If you ever read my stuff on Bad Left Hook, or follow my Twitter, you know I get a kick out of the "boxing is dead" rhetoric, especially when compared with the "fastest rising sport in the world" MMA. Honestly, I don't care, but in the same way as a Jay-Z fan I feel the need to constantly defend him and degrade Nas at the same time, I like jumping to boxing's defense while throwing a few jabs at MMA in the process.
One of the arguments I hear most is that the amount of known MMA fighters trumps those in boxing, when really I think fans of both sports have an inflated sense of significance for both their sport and athletes. Honestly I believe both sports are plagued with the issue of its biggest stars also being closer to retirement than their primes. Besides Jon Jones (who might be as disliked as he is liked) almost all the "marquee" names in each sport are on the wrong side of 30, even if they do have a lot of fight left.
Boxing's problem lies in its star crowning process. Too often it involves fighters given the star treatment without either the in-ring success or having ever showing the drawing power necessary to be an actual star. We watched Andre Berto fail to draw crowds in his home state, Amir Khan fail to deliver on the potential that Golden Boy and HBO swore by, and so on and so on. MMA, with the power of having one major promoter, does a better job of weeding out the pretenders from the contenders in the Octagon, which in turn serves as a filtering system for them, and makes sure they don't give the star treatment to undeserving fighters. Talent doesn't always equal drawing power, but it is at least something that can be marketed.
I say all that to say this: Boxing got lucky in 2012, with two new, legitimate stars, who have each proven their talent in the ring and now their drawing power, both at the gate and with TV and PPV viewers. Like it or not Julio Cesar Chavez Jr has developed to a legitimate middleweight contender, and Saul "Canelo" Alverez has shown that he is one of the best 154 pound fighters in the world. In theory, the two Mexican stars are now the anointed ones, the heirs to the box office thrones that Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao now sit on, but I think the talent pool is even deeper than this. There is a nice sized crop of fighters under 30 that have what it takes to carry boxing in the next decade. So now I give you the five fighters most likely to be boxing's next "star."
First a few honorable mentions:
Brandon Rios (Age: 26; Promoter: Top Rank): Rios has all the tools necessary to be the next action star in boxing. A style that is enjoyable (to say the least) and a promoter that will give him their all, as well as plenty of network backing. Action stars are also given the benefit of being able to lose a few fights and not really hurt their stock too much because it's usually done in entertaining fashion. Rios may not be good enough to ever beat the true elite fighters in his weight class, but he will make any of those fights as entertaining as possible. Plus he cusses a lot on live TV, which people like.
Timothy Bradley (Age: 29; Promoter: Top Rank): Bradley may have blown his shot by running his mouth since "beating" Manny Pacquiao in June. Since then he has become annoying and pretty much killed all the good momentum he built going into the Pacquiao fight. Still, he is an elite talent with a power promoter and some network backing (not enough to get Zab Judah back on HBO though, ha). His style isn't very crowd pleasing, but he has shown the personality that many thought he lacked and carried a three-episode run of 24/7 in the lead up to the Pacquiao fight. Bradley's ace up his sleeve is a rematch with Manny, and if he can legitimately beat him it could and should be a star making performance.
(Photo by Tom Casino/Showtime)
Josesito Lopez (Age: 28; Promoter: Goossen Tutor): I wanted Josesito to be on the list really, really badly, but the fact is everything tells me that he may slip into that inescapable "too dangerous and not worth enough money" zone that so many good fighters fall into. The Canelo fight was too good an opportunity to pass up, but it may have halted all his momentum and buzz he gained from breaking Victor Ortiz's jaw so violently. Really that's too bad, because Josesito has talent, a great story and a personality that kind of just makes you root for him. Having Al Haymon in his corner will make it a little harder for him to just disappear, and an Ortiz rematch should keep him relevant for a little while longer, but big fights might evade him if he looks too good again.
Whomever Beats Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao
And not in the Timothy Bradley sense, but actually beats one of the current kings, who owe their place in the sport to star making victories over the former king, Oscar De La Hoya. Make no mistake, they had fans before beating Oscar, but beating him is what propelled them to the level they are at now. Theoretically the privilege of significance should and would be bestowed upon whomever can beat one of these guys, and with noticeable slippage from both of them in recent fights, it could be soon.
5. Danny Garcia (Age: 24; Promoter: Golden Boy)
Quick, who has main evented more premium cable boxing cards than any other fighter in the world this year? Obviously I'm asking here because the answer is Danny "Swift" Garcia, but really think about that for a second. A few short months ago he was the unspectacular junior welterweight that many could see seemingly getting beat by a blown up blown up Erik Morales.
Now, he's one of the hottest and most marketable names in the sport. His sobbing "we did it!" speech following the Morales fight was inspiring, his dad adds just enough controversy to his presentation to keep it interesting, and he now has the full backing of his power promoter. He has the look, and judging by the fact that TV Johnny walks him to the ring every fight and that he records rap videos in his spare time, he also has just enough urban edge to reach that market as well. Plus he is Puerto Rican (American) which gives him a large group of rabid supporters if he chooses to market himself to them, and even though he isn't a native born son, he could be next in line for the invaluable "Puerto Rico's favorite fighter" crown that Miguel Cotto now carries and Juanma Lopez never quite grabbed.
On top of all this he's actually pretty good. Remember it wasn't too long ago that many thought Andre Ward was an unspectacular, good at everything but not great at anything, middling contender that people weren't sure would ever make the leap. Now he's Andre Ward. Golden Boy is showing a lot of faith in Garcia by making him the A-side headliner of what is the most stacked card in some time. All Danny has to do now is keep winning and he will find himself in major fights, and if he moves to the weight class "where all the riches are," he has just as good a case to fight one of "those guys" as anybody else. Let that sink in for a second.
4. Victor Ortiz (Age: 25; Promoter: Golden Boy)
I know, I know. But there is a certain "it" to Victor Ortiz that makes us all tune in. Plus, he's talented, and young. At just 25, Ortiz is in the perfect position to fight any of the major players at 147 or 154, because he will look good in highlights, has a name and is beatable enough for the Cottos and Canelos and Mayweathers of the world to actually fight him. B
But don't confuse "beatable" with "not good," Ortiz is huge at 147, strong and fast. Sure, he's a little crazy, but that is part of his appeal at this point. With plenty of marketable "major" fights within his arms reach (he could conceivably fight Miguel Cotto, Canelo Alverez, Amir Khan, Josesito Lopez again, Floyd Mayweather again or Andre Berto again or Marcos Maidana again and they would all be big and entertaining fights), he is a win away from being top five-ish in terms of significance in the sport.
He has major backing from Oscar and Co. and is at the level where all his fights will be on premium cable or above. The rub he got from fighting Floyd (and the infamous ending to the fight) still lingers and his performance against Berto still looks good, plus pairing with daddy Mayweather could and should benefit him. Ortiz has the talent to be a major player. The only question is if he can mentally get himself together and execute.
3. Nonito Donaire (Age: 29; Promoter: Top Rank)
Some have soured on Donaire. With the fighter seemingly ducking Guillermo Rigondeaux, and having a few fights that were not quite as exciting as HBO wanted them to be, that will happen. But the fact of the matter is that Donaire is an elite talent with a power promoter and strong HBO backing, and the benefit of the Filipino fan base that cannot be understated. There is potential for the Filipinos to join the Puerto Ricans and Mexicans as a fan base that supports their native sons like none other.
Just like Garcia, Donaire may be next in line for the now coveted "Filipino's favorite fighter" crown that Manny Pacquiao will hold until he retires, and if he does win over his people, he will be a star, as they have shown in the past five years that they will support at the turnstiles and with PPV buys, so Nonito will be valuable commodity to Top Rank and HBO for some time.
2. Adrien Broner (Age: 23; Promoter: Golden Boy)
Look, Broner is a world class talent with a power promoter and a "personality" that gets people to tune in, but the most important thing to mention here is that HBO really really really really REALLY likes him. As in, you can practically hear Max Kellerman drooling whenever he's on the network. Broner has all the tools, and Floyd's blueprint to now follow to stardom. The only thing stopping Broner at this point is if he starts losing fights over and over.
His promoter, the network that loves him, and Al Haymon are going to do everything in their power to make him the next Floyd, so if you don't like Broner you better start getting used to him, or hope he starts losing a lot, because those in power in the sport are practically bending over backwards to make sure he's here for a long while. While he hasn't done much at the live gate, he has shown capable of carrying an HBO main event, as his mismatch with Vincente Escobedo did a 3.4 rating (1.4 million viewers, for comparison Khan-Garcia a week before had 1.3 million viewers) and had all the powers that be scrambling to make sure the fight happened even though Broner didn't even really try to make weight. If he beats Antonio DeMarco in impressive fashion next month it could launch him into the Canelo/Chavez Jr group. He's that close and has that much backing.
1. Andre Ward (Age: 28; Promoter: Goossen Tutor)
Ward is at worst the second-best pound for pound fighter in the world right now, an elite talent that has beaten everybody of note in his weight class, and did so in dominant fashion. Then, to makes matters better, he went and had an entertaining TKO victory against the best fighter in the weight class above him. Now backed strongly by the premier network in the boxing world, he has endless options even though he has cleaned out his division.
Ward has also shown a charming personality recently that may be key in drawing viewers to their TVs and patrons to the turnstiles (as well as a bit of an asshole-ish edge to him to let you know that he means business in the ring). Ward also brings something to the table that the other fighters on this list lack, a supportive profitable home base, as Oakland and Northern California in general have showed up to Ward's fights as well as shown him the support of a ton of local press. What could possibly hold Ward back a tad is his lack of a "power" promoter, which isn't to say that Goossen Tutor don't do a great job, but traditionally the "stars" of the sport do come from the major promoters. But in Ward's case that may be a benefit, as he is in a position to avoid the cold war and fight opponents from either promotion (which honestly may not matter much at 175, a division where their presence isn't as strong as usual).
Even with that potential obstacle, Ward is marketable in every traditional way, a good looking, undefeated American Olympic Gold medalist who now wins in exciting impressive fashion, fights on the premier network in the sport and has a home base that makes his fights profitable. We now live in a world where the best fighter in the sport is also its biggest star, and Ward looks to be in a good position to continue the tradition. What a novel concept. The only thing left for Ward to do is to have a star making performance, again.