Olympic Boxing 2016: Boxers with Best Chance to Be Professional Stars
From the late 1950s through the late 1970s, nearly every man who reigned as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world was a former Olympic gold medalist: Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and even Leon Spinks all stood at the top of the Olympic podium.
Some of the top box-office attractions of the past 30 years have also been former Olympic stars. Ray Leonard, Roy Jones Jr., Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all became famous first through the Olympic tournament.
On today's scene, world titleholders James DeGale, Vasyl Lomachenko, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Anthony Joshua all won Olympic gold, as did pound-for-pound contender Andre Ward.
WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder took bronze at the 2008 Games. WBA, IBF and WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin won silver in 2004.
Olympic boxing might not enjoy the same status it did a generation ago, particularly when it comes to ratings. But for serious fans of the sport, it can't be ignored. It's a great opportunity to get a first look at a future world champ.
Here are the boxers with the best chance at lifting a title belt someday.
10. Vitaly Dunaytsev, Light Welterweight, Russia
The light welterweight and welterweight classes are consistently the most talent-laden in the professional ranks. A nice amateur career is never any guarantee for eventual stardom there, though.
But Russian light welterweight Vitaly Dunaytsev will be a fighter to watch in Rio de Janeiro this year. The two-time Russian amateur champ came into his own last year, when the 24-year-old won the 2015 European Championship and 2015 World Championships.
In the past few years, boxing fans have seen the value of a Russian amateur pedigree, with fighters such as Sergey Kovalev and Ruslan Provodnikov developing into major attractions.
9. Erislandy Savon, Heavyweight, Cuba
In terms of family lineage, Erislandy Savon has to be viewed as a thoroughbred. He's the nephew of Olympic heavyweight legend Felix Savon, a three-time gold medalist who turned down multimillion dollar offers in the 1980s in order to continue representing Cuba in the amateur ranks.
Due to his family connection, Savon has had a lot of eyes upon him since he first laced up his gloves. His first splash on the international scene came in 2008, when he took gold at the World Youth Championships.
Savon took silver in the 2015 World Series of Boxing, losing to Azerbaijan's Magomedrasul Majidov, who will fight at super heavyweight in Rio. Savon's biggest competition for gold in the heavyweight division should be Evgeny Tishchenko of Russia.
As a professional, Savon would be a small heavyweight by today's standards, though he does have a serious punch and the boxing skill to take out bigger men.
8. Joe Ward, Light Heavyweight, Ireland
When Belfast native Carl Frampton defeated featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz over the weekend in Brooklyn, New York, he provided yet another example of the sort of enthusiasm that a fighter from Ireland can expect when he headlines a card in the Big Apple.
Joe Ward could get that sort of opportunity in the next few years. He'll be representing Ireland in Rio and has a good chance to medal at light heavyweight.
At 22, Ward is a former world youth and world junior champion, as well as a two-time European champ. He won silver in the 2015 World Championships, getting edged in the finals by the far more experienced Julio Cesar La Cruz of Cuba.
We could see a rematch between the two in Rio.
7. Zhanibek Alimkhanuly, Middleweight, Kazakhstan
Fifteen years ago, most Americans had probably never heard of Kazakhstan. A decade ago, they would have only associated it with Borat.
But today, for boxing fans at least, Kazakhstan means Gennady Golovkin, the undefeated middleweight champion and one of the sport's major attractions.
But GGG didn't develop in a vacuum. The central Asian nation is a former member of the USSR and has a rich tradition for boxing.
One of Kazakhstan's best bets for gold in Rio is Zhanibek Alimkhanuly, who fights in Golovkin's own division, middleweight. He lacks Golovkin's rare power, so it's unlikely that Alimkhanuly can become the sort of professional sensation that Golovkin has.
But he has a good chance of winning Olympic gold. That's a big start on a professional career for a fighter who wants one.
6. Ivan Dychko, Super Heavyweight, Kazakhstan
At 25, Ivan Dychko has developed into one of the most decorated current amateur fighters in the world. The super heavyweight won bronze at the 2011 amateur championships and silver in 2013 and 2015.
At the London Games in 2012, Dychko took bronze after losing a 13-11 decision to eventual champion Anthony Joshua in the semifinals.
My own guess is that Dychko takes bronze or silver again this year, depending upon when he ends up facing Magomedrasul Majidov. But at over 6'8" in height and with a strong amateur background, he could be an interesting contender in the professional heavyweight scene.
5. Lazaro Alvarez, Lightweight, Cuba
Lazaro Alvarez is a three-time world champion in the amateur ranks, having won in 2011, 2013 and 2015. He went into 2012 Games in London ranked No. 1 in the world, though John Joe Nevin of Ireland upset him. Alvarez came away with the bronze.
His only fight I remember seeing in 2012 was his victory over the American Joseph Diaz, a top professional contender at featherweight. I actually thought Diaz deserved to beat Alvarez, but I favor professional style scoring and fighters with "USA" on their singlet, so I don't consider my own opinion especially valid in this case.
Alvarez is a tricky southpaw in the same mode as Rigondeaux. If he goes pro, he'll outbox nearly any opponent. But like Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara, he might struggle to find other top professionals who are willing to face him.
4. Julio Cesar La Cruz, Light Heavyweight, Cuba
Light heavyweight Julio Cesar La Cruz of Cuba is one of the best pound-for-pound amateur boxers in the world. He got upset at the 2012 Games in London, but he's been one of the elite amateur fighters in the world over the past five years, winning world championships in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
He was also AIBA's top fighter for 2015. There are high hopes for La Cruz heading into Rio.
He will turn 27 this month, so the time is now for him to launch a professional career, if that's his ultimate goal. If it is, he will enter the professional ranks at an ideal time. The light heavyweight division couldn't be hotter right now.
3. Magomedrasul Majidov, Superheavyweight, Azerbaijan
If Magomedrasul Majidov was from most countries, he would have turned professional a long time ago. He's 6'3", 240 pounds and has genuine punching power. He knocked out Erislandy Savon in the 2015 World Series of Boxing.
Azerbaijan is one of the last remaining countries where an elite boxing talent can do as well in the amateur ranks as he might by rolling the dice as a pro. But eventually Majidov will want to show what he can do against the elite boxers in the world.
Heavyweight is the one division where a fighter can get away with being older. If Majidov turns professional after Rio, he'll be about the same age (he'll turn 30 in September) as Luis Ortiz was when he turned professional. And in my opinion, no heavyweight fighter in the world right now is better than Ortiz.
Ortiz might be pushing 40, but he still has time to consolidate his place at the top of the weight class.
Majidov has the same opportunity in front of him after Rio.
2. Evgeny Tishchenko, Heavyweight, Russia
Heading into Rio, Evgeny Tishchenko is the favorite to capture gold in the heavyweight division, and his potential fight with Cuba's Erislandy Savon is one of the more anticipated rivalries of the tournament.
It would be a rematch of the finals at the World Championships last year.
Tishchenko would make an intriguing professional prospect. The 91-kilogram limit for amateur heavyweight is essentially the same as the professional cruiserweight limit of 200 pounds. Tishchenko could become a star while fighting in that division in Europe.
Still, at 6'5" he would have plenty of room to develop into a full-sized heavyweight.
1. Karlos Balderas, Lightweight, United States
Erickson Lubin was supposed to be the best hope the United States would have to win gold in Rio in 2016. But Lubin turned professional just after turning 18 in 2013, and he's already become a rising star at 154 pounds.
With Lubin jump-starting his career, U.S. fans are left with Karlos Balderas. He's not exactly a bad consolation prize.
Balderas is heading to Rio as a 19-year-old who is anxious to win glory. He's coming in as one of the hottest amateurs in the world. He qualified for Rio by winning the 2015 World Series of Boxing, earning the outstanding boxing award for the tournament.
The 2012 U.S. boxing squad failed to capture a single medal in the men's tournaments. That was a real blow for longtime American fans.
If Balderas can return U.S. boxing to glory this year, he'll have a big jump on his professional career.