It was supposed to be the fight of the year. Two evenly matched combatants with opposite styles and personalities. The boxer vs. the puncher. The gold medal- winning American known as the “Son of God”, against the grinning Russian assassin called “Krusher.”
In the ring, the fight lived up to the hype. You had most of what you would want if you were a fan. A knockdown, a comeback, and even a little (overstated, in my mind) controversy in the form of a close decision.
But suppose you threw one hell of a great fight, with all those assets, that lived up to the hype and hardly anyone cared? When I say “hardly anyone”, I don’t mean the hardest of the hardcore boxing fans, we were there. The question is, what does it take to pull in the casual fan if two undefeated, tip-top of the boxing food chain types can’t expand the audience beyond its tightly-wound core?
The numbers don’t lie. Only about 160,000 customers bought the Kovalev/Ward PPV. Which is a shame. What might be the bigger one is that it wasn’t much of a surprise. No one in the know thought that S.O.G. and the Krusher were going to pull in big numbers.
Which begs the question, if these two can’t pull in the casual fan, who can? For the overall health of the sport, casual fan interest is a necessity. Not for survival, but for relevance. The fight game has a cult, but I think we want it to be more than that.
With Mayweather and Pacquiao either off the stage, or all but, the world of boxing turns its lonely eyes to…who?
What we have in front of us is a list of pretenders, contenders, and too soon to tells. When looking at the best boxers of the here and now, there are a lot of very good/developing fighters and a handful of great fighters. However, when it comes to drawing eyes, it’s going to take more than will and skill. There needs to be an ‘X’ Factor as well. That essential thing that makes people either love or hate you with intensity, therefore making it hard to look away.
So, who do we have to bring the beat back?
Let’s start with the pretenders. And when I say “pretender”, I don’t mean whether they are talented enough, but whether they can fill not only the seats of the arena, but those of the fight fan’s couch at home.
Late bloomer Adonis Stevenson briefly appeared to have the juice. The heavy-fisted light heavyweight has won his last fifteen fights since getting upset by Darnell Boone in 2010. Thirteen of those wins came inside the distance. The competition he’s fought has been respectable with Fonfara, Cloud, and Dawson being notable names on his resume. Unfortunately, what Stevenson has become most known for among fight fans is his less than artful dodging of Sergey Kovalev. Believe me when I say, no one was more excited about Ward’s victory over Kovalev than Ward, with the possible exception of Stevenson. The Canadian by way of Haiti may look like an Adonis and call himself Superman, but a lot of fight fans think he tastes like chicken. As well, at 39, Stevenson doesn’t have a lot of time to fix that. I’m betting he won’t.
On paper, Danny Garcia would seem to have the right stuff. He’s a boxer-puncher with an unblemished resume against top flight competition. He’s had some bad fights, but a lot of close, exciting ones too. He’s highly skilled, mentally tough, and he can put you down too. There’s just one problem. Much like Andre Ward, hardly anyone likes him. Which seems a little unfair, but there it is. Garcia is not helped much by his father, Angel, whose own personality dwarfs that of the son and let’s just say he’s colorful, but not very likable. As well, the son has been the beneficiary of one truly terrible decision (an MD over the star crossed Mauricio Herrera in 2014), and a questionable MD over Lamont Peterson in 2015. Despite a perfect record and high quality victories over the likes of Campbell, Khan, Morales (x2), Judah, and Matthysse, it just hasn’t happened for Garcia. Perhaps his big fight coming up in March against Keith Thurman will elevate him beyond his current plateau, but it seems unlikely.
Which conveniently brings us to Keith “One Time” Thurman. Thurman’s star was on the ascent as he ripped his way to the welterweight title. He was once one of the most avoided fighters in the sport, thanks to his big right hand. However, since stepping up in class, Thurman’s star has lost some luster. While he has held his title through a series of solid victories over the likes of Bundu, Guerrero, and Collazo, those wins have not been spectacular. The KO artist has gone conservative late in those fights, weakening his allure. His UD over Shawn Porter was a significant improvement, and the upcoming Garcia fight offers further opportunity. Still, there’s a sense that for Thurman, if it’s going to happen, it needs to happen soon.
Junior lightweight Mikey Garcia is the second undefeated Garcia on this list, and perhaps the more exciting of the two in the ring. Sporting a 35-0 record with 29 KO’s, Garcia lands heavy, is highly skilled, and often dominant. What he lacks are two things. Personality and activity. Garcia has fought only twice in the last three years. Like Ward, contract squabbles have contributed to the long lapses between fights, but also like Ward, the absence has not made the heart of the fight fan grow fonder. After a while, fans start to wonder if you really want to fight or not. That just won’t do.
Of all the fighters with top flight potential on this list, Demetrius Andrade’s resume is probably the lightest. While the 28-year-old carries a perfect 23-0 record with 16 KO’s, his overall competition has been softer than most, if not all, of the other fellows on this list. Part of that is to be blamed by the same disease of inactivity that has plagued both Ward and Mikey Garcia. Andrade has often spectacular skills, but three fights in three years since winning a split decision over Vanes Martirosyan to take the WBO light middleweight title in 2013 (since vacated due to inactivity), is simply not enough to display those talents. To further the point, Andrade has not fought since June and has nothing lined up for 2017.
What to make of the heavyweight division? This is a class that for far too long has been a couple of Klitschkos and a bunch of guys named Moe. Recently though, that’s started to change. Tyson Fury’s unlikely (and damn near unwatchable) victory over Wladimir finally broke up the Klitschko death grip over the division (and seriously, both Wlad and Vitali’s fights were largely deadly on the eyes), allowing for an influx of new blood. Fury, both a mess in and out of the ring, is not the future of the division. However, Deontay Wilder, and especially, Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua are genuinely exciting fighters.
Wilder’s late start in boxing at the age of 20 has resulted in some babying of him by his handlers. Wilder chewed through all sorts of cupcakes before winning a belt with a unanimous decision over the journeyman, Bermane Stiverne. He’s kept busy since then, with four KO wins in the last two years. What he hasn’t done is fight anyone of his caliber. Part of the trouble is the division is not deep. Fury’s career and personal life is currently in question. Wladimir seems to have only nominal interest in continuing his career, though a scrap with Joshua is on the calendar for April 2017. Povetkin is a fine fighter, but not likely to excite anyone outside of the hardiest of fans, and the “on the come” Cuban, Luis Ortiz, suffered a setback by winning what might have been the worst heavyweight fight since Klitschko-Fury over the barely willing Malik Scott.
So where does Wilder go for a truly exciting fight? The most dangerous opponent possible. Anthony Joshua. Quick on his feet, highly skilled, and willing to drop bombs, Joshua may be the best heavyweight in the division. The English slugger has knocked out all seventeen of his opponents, and a step up in class is warranted now. His scheduled December 10 scrap with Eric Molina isn’t exactly that, but if it leads to a 2017 showdown between he and Wilder, that does seem like something that would resonate beyond the minds of those that live for the next big fight.
Alright. So now we have cleared out the maybes and it’s time to move into the definitely maybes. The boxers who at this moment seem closest to the cusp of elevating their sport beyond the back pages. As I see it, there are five, and are ranked in descending order.
5) Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez
Gonzalez currently sits at the top of ESPN’s pound for pound rankings. It’s not hard to understand why. The 46-0 with 38 KO’s WBC super flyweight champion is one of the most brutal and exciting fighters in the sport. Fists fly with fury in a Chocolatito fight. His skill level is remarkable. He’s quite literally a don’t go for a beer unless it’s between rounds kind of fighter. So why do I have him at five and not higher? As I see it, Gonzalez has two things going against him. One, he’s a very small guy, and it’s hard to ascend to the height of consciousness from such a low weight class. Two, and this is the more significant one, Gonzalez’s last fight was his first after stepping up from flyweight. Chocolatito pulled out a unanimous victory over the previously undefeated (and tough as nails) Carlos Cuadras…
…but it exposed some heretofore unseen weaknesses. While the unanimous decision wasn’t controversial, it did come at a cost to Gonzalez. Namely, in punishment. If you were to walk into the room at the end of the fight without having seen a second of it, you would have had a hard time believing Gonzalez won the tilt. Cuadras’ face was relatively clean, whereas Chocolatito looked busted up. As well, while his skill carried up in class, it did not seem that his power followed. To be fair, Cuadras is a world class fighter and deserves more pub, but Chocolatito’s win created as many questions as answers.
4) Vasyl Lomachenko
The current WBO junior lightweight champion is quite possibly the most talented boxer in the sport. The Ukrainian’s historic amateur career has come through on that promise in only seven professional fights. Despite a split decision loss to Orlando Salido in just his second fight in 2014 (a result that seems both a million years ago, and impossible to believe), Lomachenko has bounced back quickly and boxed circles around such noted, talented fighters as Gary Russell Jr. and just last month, the previously undefeated Nicholas Walters. Lomachenko so bewildered and bedazzled the previously undefeated Jamaican, Walters simply quit prior to the eighth even though he was clearly not badly hurt. Lomachenko put an albatross around the career of Walters (good luck getting an HBO fight again anytime soon, Nick). At the same time, watching the fight, you get the feeling had they fought 200 more rounds, Walters would need a gift to have one scored in his favor. The question for Lomachenko now is simply getting more fights against more high caliber opponents. I’m not sure who’s going to want to fight him, but he may be the fastest riser in this final group of five.
3) Terence Crawford
It wasn’t easy putting Crawford ahead of Lomachenko. However, the resume is much longer and the record is sparkling. 29-0 with 20 KO’s, Crawford has been on a tear since retaining his WBO lightweight title in an all action 9th round KO over the talented Yuriorkis Gamboa. Crawford has since reeled off five quality, and largely dominant wins in a row and is in the process of cleaning out the light welterweight division as we look on. Crawford can box and hurt. He also can get hit just enough to keep things interesting. What I like best about him is how he responds once he gets tagged. He doesn’t look to hold or move away, he looks to get back. He is a fierce competitor. His upcoming December 10 bout against John Molina promises to be a rough (and maybe short) night for his opponent, but what it won’t be is boring. Like Lomachenko, Crawford needs better comp to raise his profile. In fact, Crawford vs. Lomachenko would be one hell of drool-worthy match. If that fight gets made, everyone in boxing will be reaching for their fainting couch upon announcement.
2) Canelo Alvarez
The red-headed Mexican from Guadalajara has the best resume of anyone on this list and probably the best built-in following due to the deep love of the sport among those of his heritage. Alvarez can box, he can punch, he can be hit, he takes chances, and makes good fights. Only Floyd Mayweather Jr. outclassed him, putting him on a long list of top grade athletes who have been similarly out-fought. Since the Floyd loss in 2013, Alvarez has fought six times without a loss. KOs of James Kirkland and Amir Khan were particularly explosive results. However, a questionable split decision over Erislandy Lara (I found in favor of Lara scoring from home) showcased his challenge when taking on pure boxers. The larger issue is, has Canelo peaked? Not so much in performance (he’s likely at his best right now), but in popularity. I am curious if Canelo has hit his ceiling with the populous at large. It’s not fair, but I wonder if his inability to speak English is holding him back a bit. Not with the Spanish speakers, but with us rubes who can barely speak “American.” It’s not whether these things should count or not, it’s simply that they do. One thing is for sure, when it comes to Canelo, we are likely to find out soon, if he will finally sign upon the line that is dotted to face my number one on this list…
1) Gennady Golovkin
GGG may be the most obvious choice for the top spot, but there’s a reason for that. It’s hard to say whether Golovkin is the best fighter in boxing. Mostly because no one of significant note seems to want to get in the ring with him (Canelo? Canelo?) What is clear is Golovkin’s mix of will, skill, and ferocity are currently unmatched. He’s also savvy outside the ring. He’s clever, funny, smart, and talks just the right amount of trash. Add in his boyish good looks, and the undefeated Kazakh is so ready for primetime he deserves his own network. While GGG has looked nearly invulnerable in the ring, he does get hit. He just doesn’t seem to care. His last fight against the A list, undefeated, former welterweight champion, Kell Brook, was just a taste of what he can do against an opponent from the top shelf.
Brook put on a good competitive showing for as long as he could. Which ended up being all of five rounds before his corner threw in the towel. Brook exited the ring with respect and a busted eye socket. For his combination of talent, record, and potential appeal, GGG tops my list. I suspect I am not alone.
The thing that must happen now is the rectifying of a simultaneously simple, but historically not, problem. The powers that be in boxing have to start giving us better, riskier match ups. Boxing was handed a grand opportunity in the last year and a half. On the heels of a “stop everything you are doing and watch boxing” fight that did not live up to the hype (Mayweather/Pacquiao, natch), boxing was suddenly everywhere thanks to Al Haymon’s myriad deals with multiple networks that launched the Premier Boxing Champions series. Like what all too often happens with boxing promotions, a well-hyped launch landed with an eventual thud due to poor matchmaking and over saturation.
The good news is that it can be fixed, and if it is, there are at least five fighters who could elevate the visibility of their sport. It’s simply up to the promoters, various alphabet agencies, and the boxers themselves to step forward.
It sounds easy when you can write it out the diagnosis and prescription in a couple of sentences. In practice, it will be a heavy lift.
Get lifting, guys. We die hards are willing to wait. The casual fan? Not so much.