by Cliff Rold
The question of the best Jr. Featherweight in the world isn’t a question at all. Measure it by lineage, his WBA “Super” and WBO belts, or just the simplest of eye tests. 122 lbs. is World Champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (13-0, 8 KO) and everyone else, at least in the ring.
Everyone else will have their chances to close the gap.
Below Rigondeaux are four fighters in particular just beginning to sniff their primes. In them, boxing has a fascinating assortment of more crowd-pleasing fighters with box office upside Rigondeaux may never have. They make up a youth movement in the class. Rigondeaux, at 33, may have relatively few fights as a professional but he counts already as elder statesman.
Three of the ‘kids’ already have belts.
One of them is on tap this Saturday night on the pay-per-view undercard of Saul Alvarez-Alfredo Angulo.
Mexico’s California-based Leo Santa Cruz (26-0-1, 15 KO) is only 25 years old, defending the WBC belt for the second time, and with a grueling action style has a chance to become the division’s best stateside draw this year.
Santa Cruz faces former unified 115 lb. titlist Cristian Mijares (49-7-2, 24 KO) in what might be the toughest fight of his career to date. Mijares, at 32, is 13-1 in his last fourteen bouts and the lone loss was disputable. Mijares scored a final round knockdown and appeared to do enough to win the then-vacant WBC belt against Victor Terrazas in April 2013 only to lose a narrow split decision.
Terrazas went on to be stopped in three by Santa Cruz in August. Any lingering issues about who should hold the WBC strap will be resolved this weekend.
Santa Cruz has made his progressions nicely since dominating veteran Vusi Malinga for the IBF belt at 118 lbs. in June 2012. In the first of what would be three title defenses at Bantamweight, Santa Cruz became the first man to stop former Flyweight titlist Eric Morel. He’s added veterans Alexander Munoz and Terrazas already at 122 and, in the lone defense of his second reign, battered back game challenger Cesar Seda.
Mijares is a cagey boxer who can be drawn into brawls and, while sometimes lacking in finishing power, presents the young titlist with his most complete opponent to date. Speculation exists that Mijares might just have the magic for the upset this weekend. If Santa Cruz can win, he’ll have cleared another hurdle and come out the better for the experience.
He’ll also have enhanced his personal claim to being the next best in class with more chances to excel on the horizon.
The biggest figure looming on that horizon is one of the other standouts in the division’s youth movement. Belfast’s 27-year old Carl Frampton (17-0, 12 KO) is scheduled to return to action on April 4 against former lineal 108 and WBA 115 lb. champion Hugo Cazares (40-7-2, 27 KO). The fight is a WBC eliminator, presumably to set up a mandatory challenger for the winner of the Santa Cruz-Mijares. If the dust settles on Santa Cruz-Frampton, fans could be staring down the barrel at the sort of fight that screams “Fight of the Year” contender before the opening bell.
Speaking to Frampton’s quality is that he already holds a knockout win over another of the youth movement, 27-year old IBF titlist Kiko Martinez (30-4, 22 KO) of Spain.
Martinez’s suffered a ninth-round stoppage loss to Frampton in February 2013 to start a four-fight 2013 campaign. He quickly rebounded with a stoppage of Damian Marchiano and garnered a crack at then-undefeated IBF titlist Jhonatan Romero. Martinez overwhelmed Romero, stopping him in six, and closed the year with a perfect bookend: a ninth-round knockout of former titlist Jeffrey Mathebula.
The Mathebula win was particularly impressive contrasted with Mathebula’s competitive distance loss to Nonito Donaire in 2012. Martinez resumes action on April 23 with a tough match, former Bantamweight and Featherweight titlist Hozumi Hasegawa (33-4, 15 KO).
The last of the four young guns is the only one who hasn’t quite slid into the equation with the others just yet. That may not last long. 25-year old UK native Scott Quigg (27-0-2, 20 KO) is an exciting possible star. He holds the WBA’s other belt at 122 and, in theory, the WBA ‘regular’ belt acts as a sort of placeholder ‘player to be named later’ mandatory position. It is irregularly enforced, but showdowns between WBA beltholders occur often enough to point out that, should he keep winning, Quigg may be the fighter in best position to challenge Rigondeaux down the road.
Quigg is set to defend for the third time against former Bantamweight title challenger Nehomar Cermeno on April 19.
One of the exciting things about youth clusters in a division is the possibility for speculation they provide. We might already have seen Frampton-Martinez, but that’s only a taste. Santa Cruz, Quigg, and Frampton are carving out markets for themselves at home that could create extra economic incentives for clashes in the near and long term.
History says today’s Jr. Featherweights can easily become tomorrow’s Featherweights and Jr. Lightweights. As these young fighters begin to develop rivalries (Quigg-Frampton seems especially tantalizing as a UK domestic thriller), they can grow in the ring and on the scale together. Should any one of them become the man to knock off Rigondeaux somewhere along the way, it would only add potency to the momentum of this youth movement.
Even if none can pull that feat against the Cuban master boxer, they’ll still have each other along with still relevant veterans at 122 and 126 lbs. like Donaire and Vic Darchinyan. It’s fitting that each of the four highlighted men here have able veterans to get past in their next fights. They all have room to grow in proving whether they are truly the prime time players of tomorrow.
Their ultimate proving ground is likely to be each other. It’s something to look forward to.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com