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.
Grade - D: Really? Daniel Ponce de Leon of all people? Did not give myself an “F” since Gonzalez lost the title via headbutt-induced, eight-round decision in a competitive fight. I will say Gonzalez did not look comfortable or in control on the night but he was coming on and rallying at the time of the stoppage. Given Gonzalez’s late-round strength and stopping power, I think a one grade elevation is not out of order.
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.
Grade - F: Salido just has Juan Manuel Lopez’s number and if the pair fought 10 times, Salido would win nine despite Lopez’s overall superior technical ability. The Mexican took it easy the rest of the year, scoring an easy stoppage of Moises Gutierrez in July in his only other outing. They say one should learn from mistakes but let’s just say that Salido will have an opportunity to prove me wrong again in 2013.
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 10 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.
Grade - D: Would have chosen any of the other aforementioned boxers had I known Franco’s management would accept a title eliminator match in Argentina. The result was predictable as Franco lost via controversial split decision (one judge ruled the bout 118-110 in Franco’s favor! Other scores were 115-113 and 115-114 in favor of Franco’s opponent, Mauricio Javier Munoz) in an admittedly close affair. Franco had a close win over Leonilo Miranda as well, so it is not like he lit up the ring with his intensity. Three failing grades in one division, the first time this has happened to me.
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.
Grade - F: My losing streak continues. Ao was upset by a battle-tested but beatable Gamaliel Diaz in a back-and-forth affair where the judges should receive the most praise for their attention and fairness in a tough fight to score. Only one round separated the duo from a draw and me from a passing grade.
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 three 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.
Grade - F: Salgado continues to confound me and extends my losing streak in the process. He looks beatable in every outing but manages to find ways to win, getting judges to watch him despite a pedestrian style and not scoring a stoppage in two years. Many think Salgado deserved to lose to Martin Honorio (despite scoring two knockdowns), who rebounded from a horrible start to push Salgado to the limit in a majority decision (114-112, twice, and 113-113 once) loss.
Will rise in 2012: Gary Russell Jr.– Yes, consider me part of the Russell bandwagon 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.
Grade – B+: Cannot bring myself to render a maximum grade since Russell’s level of opposition should have been better given he featured on HBO last year. Not Russell’s fault, I agree, but the kid has mercurial talent that needs to be pushed. Also, if you look at the way Kazuto Ioka demanded big fights on the world stage - by taking matchmaking chances - I don’t see why our talented American kids can’t do the same.
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 Ammeth Diaz this week and the 25-year-old will probably score three more nondescript wins to round out a successful 2012.
Grade – A: Vazquez is making a habit of winning ugly with two high-profile decision wins on HBO doing more to ensure he does not fight Adrien Broner then whetting fans’ appetites for such a showdown. Too bad since Vazquez is the most proven and perhaps best lightweight in the world who would push Broner to his tactical limits.
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.
Grade – A: I appreciate and admire DeMarco for his exciting style but that is exactly what was always going to get him knocked out against Adrien Broner. Unlike Vazquez, DeMarco does not need a world title since his aggressively attacking nature ensures TV dates against contenders and champions alike. DeMarco will be back but I am not sure if he ever returns to the status of world champion.
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.
Grade – C-: More disappointment, Ramos suffered a loss in his last outing to another once-promising prospect in Ricardo Williams Jr. However, there is a caveat to the setback as Ramos was stopped via multiple cuts (one by headbutt), so I am giving him the benefit of the doubt that he might have reversed the tide (he was ahead on the scorecards as well). Ramos scored an early knockdown but could not finish Williams, otherwise showing good composure sticking to his game plan despite blood streaming down his face.
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.
Grade – A: Only fought once in 2012 but what a fight it turned out to be, upsetting the number one, pound-for-pound fighter in the spot. Yes, I know Bradley actually lost and the judges gave him every benefit of the doubt but the official decision is the official decision. Given my run of bad grades, won’t you give me this one (especially since I stated Pacquiao would beat Bradley if they did meet)?
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.
Grade – A: Old champions who manage to wrangle a world title during a comeback rarely go out on a high note. Truthfully, I was surprised so many people picked Morales to beat Garcia the first time and shocked anyone did the second time! Is hoping a second retirement sticks; Morales has earned the right to sit in his rocking chair and await a call from the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
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.
Grade – A-: Continues to improve, registering four wins to include his first over a former champion in Steve Forbes. Would have given Vargas a slightly higher grade had he showed more spark in those performances, traveling the distance route in every victory of 2012. Easily bested every foe despite lack of kayos but can Vargas break through at the championship level if unable to break down a champion in the power department?
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.
Grade – D: Yeah, my explanation was about as weak as my pick given Senchenko’s shock stoppage at home to light-punching Paul Malignaggi. Redeemed himself somewhat by traveling to England and stopping Ricky Hatton via body punch but no title was on the line to see Senchenko with a belt around his waist at the end of 2012. In hindsight, not my greatest feat of logic.
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.
Grade – A: Here my logic made some sense but rarely have I wanted to be more wrong given my respect for Pacquiao. Even in defeat, Pacquiao gave us an historical ending, going out on his shield thanks to a huge right hand of Juan Manuel Marquez. “Pac-Man” is what fans want, a champion who is willing to take the chances to win or lose in spectacular fashion. It is why he will be remembered more than some undefeated boxers.
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.
Grade – A: Almost lost in 2012, digging deep and gutting out a win over Carson Jones in a grueling fight that had more momentum changes then a Frank Zappa song. It is the type of victory that makes champions and Brook showed no ill effects from the draining Jones fight, stopping dangerous Argentine Hector Saldivia three months later. Three solid wins in 2012 have elevated Brook to a legitimate contender thus duly rewarded with a title shot against Devon Alexander in February.
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 in the Americas.
Grade – A: Two fights and two wins for the Ukrainian, though Baysangurov did have to get off the canvas against undefeated Michel Soro to retain his title via comfortable decision. Did end up fighting Konecny, scoring another easy decision in which home country advantage was not needed. At 27, Baysangurov is entering his prime and could be a Felix Sturm type of boxer. A champion who keeps defending his title in Europe, which is just fine with American champions who would rather not face him anyway.
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.
Grade – A: I thought Cotto would lose his title because of politics instead of Austin Trout’s awkward style and impressive physical performance. Cotto still remains more likely to get another big fight than Trout in the foreseeable future but given all Cotto has given in the last five years, I’d hate to see him fed to a young lion like “Canelo” Alvarez. Judging by how Trout handled Cotto physically, pairing him against Alvarez is the more intriguing pairing even if it suffers in the name recognition category.
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.
Grade – D: I end the review the same way I started it…on the wrong end of the grading scale. Jhonson lost a surprisingly wide decision to abnormally tall Willie Nelson (who had four-inch height and six-inch reach advantages), looking lost against a larger foe teetering between confused and frustrated in the “ShoBox” main event. Nelson was a last-minute replacement and Jhonson knocked him down early, so I give Jhonson a slight break, elevating the grade to a D.
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