American boxing fans are always looking for the Next Big Thing, so which young US fighters could break through in 2013 and turn some heads?
American boxing has fallen on hard times, or so the story goes, but there are some talented young fighters out there looking to make their mark. Some are on the cusp of doing that, some are still a ways off, but all throughout the sport, from heavyweight on down, there are some intriguing American prospects who might be able to make an impact in 2013.
This isn't strictly a top 10 American prospects list -- in fact, I find it kind of hard to define "breakthrough," but you know it when you see it, I suppose. Adrien Broner had a true breakthrough year in 2012, and while he could certainly go even higher in 2013 and beyond, he wouldn't be a candidate for this list. Nor Danny Garcia, who may also still achieve greater fame and fortune, but has already broken through. The same would even go for Mikey Garcia, who has not accomplished what those two have yet, but is a known fighter heading into his first HBO main event on January 19.
These are fighters who could really turn some heads in 2013, most of them nearing the point where they might do some real damage in their divisions, and become players who get the press and fan attention that contributes to making a star.
10. Edwin Rodriguez (22-0, 15 KO, super middleweight)
Rodriguez, 27, might not totally fit his old nickname -- "La Bomba" -- anymore, but that's not really a bad thing. Training under Ronnie Shields, the Dominican-born fighter has settled down and refined his game during tough camps with the respected coach, and while he may have lost some of the brawling flash of his earlier days, he's a more well-rounded fighter for it. He's right there on the cusp of contention at 168 pounds, and has had his name mentioned for fights with Lucian Bute and Kelly Pavlik. A title shot this year doesn't seem at all unlikely, after solid 2012 wins on HBO over Jason Escalera and Don George.
9. Jessie Vargas (21-0, 9 KO, welterweight)
The former Mayweather Promotions prospect signed with Top Rank in 2012, and, well, maybe he didn't progress like some might have hoped with that move. After wins over Lanardo Tyner and Steve Forbes under the Mayweather logo, he beat Aron Martinez and Vito Gasparyan to close the year as a Top Rank fighter. Vargas, 23, is still very young, but has had enough exposure that it feels like he's being held back sometimes; nobody he fought in 2012 figured to have much shot at beating him, and it's time for him to at least take on some better gatekeepers than he has (with due respect to the tough Tyner). The move to Top Rank may not pay off in the short term; Golden Boy controls a lot of the prime real estate at 147 pounds, and Timothy Bradley would be a daring leap in competition for Vargas.
8. Demetrius Andrade (18-0, 13 KO, junior middleweight)
Speaking of guys who have taken some stick for their level of competition, 24-year-old Andrade has been one of Teddy Atlas' favorite punching bags the last couple of years, as the veteran trainer and ESPN analyst has never been shy about running down Andrade's opposition during Friday Night Fights outings. Maybe that's why he's moving to ShoBox to face Freddy Hernandez, a welterweight who has dabbled at junior middleweight. Andrade fought all of five rounds in 2012, mowing down Angel Hernandez (a fight that probably shouldn't have happened), Rudy Cisneros, and Alexis Hloros. Freddy Hernandez may not be the greatest test in the world, but he did last a full ten rounds with Erislandy Lara in June, and he's a big step up from that grossly overmatched lot. Andrade, a former Olympian, is making the move officially to 154 pounds for the fight, and hopes to get in the race in one of boxing's most jumbled, but talent-laden divisions.
7. Omar Figueroa (19-0-1, 15 KO, lightweight)
Omar Figueroa comes off as sort of a weird dude. There's talk that he's not wild about boxing, really, it's just something he's naturally fit for -- and something he's good at. One thing for sure is that he's damn fun to watch, as the 23-year-old Texas native comes to let his hands fly, as proven in wins over Michael Perez, Ramon Ayala, Tyler Ziolkowski, and Alain Hernandez. He did labor a bit against Dominic Salcido in July, but the kid might have just been plain gassed out physically on the night, plus Salcido's no chump. It was Figueroa's fifth fight between January and July, and his third since the start of June. He took the rest of the year off. Whether he sticks at 135 or 140 (and he's got the size to carry up to welterweight in time, probably), Figueroa's going to make more entertaining TV fights in the future.
6. Diego Magdaleno (23-0, 9 KO, super featherweight)
We often note that of the Magdaleno brothers, younger bro Jesse (13-0, 9 KO) looks to have the higher ceiling, and could go further than his big bro does. But Diego, 26, is ready to pounce now, whereas Jesse is a good ways off. With a fairly weak weight class around him, it's time for Magdaleno to push beyond matchups with worn-out veterans, which we saw this year in wins over Antonio Davis and Fernando Beltran. He's as ready as he's likely to get to make a move toward the top of the 130-pound ranks.
5. Jose Benavidez (17-0, 13 KO, junior welterweight/welterweight)
Blue chipper Benavidez, 20, has been handled pretty well so far, but a bit more may be expected in 2013, fair or not. He's had hype since the minute he turned professional in 2010, and has ripped through his opponents thus far, barely ever so much as challenged by any of them. The Phoenix native was briefly trained by Freddie Roach, but that didn't work out for everyone, and he's now trained and co-managed by his father, Jose Sr, and has avoided rushing into anything. He's very polished for such a young fighter, attacks the body really well, and has the offensive side of his game pretty well down. Defensively, he still needs work, but he's got such a natural rhythm in the ring that it's hard to imagine that when it's time to really work on that, he won't be successful. He went 3-0 in 2012, with his best win coming over Pavel Miranda, mostly dominating the fight but surviving a scare in the eighth round.
4. Danny Jacobs (24-1, 21 KO, middleweight)
There is no story in boxing any more inspiring than Danny Jacobs' at this moment. The 25-year-old Brooklyn fighter was dubbed the "Golden Child" of Golden Boy Promotions a few years ago, and figured to be one of their future stars, a middleweight champion in training. He had a lot going for him: Punching power, good skills, a great personality. He was humble but confident, the sort of young man whose fights mom might enjoy past the brutality of all the face-punching. A loss to an underestimated Dmitry Pirog in 2010 was a professional setback, but then came the real shock of his life: Osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that had wrapped a tumor around his spine and left him unable to walk. That Jacobs walked again is remarkable. That he's fighting and winning in a demanding professional sport again is almost unthinkable. Jacobs has a lot more work to do to get back into the higher levels of the sport, but are you going to count him out? I'm sure as hell not. It seems crazy to think Jacobs could be in the world title scene in the next 12 months, but I think it just might happen by the end of 2013.
3. Deontay Wilder (26-0, 26 KO, heavyweight)
The doubts remain, and for good reason. Of that 26-for-26 knockout streak that the 6'7", 27-year-old former Olympic bronze medalist is on, none of the opponents are what you would call "good." But Wilder remains an interesting prospect; for one thing, he's an American heavyweight with any potential whatsoever, and for another thing, he and his team have largely brushed off the criticism and remained 100% confident that they've done the right thing by taking it very slowly. The "haters" may still wind up being right, that Wilder is all hype and height, but the way he's transformed his body, packing on about 20 pounds of needed muscle since his pro debut, tells me they've gone slow for a reason. Wilder was still extremely raw coming out of the Olympics. and had a lot of physical work to do before even dreaming of, say, fighting a Klitschko brother someday. Wilder is now building a slow, low buzz that he just might be worth everyone's time.
2. Keith Thurman (19-0, 18 KO, welterweight/junior middleweight)
When it comes to making one's name in American boxing these days, a few things help. Knockout power helps. Keith Thurman has that. The right connections help. Keith Thurman is an Al Haymon fighter working with Golden Boy Promotions. A personality helps. Keith Thurman is articulate and charming. And after all that, if a TV network and its commentators take a shine to you, you're on the way. Thurman has HBO's team all aflutter. His two wins on the network in 2012 -- over Orlando Lora and Carlos Quintana -- were solid, and he'll be back on March 9, paired with Bernard Hopkins, who does some of the best HBO ratings of anyone in recent years. The hope is a wider audience will see him. My hope is they do, too, and they see him in against someone challenging.
1. Gary Russell Jr (21-0, 13 KO, featherweight)
If I thought Gary Russell Jr was nothing more than another pair of fast hands meant to pop fan and media wood across this great nation -- hell, world! -- of ours, then I wouldn't really mind that they keep feeding the 24-year-old DC native no-hopers. But the thing is, Gary Russell Jr looks like he has legit monster talent. He's quick with his hands and feet, he's accurate, he's got power in both hands (not huge power, but plenty of it), and he's one of those guys who just seems like he absolutely belongs in the boxing ring and nowhere else. That's why it's time for Russell to start fighting contenders at 126 pounds and putting himself into position to chase those world titles. The reason people are desperate to see it is because, I think, most of us expect he'll shine when the spotlight is really on, and that he's got the sort of talent that makes those beloved and/or reviled P4P lists. If I had to bet on anyone on this list to win a world title in 2012, it would be Russell, and I'm far more worried that he won't come close to trying than I am that he'd lose if given the opportunity.
Honorable Mentions: Frankie Gomez, Jermell Charlo, Mikey Faragon, Karim Mayfield, Chris Algieri, Terence Crawford, Jesse Magdaleno, Willie Nelson, Lamar Russ, Brandon Gonzales, Joel Diaz, Bryant Jennings.