight of the Year.
1. Bernard Hopkins
When I write that Bernard Hopkins is not sufficiently appreciated, I am not thinking primarily of boxing fans, although he has often failed to get his proper respect from them over the years.
But I'm thinking of the sporting world in general and the general lack of appreciation that now exists for the great sport of boxing. What Hopkins has done in winning world titles in his late 40s surpasses any of the longevity achievements of athletes like Gordie Howe and Nolan Ryan.
A man who has stayed in the sort of physical condition that Hopkins has, in a sport as brutal as boxing, should be celebrated and admired throughout society. With his gift for talking, he would be a natural to host a talk show.
Oprah Winfrey, if you are reading this, do the right thing and give B-Hop Dr. Oz's time slot.