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2012 Predictions: Champs Who Will Stay and Go and Prospects to Watch: Part Two

Welcome back to my annual look into the future (the second of three installments), a hopefully edifying preview of every weight class from strawweight to heavyweight. Peering into the future, aided by my crystal boxing glove, becomes harder as the weight rises and larger sums of money come into play, leading to political and promotional maneuvering. This, in turn, factors into decisions such as the WBC favoring a young Mexican moneymaker like Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. or the WBA indulging Amir Khan’s request for a rematch with Lamont Peterson. Golden Boy Promotions’ and Top Rank’s lawyers and deep pockets can be more powerful than their boxers’ hooks.
In the next two installments, I present an overview from featherweight to heavyweight unveiling predictions for a champion who will retain his crown, a champion who loses his title and a prospect to keep an eye on. Only titlists from the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO were considered when selecting the champions who I believe will keep or lose their belts. As an aside, only the sanctioning bodies’ real champions are considered, so do not expect to see “interim,” “silver” or “regular” champs that the alphabet bandits elevate to make extra money considered. The only limitation I have for selecting the boxer to watch out for in 2012 is that the man chosen must not have had a world title opportunity yet.
Champion who will stay: Jhonny Gonzalez – Lanky puncher (78% kayo ratio) is one of the most underappreciated boxers of the last decade considering he is active, Mexican and very exciting. Last year, Gonzalez traveled to Japan and scored a minor upset stopping Hozumi Hasegawa and made two defenses of the title, winning four fights in all for 2011. Should fight as many times this year with number one-rated challenger Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo an unknown. Given Gonzalez’s lack of promotional punch with Promociones Del Pueblo, he might need to travel in defense of his title. A fight with Elio Rojas is speculated but Rojas has been inactive and I slightly favor Gonzalez and trainer Ignacio Beristain because of it. Billy Dib is an easier choice, given his lack of challengers in the IBF, but the Aussie is more beatable than Gonzalez. In the end, I chose talent over schedule.

Champion who will go: Orlando Salido – The up-and-down Mexican hit another high in 2011, traveling to Puerto Rico and stopping a streaking Juan Manuel Lopez. Since 2001, he only lost to special boxers (Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Marquez) and the scrappy Cristobal Cruz but in his last fight, Salido had to climb off the canvas twice to defeat unheralded Weng Haya. Has a tough rematch to begin the year with Juan Manuel Lopez, which I believe a motivated Lopez wins by close decision at home. If Salido gets by Lopez, there is a chance he is rushed into a tough fight against Mikey Garcia. 31-year-old wants to take advantage of this title reign with big paydays but Salido is a blue-collar fighter who gets in trouble when he takes a gamble against elite foes.
Will rise in 2012: Luis Franco – Another in the conga line of Cuban amateur talents to defect and try their fists at pro boxing. Franco was a perpetual runner-up in the amateur finals, losing to Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa, and Yordenis Ugas in national finals. Competed in 400 amateur bouts (an estimated 378-22), two of which were victories over Gamboa (reports have them spitting their series 2-2) and two more wins over current rising star Erislandy Lara. Has shown professional moxie, besting solid Leonilo Miranda and throwing low blows to slow an overanxious Wilton Hilario to a cautious pace. At 30, is still near his prime and dispatching of veteran survivors Yogli Herrera and Walter Estrada were professional works of art. Franco might have been an even better amateur if he did not have such a pro style, predicated on power and forward movement instead of long-distance accuracy. At 5’8”, has great size for a featherweight that will be used by trainer Orlando Cuellar, who guided Glen Johnson to success over the years. Has fought on Showtime and is rated in the top ten by three of the four sanctioning bodies. I featured Mikey Garcia last year, so I avoided that obvious choice. Thailand’s Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo was considered but I could not find enough video footage to evaluate him. Javier Fortuna, Nicholas Walters, Viorel Simion and Lorenzo Villanueva are honorable mentions.
Champion who will stay: Takahiro Ao – Three factors tilted in favor of Ao over countryman Takashi Uchiyama, though I believe Uchiyama beats Ao head to head if that tantalizing match-up is made. Ao is younger, a southpaw and has easier challengers with the WBC. A quality champion, Ao works with a hometown advantage and has the active style to win over judges. Importantly, he does not have the outside possibility of traveling overseas as Uchiyama does if Top Rank buys number two-rated Diego Magdaleno a title shot. Ao has improved since his loss to Elio Rojas and, at age 27, is entering his physical prime to go along with a mental maturing in the ring. Ao has only lost or drawn with championship quality boxers and I doubt he runs into one of those this year with aging Terdsak Jandaeng as his number one contender.
Champion who will go: Juan Carlos Salgado – Never been a big fan of Salgado, who I thought won a title on a fluky punch to the temple that discombobulated Jorge Linares. Subsequently lost to Takashi Uchiyama but showed resilience winning his next four fights. Defeated capable Argenis Mendez, despite suffering a final round knockdown, to win the IBF title and had one cut-shortened, no-contest title defense. This choice comes down to raw talent with the other three champions having more of it, leaving me to choose Salgado despite his having no number one challenger in the IBF. However, there is an outside chance Salgado meets Gary Russell Jr. (whom I feature below) this year. I would not be surprised if all the junior lightweight champions keep their belts in 2012 but Salgado is the logical pick unless there is a unification bout in Japan between Ao and Uchiyama.
Will rise in 2012: Gary Russell Jr.– Yes, consider me part of the Russell bandwagon. This despite Russell remaining under the tutelage of a father, guiding the son to a 163-10 amateur mark and spot on the Olympic team. Though successful in the amateurs, Russell had a combination style and way of sitting in the pocket that was not ideal for its one clear punch-scoring system. Those flowing punches are why Russell was considered the Olympian with the most pro potential. A southpaw with enough stopping power (58% kayo ratio) to hurt physically pressuring foes, Russell has suffered hand problems associated with big hitters. Though an effective puncher, it is not the impact that makes the blows dangerous but the speed with which they are delivered that shocks. Signed managerial contract with Al Haymon (who gets all his boxers fights on HBO) that has allowed Russell to remain promotionally independent, though he fights on Golden Boy cards. Fought at a good clip, six times last year and seven times in 2010, never more than a pound away from his debut weight. One word definition for Russell is “dynamic”, blowing out credible foes when asked to step up last year. Russell beats out Yuandale Evans and Mickey Bey on quality of opposition and Diego Magdaleno on upside.
Champion who will stay: Miguel Vazquez – This division is in total flux! Brandon Rios lost his WBA title on the scales while Juan Manuel Marquez and Roberto Guerrero are listed as WBO champions but neither are talking about facing opponents at 135 pounds. There is a good chance all three never fight at lightweight again, leaving me with two choices in Miguel Vazquez and Antonio DeMarco. My choice is the spoiler no high-caliber contender wants any part of since Vazquez is an intelligent mauler who drags foes down to his level to win ugly fights. Vazquez has an average lot of IBF contenders and with open WBA and WBO titles, intelligent promoters will steer their moneymakers in that direction. Too bad, since Vazquez has worked hard to get to this position, only to be ignored. Fights beatable Ameth Diaz this week and the 25-year-old will probably score three more nondescript wins to round out a successful 2012.
Champion who will go: Antonio DeMarco – Has DeMarco ever been in an easy fight? The answer is no, and I do not see that changing for the charismatic brawler with a penchant for dramatics. With no WBA champ and WBO champion Juan Manuel Marquez not fighting at 135 pounds for 13 months, I must chose a fighter I admire and root for, given his smothering style. There is a good chance DeMarco rematches Jorge Linares this year and the Mexican has a supremely talented Yuriorkis Gamboa as his number one challenger. Both those men are better overall boxers than DeMarco and will be difficult to overcome- especially in succession, a possibility, given DeMarco’s regular appearances on American television that demand quality foes.
Will rise in 2012: Luis Ramos Jr. – Slipped on the gloves at age seven, accumulating an impressive 120-16 amateur résumé, and racked up 20 consecutive wins to start his pro campaign. Beside a multitude of amateur bouts (a couple of national titles included), Ramos gets great sparring at the Espinoza Gym. Showed championship potential outboxing perennial gatekeeper Francisco Lorenzo, as well as Raymundo Beltran last week. Fights out of a southpaw stance that makes Ramos’ intelligent movement and accurate punching hard to pick up. Hits equally hard with either hand but does not overpower, favoring a straight right hand when he wants to drive home a punch. Speed is the key with Ramos and is most evident on the defensive side, creating offensive openings as off-balance foes fall into rapid counterattacks. Ramos does everything by the book and with great balance, seldom straying away from the basics. A good and focused kid as well, the 23-year-old defeated hardnosed Walter Estrada despite interrupting his preparations when his mother had a minor stroke. That situation is settled but it bodes well that Ramos can compartmentalize outside distractions like that. A solid prospect with a winning past and gym rat reputation, Golden Boy Promotions is elevating Ramos to main events. Barely beats out Sharif Bogere on a somewhat more complete win over Beltran and if Alisher Rahimov and Nihito Arakawa were younger (34 and 30, respectively), they would have merited more consideration.
Champion who will stay: Timothy Bradley – A difficult choice since Bradley is in the Manny Pacquiao sweepstakes at welterweight. I can see all three titleholders without a belt in 2013, given matchups or strippings by the sanctioning bodies. I favor Bradley over anyone at 140 pounds and number one challenger Cesar Cuenca is not a credible threat. Number two-rated Danny Garcia is but he is scheduled to fight WBC champ Erik Morales. Only a fight with Top Rank stablemate Mike Alvarado looms as difficult but again, Bradley is superior in nearly every boxing aspect. My other choice is Lamont Peterson, who will need to get past Amir Khan a second time (or be stripped by the WBA) and has already lost to Bradley once. Unless Pacquiao drops down in weight to take Bradley’s belt, no one will.
Champion who will go: Erik Morales – Simply put, I think Danny Garcia beats Morales in March and if Morales escapes that fight, there is a possibility he and countryman Juan Manuel Marquez fight in 2012. That is the kind of schedule a shopworn 35-year-old is not likely to escape from with his title intact.
Will rise in 2012: Jessie Vargas – The obvious choice is a Danny Garcia who fights Erik Morales but I picked him last year. I also used Mike Alvarado a couple years ago and he is too established. Instead, I am going with the decorated amateur who, unlike American Olympians of recent vintage, has been moved fast without showing signs of buckling under the learning curve. 22-year-old prospect developed under Roger Mayweather, who trained Vargas since the age of eight and guided him to a 135-20 amateur record. Because of the Mayweather influence, Vargas’ defensive movement, spacing and combination punching is elevated. Changed to trainer Robert Alcazar, who worked on the traditional hook to the liver preferred by Mexican boxers while Roger concentrated on his nephew. Vargas grew up in the sport, calling the fight capital of Las Vegas his home and is seemingly at home in a ring as blood on the canvas. Cannot help but improve and mature as a sparring partner for Floyd Mayweather Jr. and beat solid veterans, rarely dropping a round or looking intimidated. Landed a “Knockout of the Year”- type hook against Walter Estrada, rendering Estrada unconscious and his legs quivering. Best asset is Vargas’ incessant pressure. While not overwhelming, his punches force opponents to think and react rather than attack. Rated by the WBA and IBF, look for Vargas to win four times this year and mature into a title threat by early 2013. More experienced Ajose Olusegun, Vernon Paris and Khabib Allakhverdiev all lacked one or more of the combined qualities of Vargas to beat him out.
Champion who will stay: Vyacheslav Senchenko – Let me explain: Mayweather and Pacquiao are the other champions and more obvious choices but why make a 50/50 choice when they might not fight in 2012 anyhow? The IBF title is vacant after Andre Berto gave it up to fight Victor Ortiz again, leaving a solid Senchenko to feast on ordinary challengers like Ismael El Massoudi and fading Paul Malignaggi. Not much of a choice here unless I pick against one of the two best pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
Champion who will go: Manny Pacquiao – I must choose Pacquiao because he will fight more often than a jail-bound Mayweather, who WBC boss Jose Sulaiman has already supported by stating he would not strip Mayweather over something as inconsequential as hitting a woman! Sulaiman’s WBC champion is more likely to abuse a woman than Manny Pacquiao in 2012, so I am left with a logical choice I do not want to make.
Will rise in 2012: Kell Brook – His nickname is “The Special One,” a lot to live up to, considering Kell Brook is a product of the same Wincobank gym that created “Prince” Naseem Hamed. Began boxing at age nine, taught to be ambidextrous by famed trainer Brendan Ingle, deftly switching from an orthodox to southpaw stance to exploit an opponent’s mistake in position or balance. The style earned Brook four national amateur titles in junior and open-class tourneys, leading to a 25-0 pro record where Brook has lost nary a round. Instinctive in his movement, with great sense of timing and distance, Brook has all the weapons in his arsenal. Quick and slick, the 25-year-old Brook is in his physical prime and importantly, his kayo ratio has climbed with the level of opposition. Rounding into an all-around talent, Brook defeated iron-willed former title challengers Lovemore N’dou and Rafal Jackiewicz last year. Nine of Brook’s last 10 foes were stopped and Brook looked better dispatching N’dou than Saul Alvarez did. Perhaps Kell Brook is everything that Amir Khan was promised to American audiences? I chose Brook over Mike Jones, whom I think Brook beats head to head.
Champion who will stay: Zaurbek Baysangurov - I was tempted to choose Cornelius Bundrage since Don King champions only fight an average of once a year. However, Bundrage could be matched tough in a televised co-main event and Russian Baysangurov should only have one tough this year as well. Baysangurov will probably face aging number one challenger Lukas Konecny at home, a tough fight but certainly winnable. Otherwise, Baysangurov likely faces one other handpicked opponent to round out the year. Baysangurov rules Europe while Miguel Cotto, Saul Alvarez, Bundrage, Vanes Martirosyan and James Kirkland fight over the Americas.
Champion who will go: Miguel Cotto – This choice is based on politics alone. I was one of the few who did not see Cotto as a spent force after losses to Antonio Margarito and Manny Pacquiao. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez is a better choice (especially if he moves up to fight Floyd Mayweather) but his WBC boss, Jose Sulaiman, has already shown with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. that he will protect young Mexican stars and not apply rules. If the WBA enforces its rules, Cotto must fight Austin Trout or Anthony Mundine, neither of which fits into the star’s schedule since they offer little in terms of money or prestige. There is a chance Cotto vacates and moves up to face Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in a mega-PPV as well. Either way, Cotto does not need the WBA belt as validation, leaving it behind in 2012.
Will rise in 2012: Yudel Jhonson - 30-year-old has a great mix of talent, speed, power, assertiveness and ring instincts. A Pan American Games gold medalist, Jhonson topped out in the amateurs with a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. After defecting, the southpaw turned pro in 2009 and is a perfect 12-0 with eight stoppages. The competition has been average with the exception of a stoppage over hard-edged veteran Richard Gutierrez, surprising given his amateur pedigree. Jhonson carries his right hand low on defense but moves his head and body a lot behind that low guard to compensate. On offense, does not have fast hands but accuracy is splendid and I’m most impressed with how he moves his feet into position before punching. Looks stationary at first but that is because he manages to draw in opponents who believe they have an opening down the middle. Deftly avoids incoming punches to counter and like so many Cuban amateurs, seems to punch a split-second before his foe begins his offensive maneuver. In terms of style, is a lot like countryman Erislandy Lara, but with more upper body movement. A stylish fighter with title potential, whose team needs to show more grit in its matchmaking. Also considered were Jermall Charlo, Jamie Cox and Sergey Rabchenko who were a bit too young or lacking Jhonson’s intangibles.
In the third and final installment, I make my selections in boxing’s traditional glory divisions from middleweight to heavyweight.
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