Top 10: Best under-30 fighters in boxing, pound-for-pound

Esther Lin/SHOWTIME

A new generation of fighters are starting to take over the boxing world, as the old guard fades away. Who has combined achievement with talent the best thus far?

When Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are gone, who will boxing have left?" This is a question that I've seen asked 300,000 or so times since 2010, either from people who are rooting for the demise of boxing, or have already been convinced that it's "dead" or "dying," or from those who love the sport and are genuinely concerned.

"Someone comes along," I'd say. "Someone always comes along." Mostly, it seemed you guys would agree with that. And I still think that's the case. But eventually, I kind of started questioning my own answer: OK, someone comes along. Who? And when are they coming?

Last night during the NBC Sports Fight Night live thread, one of you (I hate printing usernames unless they're actual names, I'm sorry) asked if I'd do a top 10 on the best fighters under 30. I decided immediately to oblige, because top 10 lists are fun to talk about and pretty easy and amusing to put together, too. The way I figure it, this is the list of the best fighters who are either peaking or have already done some notable things with a peak yet to come.

Not all of them will be stars. Stars are hard to scout in boxing, really. No one would have expected that Manny Pacquiao would have become a global phenom. Few, really, would have expected a young "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather Jr to go on to become Floyd "Money" Mayweather, not only the best fighter in the game, but its biggest pay-per-view attraction, too.

I can't really predict who the big breakthrough stars are going to be, but I remain confident that someone will get there, even if there winds up being a two or three year period where boxing is adrift without those one or two guys who bring it to the mainstream a few times a year. Maybe it will be one of these fighters. Maybe someone else. Maybe someone we haven't even considered at all yet, who is two fights into a pro career, or is 15 years old somewhere in a gym, continuing to learn his trade with dogged determination.

This is just a list of the guys I think are the best fighters under age 30 right now -- those who have the talent and the achievements.

One note: Timothy Bradley would be on this list (and he'd be high on this list), but I decided to exclude those who will be 30 by the end of 2013, and Bradley is turning 30 in 25 days. He'll be 30 the next time he fights. So I'm not counting him. The No. 1 fighter (it's a predictable choice) will be 30 early next year, too, so he's "on the way out" in this regard.

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10. Austin Trout (1985-09-18)

Las Cruces, New Mexico's own Austin Trout took his first career loss in April, but this is still a top junior middleweight. For years, he toiled without a major promoter or major manager or anything of the sort, becoming a road warrior in order to win his first world title. It's not as though it's a hard-luck story -- Trout persevered and when big-time opportunity knocked last December against Miguel Cotto, Trout took full advantage, outclassing the veteran star over 12 rounds at Madison Square Garden.

Trout's 2013 loss to Canelo Alvarez wasn't anything to be ashamed of, either. Though some of the "haters" continue to insist that Alvarez isn't much, the fact is, the kid can fight, and Trout found that out first-hand. Ask Austin Trout if Canelo is a good fighter, if he's the real deal or not. Trout didn't complain and didn't argue. He admitted defeat, and said he'd be back.

Al Haymon has helped "No Doubt" Trout (26-1, 14 KO) get the exposure he should have been getting much earlier in his career. He lurked as a dangerous opponent at 154 pounds for a long time, and the top guys just didn't want to fight him. He brought no money to the table, he was crafty and talented, and he had no hype. Without the power brokers, Trout couldn't really get a break. Then Haymon came in, and he got it. Never forget that there are a lot of really talented young fighters out there. Sure, Top Rank and Golden Boy will manage to snare the majority of them sooner or later, but sometimes guys fall through the cracks. Trout fell through the cracks for a while, and delivered when he got his shot. There's still plenty of career left. A loss is just a loss.

9. Miguel Vazquez (1987-01-06)

Canelo Alvarez, who we'll get to in a moment, has two wins over Miguel Vazquez. They now fight 20 pounds apart. So, I mean, that's something. Miguel Vazquez (33-3, 13 KO) is nobody's favorite fighter, and "The Puppet" is content to bore the bejesus out of spectators so long as he gets the win and keeps his IBF lightweight belt.

Seeing what we saw from Adrien Broner against Paulie Malignaggi, would you be totally certain that a Broner back at 135 against Vazquez would come out the winner? This is a smart, savvy, technically sound fighter who doesn't lose his cool and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. To borrow from Floyd, this ain't DeMarco. Broner has had issues with crafty guys. I dunno, I think it could potentially be really interesting.

On the other hand, while Vazquez's qualities are obvious, the fact is he hasn't beaten anyone considered a serious contender at 135, either. I mean, Lenny Zappa and Ammeth Diaz and Mercito Gesta are OK wins, but, really. That ain't DeMarco, either. That ain't even Gavin Rees.

8. Adrien Broner (1989-07-28)

Well, here we go. Question you may have: am I downgrading Broner on purpose to stir up debate? No, I'm really not. I expect some of you will object to this ranking, but all I ask is that you really consider this before going forward with an argument, and I'm certainly not saying there isn't one to be made.

Adrien Broner is extremely talented. We all know, however, for a verified fact, that talent is not enough in professional boxing. It will take you a good bit of the way, but it is not enough to get to the legitimately elite ranks. And no, Adrien Broner is not at the legitimately elite ranks, and he's not close yet, either.

Broner (27-0, 22 KO) is exceptionally gifted. Nobody questions that. However, so was Zab Judah, and Judah's career fell short of the early hype and expectations because of things that may very well dog Broner in the long run. Judah's mental game couldn't match his physical skills. Judah also allowed himself to get distracted from his professional life far too often. He was emotional to a fault, in and out of the ring, and while he had a very good career and remains a credible fighter at age 35, I don't think it's at all unfair to say that Judah, with his physical skills, underachieved on the whole.

Look, I'm not going to lie about where I sit on this debate, or try to spruce it up with "but to be fair"-type stuff: Broner is not the next Floyd Mayweather. He is not good enough. He will not be as good as Floyd Mayweather at Mayweather's best. Frankly, I'm not sure he'll ever be as good as Mayweather was before Mayweather hit his true peak. Floyd himself recently downplayed a Broner comparison and the "three world titles" that "The Problem" has already won when he pointed out that at age 21, Floyd Mayweather was beating Genaro Hernandez. Hernandez was a better fighter -- and by a good bit, in my estimation -- than anyone that Broner has seen to date. And Mayweather dominated him.

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Adrien Broner is a talent. OK, we know that. But what has he done against his better opponents? He squeaked past both Daniel Ponce De Leon and Paulie Malignaggi. If you want to play the weight card with the Paulie win, I get it, but it was Broner's decision to fight at 147, and it's not like Malignaggi is some big bruiser of a welterweight, either. If you made a pre-fight checklist where you judged who had the advantages in a bunch of key categories, I think Adrien Broner would have had every advantage over Malignaggi save for two things: experience and ring IQ. Malignaggi used those two things to make an argument for himself as the winner. Broner did totally smash Antonio DeMarco, and there's no "but" about that. That was a night where he looked like he is who we're told he is.

Broner's still just 24, but as far as hype exceeding achievements, I think he's got as much to dislike as Canelo Alvarez. Sure, beating Gavin Rees in an HBO main event is about the same as beating Matthew Hatton in an about main event (or Kermit Cintron), but Alvarez achieved his stardom in large part because he was a legitimate attraction in Mexico before he even started making his way in the United States. Broner has been a pure TV and management creation. There are not abnormally large crowds coming out to see him. I'm not even saying this makes one thing better than the other, but Alvarez wasn't pushed as a star because Al Haymon and Golden Boy wanted to make him one. He got the push because he created his own noise. That's not the case for Broner.

Now, the push has worked to a large degree. Broner has become a reliable TV draw. I'm convinced that if he matches his mouth and the surrounding hype bonanza, he can, in fact, be a major star in boxing for a long time. If he walks the walk, he's going to make a ton of money.

But I'm not convinced he's going to meet the expectations that he's asked to have. He wants to be considered the best, but seems to rankle any time that means doing more than the bare minimum. He lives and dies on hashtag talk (#easymoney) in his public persona, and that leads me to the biggest question I have about Broner. Does he want to be the best fighter, or does he want to just be the biggest star? Because they're very different things. "Money" Mayweather never would have been the bankable superstar he is without being the insanely dedicated, hypergifted technician we first knew as "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Before Mayweather became the new big thing in the sport, he had long established himself as its greatest talent. #hardwork #dedication is hashtag talk, too, but with Floyd, it means something. He put in a lot of both to get to where he is.

When Mayweather says that Broner has a lot to learn, I can't help but wonder if he's not saying more than we think he is on the surface. Being totally honest, does anyone think Floyd Mayweather looks at Adrien Broner and truly sees the next Floyd Mayweather in the ring?

Adrien Broner can call himself a three-division world champion, but I think even the staunchest Broner defenders who also actually follow boxing even semi-seriously can agree that claims of multi-division world titles are dubious at best, and that goes for anyone. Manny Pacquiao has seven world titles, but does anyone really take his title wins at 135 or 154 all that seriously? No world title is truly easy to win, even the most bogus of the bogus, but when we think "world champion," the instinct is to think about the greats, the true top fighters. Broner is really good, but do his world title wins over Martin Rodriguez, Antonio DeMarco, and Paulie Malignaggi really scream "elite fighter" to you?

Long story cut off here because it's already gone on a bit more than it really needed to for a stupid list article, I don't think Adrien Broner's achievements have come close to meeting his hype. Not yet. That's not his fault, and I don't blame him or his management for taking advantage of the hungry or the gullible in boxing TV and creating a star with lot of fights that make only the most superficial of star fighters. Broner is a "star" because he's drawn attention. But boxing is a harsh sport in every way, including from the pundits, critics, and everyone else who helps to keep guys in the news and in the discussion with the fan base. If Broner winds up getting "exposed" at some point against a less-than-great fighter, the fall could be massive. And we don't know how he would deal with that, either.

All I'm saying is that the brakes need to be pumped in Broner's case. Nobody is doing him any favors putting him on pound-for-pound top ten lists or calling him the next Mayweather. If he wants to do that himself, that's his call, and it's the risk he's taking. But I think boxing fans/critics/whatever also feel somewhat betrayed sometimes when they put their faith into a fighter and make an idol or manufactured icon out of someone who hasn't put the proof into the pudding, which leads to a nasty backlash if the dreams aren't realized. Leave the creating up to Haymon and Golden Boy and Showtime and the PR people. Look at what Broner has actually achieved, the struggles he's had against arguably his two best opponents, and ask yourself if Adrien Broner might not be setting up for one of the biggest falls from grace in recent memory if he comes up short and can't be molded into a once-in-a-generation fighter.

7. Canelo Alvarez (1990-07-18)

Almost all the issues I have with Broner, I also have with Alvarez (42-0-1, 30 KO). Canelo is a star fighter like Broner is a star fighter. The paths to get there are different, as I detailed above, but either way they've gotten to this point, they've both done so with more storytelling than accomplishment. Canelo becoming a unique attraction breaks down in large part to the fact that he's a handsome Mexican kid with red hair and freckles. That's not better than being a TV creation, just different.

Alvarez edges Broner on this list simply because I think Canelo's win over Austin Trout greatly trumps anything that Broner has done to date. If you're wondering about DeMarco, I don't think DeMarco is all that great of a fighter, and I said before that fight that I expected Broner to destroy him. What happened in that fight was no surprise to me. From where I sit, DeMarco was a hand-picked opponent like a lot of guys. Credible, yes. But did they expect it to be easy? Of course, and it was.

Trout, on the other hand, was seen as a very risky fight for Alvarez, and one that a lot of people didn't think he would take. Reports were that Golden Boy didn't want it, but when Miguel Cotto was out of the picture due to Trout, Alvarez insisted on Austin. We commended that. Then I said I expected Canelo to win, just as he did, in a competitive fight where he earned a victory. (Listen, just give me these two minor gloats. I get so many things so hideously wrong that I feel like I need to maybe trick the newer readers into thinking I know what I'm talking about.)

Anyway, I won't prattle on about Canelo here, because a lot of what I would say is the same as what I said about Broner. With Broner, I don't know when we'll truly find out how he handles adversity in a fight where he's not the overwhelming favorite to win and likely to get the benefit of the doubt even when it's close enough to be arguable. With Alvarez, we find out in six weeks, when he probably loses to Floyd Mayweather.

6. Juan Francisco Estrada (1990-04-14)

Canelo Alvarez is not the best Mexican pro fighter born in 1990 right now. That would be Juan Francisco Estrada, currently the world's best flyweight. He's also a leading contender right now for 2013 Fighter of the Year if we ignore that he's not Max Kellerman Infographic material (not because Max doesn't care, but his Infographics only appear on HBO fights he calls) and doesn't get many headlines on ESPN.com or Yahoo! or The RING (or here, I keep having to apologize for sounding like an asshole).

Estrada (25-2, 18 KO) turned up seemingly out of nowhere last year as scheduled fodder for Roman Gonzalez, the best junior flyweight in the world. Estrada lost clearly and by a solid margin, but he was extremely competitive with one of the most skilled fighters out there. When he was scheduled for Brian Viloria's title defense in Macao in April of this year, it would have been easy to write him off. But Viloria is no Gonzalez, and Estrada proved that with a hard-fought, well-deserved, clear-cut victory over a guy who had been on a serious roll. His recent win over previously-unbeaten Milan Melindo established him further as no one-hit wonder.

He'll fly under the radar for most U.S. fans forever, but Estrada can really, really fight, and at 23, there's a long road ahead for him. He's also a fun action fighter, so that's another bonus reason to seek him out in the future.

5. Danny Garcia (1988-03-20)

Garcia may be -- in the ring, anyway -- the anti-Broner. Doesn't seem special, but wins, and beats credible opposition without leaving question marks. Outside of the ring, they're both crummy rappers who like jewelry, but Garcia doesn't talk much. He leaves that up to his dad. Broner's dad has a hairbrush. Man. Parallels, you guys. Peas in a pod? Kinda concerning.

I've grown to really think quite highly of Danny Garcia as a fighter. He doesn't have great speed, doesn't have great power, isn't slick, isn't particularly good defensively, and doesn't have one of those commercially-accepted world class trainers like Freddie Roach, Robert Garcia, or even a Ronnie Shields. It's Danny & Dad against the world. Dad does the talking, Danny does the fighting. And he's really quite a fighter, a well-rounded, polished young pro who has made improvements over his career and become a better fighter as time goes on. There seems to be a weird feeling of inevitability that Lucas Matthysse will beat Danny on September 14. Don't be so certain. I hate this phrase, but this is a guy who knows how to win.

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4. Mikey Garcia (1987-12-15)

Mikey Garcia is very, very good and very boring to talk about.

I'm sorry, I just find Mikey Garcia really boring to talk about. I don't even want to talk about Mikey Garcia. Not in the ring boring, but as a personality, he is as boring as his haircut. This isn't a bad thing, I just have no feelings about Mikey Garcia that make me want to discuss Mikey Garcia at any length.

3. Roman Gonzalez (1986-06-17)

"Chocolatito" (35-0, 29 KO) is probably the most overlooked and underrated fighter in the world. He's about as skilled as anybody, he's fun to watch, he puts fights away, and he wins and wins and wins. There's nothing to not like about him. But he's campaigned at 105 and 108. For those guys, sometimes a jump to 112 or higher is just too much. He's beaten some good and tough fighters, though, and his win over Estrada last November just looks better and better. For a long time, Ivan Calderon was about as skilled a fighter as there was in the sport, but he was rarely mentioned among near the tops of P4P lists. Gonzalez has gotten similar treatment. It's a bias that will probably never go away.

2. Abner Mares (1985-11-28)

Abner Mares has been as hot as anyone the last few years. Yeah, he loves to play speedbag with fellers' nuts on occasion, but he's a really talented fighter and one of the more reliable action guys that you're going to see routinely on big cards. His three division titles at 118, 122, and 126 carry a lot more weight than Broner's trio of trinkets, though Mares' 122-pound title and "reign" was pretty weak. He was up to make it more legit, but, like, politics, man. The success Mares has had thus far makes it appear as though he's got more weight classes to conquer, but that's always risky. There was worry he'd struggle at 126 against Ponce De Leon, but he didn't. How much higher can we reasonably ask him to go, though?

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1. Andre Ward (1984-02-23)

The reason that Andre Ward is No. 1 on this list is because if you take all the fighters of any age in the entire sport and rank them pound-for-pound, Andre Ward is No. 2. Floyd Mayweather isn't under 30, so that means Ward is No. 1 on this list. He's consistently beaten top fighters with either dominant or at least very clear victories, and he turned a hot division into one where there's a ruler and a bunch of people below him, led by Carl Froch, who is like Hand of the King, like Ned Stark, and Andre is Robert Baratheon, but you know, not dead. Well. Actually, with his career right now... hm. Stay away from hunting, Andre. Alfredo Angulo is Stannis.

Other notables in no particular order: Marco Huck, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, Keith Thurman, Argenis Mendez, Edwin Rodriguez, Devon Alexander, Tyson Fury, Kell Brook, Nathan Cleverly, Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, Tomoki Kamead, Anselmo Moreno, Kazuto Ioka, Amir Khan, Denis Shafikov, Brandon Rios.

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