Boxing is a sport that has lulls. The holiday season is always a big one, as nobody really wants to train over Christmas and New Year's, and TV boxing doesn't usually get going strong until mid-January at the very earliest, sometimes with the creek staying low all the way into February.
We're getting close to the schedule picking up once again, so let's roll another top ten, this time my picks for the best officially scheduled fights on the calendar right now. That means no Mayweather-Guerrero or Canelo-Trout; they might be happening, but they aren't done deals.
Notes on a few omissions: I have no real excitement over Martinez-Murray, Hopkins-Cloud, Garcia-Judah, or Broner-Rees. Either the outcome is not in any doubt for me or I just don't really have any great desire to actually sit through another Bernard Hopkins tactical hug-and-flopfest. Yes, I'll tune in to see them, and would even if I didn't have to, but being something I'll watch on TV is not exactly a gold star for anything. I watch Sons of Anarchy, for God's sake.
10. Daniel Ponce De Leon vs Jayson Velez (SHO, March 2)
Ponce De Leon (44-4, 35 KO) will make the first defense of the WBC featherweight title that he won from Jhonny Gonzalez on September 15, facing Puerto Rican prospect Jayson Velez (20-0, 15 KO). Without meaning to sound like I'm stereotyping -- because it's not like they all have the same trainers or whatever -- Puerto Rican prospects have recently had something of a hard time getting over the hump when it comes time to put up or shut up, and whether that's down to an odd run of bad luck, a series of overhyped talents, or just some kind of cosmic watchamacallit, Velez will be looking to better the efforts we've seen from guys like Jonathan Gonzalez, Luis Cruz, Luis Del Valle, and Gabriel Bracero in a step-up bout.
It's worth wondering whether or not Velez, 24, is really ready for this. His last fight was an easy win over Salvador Sanchez II, who has nothing in common with his famous uncle other than hairstyles and trunks, a comically predictable mismatch. Ponce De Leon is a huge step up from that level, and Velez seems flawed. But sometimes prospects really shine when the going finally gets a little tough. Danny Garcia, for example, had a bumpy outing or two, and then when the spotlight was on, off he went.
9. Selcuk Aydin vs Jesus Soto Karass (SHO, January 26)
29-year-old Aydin (23-1, 17 KO) and 30-year-old Soto Karass (26-8-3, 17 KO) aren't exactly fighting the most significant welterweight bout you're going to see any time soon, but this should be a proper fight. Aydin is a scrappy little SOB with a mean streak a mile long, the kind of guy who will throw down whenever possible, and make it a rough and tumble fight. He had a good amount more success, in my estimation, with Robert Guerrero than Andre Berto did. And while Soto Karass is hardly a serious contender, we know he can fight -- and we know he doesn't mind getting chippy. His September 15 war with Marcos Maidana is proof. These guys probably aren't headed for big-time world title fights, but they should bring plenty of action, or at least, plenty of nastiness.
8. David Lemieux vs Jose Miguel Torres (ESPN2, February 8
What can you say about 24-year-old middleweight David Lemieux that hasn't already been said? You could focus on the negatives, like the fashionable idea that he'll never really be a contender, because too much is missing, but let's accentuate the positives here. Lemieux (28-2, 27 KO) is a wicked puncher and knows no way to fight other than gunning for knockouts. That makes him a reliably good TV fighter.
Matched with Torres (26-5, 23 KO), there are fireworks on paper. Torres, a 33-year-old Colombian, has sort of the Typical Colombian Record, where he usually loses to his better opponents, but unlike some of his countrymen, he doesn't get bombed out when he does lose. He's never been stopped. In November 2011, he knocked out Patrick Majewski, who was at the time an unbeaten prospect. That's the best win of his career. It's not unfathomable that he tops it with this one. If he can survive Lemieux's early bombs, then all bets are off.
7. Johnathon Banks vs Seth Mitchell (HBO, February 16)
Banks (29-1-1, 19 KO) pulled off something pretty damn special in November. On the 10th, he led Wladimir Klitschko to a win over Mariusz Wach, having taken over as the world heavyweight champion's lead trainer after the passing of Emanuel Steward. Seven days later, he knocked out Seth Mitchell (25-1-1, 19 KO) in the second round of an HBO co-feature, which was designed to be another stepping stone for America's premium boxing network's latest favored heavyweight hype job.
Mitchell, 30, might still be raw, and may never come even close to living up to some of the press he's been given, but you can say this about him: He's got a legit heart and he's not here to make easy money in boxing. Whatever his flaws in the ring, he's really trying, and he wants to be the real deal. That's obvious by his taking an immediate rematch with a guy who just exposed him in two rounds. And for the 30-year-old Banks, it's a chance to once again raise his own profile. For a guy who was just supposed to be a fringe contender -- first at cruiser and now at heavy -- Banks has done alright for himself.
6. Gennady Golovkin vs Gabriel Rosado (HBO, January 19)
Golovkin (24-0, 21 KO) is another HBO pet project, or so it seems that will be the case, but unlike Mitchell, he's got the credentials. A former amateur standout and already a sanctioning body titleholder, the 30-year-old Kazakh toiled for years under the horrific Universum, a promotional company so awful they made even the worst of big-time American promoters' efforts look good. Now backed by K2, Golovkin made his HBO debut in September with an impressive win over Grzegorz Proksa, but sadly, nobody really watched it, as it did a dismal TV rating.
Lucky for Golovkin, HBO is apparently high on him, and he's getting a second crack on a show that someone will actually tune in to see, part of the Top Rank tripleheader from The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Rosado (21-5, 13 KO) is two things. First and foremost, he's a likable, tough fighter who has earned his way to this opportunity, never being handed much of anything in the boxing game. Second, he's a guy who might make Golovkin look sensational. The 26-year-old Rosado is coming up in weight and frankly doesn't seem to have any advantages on paper, but he's a fighter through and through, so you can expect a big effort if nothing else, and the worst result should be an entertaining fight.
5. Carl Frampton vs Kiko Martinez (Sky Sports, February 9)
Belfast's Frampton (15-0, 10 KO) is one of those prospects who has had more doubters than believers, it seems, at least in terms of people analyzing or pretending to analyze the sport, but has started to build a legitimate reputation. As mentioned in the UK P4P top 10, Frampton, 25, continues to improve in the ring, and now has a chance to win the 122-pound European title from Martinez (27-3, 19 KO), a quite capable Spaniard whose career is now being guided by middleweight champion Sergio Martinez.
Martinez, 26, has losses to Rendall Munroe (twice) and Takalani Ndlovu, two fighters who have been relevant on the world level in this division. If Frampton is going to get to that level soon, this is the type of fight he needs -- both as a learning experience, and, you know, to win. Barry McGuigan's relentless hyping of Frampton once drew a few laughs; nobody's laughing now, and if he beats Kiko Martinez, he's really getting into the mix.
4. Rocky Martinez vs Juan Carlos Burgos (HBO, January 19)
A good, evenly-matched title fight to open a very impressive tripleheader on HBO. Martinez (26-1-1, 16 KO) won the vacant WBO super featherweight title against Miguel Beltran Jr in one of the more overlooked terrific fights of 2012, a fight that was even unfairly ignored by the audience they were doing their damnedest to entertain at the Thomas & Mack Center on the Chavez Jr-Martinez undercard.
Now, the 29-year-old Puerto Rican makes his first defense against another Mexican fighter, the 25-year-old Burgos (30-1, 20 KO). It's not what you'd call a strong or particularly exciting weight class, but both of these guys are in the upper tier of the 130-pound ranks, and their styles will hopefully mesh and make for some action. Martinez can be plodding, but he'll fight like hell, and Burgos doesn't show any signs of fearing a tear-up, either.
3. Sergey Kovalev vs Gabriel Campillo (NBC Sports, January 19)
This one is flying way under the radar, and will continue to do so, as it's head-to-head with a fantastic HBO card, and it's on NBC Sports, and it doesn't have any star names. But it does have Campillo (21-4-1, 8 KO), who might actually be the best light heavyweight in the world today, a man who hasn't fought since he was robbed blind in Texas against Tavoris Cloud last February. Cloud's reward is a money fight on HBO with a guy who's closing in on AARP membership. Campillo's reward is a good, but lesser fight against a very strong opponent.
I would add that Main Events deserves major props for matching new signee Kovalev (19-0-1, 17 KO) with a fighter as awkward, tricky, and talented as the 34-year-old Campillo. It's not like Campillo guarantees viewers or attention or anything, so this is tough matchmaking for the sake of tough matchmaking -- which is nice. If the 29-year-old Russian can beat Campillo impressively, then the 175-pound division has a legit new threat for everyone to worry about.
2. Devon Alexander vs Kell Brook (SHO, February 23)
It's that rare animal: A true 50-50 fight for a world title. I can see good reasons on both sides to strongly feel that one man will be the victor in Detroit, but neither of them will be considered a sure thing, which we all too often see in these bouts.
Plus, it's a pair of fighters in their primes. Alexander (24-1, 13 KO) will turn 26 a couple of weeks before this fight, while Brook (29-0 19 KO) turns 27 in May. It's the first world title shot for the UK star, who hopes to take the IBF title belt back to Sheffield, while St. Louis' Alexander would like to keep himself a desirable opponent for Golden Boy's healthy roster of 140- and 147-pound fighters. And while it may not be the most action-packed fight, it's probably not going to be terribly dull, either. Alexander won't have the one-bomb fear he had against Randall Bailey, while Brook is generally in entertaining bouts, even if one-sided, the best being his summer barnburner with Carson Jones.
1. Orlando Salido vs Mikey Garcia (HBO, January 19)
It couldn't be anything else. Salido (39-11-2, 27 KO) is either the No. 1 or No. 2 featherweight in the world (it's him or Chris John), while Garcia (30-0, 26 KO) is a rising star in the division, a young fighter with high hopes and a lot of expectations.
But though Garcia, 25, has been featured a lot on TV, anything more than a glance at his record reveals something that a lot of guys get criticized for, but Garcia has not: Some very weak opposition. Garcia looks like he can fight for real, but nothing he's done so far has been indisputable proof that he'll be able to handle what is a significant jump in class for him here. Salido, 32, is a long way from Cornelius Lock, Matt Remillard, Rafael Guzman, and Bernabe Concepcion.
The bookend fights here are actually very similar; this is sort of a super-charged version of Ponce De Leon-Velez. Garcia is getting a chance to make a real statement that goes beyond fluff and hype, while Salido gets a chance to smack down another young gun. A lot seems to be riding, promotionally speaking, on Garcia coming out on top. But Salido is far from another steppig stone.