The 160-pound division is one of boxing's great glory stops, filled with tales of legends like Sugar Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, Harry Greb, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, Jake LaMotta, and many, many more. When all is said and done, Bernard Hopkins will go down as a middleweight, and will be joining those elite names.
But in the current landscape, the middleweight division is one with a ruler, a great veteran, and then something of a jumble. Here's the top ten as I see it.
(Jermain Taylor is omitted because he absolutely, positively, 100% is confirmed as no longer fighting in the division.)
1. Kelly Pavlik (33-0, 29 KO)
The true middleweight champion, with his stunning win over Jermain Taylor last September followed up by a catchweight rematch victory. Pavlik is one of boxing's top news-makers now, which is further than I will admit I thought he would go. When he signed on to face Taylor, I agreed that he'd earned it. But I didn't think he was good enough to win. Turns out he's good enough to beat Taylor in a slugfest, and good enough to beat Jermain when the ex-champ is at the top of his game. Jermain Taylor looked as good as he has in years in the rematch, and while I think he won a tight one, Kelly Pavlik was with him all the way and won the fight on the judges' scorecards. In a sport where some of us feel like we have to hammer home that many divisions HAVE a true champion -- The Ring Magazine champ, of course -- it's nice for there to be rare cases like Pavlik, where everyone agrees.
2. Winky Wright (51-4-1, 25 KO)
Is Father Time being kind to the 36-year old defensive master? Beats the hell out of me, because he's not fighting. He's been inactive since June 2007, when he was beaten out by Hopkins at 170 pounds. That means that the 1-2 fighters here haven't actually fought at middleweight in their last two fights. But there was money to be made, so who can blame them?
Kelly Pavlik will fight Winky Wright before 2008 is over. I am very sure of that. I am also quite sure that Winky better take a tune-up fight before he inks that deal and steps into the ring with Pavlik. He'll need to get sharp. With the way he fights, Wright could go on being good for another decade. I really believe that. He's extremely intelligent, an all-time great defensively, knows how to work off the jab and score points, and isn't a bore to watch, if you ask me. When Wright is at his best, watching him thwart the other man's offense can be a real pleasure. He's a great artist. And that's why he still has trouble finding opponents. He's so good that fights like his December '06 matchup against Ike Quartey are viewed as being beneath him, and so good that top fighters will avoid him like the plague if they can get away with it without losing much face.
While all that is true, there's also the fact that Wink seems to believe he's a much bigger money draw than he is. That deserves mention. He is a pain in the ass to deal with, partially, though, because he probably thinks he earned that after being forced to toil in obscurity for so long, when he deserved much better.
3. Arthur Abraham (25-0, 20 KO)
Some might put him at No. 2 because of his undefeated record and double tough broken jaw win over Edison Miranda in 2006, but the truth is he hasn't proven much since then, other than he is a better fighter than Sebastien Demers, Khoren Gevor, and Wayne Elcock. Next up, he'll dismantle Elvin Ayala, the guy that screwed up Sergio Mora's perfect record with a draw in October. Ayala is about as deserving of a "world title" shot as Elcock or Gevor, but fear not: King Arthur wants to make his U.S. debut, and there are rumors it could come as early as June. Pavlik-Abraham is also highly possible, should Bob Arum decide to ignore Winky Wright.
4. Felix Sturm (28-2-1, 12 KO)
Here's where the quality drops off, in a big, big way. Sturm is a good boxer, but he's fighting chickenshit opponents lately. He beat Javier Castillejo to win the WBA belt last year, then fought Noe Tulio Gonzalez Alcoa and unknown American Randy Griffin, with Griffin taking him to a draw in a really good fight. Sturm and team promised Griffin a rematch, which he deserved. Now they're fighting Jamie Pittman, who is about as credible as Mr. Four Names was. Pittman's last fight? A 12-round decision over Andreas Seran, who came into the bout with a 6-4-1 record. Give me a break. I've long defended Sturm as a good fighter, but now count me in among his detractors. He's a paper champion in more ways than one.
5. Randy Griffin (24-1-3, 12 KO)
The draw against Sturm was legit. Listen, this division doesn't have much in the way of top contenders with great records. Griffin deserved a rematch he won't get, and will find it tough to find other suitors, as well. He's a no-name in the States even though he fights out of Louisville and was born in Philadelphia, and apparently Sturm is in no rush to give him another crack at his trinket.
6. Javier Castillejo (62-7, 42 KO)
Castillejo is a tough veteran, and turns 40 on Saturday. He pounded Mariano Carrera in six rounds in a WBA eliminator, and will next fight European champion Sebastian Sylvester. He has a perfectly good shot to remain in the division's top ten, though no chance whatsoever of cracking the top three.
7. Andy Lee (15-0, 12 KO)
I did it with Amir Khan, and I'm doing it again with Lee. Some would say it's too early to rank Lee this high. I think you could rank him fourth and gave a good argument for it. He's a fighter that is far beyond his years, at the tender age of 23. He fights brilliantly from a distance, has real knockout power, and presents the ol' southpaw challenge. Manny Steward thinks Lee could beat Kelly Pavlik right now, but Manny Steward's opinions on Kelly Pavlik have been quite wrong in the past. Whereas I usually don't buy into trainer or promoter bluster, Lee is a different story. He's among the most exciting young fighters in the game, along with Jorge Linares, Andre Berto, and Khan. As soon as he steps up in competition, I have no doubt that he'll keep blowing guys out of the water. Andy Lee is for real. I really am being conservative here, too. If you put him in a ring tomorrow with Randy Griffin, he'd knock him out. Sturm and Castillejo would present challenges because they're both really savvy (and Castillejo is really tough), but he's already got the tools to beat either of them on the right night. I'm very, very high on Andy Lee, as most are. He deserves this ranking as much as anyone else does.
8. Sebastian Sylvester (28-2, 13 KO)
He is the European middleweight champion, but that distinction hardly tells any real story, as one could rightly argue that Abraham and Sturm are really more qualified for the distinction. I know that might sound really biased toward American fighters, but I don't mean it to be. Abraham and Sturm just happen to fight basically the same level of guys that Sylvester fights, and yet they get called "world" champions. The difference is only one of sanctioning bodies. Never take anyone's word for it -- Sturm is not notably any better than Sylvester, though Abraham is. Probably.
9. Amin Asikainen (24-1, 16 KO)
His only loss was against Sylvester, and he also holds a TKO victory over the Euro champ, too. Asikainen is another one of the quality but not elite fighters based in Europe. Pretty simple story after about #4, huh?
10. Sebastien Demers (23-1, 9 KO)
It really does come down to one thought. "Well, his only loss was to Abraham..."
That carries plenty of weight.
You Coulda Been a Contender...
If it weren't for Andy Lee, "Mean" Joe Greene (18-0, 13 KO) would be the division's best young fighter. I think we could see a hell of a nice rivalry down the road between these two southpaws, too. The 22-year old New Yorker is going to be a good one.
39-year old Raymond Joval (37-4, 16 KO) still fights.
Sergio Mora (20-0-1, 5 KO) is a joke. "The Latin Fake" saw his high aspirations come crumbling down the night that the aforementioned Elvin Ayala (18-2-1, 8 KO) took him to a draw on live, national television. Now both will get world title shots, as Ayala will be losing to Abraham on March 29, and Mora steps down to 154 so he can lose to Vernon Forrest in June. Forrest is going to obliterate Mora and end this charade once and for all -- bank on it.
Upcoming Pavlik mandatory Gary Lockett (30-1, 21 KO) wouldn't even be getting a mention here if it weren't for the fact that he's got that fight on the calendar.
John Duddy (24-0, 17 KO) has fans. Lots of 'em. Great supporters, because he's a great guy, and he brings the action in his fights. What leaves him out of my top ten is the fact that he lost to Walid Smichet in his last fight, and was given a decision win. Smichet beat the hell out of Duddy, who also struggled with an ancient Howard Eastman prior to that. Hell, he had a lot of trouble with Yory Boy Campas in 2006, and someone named Alessio Furlan took him 10 rounds last year. Duddy is so far from being a special fighter that it's not even worthy of a discussion. Some of "Irish" John's more rabid fans may get all worked up over that, but it's not a debate I want to take part in. They'll all find out as soon as he's in with someone that's really at the top of the division and he gets creamed. "Total lack of defense" is not a good thing, in my book.
Unbeaten Aussie Daniel Geale (18-0, 12 KO) dominated fellow Australian Daniel Dawson over 12 rounds to win the vacant IBO title. It's a useless trinket, but it's something. It was his first fight of any substance, but don't let the killer champion fool you: This is not a deep division, if you haven't figured that out by now.
Marco Antonio Rubio (41-4-1, 36 KO) is another guy whose name was thrown around in the Pavlik sweepstakes. Like the others, his record is bloated with crap.
Enrique Ornelas (27-4, 17 KO) had a nice little rivalry with Bronco McKart (51-8, 31 KO), but that doesn't make either of them terribly notable. McKart is supposedly going to fight former 154-pound titleholder Raul Marquez (40-3, 29 KO) on March 29. That'll be fun for the folks at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan -- home of the CMU Chippewas! Being from Michigan myself, McKart is one of those guys I always root for, just because he's from my neck of the woods. The second Kelly Pavlik fight I ever saw was him knocking the crap out of McKart. Memories...
Back to the Pavlik rumor mill guys -- Giovanni Lorenzo (26-0, 18 KO) has the unbeaten record, which is a plus. He has a nice-looking KO rate, like they all did. And he's never beaten anyone, which lines him up perfectly with Lockett and Rubio. Y'know, everyone has to come from somewhere, but it sure is nice when a guy comes from somewhere the way Kelly Pavlik did. Pavlik actually had to beat Edison Miranda to get his title shot, not just the likes of McKart and Jose Luis Zertuche.