By Jake Donovan
The first part of this series examined the heavyweight division, the easiest riddle to solve at the moment. Wladimir Klitschko is the champ, the best heavyweight in the world, and not going anywhere anytime soon.
So what about the other 16 weight classes in the sport?
As the series will reveal, other weight classes feature equally dominant reigns at the top, while others remain vacant and with no clear resolution in sight.
To recap, the writers gracious enough to participate are (in alphabetical order):
Adam Abramowitz, Founder/Editor-In-Chief, SaturdayNightBoxing.com
Ryan Bivins, Feature Writer, BadLeftHook.com
Jake Donovan, Managing Editor, BoxingScene.com
David P. Greisman, Senior Writer, BoxingScene.com
Steve Kim, News Editor, BoxingScene.com
Takahiro Onaga, Founder/Editor-In-Chief, AsianBoxing.info
Dan Rafael, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Cliff Rold, Feature Writer/Ratings Chairman, BoxingScene.com
Lem Satterfield, Reporter, RingTV.com
Alexey Sukachev, Eastern European Editor, BoxingScene.com
While the series started at the top, Part II will begin with the four lightest weight classes and work our way up the scales.
With that, we take a peek at how things shake out at strawweight, junior flyweight, flyweight and super flyweight.
STRAWWEIGHT (up to 105 lb.)
Who’s the champ?
Where oh where have you gone, Ricardo Lopez? (Retirement, obviously)
Not since the undefeated strawweight king relinquished his crown in 1999 has there been a claimant to the World lineal championship. There have been just two fighters to win unification bouts in the 15 years since Lopez moved up to 108 lb. (Kazuto Ioka in ’12; Francisco Rodriguez Jr. this past August); neither win came in a necessary #1 vs. #2 matchup to claim a king.
Who’s the best?
Even with a majority vote, the outcome remains very much up for debate. Francisco Rodriguez Jr. (six votes) was the leading votegetter among the panel, edging out Hekkie Budler (three)—and that’s even with two writers asking to change their selection in light of recent results since ballots were cast.
Rodriguez Jr. (16-2-1, 9KOs) was enjoying an amazing 2014 campaign prior to November. Included among his three wins were a title-lifting 10th round knockout of unbeaten Merlito Sabillo in March and a 12-round decision over Katsunari Takayaman in their unification bout in August, which remains the leading candidate (by a considerable margin) for 2014 Fight of the Year.
Another all-out war came in his last fight, though not the type of competitive fight he expected in being held to a 10-round draw versus Jomar Fajardo last weekend in Philippines. The bout took place at flyweight, which means Rodriguez remains atop the strawweight rankings – for as long as he can make weight. The free-swinging Mexican bomber has already vacated one title, and is rumored to seek a showdown with current 108 lb. titlist Donnie Nietes.
No other strawweight earned any votes, with one writer opting to not cast a vote at all for this weight class. However, also closing in on the top spot is Wanheng Menayothin. The unbeaten Thai survived a stiff challenge to knockout Oswaldo Novoa in nine rounds earlier this month to claim a belt.
How can the best become the champ?
The simple answer is a showdown between Rodriguez Jr. and Budler.
Nothing is simple in boxing. Neither fighter has real motivation to give up home court. Budler is a draw in South Africa and also enjoying a nice living as an undercard attraction on promoter Rodney Berman’s shows in Monaco. Rodriguez Jr. makes good money in Mexico, while a lucrative showdown awaits in Philippines should he pursue a showdown with Nietes.
Add to the mix that Menayothin is big enough in Thailand to where his promoter put up a massive purse bid offer (relative to the division) to ensure home field advantage for his first title fight, and it’s entirely possible that Ricardo Lopez remains the last lineal champ for quite some time.
JUNIOR FLYWEIGHT (up to 108 lb.)
Who’s the champ?
According to BoxingScene.com, the crown remains vacant. Others recognize Donnie Nietes as the World champion, based on his knockout win over Moises Fuentes in May. Because they weren’t ranked #1 and #2 at the time, BoxingScene.com recognizes the title as still vacant since Giovani Segura moved up in 2011 to pursue a run at a flyweight title.
Who’s the best?
Even if Donnie Nietes (six votes) didn’t win the vote here, he’d have gained such recognition by default at year’s end. Naoya Inoue (three) is already moving up the scales, leaping two divisions to take a swing at long reigning 115 lb. titlist Omar Narvaez on Dec. 30 in Japan.
Still, Nietes (34-1-4, 20KOs) already boasts a strong claim to the top spot, regardless of the plans of Inoue or anyone else in the division.
The 32-year old Filipino has enjoyed title reigns in two weight classes, dating back to 2007. His run as a strawweight titlist ended when he moved up in weight to dethrone 108 lb. beltholder Ramon Garcia in Oct. ’11. Five defenses have followed, including three straight knockout wins. His most recent defense came on November 15, stopping Carlos Velarde in seven rounds. The win was his first since knocking out top-rated Moises Fuentes in May, providing a definitive ending to a rivalry that began with a 12-round draw in March ‘13.
Inoue (7-0, 6KOs) made an immediate splash really with his Oct. ’12 pro debut, fighting at an escalated level of competition all the way to his one-sided knockout of Adrian Hernandez in April to win a belt in just his sixth pro fight. One defense has followed, a 10th round stoppage of Samartiek Kokietgym in September.
Still, his prodigious talent isn’t enough to lay claim as the best at the moment.
“Clearly, Inoue is more talented than Nietes, but the Filipino is much more consistent,” notes Alexey Sukachev, the Eastern European news editor for BoxingScene.com. “His wins over Fuentes (rematch) Garcia and Velarde are making him the best in this weight class. Inoue is a runaway #2 but I cannot position him at #1 just yet, for a single win over a bit flawed fighter (Hernandez).”
How can the best become the champ?
The bad news for Nietes is that the division is about to thin out in a hurry. Inoue is moving up to 115 lb. Johnriel Casimero (#3 by BoxingScene.com) missed weight by a mile in his last fight, and is moving up to flyweight for a Dec. 13 title eliminator. Former champ Adrian Hernandez (#4) also plans to test the flyweight waters, beginning this Saturday in Mexico.
The good news? By the time 2015 rolls around, there should be a formidable #2 in place. Pedro Guevara (currently #5) travels to Japan for a Dec. 30 vacant junior flyweight title showdown with former strawweight titlist and World flyweight king Akira Yaegashi, who moves down in weight in efforts to win titles in three weight classes.
Should the winner be able to land a fight with Nietes at some point in 2015, a champion will be crowned—and also widely considered as one of the very best fighters in the world.
Short of that, Nietes could find himself facing Francisco Rodriguez Jr., a bout that would pit the top-rated junior flyweight versus the top-rated strawweight—though still leaving both divisions without a World champion regardless of the outcome.
FLYWEIGHT (up to 112 lb.)
Who’s the champ?
The third weight class Róman Gonzalez (40-0, 34KOs) has conquered became the first in which he claimed true championship status. It’s fitting that it comes in the flyweight division, which enjoys the longest uninterrupted lineal championship reign, dating back to Miguel Canto’s claim to the crown in 1975.
Gonzalez became the man following his 9th round knockout of Akira Yaegashi in September in Japan. His first defense comes this weekend, as he returns to Japan for a showdown with Rocky Fuentes. The feat followed title reigns at junior flyweight and strawweight, both of which ended with his vacating the belts to move up in weight.
Who’s the best?
Gonzalez (10 votes) is one of five lineal champions to have been unanimously selected as the best fighter of his division. For years, the unbeaten Nicaraguan was a cult favorite among the sport’s hardcore, given the minimal amount of light shone on the lower weight classes. The win over Yaegashi was confirmation that the flyweight division boasts one of the best three or four fighters in the world.
“This guy is damn good, and we already knew that would be the case at 112 even before he destroyed division champion Akira Yaegashi,” points out David P. Greisman, senior writer for BoxingScene.com.
What can change?
The best chance at seeing Gonzalez dethroned depends on how much Juan Francisco Estrada continues to flourish as a unified titlist. The two threw down in a hellacious war in Nov. ’12, which for both fighters represented their last ever fight in the junior flyweight division.
Gonzalez took on a series of stay busy fights at flyweight while awaiting his title shot. Estrada landed one in his first fight following the close loss to Gonzalez, edging out Brian Viloria for two belts in April ’13. Three defenses have followed, with the fourth coming on Dec. 6 versus unbeaten Joebert Alvarez.
A rematch between Gonzalez and Estrada has been discussed for months, with HBO reportedly interested in throwing money behind such a fight.
Outside of that, Amnat Ruenroeng lurks as a potential spoiler.
Regardless, it says here that Gonzalez remains champ for as long as he remains a flyweight.
SUPER FLYWEIGHT (up to 115 lb.)
Who’s the champ?
Nobody, and it stands to reason that things will remain that way for a long time—a reversal of fortune for a division who enjoyed uninterrupted championship lineage for 23 years, until Masamori Tokuyama formally retired in 2007.
Since then, only Vic Darchinyan has earned recognition as a lineal champ, which came following his knockout win over Cristian Mijares in Nov. ’08. The run lasted for as long as he could continue to make weight, leaving the division for good following a March ’10 points win over Rodrigo Guerrero.
Who’s the best?
In the closest voting of any division, long-reigning titlist Omar Narvaez (five votes) barely edged out unbeaten Carlos Cuadras (four) for top honors. A single vote was the difference between the two, which really says more about Cuadras considering he only recently surfaced towards the top, though quickly closing the gap on Narvaez, who has held a belt at 115 lb. since 2010.
Narvaez (43-1-2, 23KOs) is unbeaten at flyweight and super flyweight, though has hardly proven invincible in either weight class. Among his 11 defenses at 115 lb. are several close, debatable decision wins, and none over a fighter that was even regarded as among the very best in the division. Such status is befitting a reign that began with a win in a vacant title fight.
Cuadras (31-0-1, 25KOs) raced straight to the top in pursuit of glory. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai was considered no worse than among the top three super flyweight in the world when marching to Mexico to face the unbeaten challenger. The bout ended in anti-climactic fashion, as Cuadras was up on the cards at the time the fight was stopped due to a cut over his left eye produced by a headbutt.
His first title defense also ended on injury, this time with challenger Jose Salgado unable to continue due to a cut from an accidental foul. Cuadras finally scored a definitive win last week in Washington D.C., stopping Marvin Mabait in the 6th round of his stateside debut and second overall title defense.
No other fighter received voting consideration from the panel; one writer chose to not vote at all for this weight class.
How do the best and the champ become one and the same?
That might be a question best answered at the start of 2015. It’s possible that Narvaez is no longer the best or a titlist, as he has a dangerous defense on the road versus Naoya Inoue on December 30 in Japan.
Cuadras is being teased as a potential future for Róman Gonzalez, though a fight that would likely occur well down the line, if ever at all. Still awaiting the unbeaten Mexican is a mandatory title defense versus Sonny Boy Jaro, who had to withdraw from their scheduled November 13 bout due to his visa status not clearing in time.
For now, all bets are off until December 30. The winner of Narvaez-Inoue will be viewed as the man to beat at 115 lb., and hopefully willing to give Cuadras that chance, to reestablish lineage in an otherwise loaded division.
Next up: Part III – Examining the 118 lb., 122 lb., 126 lb. and 130 lb. divisions.
Recap: Part I – Intro and Heavyweight Division
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as the Records Keeper for the Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a member of Boxing Writers Association of America . Twitter: @JakeNDaBox