By Jake Donovan
The series opened with an examination at the top level of the heavyweight, cruiserweight and light heavyweight divisions ( click HERE for full article ).
Part two examined the current lineage at junior welterweight and middleweight, and what needs to be done in order to crown a king at welterweight, junior middleweight and super middleweight ( click HERE for full article ).
On tap in this edition are looks into four more weight classes: lightweight, junior lightweight, featherweight and junior featherweight. Two of the four divisions currently boast lineage, with the other two suffering notoriety at the top, both as a result of Manny Pacquiao’s defection, first from featherweight in early 2005, then junior lightweight last year.
Ironically, his presumed one-and-done stay at lightweight actually contributes to clearing up the picture at that weight more so than leaving behind a void. But more on that in a bit.
For those who want to track who ranks where on this website, please click the following for the Boxingscene.com rankings, which are maintained by site co-manager Cliff Rold and updated quarterly.
Onward to part three…
Current Lineal Champion: Juan Manuel Marquez (KO11 Joel Casamayor 9/13/2008)
Length of current lineage: 06/05/2004 - Present
Champions during lineage: Four (Marquez KO11 Casamayor; Casamayor SD12 Diego Corrales; Corrales KO10 Jose Luis Castillo; Castillo UD12 Juan Lazcano for vacant World title)
The road to lightweight clarification: If there was a silver lining to be found in Nate Campbell’s mishap at the scales last weekend (aside from his subsequent spirited performance against Ali Funeka), it’s that the debate that has dominated the lightweight division for the better part of the past couple of years came that much closer to reaching a resolution.
Heading into 2008, the debate was whether Joel Casamayor (lineal champ) or Juan Diaz (multi-belted titlist) was the best lightweight in the world. A year later, their respective conquerors - Marquez and Campbell - were two of the only three names that mattered, the other being pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao.
And then there was one.
Campbell’s team announced after the weigh-in follies that win, lose or draw, next stop was junior welterweight, since Nate’s body simply shut down on him mere days before shrinking down to lightweight. He went out with a bang, rallying down the stretch and riding an 11th round knockdown (his second of the fight) to escape with a hard-fought majority decision.
His lightweight run ends without the fight he most desired – a shot at the lineal champion to once and for all clear up the lightweight clutter. The obsession began with a much sought-after rematch with Joel Casamayor, whom handed the Galaxxy Warrior his first career defeat in 2003. Casamayor passed on the fight, to the point of blatantly avoiding him (though purely out of spite more than anything else), but wound up losing to Marquez.
Pacquiao appears to be all but done with the division. His 9th round destruction of David Diaz last June warranted a lofty rating, but it’s quite clear that the move was one-and-done, even if with better intentions at the time.
It’s a shame, as a third Pacquiao-Marquez bout for all of the lightweight marbles would’ve been the perfect capper to their already memorable rivalry.
Not that we’re complaining with what lies ahead – Pacquiao in pursuit of his fourth lineal title when he faces 140 lb. king Ricky Hatton in May, while Marquez defends against former titlist Juan Diaz in the challenger’s hometown of Houston at month’s end.
With Marquez now undoubtedly the man by default, Golden Boy’s proposed lightweight tournament gains a little more relevance.
It’s still not without flaws – at least three of the participants (Jorge Barrios, Carlos Hernandez and Jesus Chavez) are nowhere to be found in any respectable Top Ten lightweight rankings. Those who make a case for Michael Katsidis can only point to competitive losses over Casamayor and Diaz, as he doesn’t own a single win over a legitimate Top Ten lightweight.
There’s also the issue of Edwin Valero having little to no interest in participating beyond his opening round match with Antonio Pitalua. It’s a moot point if Pitalua matches his career-best performance in blasting out Jose Armando Santa Cruz last September.
Regardless of what comes out of the proposed eight-man elimination series, the top of the division now boasts something sorely lacking for the couple of years: clarity.
Current Lineal Champion:
Last Lineal Champion: Manny Pacquiao
Length of previous lineage: 03/15/2008-06/28/2008 (no defenses)
Champions during lineage: One (Pacquiao SD12 Juan Manuel Marquez for vacant World title)
How to repair the broken links: It’s funny how a lightweight tournament is being planned to produce a worthwhile contender in a division filled with them, when in fact it’s the junior lightweight division in desperate need of an elimination bracket.
Featherweight’s loss has been junior lightweight’s gain. Now on the scene are two young, promising future stars in Jorge Linares and Robert Guerrero. A collision course was hoped for at featherweight, and perhaps inevitable down the line in their newfound comfort zone.
As far as crowning a king goes, it’s only a starting point.
With the mass exodus that has occurred over the past year and change, it’s up to fighters like Soto, and Cassius Baloyi of South Africa to step up and make something happen.
Of course, that would mean Baloyi fighting outside of his home country – or his promoters upping the ante enough to entice a Humberto Soto, Edwin Valero or Jorge Linares to take a road trip.
What also needs to take place is for Top Rank will have to do more with Humberto Soto than simply use him as bait whenever Manny Pacquiao is ready to negotiate his next fight. For years, Soto has been “in the running” as Pacquiao’s next sweepstakes, yet still remains on the outside looking in whenever any big money fight is discussed at or around his weight range.
If keeping it in house is promoter Bob Arum’s concern, he could always match up Soto with Urbano Antillon. However, the more recent trend seems to suggest that Antillon will fight for a vacant belt if and when Soto elects to move up in weight.
The bottom line is that until the division’s elder statesmen (namely Soto and Baloyi) solidify their lead or the young guns advance at a greater pace than expected, the division will continue to suffer the same start and stops that have plagued the top slot for nearly a decade.
A gaping hole was left behind when Floyd Mayweather left for the lightweight division in 2002. Even if Acelino Freitas is credited with title lineage for his 2002 win over Joel Casamayor, there was still little to no movement at the top following his departure to lightweight in 2004, after just two years and three title defenses.
Pacquiao’s title-winning effort never threatened to patch that hole, as he collected notable wins (KO10, K03 Erik Morales, KO8 Jorge Solis, UD12 Marco Antonio Barrera) prior to the Marquez rematch. While there were plenty of notable contenders to face, there were no lucrative options to prevent him from defecting to lightweight.
Chances are, such will remain true at junior lightweight by this time next year, thus making Boxingscene.com co-manager Cliff Rold out to be a prophet. His closing thoughts on the state of the 130 lb division inn assembling the 1st Quarter Ratings for 2009:
“This is a division with youth and interesting names, but it seeks an identity now that names like Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez have moved on and up. Don’t be surprised if the same can be said twelve months from now.”
Current Lineal Champion: None; title vacated in 2005
Last Lineal Champion: Manny Pacquiao
Length of previous lineage: 09/22/1982*– circa March 2005
Champions during lineage: Ten (Pacquiao TKO11 Marco Antonio Barrera; Barrera UD12 Naseem Hamed; Hamed KO7 Wilfredo Vazquez; Vazquez KO11 Eloy Rojas; Rojas SD12 Yong-Kyun Park; Park UD12 Antonio Esparragoza; Esparragoza KO12 Steve Cruz; Cruz UD15 Barry McGuigan; McGuigan UD15 Eusebio Pedroza; Pedroza awarded vacant World title following death of Salvador Sanchez)
The lineage began when? As is the case with lightweight today (or at least was, until last weekend), confusion had long presided over the featherweight division. Nigel Collins’ version of The Ring attempting to erase and rewrite history had plenty to do with it, in claiming that Marco Antonio Barrera didn’t “earn” the featherweight championship until he defeated archrival Erik Morales in their June 2002 rematch (in a controversial decision, no less).
Those with even a basic understanding of what makes a definitive leader could easily identify Naseem Hamed’s body of work in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Only sanctioning body politics stood in the way of Hamed owning all of the featherweight real estate. Wins over Steve Robinson, Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson, Wilfredo Vazquez and Cesar Soto came at a time when all were either titlists or fresh from being stripped for no good reason.
The win over Vazquez is the middle point between The Ring’s updated lineage and the prior generation’s starting point, when Eusebio Pedroza was named World champion as a result of two events: the untimely death of reigning featherweight king Salvador Sanchez, and number two-rated Juan LaPorte defeating Mario Martinez for a vacant belt. Pedroza had defeated LaPorte by decision earlier in the year, which prompted The Ring editors to retroactively reward him with the championship. Hence, the asterisk accompanying the start date, which is in fact a week after LaPorte’s win over Martinez.
The lineal champ and Nigel Collins’ champ eventually became one and the same, though nearly 20 years of boxing history were ignored in the process.
Why is all of this being mentioned when there exists a vacancy atop the division today? Because there’s little reason to believe that it will be filled any time soon.
Looking at the glass half-full, top rated Chris John makes his stateside debut at month’s end, when he travels to Houston to take on hometown favorite and career bridesmaid Rocky Juarez. The bout will be just his second outside of Asia, having spent the bulk of his career fighting in his home land of Indonesia.
A more skewed view suggests that there’s no guarantee John is willing to come back, or that Steve Luevano will be traveling to Indonesia for the sake of crowning a featherweight king.
Luevano has risen to number two with a bullet, even if there’s little about him to suggest he’s destined for greatness. The California native is a solid, well-schooled fighter, though hit or miss in the entertainment department.
His greatest asset is his promotional alliance; Top Rank continues to feature him in prominent pay-per-view slots. Three straight appearances on Manny Pacquiao undercards were followed up by a co-feature slot to Bernard Hopkins’ schooling of Kelly Pavlik last October.
The good fortunes continue for Luevano, who next faces Bernabe Concepcion on the undercard of the year’s biggest event, Manny Pacquiao’s challenge of Ricky Hatton’s 140 lb. crown. What he’s not receiving, however, are assignments that can convince the world he belongs at the top of the mountain.
Like junior lightweight, it might take for a new jack to ascend through the ranks to give the division a new leader.
Enter Yuriorkis Gamboa, as ambitious a prospect-turned-contender as they come in the sport today. But with ambition comes the potential to crash and burn. Gamboa’s lack of discipline (and defense) could prove to be his downfall, though for the moment, he continues to blitz through the ratings at a ridiculous pace.
Heavily in Gamboa’s favor is the fact that he’s highly rated by all four sanctioning bodies, which means that he’ll be in line for the title of his choosing basically whenever he’s ready. Given his desire to be the best right now, a showdown with either John or Luevano doesn’t seem very far-fetched.
The question then becomes, how soon can it happen, and will the public be willing to accept the last man standing as the definitive leader of the featherweight division?
Current Lineal Champion: Israel Vazquez (KO3 Oscar Larios 12/3/2005)
Length of current lineage: 12/03/2005 - present
Champions during lineage: Three (Vazquez KO6 Rafael Marquez; Marquez KO7 Vazquez; Vazquez KO3 Larios for vacant World title)
The road to maintaining the title: Like junior welterweight, there’s little to map out at 122. Until he loses or retires, Israel Vazquez is the world junior featherweight champion. That stance was solidified by his taking two out of three over Rafael Marquez in what is easily one of the greatest trilogies in boxing history.
Vazquez has been on the shelf since their epic rubber match last March. How soon he returns he remains to be seen, but fear not as the best of the rest at junior featherweight aren’t scared to risk their rankings.
Celestino Caballero is rapidly emerging as the most dangerous man in the division. The near-6’0” beanpole is fresh off a 4th round destruction of Steve Molitor in their alphabet unification match last November, and is currently slated for a dangerous mandatory defense against Jeffrey Mathebula of South Africa.
A win solidifies his ranking as the division’s greatest threat. Such honors once belonged to Rafael Marquez, but the Mexican has been out for a year and there’s no telling what he has left in the tank following the three wars with Vazquez. A tune-up is rumored for some time in the spring before seeking bigger game later in the year.
Just getting started is 2004 Puerto Rican Olympian and presently unbeaten titlist Juan Manuel Lopez. He entered 2008 as one of the sport’s brightest prospects, and ended the year with his star on the rise. Not that Lopez spent much time in the ring in ’08 – his four fights lasted less than 12 combined minutes, including a current streak of three straight 1st round knockouts.
Next up is an April defense against current bantamweight titlist and former linear 115 lb. champion Gerry Penalosa. Beyond that is unknown, that it’s clear that Top Rank has every intention of grooming him as their next superstar.
It’s almost as if the stars were aligned in viewing the emergence of Caballero and Lopez at the same time as when the careers of Vazquez and Marquez are potentially winding down. In a perfect world, a final four takes place to ensure that the link remains intact.
Since nothing in life is that perfect, we’ll gladly settle for the present influx of mouthwatering junior featherweight match ups that continue to materialize. While there’s no guarantee that Vazquez wins his next fight or that there even is a next fight, there stands a great chance that the division will remain in good hands for years to come, no matter who’s at or near the top.
The final chapter - Part IV: The final five divisions, which boast at least two more lineal champions than most are led to believe.
Jake Donovan is a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Comments/questions can be submitted to [email protected] .