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Ranking the Lightweights: March 2008

We did this in December, too. Needless to say, things have changed.

Photo © Luis Acosta / AFP / Getty Images
1. Nate Campbell (32-5-1, 25 KO)

Last time, I said that time was running out for the aging Campbell to truly make his mark on the division. Well, he got his shot, and consider the mark made.

Never discount how deserving Campbell was of the fight, either. This was not someone that Diaz should've been disappointed to be fighting, or looking past, so anyone that might possibly use that as an excuse is full of it, or else Juan Diaz is an idiot, and I don't think the latter is true. Campbell took Diaz to a place he'd never been before, and he broke Diaz's spirit. He had long since earned the shot at the title belt previously held by Julio Diaz, when Campbell beat the ever-loving hell out of Ricky Quiles on Friday Night Fights last year. That was one where even the most blood-thirsty of fans would've been demanding a stoppage. How that was allowed to go all 12 rounds is beyond me. Campbell slaughtered Quiles that night.

While Campbell waited for the shot he'd earned, Julio went off and fought Juan, and he lost badly. After Diaz-Katsidis fell through, Nate got his shot. He made it a good one. As I've said before, Campbell beat Diaz far more in the mental side of the game than the physical one. While he talks about how hard he hits, it wasn't his punches that beat Diaz. It was Campbell's constant pressure, plus the fairly bad cut that was made 100 times worse by that God awful cut man who should've been fired on the spot.

But Nate Campbell wanted it more that night. He dominated the second half of the bout and left no doubt about it. Everyone -- including Juan Diaz -- knew who the winner was. Diaz wasn't the real, lineal champion, and Campbell isn't now. But as of this moment, I'd consider Nate the man to beat at 135.

2. Juan Diaz (33-1, 17 KO)

I just can't justify dropping him lower than this, and we'll get into that a little more with No. 3.

Diaz is a great fighter, and he lost. A lot of people didn't like Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, but the lovely and not-so-talented Ms. Kirsten Dunst's character had good advice both for Orlando Bloom's character and for Juan Diaz: "You failed! You failed, you failed, you failed. You failed." In other words, move on. Don't let it define you.

Diaz has got to put the loss behind him, get this promotional garbage done with, and get his career back on track. There is nothing stopping him from being the fighter we all think he is, or (to some) thought he was. He's got to be able to get past this.

But what worries me is the way he lost. Popo Freitas and Julio Diaz never came close to testing Juan last year. Those wins were cakewalks for him. Freitas did sort of OK for a couple rounds, then started giving up, then literally quit on his stool. Julio Diaz was never in the fight, and I still can't figure out what on earth his gameplan was supposed to be that night. He, too, quit.

Campbell came at Juan hard from the get-go, and tested him. When backed into a corner thanks to pressure and a cut, Juan Diaz folded like a guy at the World Series of Poker holding a pair of twos on the flop.

Is Juan ever going to be able to survive gut-check fights? We'll see. For now, give him the benefit of the doubt. Two things Juan should consider, though. First, dump Willie Savannah, the guy that announced a Golden Boy contract only to renege and sign with King, then later the guy that got King to cut ties without much of a fight. I know Juan has deep ties to Savannah, but the dude has manager/promoter scumbag stink all over him at this point. The second would be getting in a little bit better shape for fights. I don't think he needs to be a muscleman, or that anyone does. But losing some of the baby fat isn't going to hurt him, and it might give him a little more on his punch, which is the only questionable thing he has physically.

3. Joel Casamayor (36-3-1, 22 KO)

Ding, dong, the witch is back. Joel Casamayor looked as good as he has in years in his 10th round stoppage of Michael Katsidis on Saturday night, flooring the tough Aussie three times and coming back from being knocked down himself in the middle of the bout. He came out fast, backed off a little, and finished strong. Katsidis took momentum in that fight, was leading on my card (84-83) at the time of stoppage, and was also leading on two of the official cards (84-83, 84-83, 82-85). But Casamayor caught him at the perfect time with the perfect punch, and put it away.

He showed in that fight why he is the lightweight champion, why he's so highly-regarded and has been for years, and why his November performance against Jose Armando Santa Cruz was such an utter embarrassment. There was no reason for Joel Casamayor to lose to Santa Cruz. When Casamayor actually fights, he would dust a guy on Santa Cruz's level with no trouble. I'm not slamming Jose Armando Santa Cruz, but he's no elite fighter. He won that fight convincingly, but more accurately, Joel Casamayor lost it. The judges' decision is among the very worst in the history of boxing, but it's over now. Long over.

The only reason I put Casamayor just third coming off that sensational win is that his November performance still sticks in my craw. I'm even blocking out the enraging decision that followed it. At Madison Square Garden that night, Casamayor did not fight. He did not box. He did not even really defend. He just danced around the ring and tried to avoid punches. It was the sort of performance that almost begged the referee to call time and ask Joel if he even wanted to be in there.

But a few months of people dumping on him, and Casamayor had that familiar arrogant, cock-sure swagger of his back. I know he annoys a lot of people, but I like my fighters mean, and Casamayor can be a mean son of a bitch when motivated. It's too bad it takes extra motivation for him to fight his best, though.

4. Michael Katsidis (23-1, 20 KO)

Yeah, I think we've seen the four best in the division square off with each other this month. It'd be neat if it turned into a mini-tournament with Campbell and Casamayor squaring off again, but that looks unlikely given Casamayor's post-win comments about a possible rematch with Campbell.

I thought pretty hard about who to rank fourth, and I came up with this simple conclusion, and I pose to you the same question: Would you favor any of the guys that aren't Campbell, Casamayor and Juan Diaz to beat Katsidis? I came up with the same answer repeatedly: Nope. So that's how he maintains his ranking.

The guy's a banger, you know? He's always going to be exciting to watch. He doesn't have a total disregard for defense, as he adjusted to the Casamayor left that floored him twice in the opening stanza by keeping his right hand higher from that point on. He lost to what was once a great fighter, and again looked at least like a really good fighter. Losses happen.

Furthering on his defense, I thought Max Kellerman made a great point during the fight. Kellerman, you may know, is absolutely in love with Katsidis, the guy he sees as the true heir apparent to Arturo Gatti. There's every reason to love Katsidis, especially if you're someone calling his fights, since he gives you a lot to talk about. But he mentioned that unlike Gatti, Katsidis' defense is actually part of his overall fighting, while with Gatti, there was a disconnect. Defense, defense, defense, and NOW offense. Like all good fighters, Katsidis (whose defense isn't great by any stretch, so don't take what I'm saying that way) seems to flow pretty seamlessly between the two. It's just that he leans about 80-20 toward offense.

He'll be sticking around, and you can count on that. This is the type of guy for whom boxing is a great love. He's not the most gifted fighter in the world, as there were points when Casamayor's superior skill made him look like a total bum. But he never gives up, hits hard enough to hurt his opponent, and has heart for days. Like Gatti and some of the other action heroes, he may never be a truly elite fighter. But that won't stop him from winning legions of fans, being in tons of memorable fights, and leaving a lasting impression on the fight game.

5. Zahir Raheem (29-2, 17 KO)

A little jump for the Z-Man, who actually came to fight and blew Ricardo Dominquez out of the water on January 4. Raheem is a guy a lot like John Ruiz. Every boxing scribe will go out of their way to tell you what a great guy Raheem is, and if only he wasn't so damn boring to watch...

Like Ruiz, too, Raheem is no slouch of a fighter. He has his style, and he sticks to it for the most part. But let's not forget that this is the guy who stunned Erik Morales with a clean decision victory in 2005. His only losses are to Popo Freitas -- and you can argue he won that one -- and what was then a red-hot Rocky Juarez at featherweight. I know he's nobody's favorite, but the guy can box. There's more than one reason that nobody is rushing to get into a ring with him.

6. Julio Diaz (34-4-1, 25 KO)

Hasn't fought since his pathetic loss to Juan Diaz, so I'll just repeat what I said in December, except chop it up a little: "He looked like a club fighter against Juan Diaz. He'll need to rebound."

For as well-regarded as Julio generally is, it was shocking to see him so utterly non-competitive that night. Who knows?

7. Yuri Romanov (20-2, 13 KO)

The European lightweight champ is scheduled to face British champion Jonathan Thaxton on April 4. That's a mildly interesting one. Romanov lost a tight one to Graham Earl in 2006, and has gone 3-0 since then, including a third round knockout of Juan Melero to win the belt in November 2006. His defenses haven't been exactly inspiring, but, again, he's a solid fighter.

8. David Diaz (34-1-1, 17 KO)

I put him second last time because of a lack of anyone else. I wasn't totally believing in Campbell (plus he had some legal issues going on), wanted nothing to do with Casamayor, and Katsidis hadn't yet proven a whole hell of a lot despite two exciting wins in '07.

Scratch David Diaz from that spot, and in many ways he might be lucky just to be here. It's now exceedingly clear that he beat an absolutely spent Erik Morales last August, and while that was a good, compelling battle, it was a solid-at-best champion against a washed-up, inflated Hall of Famer. There's nothing bad about David Diaz. There's also nothing very good about him. He has pretty fair defensive skills, OK footwork, decent-ish handspeed, mediocre power, and what appears to be a solid chin, but who would really know? The old Morales did put him down, and his last fight was against a guy that couldn't punch his way out of a wet paper bag.

There were just too many moments when Ramon Montano, of all the damned people in the world, was outboxing Diaz. Manny Pacquiao is going to have a field day with his 135-pound debut against this guy. He has nothing that will deter Pacquiao's game. Go up a few spots in these rankings, and Manny's going to find trouble.

9. Jose Armando Santa Cruz (25-3, 14 KO)

Should read 26-2, 14 KO, but it doesn't. This is the guy that really should be the lightweight champion of the world. He's a good fighter on his best days, nowhere near elite. If that doesn't tell you enough about how awful Joel Casamayor was in November, then nothing else could. The fight was so compelling that a WBC-ordered (scoff) rematch drew zero interest from ANYBODY -- so little interest, in fact, that when a purse bid went up, Golden Boy didn't even send a rep. That's the company that promotes both fighters. As heinous an outcome as it was, you could count the number of people that want to see a rematch on the fingers of a mitten.

10. Amir Khan (16-0, 12 KO)

Khan not moving up in my rankings has nothing to do with Andy Lee getting wailed on after I hyped him. It's just that Khan hasn't done anything to move up any more than this. For being 21 years old and having 16 pro fights under his belt, this is a pretty damn good spot. What can I say? I love the guy. But I've been advised by UK fight fans and know it myself -- at some point, he's going to face a real puncher, and those whiskers of his are coming under fire. When Willie Limond is putting you on the mat, you might have some issues down the road. He's being matched very wisely thus far. His next fight will be with feather-fisted Martin Kristjansen on April 5.

After that, who knows? It seems every British fighter within two weight divisions wants a crack at Khan. The bad news is a few of them can punch. The good news is, Khan has more natural ability than all of them combined, from Gavin Rees to Thaxton, around the corner and back again.

You Coulda Been a Contender...

Paging Acelino Freitas (38-2, 32 KO). Are you done or not?

Filipino Ranee Ganoy (24-10-2, 20 KO) could be another one of those guys like Glen Johnson, Verno Phillips, Humberto Soto, Carlos Baldomir, etc., that doesn't have the prettiest record, but becomes a real danger in his weight class. The 28-year old Ganoy -- who now resides and fights out of Australia -- knocked the crap out of Robbie Peden a year ago, and Peden hasn't been seen since. Too bad he hasn't really followed it up with anything of note. His last loss came to Katsidis in 2005.

British champion Jonathan Thaxton (33-7, 18 KO) is not a real contender, most likely. The 33-year old southpaw topped Lee Meager in a pretty fair and dominant upset in '06 to claim the title, and has since knocked out Scott Lawton and Dave Stewart. He faces Romanov in April, then is penciled in to give Meager a rematch in July. For as much as he talks about Khan, he seems to be in no rush to risk the little bit of remaining star window that he has.

25-year old Mexican Urbano Antillon (22-0, 15 KO) really opened some eyes with his first round KO of Bobby Pacquiao recently. Bobby's no All-Star, but he's a tough cat. Going down on a first round body shot is pretty surprising. Antillon has a few wins like that on his record already, including Wilson Alcorro, Adrian Valdez, Fernando Trejo, Ivan Valle and Adan Hernandez. Not world class stuff, but good, solid wins for a fighter at Antillon's level. He's one to look out for, and could make the next part of his climb soon.

Almazbek "Kid Diamond" Raiymkulov (25-1-1, 14 KO) once went to a draw with Casamayor at Madison Square Garden, and followed that up by getting manhandled by Nate Campbell. That was 2005. Since then, he's 5-0, but the opponents stack up to a record of 101-58-10, plus his win over Miguel Huerta last June was highway robbery in the first degree, and would've gone down as the worst decision of the year were it not for that damned Casamayor-Santa Cruz debacle. He's also been inactive since then, and has nothing planned right now.

Argentinian Aldo Rios (44-4, 10 KO) is another of the South American fighters with pumped-up crap records, sticking almost exclusively to his home turf and beating nobodies. He's got a few good wins as far as the Argentinian circuit goes, but he's also fought Ricky Hatton, Artur Grigorian, Isaac Hlatswayo and my personal favorite, Stevie Johnston. He's 0-4 in those fights, and furthermore, wasn't competitive in any of them, save for moments against Johnston.

23-year old Anthony Peterson (26-0, 19 KO) looks like the much better bet between the Peterson brothers, if you ask me, and I think most echo that statement. He's got it all. Now it's time for him to step up a little bit. In a perfect world, we one day see Peterson-Khan for all the marbles. The world ain't perfect.

Miguel Cotto's older brother Jose Miguel Cotto (28-1-1, 20 KO) isn't quite his brother in the ring, but he's a good fighter. With a strong win or two, he could be a top ten guy. He last fought in May '07, drawing with Prawet Singwancha (30-3-2, 18 KO), another fringe contender and borderline Thai myth.

Rolando Reyes (29-4-2, 19 KO) has put together a fine three-fight run after losing lopsided on points to Jose Luis Castillo in 2006.

Edner Cherry (23-5-2, 11 KO) had a nice 2007. The 25-year old stepped up to 140 to fight a comebacking Paulie Malignaggi in February and got wasted over 10 rounds, but he came back strong to knock off Mayweather protege Wes Ferguson via decision in June, then knocked him right out in December on the undercard of Mayweather-Hatton. He lost two fights very early in his career, then dropped a split decision in 2005 to Ricky Quiles, a unanimous decision to Santa Cruz in 2006, and the Malignaggi fight last year. He's also beaten good fighters along the way, including Jaime Rangel, Monty Meza Clay and Daniel Alicea. He seems like a guy that punches harder than his KO rate, too. I like Cherry.

How about a bad 2007? Classic British scrapper Graham Earl (25-3, 12 KO) ran into Michael Katsidis in February, and put on a minor classic over five hard-fought rounds. Then he took on Amir Khan in December -- and lasted one minute and 12 seconds. Earl is a tough cookie, but that Katsidis fight might have taken a lot of his legs with it.

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