What We'll Learn in Each Marquee Fight Remaining in 2014
This year has been another great year in boxing. Floyd Mayweather had his toughest fight in years, and Manny Pacquiao was able to avenge his most unjust loss.
Miguel Cotto became the first four-division world champion ever from Puerto Rico. Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev continued to march a destructive path through their respective weight classes.
A portion of the heavyweight title returned to North American soil.
And some of the best boxing months are still left on the calendar. Boxing fans have had plenty to get excited about in 2014. But some of the biggest moments are still waiting to happen.
Which Undefeated Young Welterweight Will Keep His "O"?
One of the year's most anticipated fights happens this weekend in Carson, California, when undefeated IBF welterweight champion Shawn Porter defends his belt against unbeaten Kell Brook of England. These are two of the most talented young fighters in the ultra-competitive welterweight division, so the winner's stock will rise substantially.
Porter is already one of the hottest fighters in the sport on the strength of last December's championship victory over Devon Alexander and his four-round destruction of Paulie Malignaggi in his first defense last April. Brook comes in carrying the hopes of Great Britain on his back.
The winner will automatically enter the conversation for a pay-per-view shot against Floyd Mayweather next year.
Will Floyd Mayweather vs. Marcos Maidana II Be as Close as the First Fight?
In 2013, Floyd Mayweather won unanimous decisions over Robert Guerrero and Saul Alvarez, and you could argue that he didn't lose a round in either fight. When the pound-for-pound king faced Marcos Maidana last May, most writers predicted he would once again cruise to a one-sided victory.
It didn't quite work out that way. Maidana attacked from unpredictable angles to disrupt Mayweather's ability to counter effectively or score heavily with his lead right. When action was on the ropes, the rugged Argentine brawler mauled Mayweather, negating his normally slick rope-a-dope routine.
Mayweather adjusted and boxed well in the center of the ring. I had Maidana winning four of the first six rounds with Mayweather taking five of the final six.
Mayweather has always had an uncanny knack of reading a fighter and then adjusting to him. Against Maidana, it took him a little longer to do it.
So I'll be interested to see if Mayweather has Maidana figured out from the opening round in the rematch this September, or if Maidana's awkwardness and work rate once more give Mayweather fits.
I suspect the referee will be a little bit stricter about what he lets Maidana get away with, and I don't think this fight will be as close as the last one. But I didn't think that last fight would be close at all.
With a raging bull like Maidana, it's hard to predict an easy night even for a superstar like Mayweather.
Who Will Emerge as the New Favorite in the Floyd Mayweather Sweepstakes?
So long as Floyd Mayweather wins again in September, he'll remain the fighter with the big bull's-eye on his back. Everybody in the sport between 140 and 160 pounds will want a crack at him.
Amir Khan had been an early favorite to face Mayweather last May. He fights Robert Guerrero in December, and so long as he beats the former Mayweather opponent, his name should remain near the top of the pack.
But beating the Ghost is no guarantee for Khan, and if Kell Brook can lift the IBF belt from Shawn Porter this Saturday in California, he'll be viewed as a potential opponent too. Porter is currently among the sport's hottest fighters, and so long as he beats the undefeated Brook, his status will continue to rise.
As of right now, undefeated Keith Thurman doesn't have a fight scheduled for the end of 2014. But I'd be surprised to see him remain inactive. Fans and writers are chomping at the bit to enter Thurman's name into the Mayweather sweepstakes, so the right win for One Time will put his name in the running.
Miguel Cotto has nothing scheduled yet for the rest of this year, either. Cotto won no more than three rounds on any judges' card when he faced Mayweather in 2012. But he's the newly minted lineal middleweight champion and looks reborn under Freddie Roach.
A Mayweather win over Cotto would mean he has been a lineal champion from 130 to 160, a remarkable career achievement. Don't be shocked if Cotto stays inactive the rest of the year, waiting to get the call for a rematch.
Can Kubrat Pulev Give Wladimir Klitschko a True Challenge?
Wladimir Klitschko has reigned as a dominant heavyweight champion for more than a decade now. His combination of imposing size and technical mastery has made him untouchable in this degraded era of heavyweight contenders.
He'll face what could be his toughest test in years next month when he faces unbeaten Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev in Hamburg, Germany. Pulev has just 20 professional fights, but he's looked very strong against contenders like Tony Thompson, Alexander Ustinov and Alexander Dimitrenko.
At over 6'4", Pulev has the size to stand in front of Klitschko and reach the champion's notoriously vulnerable jaw. As a former Olympian, he has the technical skill to set up his punch.
Realistically, I see Klitschko as a significant favorite in this fight. But Pulev does have the tools to pull off the upset.
Will U.S. Fans Notice What's Going on at Flyweight?
One thing all boxing fans want to see is the top fighters in every division actually fighting one another. Too often, it doesn't happen.
So what's going to happen the first weekend in September this year in the flyweight division is special. On Friday, September 5, in Tokyo, lineal and WBC champion Akira Yaegashi will face undefeated, two-division world champion Roman Gonzalez.
The next day in Mexico City, WBO and WBA champion Juan Francisco Estrada takes on former light flyweight champion and Ring pound-for-pound, top-10 fighter Giovani Segura. Segura is a ferocious, stalking fighter who is fresh off a knockout of former champion Hernan Marquez last year.
In an ideal boxing universe, the winner of Gonzalez vs. Yaegashi would face the winner of Estrada vs. Segura. And it would be broadcast in the United States.
Unfortunately, the littlest fighters rarely get media time or fan attention in the U.S. With the kind of quality stars and matchups that are happening in the division right now, it will be shame if the fighters continue to fly under the radar.
Can Bernard Hopkins Continue to Defy Age?
Barak Obama had not yet been elected president and Bernard Hopkins was just two months shy of 44 when he faced Kelly Pavlik in October 2008. The boxing media was close to universal in predicting victory for Pavlik, with many speculating that the former undisputed middleweight champion would end up knocked out for the first time in his illustrious career.
Instead, Hopkins gave Pavlik a boxing lesson and earned a one-sided unanimous decision. Pavlik hasn't really been a factor at the world-class level since.
And Hopkins has just kept going.
In May 2011 he beat WBC light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal in Montreal to become the oldest man ever to win a major boxing world title, months after he had turned 46. In March 2013 he broke his own record when he schooled Tavoris Cloud to capture the IBF light heavyweight crown.
Last April he beat Beibut Shumenov to add the WBA belt to his collection. At 49, Hopkins holds two of the four alphabet soup belts.
But in November he'll face the most formidable opponent he's faced in years in WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev. The undefeated Kovalev is one of the most dangerous punchers in the sport and a legitimately skilled boxer as well.
Hopkins is my favorite active professional athlete, but it's tough for me to believe a man two months shy of 50 is going to be able to stand up to a monster like Kovalev.
Then again, I have the vivid memory of B-Hop standing on the ring apron after handling Pavlik, pointing his finger defiantly at press row, as if to say "I told you so!"
Will Chris Algieri Be a Credible Opponent for Manny Pacquiao?
Chris Algieri turned in a gutsy and skilled performance to beat Ruslan Provodnikov by split decision last June and capture the WBO light welterweight belt. After getting knocked down twice in the first round he hustled and scrapped the rest of the way with a nearly closed eye.
Prior to beating Provodnikov, he had a nice unanimous-decision win over Emmanuel Taylor, who faces Adrien Broner later this year. Taylor is a good fighter, and that's a quality win for Algieri, even if it's not a high-profile one.
Realistically, Algieri is emerging as a new potential star in the sport. Prior to turning to boxing, he was an undefeated, world-champion kickboxer. He's a tough, smart guy with skill.
But it still seems wildly premature that Top Rank is inserting him as a pay-per-view opponent for Manny Pacquiao this November. Pacquiao fights other major stars. Only the most serious boxing fans had even heard of Algieri prior to this year.
Pacquiao circa 2014 is not the same fighter as he was in 2010. But as he demonstrated earlier this year against Timothy Bradley, he's still Pacquiao. He's still one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
Algieri has some significant physical advantages. He has 3.5 inches of height and 5 inches of reach over Pacquiao.
But jumping from fights against guys like Taylor and Provodnikov is like being a good Triple-A pitcher suddenly called up to start the first game of the World Series. Until he's in the spotlight, there's no way to know how Algieri is going to perform.
Will Canelo Alvarez vs. Miguel Cotto Happen This Year?
This fight makes so much sense I can't believe it won't happen. Miguel Cotto is coming off the biggest win of his career, a Round 10 TKO of Sergio Martinez in June that made him the lineal middleweight champion and the first four-division world champion ever from Puerto Rico.
Saul Alvarez just escaped with a split decision over Erislandy Lara in July. Lara was the other top fighter at junior middleweight.
A fight for Alvarez against James Kirkland later this year would be exciting. But a fight against Cotto at middleweight would probably be more historically significant.
It's a generational confrontation between a first-ballot Hall of Famer and an emerging superstar. The historic rivalry between Mexico and Puerto Rico is the best in the sport, and these are the two biggest stars from each country.
When Alvarez faced Floyd Mayweather last year, the pay-per-view buys broke records. Alvarez vs. Cotto would have the potential to pass even that.
Will Gennady Golovkin vs. Andre Ward Happen This Year?
I'm not convinced this fight will happen in 2014, but Gennady Golovkin and Andre Ward need each other as opponents. So it's possible this one will happen.
Ward is still widely regarded as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport behind Floyd Mayweather. But he's been so inactive in recent years that his career is in danger of stalling out.
Between 2009 and 2011 Ward faced a murderers' row of opponents and cleaned out the super middleweight division. He fought just once in 2012 and stopped Chad Dawson, who was then the reigning light heavyweight champion.
Last year he again fought just once, beating relatively inexperienced Edwin Rodriguez by unanimous decision. This year is now approaching the fall, and Ward has yet to fight.
Golovkin has been very busy during that time. He's fought six times since the start of 2013, knocking out everybody he has faced. He's stopped his last 17 opponents and 27 of 30 in his undefeated career.
But other middleweight champions have been loath to face the destructive Kazakhstan native. I don't think lineal middleweight champion Miguel Cotto will go anywhere near him.
GGG hits with absurd power for a middleweight. He's crumpled sturdy, top-ranked middleweights like Matthew Macklin and former champ Daniel Geale.
So to get a true challenge, he might need to move up to super middleweight. At the same time, Ward is unlikely to get a worthwhile fight until GGG moves up.
Will There Be a Marquee Heavyweight Matchup on U.S. Soil in 2014?
Last April, Bermane Stiverne captured the vacant WBC Heavyweight Championship when he knocked out Chris Arreola in Round 6. It was an extremely impressive performance for the Haitian native. Arreola came into the fight in the best shape of his career and used a good jab to take an early lead.
But Stiverne knew exactly what opening he was looking for, and when he saw it, he dropped his big right hand and floored the tough Mexican-American. Nobody has ever knocked the iron-jawed Arreola silly like that, not even Vitali Klitschko.
The No. 1 contender for Stiverne's new belt is undefeated Deontay Wilder, a knockout machine who has stopped all 31 opponents he has faced. Wilder has not exactly faced tough opposition, but when you get a heavyweight who stops 31 straight, fans are going to get interested.
Boxing in the United States has begun to approach niche status in this century. Some of that is just an unfortunate byproduct of our culture growing softer.
But it's also due to the fact that there hasn't been a legitimate heavyweight star to emerge from the United States since the 1990s. The heavyweight division has always been the glamour division of the sport.
I love to watch all the weight classes. My favorite sports are all weight-class sports where there is room for every great athlete.
But the pinnacle of the combat sports has always been watching two big men go at it.
Stiverne is waiting for his hand to heal, and Wilder is fighting journeyman Jason Gavern this weekend to stay busy. But for the health of the sport, I sure hope the two end up fighting later this year.