By Jake Donovan
Boxing appeared to finally get younger in 2013.
The lack of progress among the past few Olympic classes (notably in the United States) allowed past generations to hang around longer than expected, while failing to properly develop future stars. Ratings still boast a healthy dose of past greats who continue to enjoy present success, but while some anointed stars have crashed and burned, several other young guns are on the rise.
The success of the next generation has come in varying degrees in the past 12 months. Many took issue with the career path of 2008 U.S. Olympic boxer Demetrius Andrade, but the unbeaten Rhode Island native ended the year by becoming the team’s 1st member to capture a major title, while many of his teammates continue to crawl through their fourth and fifth year as a pro.
That trend has disappeared with many of the top prospects from the 2012 London Olympics, several of whom are being fast-tracked towards contentions. Others are going the traditional route, though their career progress is moving along far quicker than expected.
Both roads towards stardom are reflected in Boxingscene.com’s choices for top prospects of 2013.
STAFF CHOICE – FELIX VERDEJO (Seven 1st place votes)
The reaction offered by most at first glance of the Puerto Rican lightweight is immediate visions of future stardom. There is no shortage of upside to the 20-year young prospect, who continues to move at a rapid through one year in the pro ranks.
Verdejo was Puerto Rico’s best hope for a medal in the 2012 Olympics, but had the misfortune of landing in the wrong bracket (more on that to come with our next choice). He still left a lasting impression on promoter Bob Arum and his Top Rank outfit, who signed Verdejo straight out of the Olympics, complete with a reported $600,000 signing bonus.
Eight straight wins in 2013 have followed his pro debut in December ’12, splitting his time between New York and Puerto Rico for the most part. Top Rank has made a point to showcase the lightweight prospect on its most prominent cards, including his effortlessly handling Orlando Lora in four rounds in a pay-per-view supporting slot to Manny Pacquiao’s ring return this past November in Macau, China.
The Puerto Rican boxing scene has taken several hits in recent years, but a big night for the island came in October in Orlando, Florida. Verdejo scored a 2nd round knockout of Gary Eyer on the non-televised undercard of the ring return of Miguel Cotto, who stopped Delvin Rodriguez in three rounds in their HBO-televised main event.
The past and future were on full display for proud Boricua boxing fans, all in one sitting.
A title run is undoubtedly in Verdejo’s future. The only lingering question is, when will he reach that point? Given his advancement over the past 12 months, it’s clear that there is cause for acceleration in 2014, though perhaps not to the point of quite yet challenging the world’s best lightweights.
It’s perhaps the only thing that separates Verdejo and the last man to beat him, which leads to…
EDITOR’S CHOICE – VASYL LOMACHENKO (One 1st place vote; two 2nd place votes)
Perhaps there will come a day when Verdejo can attempt to avenge his loss to Lomachenko in the 2012 London Olympics. The bout allowed the Ukrainian wunderkind to advance to the medal round for his second straight Summer Games season. Two fights later, he was a two-time Olympic Gold medalist.
The scary thing about his incredible run through the lightweight field was that Lomachenko moved up simply for the sake of competing in the 2012 London Olympics. The featherweight division, a weight class he effortlessly tore through four years prior, did not make the cut for the 2012 Games, so he decided to move up seven pounds for the sake of adding hardware to his collection.
Along that same line of thinking, it was decided that the 25-year old was going to be fast-tracked towards title contention. Ending an incredible amateur run with a record of 396-1, Lomachenko – like Verdejo – turned pro under the Top Rank banner.
His debut was far more celebrated, and for good reason. Original plans called for the featherweight to face fringe contender Jonathan Oquendo in a scheduled 10-round regional title fight, on the undercard of the October 12 pay-per-view card headlined by Tim Bradley’s points win over Juan Manuel Marquez in Las Vegas. Lomachenko wound up facing veteran Jose Ramirez from Mexico, scoring a knockdown in the opening round as he body punched his way to a 4th round knockout.
While plenty of hype surrounded the debut, it was no publicity stunt unlike the journey of another Olympic Gold medalist nearly 60 years prior.
Pete Rademacher captured a Gold medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but outkicked his own coverage by challenging for the World heavyweight title in his pro debut a year later. The aspiring businessman became one of many to score a knockdown of Floyd Patterson – who was dropped more times in his career than any other fighter in heavyweight championship history – but was floored six times himself before being taken out in six rounds.
A knockout loss to Zora Folley – a former amateur rival – in his 2nd pro fight forever removed any chances he had at forging out a respectable pro career.
There was no such concern with the ambitious road Lomachenko chose to travel in his pro journey. In fact, the placement of his debut was marketing genius on the part of his handlers – his bout aired on the pay-per-view undercard, along with that of Orlando Salido’s vacant featherweight title winning effort over Orlando Cruz.
Plans were immediately announced of Top Rank’s intentions to match Salido and Lomachenko, meaning his shot at a major title would come in just his second pro fight. The original target date was January 25 in New York City, though plans have since shifted, with March 1 at a venue to be determined (most likely in San Antonio) as the night when Lomachenko either makes boxing history, or is given a harsh introduction to the cruel side of the sport.
Either way, he’s in a position where his 2014 campaign will begin with or include a title fight, which is what this award is supposed to be about – maxing out your potential as a prospect before moving on to the next stage.
Lomachenko is already there. Verdejo is still on the rise, but impressive enough to still blow away his observers as impressively as he has his competition.
For those separate reasons, the former amateur rivals – now promotional stablemates - share honors as Boxingscene.com’s 2013 Prospect of the Year.
Other prospects receiving votes (in alphabetical order): Joseph Diaz Jr.; Naoya Inoue; Mike Perez; Andy Ruiz; Callum Smith; Errol Spence; Oscar Valdez; Julian Williams
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox