Allow me to preface by saying that my rankings do stray a bit from some of the more-respected, more conventional ones. There's not any ridiculous discrepancies (although that's certainly up for debate) but the differences that do exist can be explained by this. I'm not as much of a "what have you done for me lately" guy. I don't care if a guy's been inactive for a year if there's a legitimate reason and a clear plan for him to return. I'm looking at class of opponent as much as quality of performance. The hardest part, as anyone who's tried to do this can attest, is when you get past the top-tier and you're dealing either with guys who have major question marks or ones who have never truly faced elite opposition. Ranking fighters and predicting future success is entirely subjective. Here goes:
Kelly Pavlik, the former middleweight champion of the world, does not have the most accomplished resume at 168 lbs because...well, he's just moved up to the division and only fought once. That win, a rough-and-tumble, close fight against Alfonso Lopez, has been derided by some as unimpressive and possibly foreboding. I disagree. Pavlik was coming off a year-long layoff and making his first real foray in the division. Lopez was an undefeated local prospect from Texas who came to fight and gave Kelly a tough time in the opening rounds. Pavlik came on late and began to dominate the action by the eighth round or so. He earned a majority decision. It wasn't the smoothest or most compelling performance, but it was about what you would expect from a guy who took serious time off from the sport and was in there in his first fight back against an eager young fighter looking to make a name for himself in the spotlight of Manny Pacquiao's pay-per-view undercard.
Moving forward, Pavlik faces Daryl Cunningham on Saturday, August 6, in what's basically a tune-up fight in the hopes of taking on undefeated phenom Lucian Bute in the fall. Cunningham is a journeyman on a winning streak over middling to awful opposition since 2007. Pavlik should get past him with relative ease. Bute, with all of his physical gifts and soaring confidence, will be chomping at the bit to put Pavlik, a rare "legitimate" former champion, on his not-yet-glittering resume. Aside from bragging rights, it's a fight where Bute has little to gain and everything to lose. There are still a lot of disbelievers out there who will say Pavlik was shot or never that good to begin with. I think Pavlik has the experience, the mettle, and enough left in the tank to be a formidable foe against anyone in the division.
Possibly a controversial selection here so I'm going to prepare my defense early. Dirrell hasn't fought since March of last year when his career took a bizarre and dark turn against Arthur Abraham. Dirrell was dominating the fight, putting on a boxing clinic against then-undefeated and feared power puncher Abraham. After ten rounds, a knockout was Abraham's only real hope of winning. In one of the strangest scenes in the ring in recent years, Dirrell slipped to the canvas while dodging Abraham's attack and King Arthur pounced with a shot to the fallen man's jaw. Dirrell was knocked out cold. He came to and thought he had been knocked out and lost the fight. In fact, Abraham was disqualified. Dirrell was dazed and confused.
In the following months, there were reports of Dirrell suffering from neurological problems related to the concussion, and his return to the ring was indefinitely postponed. For the past year, there have been reports and rumors suggesting various return dates. Currently the word is that Dirrell is looking to come back in September and take on solid measuring-stick Sebastian Demers, looking to get himself back in the title hunt by next year.
Because of this stated intention to return, I am granting Dirrell a spot here for a few reasons. He's faced sterling opposition in the division: then-undefeated Carl Froch and then-undefeated Arthur Abraham. He has never decisively lost. He gave Froch a tough night at the office to lose a somewhat controversial decision on the cards and utterly exposed the limitations of Arthur Abraham before Froch and Andre Ward followed suit. If the neuro issues are behind him (a giant question mark obviously) there's no reason to believe he can't be successful again.
Picking between Dimitri Sartison, a native of Kazakhstan who lives and fights in Germany, and Robert Stieglitz, a Russian-born German fighter, is no easy task. It could have been, had their unification fight scheduled for April went down as planned. I would have favored Dimitri Sartison actually. They've faced similar opposition, but I'd give Sartison the slight edge. His only blemish is a 12th round knockout at the hands of Mikkel Kessler in 2008. Stieglitz has been stopped twice, against Librado Andrade in 2008 (who had already lost to Kessler by then) and heavy-handed Colombian Alejandro Berrio in 2007 (avenging a KO loss to Stieglitz from 2005) who went on to give Lucian Bute a worthy test in his next fight, only to be badly hurt and stopped in the eleventh round.
Alas, the fight was cancelled when Sartison pulled out with a bona fide knee injury that's put him on the sidelines for months. I'd favor Sartison if the two ever meet, but there's a pretty clear gap, in lineage and skills, between the Kesslers and Butes of the division and the Sartisons and Steiglitz's. I only favor Sartison on a slightly superior resume and the always-unreliable "eye test". However for ranking purposes, Stieglitz continuing to be active has to give him the nod.
Robert Stieglitz ending up fighting the feisty Khoren Gevor in April when Gevor stepped in for the injured Dimitri Sartison (who himself beat Gevor in a good fight last July). Stieglitz was clearly ahead in a decent scrap when Gevor was disqualified in the tenth round after headbutting Stiegs (drawing blood) and wrestling him to the ground.
Stieglitz has been mentioned as an opponent for Mikkel Kessler, possibly by the end of this year. Despite some notions that Kessler's best days as a fighter are behind him, Kessler has yet to lose to a non-elite opponent. Robert Stieglitz is an ordinary European belt-holder, not a world-class fighter. Look for Stieglitz' "championship" tenure to be a short one if he gets in the ring with the Viking Warrior.
Sakio Bika is one of those rough, physical fighters who's always in a fight, always makes it close, uses whatever tactics, savory or not, that he needs to along the way, and loses when he faces the highest class of opposition. Having been in the ring and been competitive despite losing almost every round against the likes of Andre Ward, Lucian Bute, and Joe Calzaghe, I would favor the tough-chinned, rugged Bika against the untested European champs, Sartison and Stieglitz. Experience counts. Fighting the best makes a difference. Plus every winner of The Contender has to have some place in the fight fan's heart. Bika's a tough hombre who would give a good scrap to anyone in the division, fall short against the best and expose the mediocre.
Glen Johnson, in his early forties, actually came down in weight from Light Heavyweight to join Showtime's Super 6 tournament in the second round, replacing Jermain Taylor. In his first fight, he caught Allan Green with a vicious shot and sent him reeling to the canvas. Green was shaken up enough that he couldn't beat the count, though he protested that the shot was behind the head. Looked legit to me. Regardless, the knockout win propelled the ageless Johnson into the semifinals where he put up a noble effort in an action-fight against iron-chinned Carl Froch. If anyone thought the Green fight was an aberration, Johnson's efforts against Froch proved the wily Jamaican was comfortable going full-throttle at 168 lbs for twelve rounds. He came up short but inflicted a good deal of punishment, and probably would have knocked out a man with less tolerance for getting hit.
Johnson's venerable charm was on full display as Jim Gray prodded him on his future: "Well, did you like what you see?" I sure did and I'll watch the Road Warrior put on his helmet and go to battle for as long he enjoys doing it. I'm not saying the sky's the limit. The Froch fight I think is about as close as he comes to beating the best in the division. But give me Johnson against anyone ranked behind him. At the very least, I know my guy will keep charging for twelve rounds and never give up.
Here's where I diverge wildy from popular opinion, but settle down for a moment before completely obliterating me in your judgemental heads. Andre Ward is the consensus #1 fighter in the division. Some people have Lucian Bute as high as #2, in fact most people had him ranked there until Carl Froch beat Glen Johnson. Seemingly no one has him ranked less than third, so why the hell not be a contrarian this time around?
This is a clear case of "eye test" vs. "paper test". To me, it's unfathomable how Bute could be ranked ahead of Froch, even before Froch beat Johnson. Froch had fought Pascal, Taylor, Dirrell, Kessler and Abraham in a row and a close points loss to Kessler was the only blemish. Doesn't matter that some argue Dirrell was jobbed or that Taylor was schooling him for a good portion of that fight until Froch caught him and knocked him out. The record speaks for itself. 4-1 in five fights against better divisional opposition than anyone fighting 168 in that time period. The Johnson win makes it five out of six.
Bute's best wins were more than five fights ago, against a still dangerous Librado Andrade (and that fight was not without its' own controversy) and an early win against tough Sakio Bika. Because Bute did not participate in the Super 6, he was left to feed on Edison Miranda, Jesse Brinkley and Brian Magee, capable guys who never really stood a chance.
I agree the Romanian-Canadian phenom has all the tools to be something special and is already one of the best body punchers in the sport. He may destroy Kelly Pavlik in three rounds if they do end up meeting later this year. He may very well do something amazing against the Super 6 winner next year and stake his claim as the legitimate champion of a tough division. If he does, I'll be the first to proclaim him the second coming of Maravilla. Until then, I maintain that his resume (certainly not his talent) falls a bit short of the men I rank ahead of him.
Kessler simply has a better quality of opposition than Bute. He's been in there with the best in the division numerous times. He beat Andrande when he was undefeated. He hung Dimitri Sartison his first loss. His only career losses are to then-undisputed champ Joe Calzaghe and the guy considered the current best in the division Andre Ward. Ward pulled off a big upset when he soundly outboxed the aggressive Kessler and rendered him largely ineffective in the opening bout of the Super 6. Kessler rebounded by handing Carl Froch his first loss in a good fight. He was forced to withdraw from the tournament with an eye injury that kept him out of the ring for over a year before he came back and stopped the game Mehdi Bouadla in June.
This debate also could have been clearly resolved. Have Bute fight Kessler. And that was discussed, until both sides realized that financially there was little incentive for compromise: both men are solid draws and do good business in their hometowns. Neither was willing to be the visitor on this one. The public's not really clamoring for it as Bute has established himself as the biggest threat to the Super 6 winner. He can bide his time, fight the lesser-regarded (at 168 lbs) Pavlik and then call out Ward or Froch. Kessler can fight guys in Denmark and make good money and probably thinks that he has nothing to prove. If anything, his now healed eye seems to be on a rematch with Ward.
It's too bad because I am of the opinion that Bute has some fundamental flaws and could get beaten by some of the upper-echelon guys, Mikkel Kessler at the top of that list. I don't see the "Viking Warrior" keeling over from a body shot and writhing on the ground as Bute smirks and postures to the delight of the swooning crowd. Kessler is tougher and more experienced than anyone Bute's been in there with. It's a great fight and it's probably not happening anytime soon. Until then, I give Kessler the edge until Bute beats someone close to a top-level contender.
Carl Froch is a tricky fighter. He has a granite chin. He moves awkwardly. He packs decent power. He is deceptively quick. And his paramour Rachel Cordingley is one of the loveliest lasses you'll ever see at ringside (at least not wearing a bikini holding a round card). He's got a lot going for him.
Froch's resume speaks for itself. He's done nothing but fight tough, top-ranked contenders and consistently win. Mikkel Kessler did beat Carl Froch and in the aftermath rightfully deserved to be ranked ahead of him. But a whole year of inactivity from Kessler while Froch gave Arthur Abraham a "masterclass" and out-slugged Glen Johnson in a bruising contest was enough for the mate from Nottingham to usurp Kessler as the clear #2 fighter in this loaded division.
Froch does not possess the visibly special arsenal of Lucian Bute. But he's found a way to win at the highest level so often, he clearly deserves the respect and consideration of this high ranking. If a ranking is about potential, go ahead and make Lucian Bute the undisputed champion: he has the tools to someday join the pound-for-pound elite, without question. If a ranking is about achievement however, Froch's cannot be denied, with Jean Pascal, Jermain Taylor, Arthur Abraham, Glen Johnson and Andre Dirrell all recent victims.
Andre Ward shook things up a bit when he comfortably defeated the pre-tournament favorite Mikkel Kessler to open up the Super 6. Ward clearly showed that he belonged on the world stage, looking great at every facet of the game in a thorough, convincing victory that propelled him to the elite status he now maintains. Since then, Ward has caught a little fortune in facing replacement Allan Green in his second fight and a man coming off two convincing defeats, Arthur Abraham, in the semifinals. (Abraham did fight a tune-up to Ward and was given a TKO win in the second round when his opponent hurt his hand and couldn't continue).
Ward is a top-notch athlete with immense skill and supreme ring-smarts. He emerged as the class of the division following the Kessler win and looks to further stamp his legacy and become the legitimate champion by defeating Carl Froch. It's a great fight between the two best fighters in the weight class. Froch may struggle with Ward's speed and footwork, not to mention Ward's shifting strategies at opportune moments that often frustrate his opponents. Froch is a rugged fighter who can box or brawl. But Ward is a master tactician who relies on his substantial athletic ability to impose his will. Both of these guys have several ways to win and this one will have a significant psychological component to it as well.
No need for subjectivity after October. The Super 6 final will crown an undisputed champion at the weight. For all the drop-outs and roadblocks, in the end the tournament is delivering on its' most fulfilling possibility of all, one of the rarest words in boxing these days: clarity.