By Cliff Rold
This Saturday, two of boxing’s ten best heavyweights will be in action in the same city, both competing for belts on the same card.
Deontay Wilder and Czar Glazkov won’t be fighting each other because boxing is silly that way.
There might be a less impolitic way to put it but why bother? The sport works hard to make a joke of itself too often. Why deny it or try to soften the punch lines?
We are now on our second straight historical middleweight king who seemingly wants the whole division to be five pounds lighter, the WBC is okay with Danny Garcia-Robert Guerrero as a fight to determine their version of the best welterweight in the world, Manny Pacquiao is fighting Tim Bradley again, Andre Ward-Sullivan Barrera has taken more than a lunch meeting to negotiate, and the announcement of Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter got built up like it was something more than what should be a run of the mill clash between top ten contenders.
We’ve gotten to a point where boxing fans celebrate like Christmas come early when they get more than highly ranked fighter A versus name but not really gonna’ win opponent B. Boxing fans are so bored with the ridiculous waits between quality top-tier contests (even if they won’t admit it) that they’ve taken to being fans of promotional entities in place of the consistent flow of good fights they should demand.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some fighters who are doing it right at the title level. They may not always be the lineal kings of their classes but they are fighters who, as it was put last year, win and then defend their titles against real contenders and successfully exit the ring with their crown still in place. It’s not easy to win a title. Those who challenge themselves find them even harder to keep.
This is their list.
It’s not pound-for-pound…it’s Champ for Champ for the year of 2015.
At the end of 2014, the top ten champions selected were:
10) Guillermo Rigondeaux
9) Marco Huck
8) Naoya Inoue
7) Sergey Kovalev
6) Gennady Golovkin
5) Donnie Nietes
4) Floyd Mayweather
3) Terrence Crawford
2) Amnat Ruenroeng
1) Wladimir Klitschko
The events of 2015 made mince meat of last year’s list. Since the first champ for champ feature in 2009, Wladimir Klitschko had been the top champion six straight years. He would have been again this year but for the efforts of one Tyson Fury.
While the fight wasn’t pretty, it was the sort of match that explains what made Klitschko worthy all these years. He started the year with contender Bryant Jennings and then went to yet another top ten heavyweight. Fury was the best available contender in the class Klitschko hadn’t defeated yet. Klitschko didn’t dump a belt to avoid him or offer Fury an insulting sum and then accuse him of pricing his way out of a shot. Klitschko signed on the dotted line.
He lost. It happens. We make room for new faces. Perhaps next year, Fury can take Klitschko’s place. He is on the right path with an expected rematch in the spring.
Klitschko isn’t the only familiar face to exit. Huck lost in a stunner while Rigondeaux and Inoue both fought only once in 2015 and neither against a contender of note. Crawford left lightweight and, while he appears willing and did win a belt, thus far hasn’t faced any of the better opposition at 140 lbs. Mayweather has of course retired.
With so much upheaval, it begs the question: in a sport where there are well over 70 fighters with belts from the four most recognized sanctioning bodies, how many fighters merit some extra credit for their championship efforts in 2015?
Were there even ten in 2015?
It was an uneven year for that question. The only stipulation this time was that to make the list, one had to score a defense against a serious contender. That excluded Viktor Postol at 140 lbs. who didn’t get a chance to defend but could emerge as one of the stronger champions in 2016. A partial unification with Crawford would solve that (or return Crawford).
105 lb. titlist Hekkie Budler continues to defend his title with fire and would be favored over most of his division but he may never get the chance. Unification is rare at 105 lbs. Also considered was Japan’s Takashi Uchiyama. He’s one of the longest reigning titlists in boxing but his 2015 was pedestrian. A proposed showdown with Nicholas Walters would be a hell of a tonic.
For now, these are the ten active titlists who best exemplified the term champion in 2015.
10) Daniel Jacobs (31-1, 28 KO) – WBA Middleweight – 3 Defenses
Some might quibble since he’s the WBA’s sub-champion at 160 lbs. but this is about the titled fighters who are living up the term champion. Jacobs did in 2015 and in one round. Defenses against Caleb Truax and Sergio Mora aren’t why Jacobs is here, though the off the floor win against Mora showed a champion’s heart. No, Jacobs is here because he sought, took, and won the toughest middleweight fight available on his side of the promotionally divided street. Jacobs’ win over Peter Quillin capped the long return for Jacobs from defeat at the hands of Dmitry Pirog and the savagery of cancer.
9) Jamie McDonnell (27-2-1, 12 KO) – WBA Bantamweight – 3 Defenses
If at once you do succeed, do it again when the pay is right. That’s an easy way to describe McDonnell in 2015 as he twice came to the States and faced Al Haymon-signed Tomoki Kameda on Al Haymon cards. McDonnell still has his version of the WBA belt (and there are many in almost every class). He would be a serious threat to Yamanaka if the fight could be made. Both he and WBA Super champ Juan Carlos Payano won on PBC cards last year and would, in a saner world, face off at some point (but for the whole boxing is silly that way thing). For now, McDonell’s two wins over Kameda were one more win over a legitimate top ten bantamweight than anyone else in the class had last year.
8) Arthur Abraham (44-4, 29 KO) – WBO Super Middleweight – 5 Defenses
After losing three straight in the “Super Six,” Abraham went back to Germany and rebuilt. As 2016 gets underway, he is (if largely by staying put) the most accomplished of the titlists in his class during his second WBO reign. 2015 was his best year since 2009. He settled a controversy against Paul Smith, ended his rivalry against Robert Stieglitz in style, and then spoiled the title hopes of former middleweight contender Martin Murray. It was a competitive fight on paper and in the ring. In a year where a lot of beltholders held serve, Abraham at least took some risks.
7) Amnat Ruenroeng (17-0, 5 KO) – IBF Flyweight – 5 Defenses
On the one hand, Ruenroeng only beat one real top ten contender in 2015 and did it in despicable fashion. There was little to commend in his win over former 108 lb. titlist Johnriel Casimero as Ruenroeng was allowed to foul at will on his home turf. No matter where he fights, the fouls fly as often as punches. Tackles, head butts, leg sweeps, holding, hitting a downed man…we’ve seen it all and it’s a chore to watch. On the other hand, he did add another real contender and also went on the road for what was a risky defense against China’s Zou Shiming. His fighting style, or sometimes lack thereof, says he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks as long as he wins. That he carries that chip on his shoulder on the road (he also beat Kazuto Ioka in Japan in 2014) and is too good to get ripped off says something positive about the one-time convict made good. So too does the fact that he has done what he can to generate interest in a showdown with Roman Gonzalez. He wants to face the best and his cadre of title fight wins is right there with Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada.
6) Donnie Nietes (37-1-4, 21 KO) – WBO Light Flyweight – 8 Defenses; Ring – 4 Defenses
He’s never quite had that single foe that could help him leave a lasting impression on the sport. He’s had plenty of good opposition and he just keeps winning (or at least playing even). The biggest fight that could be made at 108 lbs. in 2015 was a clash between Nietes and former unified 105 lb. titlist Francisco Rodriguez. We got the fight. Nietes got the win. It would have been nice if his two other defenses on the year were of similar quality. He is 13-0-1 in title fights across two weight classes. Nietes has never had a chance to unify and continues to publicly flirt with a move to flyweight. The clock is ticking on the now 33-year old Filipino.
5) Badou Jack (20-1-1, 12 KO) – WBC Super Middleweight – 1 Defenses
Many considered him dead on arrival when he was announced as a challenger for Anthony Dirrell’s WBC 168 lb. title. After all, Jack was the guy Derek Edwards got out of there in one round. He’d only had a couple of soft rebound fights. Jack knew better and showed the world. Then he did what someone who wants to act like a champion should: he took on a serious contender right away. Sure, it might have been a mandatory, but we’ve seen fighters get out of those in recent years. Jack didn’t. He took on George Groves and beat him clean as a sheet. Now Jack is talking about a unification match with the extremely talented James DeGale. If that fight takes place, expect the winner to be held in high regard next year.
4) Shinsuke Yamanaka (24-0-2, 17 KO) – WBC Bantamweight – 9 Defenses
One of Japan’s longest reigning titlists, Yamanaka defended twice in 2015. It was the second defense that earns him his place here. There was debate over the rightful winner. Regardless, Yamanaka took on the trickiest challenger in his division and escaped with the narrow win. Lots of guys have found reasons to skirt around Panama’s Anselmo Moreno but Yamanaka didn’t. Theirs was a clash of the two most accomplished active bantamweights in the world and we got a quality encounter. Given the debate that could be had at the end, Yamanaka can enhance his champion’s stature by giving Moreno a rematch in 2016. Let’s hope for his sake and ours he also gets a chance at unification before his prime is completely passed. Reigning since 2011, he deserves the opportunity to clean out the top of his class.
3) Roman Gonzalez (44-0, 38 KO) – Lineal/TBRB/Ring/WBC Flyweight – 3 Defenses
Gonzalez had a solid 2015 and the pieces are in place for a much bigger 2016. After a meaningless non-title fight at home to start the year, Gonzalez scored knockouts over two consensus top ten challengers at flyweight. Edgar Sosa and Brian Viloria were both past peak (Sosa more so) but Gonzalez dished out the sort of beatings that made it hard to imagine either defeating him at any point in their careers. He got a hell of an effort from Viloria and still dominated in one of the best performances of the year. Already a titlist in three divisions, Gonzalez may not last the year at flyweight. If he does, some unification at 112 lbs. would go a long way towards marking the best fighter in the world as also its premiere champion. A rematch with Juan Francisco Estrada, who has two belts, is the division’s most desirable fight. Ruenroeng might not be pretty to watch but Gonzalez can’t clean out the division without him. Facing one would be good business. Facing both would be model championship behavior.
2) Sergey Kovalev (28-0-1, 25 KO) – WBO Light Heavyweight – 6 Defenses; WBA/IBF – 2 Defenses
While Gonzalez might be the better overall fighter of the two, and the more accomplished over his career, his run at flyweight proper isn’t quite Kovalev’s at light heavyweight just yet. 2016 could be the year Kovalev elevates his name among the better light heavyweight reigns ever. That might sound like a stretch but should he defeat Adonis Stevenson and Andre Ward before the year is out, and its possible, he will have effectively cleaned out this era at 175 lbs. It’s all a lot of what if for now. While he did get saddled with a soft mandatory for one of his belts, Kovalev’s first of two title defenses on the year came on the roadagainst former champion Jean Pascal. Since his breakthrough win against Gabriel Campillo in 2013, he’s not had a year where he didn’t beat at least one other top ten light heavyweight. One could make a case for him being the top champion on the list but his team has played their part in the shenanigans that have kept Kovalev and Stevenson apart to date.
1) Gennady Golovkin (34-0, 31 KO) – WBA Middleweight – 15 Defenses; IBF – 0 Defenses
There is a camp that sees Golovkin as overrated for staying at middleweight, particularly by way of a willingness to move up to 168 lbs. for names like Chavez and Froch that wasn’t extended to a returning Andre Ward. That’s a valid argument against Golovkin in general but doesn’t pertain here. This is about what a fighter is doing in the division they compete in. At middleweight, Golovkin has made clear he will face anyone and wants to pick up every strap he can. In 2016, that meant bookending legitimate top ten threats in his division in two of three fights on the year. Martin Murray had never been stopped and many felt he’d done enough to defeat Felix Sturm and Sergio Martinez in previous title tries. Golovkin allowed no room for debate in February. In October, he finally got another one of the beltholders in the ring with him and helped himself to David Lemieux’s IBF title. Golovkin also has an interim WBC belt that gives him pole position on an eventual showdown with WBC and lineal champion Saul Alvarez. Golovkin may not be doing everything he can to be a pound-for-pound great but no one is doing more to be the lone champion of their class. A unification match with WBO titlist Billy Joe Saunders might not come together but if he defeats Alvarez it won’t matter. That will be as close to a clean out as one could ask.
Each of the top four fighters on the list this year has at least a reasonable path to a clean out. We’ll see if any can complete the journey. It should be the goal of anyone who wants to be regarded as a champion.
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 protected]