The 175-pound class might just be boxing's toughest to rank, as there are plenty of good fighters who seem, in large part, like they're probably right about the same level. But let's take a shot at it; you're free to disagree, as always.
1. Joe Calzaghe (45-0, 32 KO, Ring Magazine Champion)
It seems a strange bit of thought, but Calzaghe was hardly at his best in what was the biggest and most legacy-defining win of his career in April when he beat Bernard Hopkins. Over the years, his power has almost completely abandoned him, but while some will argue that his "pit-pat" style of punching isn't effective, I'd argue that it most certainly is. Does it hurt opponents frequently? Probably not. But it gets the job done and is almost an extension of his defense more than it is a true offense.
Calzaghe's Hall of Fame-bound career has traveled every road at this point. From regional rising star in his home country and England to European-based world champion to bona fide international star and now genuine legend, Calzaghe has heard every knock in the book. He won't go here or there to fight, he won't fight this guy, that guy didn't deserve a title shot, and so on and so forth. But Calzaghe has made that last three years of his career all about defying the doubters (which at one point did include myself, I admit) and proving how truly unique he is. He started with Jeff Lacy, manhandling him to the point that Lacy still hasn't truly recovered from the loss, and then taking down Sakio Bika and Peter Manfredo, Jr., before humbling Mikkel Kessler and beating Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas.
He is the greatest super middleweight of all-time. What does give me some pause -- just a little, mind you -- is that while he is the true light heavyweight champion of this world, we haven't seen him fight a true light heavyweight yet. It's a bit similar to Mayweather at welterweight. Hopkins is a great fighter and can still go, no question, but he's really a bulked up middleweight, and no one would argue that. There are guys out there that hit harder than Hopkins and apply more active pressure and might be more willing to mix it up with Joe when he starts with his flurries, eating a few and trying to deliver a couple big ones. Joe's chin is really good, but he's been knocked down, obviously. Hopefully we'll get to find out. For the time being, I can't argue with him wanting a money fight against Roy Jones, Jr., which may or may not actually come to fruition.
2. Bernard Hopkins (48-5-1, 32 KO)
Have we seen the last of "The Executioner"? It's certainly fathomable, and it would be befitting of Hopkins in some ways to go out not with some mega farewell event with confetti from the ceiling and a bunch of pageantry, but just a hard-fought loss to a guy that beat him that particular night. Hopkins has certainly made a living partially because of his mouth -- the man can talk and stir up drama with the best of them. But there's always been that low-key, workmanlike quality about him.
It's very East Coast, really. Think about it like this: Jones and Tarver and other contemporaries have been flashy, have talked even when they didn't have much to talk about, have always been willing to partake in pageantry and glitz and glamour. Very Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg/G-funk/even 2Pac era sort of West Coast hip hop in a way. Then you have B-Hop. Great talent, and a talker, too, but in a more serious, more grimy sort of way. Think of Hopkins as the Wu-Tang Clan -- East Coast to the bone. The man has defined Philly boxing for a generation.
If we have seen his last fight, then farewell, Bernard. There were times when his antics annoyed me, no question there. But you could never not respect the man. He did his job with chilling efficiency and was a genius tactician in the squared circle. Like his latest enemy, he's Canastota-bound, and with good reason. He is THE middleweight of his era.
3. Chad Dawson (26-0, 17 KO, WBC Titleholder)
The ratings get really tricky in the next few spots. I scored Dawson's unanimous decision win over Glen Johnson a draw, but I'm giving him the higher ranking only because he's 25 years old, whereas Johnson is 39. If they fought again, there's a really good chance Dawson performs better. There's a fair chance that it's "the fight" where Johnson turns old.
Where Dawson did impress me against Johnson was his ability to stay up taking some really heavy shots from a good puncher who doesn't waste a lot of body motion when he goes for a big blow. Johnson doesn't have traditional "one-punch" power, but he's racked up knockouts because of his style and because I think he does an exceptional job of saving energy and burst damage for those moments he sees an opening. He's also very intelligent, and sees those openings when they come.
What didn't impress me was his conditioning. At 14 years younger, it should've been Dawson having steam at the end of the fight, not Johnson. It's not to say Johnson should be expected to gas, but he didn't seem to come close to it, while Dawson very obviously had some troubles. I like "Bad" Chad a lot (and there are few nicknames less indicative of a guy's personality than his), but he still has some kinks to work through. Being a world titleholder at that stage shows how good he is, but Johnson gave him his toughest test, and it was a gut check, no foolin'. You just hope he learned from some of the things he saw against such a classy fighter.
4. Glen Johnson (47-12-2, 32 KO)
When he beat a fat Hugo Pineda in January -- I'm not trying to be mean, but let's call a spade a spade on that one, Pineda's a junior welterweight who was fighting at 177 pounds -- some live impressions came back that Johnson looked like he was slowing down, didn't have the same energy he used to, and so on.
Come fight time on April 12 against the young, fresh, strong, red-hot Chad Dawson, and there was nothing that would tell you that Johnson was 39 years old if you didn't know it going in. He fought with the heart and determination of a hungry prospect in his first TV fight, and took the fight to the southpaw titlist in impressive fashion. There is a lot of gas left in Johnson's tank.
We had a FanPost right after the Calzaghe fight from someone that thought Calzaghe would really struggle against Glen Johnson. I concur -- I think Johnson, if he can fight like he did against Dawson, would give Calzaghe perhaps the stiffest test of anyone in the division currently. When I picture those two fighting in my mind, I see Joe able to do what he does, but I don't see that deterring Johnson the way it has so many other fighters. Johnson is a guy who can break out of being held in check really well -- all fighters need rhythm and love to have momentum, but Johnson has a knack for being able to break the shackles of a brief in-ring funk at a moment's notice and get on a good roll.
Plus, he's tougher than hell and has seen them all. Like I said before, he's a classy fighter and a has had a hell of a career, one which does not look like it's over yet.
5. Antonio Tarver (27-4, 19 KO, IBF/IBO Titleholder)
I spend enough time ragging on Antonio Tarver, some of which I place on his doorstep and some of which I do not. Tarver, to be kind if you've never been here before, is not one of my favorites, let's put it that way. He talks, talks, talks, talks, talks, and then prices himself out of fights, which he is rumored to be doing again with Chad Dawson, a fight Showtime has been keen to make for the last year and has tried to gear specifically toward with their vast coverage of the two men.
A lot of the respect I had for Antonio Tarver -- and I've got a fair amount, believe it or not -- went out the door in December when he ducked Danny Green. This isn't like "Mayweather's ducking Cotto" type of stuff. Showtime was running ads for Tarver versus Green -- the network had it in the bag. They were ready to promote it. Ready to go with that one. And it would've been a decent test, Green's no chump.
Instead, Tarver never signed off on the contract, and Green -- who had relocated from Australia to Los Angeles to train for the fight -- decided that he'd had enough screwing around with Tarver and his people, and signed to fight titleholder Stipe Drews back Australia. Good for him -- Tarver didn't want to fight him, jerked him around, and that one was just pretty bush league all around. Even the recent Kessler-Miranda situation doesn't hold a candle to that one, in my mind. Showtime had no ads for Kessler-Miranda.
Instead we got Tarver looking sloppy against Danny Santiago, a fringe pretender whose best win was probably over Elvir Muriqi, whom Tarver had struggled to beat earlier in 2007. Santiago was coming off of a TKO loss to Zsolt Erdei eleven months earlier, and predictably, even a rusty, tired, old-looking Tarver had his way with Santiago.
I don't like that Showtime is so insanely stuck up Tarver's you-know-what that they insist on billing him as a future Hall of Famer, but I don't blame Antonio for that -- although what do I know, maybe that's in his contract. His claims last Friday as being the TRUE light heavyweight champion were a laugh riot, or would be if it was meant as a joke. I know fighters have to hype themselves, but when Tarver was light heavyweight champ, he was called as such. He is not. Joe Calzaghe is. Tarver's holding of the IBF and IBO trinkets has no real bearing on anything other than him getting juiced for money every time he fights and his opponents getting the same treatment.
But when he's at his best, Tarver can fight. Ask Roy Jones. Ask Glen Johnson. And sure, Bernard Hopkins beat the crap out of him, but that was a couple years ago now, and that was also his only loss since a split decision failing against Johnson, which was avenged. And plus it was Bernard Hopkins.
Tarver made mincemeat of Clinton Woods in April and deserves credit for that. Personally I thought Woods just looked absolutely horrible, but it was the best that Tarver has looked in some time. Doing the Rocky Balboa thing had to have taken a real toll on Antonio's performance. Maybe now his body's back to normal.
I'm not a big fan, but I don't count him out.
6. Roy Jones, Jr. (52-4, 38 KO)
Speaking of guys who once looked lost but now may be found, Jones has stormed back into the conversation, and the talk of his demise appears to have been at least slightly exaggerated.
The stunning three-fight losing streak of 2004-05 is history. He's won three in a row, not over the best competition, but certainly comparable to anyone else here besides Calzaghe and Hopkins. Do Prince Badi Ajamu, Anthony Hanshaw and Felix Trinidad really pale in comparison to Muriqi, Santiago and Woods? Dawson's last three fights include Jesus Ruiz and Epifanio Mendoza, hardly world-class opposition.
The fight with Tito was interesting. Roy took the first three rounds to find out what Tito had, and then turned it up. I truly feel that if he'd felt like it, he would have knocked Trinidad right out. Tito clearly got in over his head at the weight and after so much time off.
But what I really find intriguing about that fight is watching Jones move. He had some of the nostalgic prime vibe about him, but everything was just a little slower. Even the showboating was 39 years old, you know? Roy can still fight and a bout with Calzaghe would be good entertainment if years too late to be what it really could have been at one point. I'll always have a soft spot for Roy Jones.
7. Zsolt Erdei (29-0, 17 KO, WBO Titleholder)
Erdei has real skills, is really the lineal champion of the division, and has never lost. But he is what he is, a regional guy that fights regional guys for a recognized world title. Good for him, but it's hard to rank him any higher than seventh in the division until his best wins aren't over guys like Tito Mendoza, Thomas Ulrich and Hugo Garay -- solid fighters, yes, but not a lot more than that.
8. Adrian Diaconu (25-0, 15 KO)
"The Shark" was a bit rusty after a year off due to injury in his fight against Chris Henry on the Don King webcast on April 19, but he banged out a good win over a solid opponent, and made a nice case for himself to be taken very seriously. He's not exactly a spring chicken at 29 years old and he's pretty short (5'9"), but he has a nice underdog mentality about him that makes him very easy to like, and he fights in a pretty enjoyable fashion.
He currently holds the interim WBC light heavyweight title, which is ridiculous, and there's talk of him fighting Glen Johnson. I don't think he's quite good enough to tackle "The Road Warrior," but I don't think he'd get run over, either.
9. Chris Henry (21-1, 17 KO)
I had never seen Chris Henry fight past clips when the Houston native went over to Romania to challenge Diaconu, the home country favorite. He was impressive. There were moments in the fight -- which was an entertaining, back-and-forth battle with good action -- where he looked like the much better fighter. And there were other moments where he looked absolutely like this was by far the toughest fight of his career. He's got plenty of time, as he's 27 and only turned pro in 2005. I like his upside.
10. Clinton Woods (41-4-1, 24 KO)
Woods looked so bad against Tarver that I don't think he'd beat Diaconu or Henry, or even come close to it, if they fought next weekend. Tarver is quick to point out that he was the guy across from Woods that took him out of his game, and that's fair, he deserves that. He's right. But there was just something not right about Clinton Woods, and you could feel it almost from the get-go. I didn't watch the fight live and knew only of the decision and the final scores. When I watched it later, I wasn't expecting what I saw. I figured Tarver just showed up and beat Woods. It wasn't quite so simple, though. Woods looked spent. But I still like Clinton, if only because I don't think anyone could have expected he would be main eventing premium cable shows in 2008 after his loss to Jones in 2002. He went so much farther than anyone would have bet.
You Coulda Been a Contender...
I really liked what Shaun George (17-2-2, 8 KO) did on Friday Night Fights in his dominant win over ex-heavyweight titleholder Chris Byrd. But let's not go nuts, either. While it's very true that George was an accomplished amateur who really might have finally put together all or at least most of the pieces on Friday, Byrd was clearly cooked from the opening bell. He had absolutely nothing. George was the guy that whipped him, though.
31-year old Julio Gonzalez (41-5, 25 KO) might be out of the race. The former Woods rival didn't have a single bad loss on his record (two to Woods, one in 2001 to Jones, and one to Erdei) before falling to 41-year old Reggie Johnson (44-7-1, 25 KO) in February. It was Gonzalez's second straight loss, and it was a fight he should have won. Johnson hadn't fought since 2005, and prior to that hadn't fought since losing a close one to Tarver in 2002. Not a good sign for Gonzalez.
37-year old Montell Griffin (48-7, 30 KO) is supposedly going to fight in his hometown of Chicago again in June. After watching Glen Johnson destroy him last year, I don't expect we'll ever see him in anything too noteworthy again. He hasn't had a good win in about half a decade.
Tavoris Cloud (18-0, 17 KO) needs to step up the competition. Yes, he can punch, yes he's a good prospect. He's also 26 years old. It's time to kick it up one more notch and see what he's got. You can't go on fighting Mike Wood and Jim Strohl forever.
Chuck "The Italian Assassin" Cavallo (16-1, 6 KO) is a classic case of neighborhood pride sort of stuff hiding what isn't all that great of a fighter. When he fought fringey Marlon Hayes, he clearly won, but there was a lot to pick on from an analytical point of view. Then Shannon Miller (22-37-8 coming into the fight) knocked him out at 26 seconds of round number two. Oops.
Super middle/light heavy hybrid Omar Sheika (27-8, 18 KO) is still around. Still willing to fight anyone, anywhere.
Elvir Muriqi (35-4, 22 KO) has been the target of some bad talkin' jive from the press thanks to his attitude and pulling out of fights and things of that nature, but if he really does want to become known as more of "that club fighter that gave Tarver a decent test," hiring Buddy McGirt is certainly a good step.