I don't always want to talk about how I think the "boxing is dead!" hyperbole is, well, hyperbole to an extreme degree. The truth is, though, that the mainstream media's indifference to boxing is not a reflection on the true state of the sweet science. Outside of the heavyweight division, which is still lagging woefully behind the rest of the sport, there are tremendous fighters littering the sport.
The fact is, the heavyweight division will never be what it once was. Well, maybe it's not a fact -- it's my very serious opinion, however. Kids that may have become heavyweight boxers do turn to football and perhaps now MMA. It is a problem, as long as you're terribly concerned with the health of the heavyweight division. Personally, I'm not. The rise in comparable and even exceeding popularity of the lower weight classes is well overdue. And there are three young champions, in particular, who can and should be seen as healthy indicators of the future of boxing.
They share a lot of the same qualities. For one thing, they're all entertaining. For another thing, they're all willing to fight the best fighters they can. These are things that boxing has often missed this decade. Oscar de la Hoya should get a lot more credit for fighting (and usually losing to) the best fighters out there. There aren't many guys with his track record for fighting the top guys. And it's the influence of Oscar -- no doubt an idol for many of today's young fighters -- that is leading to the resurgence of quality matchmaking that I've spoken of before, and which I think is a major block to getting some of the lost fans back.
Let's take a look at the three fighters I'm talking about.
WBA, WBO and IBF Lightweight Champion
33-0, 17 KO
24 years old - Houston, TX
You will never read a mainstream article on Juan Diaz that doesn't quickly make note of the fact that "The Baby Bull" is still carrying around some baby fat, as if it's somehow an amazing quirk that should prevent him from being any good. Juan Diaz does not have a six-pack or bulging Mike Tyson biceps. To look at him, you wouldn't place him in the same weight class recently championed by the lanky Diego Corrales.
I have generally made it a mission to not ever mention that Juan Diaz is a little bit chubby, because it means nothing. As Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane said repeatedly in the best-selling Moneyball, "We're not selling jeans here." There is, in every sport, a tendency to get attracted to the "look" of the athletes, judging who would be good and who probably wouldn't. Like Kirby Puckett and Tony Gwynn, you wouldn't take a first look at Juan Diaz and suspect he has the talent he does.
Your mistake. I am steadfast in considering Joel Casamayor the best 135-pound fighter in the sport, because over his career, he has proven time and again how good he is, and he was never beaten for the title he won last year. But, I have to be honest: Juan's making it really hard to continue ranking Casamayor higher than him.
He is a relentless, tireless worker in the ring. He punches, punches, punches, and punches some more. He's not that strong. He doesn't hit that hard for a championship-caliber boxer. And you wouldn't think that much of his technique watching him. But he is rapidly and continuously improving defensively, and he never gives his opponents an opening to start scoring on him. One of the official judges' cards at the time of Juan's 9th-round corner stoppage win over Julio Diaz on Saturday night had Juan ahead 77-75. That's madness, as far as I'm concerned. I gave Julio one round and felt a little uneasy about it. Juan Diaz owned the ring, and made a champion quit. He did the same in his previous fight against Acelino Freitas. He might not have the power to score the highlight-reel KO, but he hits his opponents so many times that they lose the will to continue fighting. That's impressive.
Past that, he's a really likable guy, personable and genuine. And what did he do after unifying three titles? He called out Manny Pacquiao, universally considered the top dog at 130, who is considering a move up. Juan could go up to 140 with little trouble and be top three in the division upon entrance. But, for now, he's staying at 135, and he wants the best opposition. He's been a world champion since 2004. Prior to Freitas, some still talked of him being "protected." He proved that to be much ado about nothing. He's for real.
WBC and WBO Middleweight Champion
32-0, 29 KO
25 years old - Youngstown, OH
They don't come much more midwestern than Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik. From the beaten-down steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, has emerged the most lethal middleweight in the world. Unlike the other two we're talking about, he has one-punch power. One-punch power that apparently is only now being considered legit, after his seventh-round knockout of Jermain Taylor that made him a world champion.
Pavlik, like Diaz, is likable, personable and genuine. Like Diaz, he's a relentless puncher. Unlike Diaz, every straight right Pavlik throws could be the last of the bout. Defensively, he, too, has improved greatly over the course of the last year. In January, he still showed some lapses in a knockout win over Jose Luis Zertuche.
These lapses led many of us to believe -- myself included -- that Colombian bomber Edison Miranda would open up on him in a nasty way when they fought for a shot at Taylor in May. Just a little bit wrong on that one. Pavlik shot to the top of the rankings with a dominant, brutal seventh-round TKO of Miranda, who was the new KO golden child of the middleweights. Pavlik took the crown that night and left no doubters over who was the bigger, better puncher, and who had the tougher chin, another thing we all had to question going into the bout. Pavlik took shots against Miranda. It's just that every time he took one, he punished Miranda with something even harder.
Part of me still worries that Pavlik relies a bit too much on the 1-2 of his average jab and the big straight right, but it didn't let him down against Taylor, who is still a tremendous fighter and put in a good performance that night. He also proved that adversity is not a problem for him -- Taylor hammered him down in the second round, went for the kill, and Pavlik survived and came out for the third round like nothing had happened. Emanuel Steward has now somewhat famously noted that that's when he knew his fighter was in trouble.
I don't like to bring ethnicity into the discussion for fighters, because I don't feel it matters a whole lot, but I think everyone will get what I'm saying here: Pavlik doesn't fight like a white guy. He fights like the famous Mexican warriors. He's willing -- hell, enthusiastic about -- going into heavy artillery warfare with anyone. He bullied the bully with Miranda, and just outwilled Jermain Taylor, who has been in some hard-fought fights with guys like Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright.
Plus, Pavlik just has a very strong desire to pummel his opponents. Boxers don't too often come along that are more exciting to watch than Kelly Pavlik. This is a guy that could be a major, major moneymaker. Who'd have thought?
WBA Welterweight Champion
30-0, 25 KO
26 years old - Caguas, Puerto Rico
Cotto is a Puerto Rican native and still calls the island his home, but he has an unofficial hometown in the States. New York City is Miguel Cotto's town, and Madison Square Garden is Miguel Cotto's house. Not a bad house to have.
Let's echo the Diaz and Pavlik statements: Great guy, likable guy, wonderful representative for the sport. A few years ago, he wouldn't speak English in a post-fight interview because he was simply nervous that his English wasn't good enough. Now, he has repeatedly visited the ESPN studios to serve as a guest analyst, and he's done very well. Cotto, like the other two, is a genuine professional.
Juan fought Julio, Pavlik fought Taylor. Those two are now more than legitimized. Miguel Cotto doesn't have anything left to prove in my mind, not after conquering two divisions. But while no one else was exactly itching to get into the ring at 147 pounds with a re-focused, re-energized "Sugar" Shane Mosley, Cotto signed on the dotted line for November 10.
He's dominated everyone he's fought, from current 140-pound titleholders Ricardo Torres and Paulie Malignaggi to Carlos Quintana, Oktay Urkal, and Zab Judah. Let's ech another statement from the other young guns: He's relentless. He keeps coming, and he's willing to eat shots to fight his fight. Judah popped him solidly a few times, and it seemed to not matter to Cotto. His expression never changes. He's an iceman.
Cotto and Diaz share an intent focus on attacking the body and taking the legs and wind away from their opponents. To date, no one has come up with a good way to counter this against either guy. While Pavlik is largely a deadly headhunter with flash power, Cotto and Diaz are blue-collar workhorses. Both guys don't hit terribly hard, but it adds up. And, as we've found out, it can add up fast. Cotto and Diaz are cut from the exact same cloth.
While Diaz hopes to fight Pacquiao and Pavlik is likely to either match up with Taylor again or perhaps move up to 168 to face the winner of Calzaghe-Kessler, Cotto's fight with Mosley is the focus of his life right now. Shane Mosley, from where I sit, has the raw skills to match up with anyone who has ever fought at 147 pounds. Anyone. He's got speed, power, his defense is good, his footwork is exceptional, and he's smart. He's the total package.
No one's ever made any secret that Miguel Cotto's hand speed is nothing to get excited over, and his footwork, for the level of fighter he is, is almost non-existant. He doesn't try to get away from much. He's coming right at you. The matchup with Mosley presents something Cotto has yet to see. Zab Judah was once the sort of fighter that could have at least sort of prepared Miguel for Mosley's attack, but I don't think that's the case anymore. Mosley is going to give Cotto looks he's never seen up close, and he has the punching power to hurt Cotto on counter shots, and quick stick-and-move numbers.
On paper, I would heavily favor Mosley, even though he's 36 years old. Two fighters have ever stymied Mosley, accounting for all his four losses: two to Vernon Forrest, two to Winky Wright. Forrest just had Mosley's number, the same as Mayorga had Forrest's, and it's tough to really explain why. And Winky was just a bad, bad matchup for Shane -- well, Winky's not a good matchup for anyone. Plus, Shane was not the same at 154 as he has been at 147. Junior middleweight was just not right for him, and it showed.
But despite all of this, I think I am starting to favor Cotto. He's younger, he's tough, and I think he has the smarts to know that he's going to have to bull Mosley to where he wants him and unload heavily. It's still up in the air, and frankly, it's the most interesting matchup of the season.
For the reasons I've gone over, these three fighters always come to mind almost at once when I think of any of them. To me, they're the three most exciting young champions in the sport, and three very good reasons to have a true excitement about where boxing is currently and where it will be for years. I don't think any of these guys are going to be going anywhere any time soon.
You see, I occasionally will talk to someone at a bar, and we get to talking about sports, and boxing will come up somehow, and too often people are amazed that there is boxing. If only they'd watch. Juan Diaz, Kelly Pavlik and Miguel Cotto are three of the guys I'd put out there for anyone to judge and tell me that the sport isn't what it used to be. If they still disagreed, that's when I'd write them off.