A lot has changed this month in the junior welterweight ranks. Junior Witter has fallen from his long-held perch at No. 2, and Ricky Hatton holds on to his spot as the No. 1. Who takes over at No. 2? Where does Timothy Bradley slide in? And how does the rest of the division look?
1. Ricky Hatton (44-1, 31 KO, Ring Magazine Champion/IBO Titleholder)
Hatton fought a tough opponent in his comeback, and he did a pretty good job. It certainly wasn't his best performance ever, and I'm sure Ricky will tell you the same. Lazcano rocked him a couple times, the sign of a fighter getting a little older and a step slower defensively and offensively. While his charges used to get home on guys like Lazcano pretty routinely, he was caught coming in very frequently by the slow-handed "Hispanic Causing Panic" -- it's not a knock on Ricky. Nobody can fight time, and it comes to all fighters. The age isn't always the same, but a high-energy guy like Hatton, and one who crashes to 140 pounds the way he does? Well, it's high noon, let's put it that way.
From here, Hatton will likely still fight Paulie Malignaggi later this year, and if Paulie's hand gets fixed without any complications and "The Magic Man" fights at his best, he'll give Ricky a lot of trouble. He's very quick, emulates the Mayweather defensive style, and while he's not going to knock Hatton (or anyone else) out, he can score all night on Hatton and win a decision. I think it'd be a damn entertaining scrap, too. Both guys are tough and will mix it up.
2. Paulie Malignaggi (25-1, 5 KO, IBF Titleholder)
Two straight mediocre performances from Paulie don't stop him from ascending up to the second spot in the wake of Junior Witter's loss. It's not like he was fighting bums and failing to show up. Herman Ngoudjo surprised everyone with just how quick he was against Malignaggi, and N'dou is a tough guy that also got help from Malignaggi injuring his right hand again.
Paulie is going to wind up having to retire a lot sooner than he'd like thanks to his chronic right hand problems that simply are not ever going to go away. In the meantime, he deserves a money fight with Hatton. And if he were to win, I'm sure he'd crazily chase after a rematch with Miguel Cotto at 147 pounds. Dan Rafael said in this week's ESPN.com chat, "I like Paulie personally and as a fighter, so I am just saying what I believe here: He could fight Cotto 100 times and Cotto would kick his ass 100 times."
I think that pretty much sums it up.
3. Ricardo Torres (32-1, 28 KO, WBO Titleholder)
Having your career stunted by bad promoters is a real shame, and that's exactly what's happened to power-punching Colombian Ricardo Torres, who put on a minor classic with Cotto back in 2005, which was his only loss. The two went to war that night, and it was awesome. If you've never seen that fight, get on it.
Torres has superb power, knocking out Kendall Holt in a sad display of crowd control in his home country last year. And at the time, Holt was ahead on two of three cards. They'll rematch on Showtime in Vegas on July 5, which is very welcome. From the sounds of things, Holt was at a massive disadvantage in Colombia, and not just in the home field sort of way. It really is a crying shame that Torres isn't more known in the U.S., because he's got everything people like.
4. Kendall Holt (23-2, 12 KO)
I'm going to give Kendall a pass for now on his eyebrow-raising majority decision win over washed-up Ben Tackie. Tackie is still tough and knows what he's doing, but Holt should've laid waste to him. He has several good wins on his record, including dominations of Mike Arnaoutis, David Diaz, and Isaac Hlatswayo.
The real problem? You might guess -- it's Holt's chin, which has been tested and punched in a few times. Diaz knocked him down, and Torres and Thomas Davis have knocked him out. Holt could wind up being one of those guys like Vivian Harris that never quite seem to make it to the level they "should" be, but the real story 9.9 times out of 10 is that those guys just weren't as good as people thought. I think Holt has a tremendous amount of talent, but I also think it's probable that Torres knocks him out again.
5. Timothy Bradley (22-0, 11 KO, WBC Titleholder)
More congratulations to Timothy Bradley for his stunning upset of Junior Witter in England. But let's call a spade a spade: the fight was horrible and a rematch wouldn't have a prayer of getting TV in the States. If I was handling Tim Bradley, I'd discourage a rematch with Witter, simply because there's no audience for it and the fight will not be any good. You don't want to pigeonhole Bradley into the niche of "guy who has bad fights" right now. Witter has the ability to do that.
I'm also not going ga-ga over Bradley because he didn't do anything exceptionally well in that win. He fought solidly and I loved what he did with what Witter gave him, but he also never really stepped on the gas and made Witter, who was clearly uncomfortable with something that night, really fear anything. The knockdown didn't seem to really hurt Junior that much. Bradley's not a puncher. But he's a good young fighter.
And he should take it easy, because the win made me think of Gavin Rees beating Souleymane M'baye last year. Who's to say if Bradley goes out and fights a contender right away that he won't lose and be forgotten as quickly as he announced his arrival? The smart thing to do would be to look for aging, fringe contender guys and give Tim a couple more good wins, THEN look for a money fight. There's no rush -- he's 24.
6. Junior Witter (36-2-2, 21 KO)
He thoroughly lost to Timothy Bradley, and now Junior Witter has no hope of ever seeing the same ring as Ricky Hatton, and will have to claw his way back into contention to maybe fight someone like Andreas Kotelnik, a guy he's already beaten. Witter is now definably a regional star and nothing more. He's a European fighter. That will always be his tag unless something remarkable happens.
And can he really climb out of that? I don't think so. Fact is he looked old against Bradley. And he is fairly old for the fight game. There aren't a great number of guys like Bernard Hopkins that fight at a high level through age 43. Witter's 34, and that's about the time you go from contender to old guy or gatekeeper. I'm keeping him up here because nobody below him has done enough to pass him up, but I think it's entirely possible that he never wins a big fight again. He did not look good at all against Bradley.
7. Herman Ngoudjo (16-2, 9 KO)
I thought he beat Malignaggi in a close fight, so I might have Ngoudjo higher than most do. His career is still young, but he's a smart fighter with decent pop and good speed, and he can play a solid defense. His three most notable fights have all been interesting stories.
Against an aging Castillo, he was just supposed to lose and give way to Hatton-Castillo. He did lose, but he made that a hell of a fight. Then he didn't look terribly great in the summer against Randall Bailey -- so what? Bailey's still a pretty decent fighter. And then he turned in his best performance yet against Malignaggi in January. So who knows?
He'll fight Souleymane M'baye on ESPN2 on June 6. He should win.
8. Andreas Kotelnik (29-2-1, 13 KO, WBA Titleholder)
A technically sound fighter with a European name. Fights the European style. He's European. Kotelnik is basically the exact image most American fight fans get when they think "European fighter." He doesn't have a lot of power but doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He can box. And he could spoil a party against a great fighter. His losses have come to M'baye (which I thought he won) and Witter. His win over Gavin Rees gave him a title again, which allows him to make some money. Good for him.
9. Vivian Harris (28-3-1, 18 KO)
I throw up my hands on ever trying to figure Harris out. He should've left the division a long time ago, but has steadfastly refused. He hasn't been seen since last September, when Junior Witter absolutely cleaned his clock in Doncaster. He's an enigma. But on his good nights, he can still fight. He can still fight on his bad ones, too. Is he a case of "just not as good as we thought"? I don't know.
10. Juan Urango (20-1-1, 16 KO)
Solid, sturdy, strong guy who went 12 rounds with Hatton without pressing offensively. Well, he did occasionally, and at those points he was very competitive with Hatton. He recently almost took Carlos Wilfredo Vilches' head off.
You Coulda Been a Contender...
24-year old American Lamont Peterson (24-0, 11 KO) is the lesser-regarded of the two Peterson brother prospects, but he's a real deal fighter that may have been able to do with Junior Witter exactly what Tim Bradley did if it had been him that night instead of Bradley. He's due to main event the final(?) Top Rank card on Versus on June 26 in Vegas, right now rumored to be against former Mayweather foe Henry Bruseles. That'd be a good test for Lamont, and if he keeps going strong, he'll be in the top ten before too long.
Most folks would probably rank Demetrius Hopkins (28-0-1, 11 KO) in the division's top ten, but he's never impressed me. He lost to Steve Forbes and was gifted a win last year on the Barrera-Marquez undercard, and has only fought a couple of stay-busy fights since then. He's been pretty aggressively matched thanks to his last name, and he does have some real skills. But that Forbes fight still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I felt he clearly was outfoxed by the veteran, but the judges -- who were rather absurd that night overall -- saw it differently.
Gavin Rees (27-1, 13 KO) is one of the Enzo Calzaghe products that have fallen on hard times lately with big losses. Rees' situation is different than Enzo Maccarinelli's, though. While Macca was simply blown out by a vicious puncher, Rees lost by 12th round TKO to Kotelnik, and there's nothing to be ashamed of there. Rees also wasn't even supposed to be in that position; his upset over Souleymane M'baye last year to win the WBA title was a true upset. Rees may have had a career night last July when he outpointed M'baye.
Jose Luis Castillo (56-8-1, 48 KO) is a guy we all want to remember fondly, which makes it hard to criticize him, even though he greatly deserves it. And he doesn't even deserve to be in the discussion at 140. He struggled greatly with Herman Ngoudjo, who was just supposed to be a tune-up (turns out Ngoudjo can fight, though), and was demolished by Ricky Hatton. Then he couldn't even make weight to fight Bradley, which allowed for the 2008 front-runner for Upset of the Year. There aren't many fighters whose styles I enjoy more than I do Castillo's, and he's one of very few guys to ever give Mayweather any trouble at all (and he gave Floyd loads of it), but it's game over for the 34-year old, war-weary former great.
Randall Bailey (36-6, 33 KO) is still kicking, and still punching. "The Knockout King" could still punch out anyone in the division. He's not a good enough boxer to beat the top-tier guys, but I always enjoy the chance to see Bailey fight, and he gave Herman Ngoudjo a good one last summer. He deserves to be mentioned just for fun.
Victor Ortiz (21-1-1, 16 KO) finally got back in the ring recently, knocking out veteran Dairo Esalas in the fifth round. It was his sixth straight knockout win, with a technical draw in there against Marvin Cordova, Jr. He's been mopping up the old warhorses of late (Esalas, Maussa, Clottey). Let's hope we see him get a good fight soon on B.A.D. or Shobox.
Top Rank's Mike Alvarado (21-0, 14 KO) is 27 and older than many prospects, but that's still the stage he's at in his pro career. He's a good-looking fighter, though maybe not someone about whom you ought to become overly excited or anything. I like him, but I also liked Mike Oliver.
Another Mike, Mike Arnaoutis (19-2-2, 9 KO), got back on the TV winning track by beating Lanard Tyner on ESPN2 this month. He also won a similar-level fight in March. This followed a loss he gave away to Ricardo Torres in 2006 and one where he didn't show up and received absolutely horrible corner advice throughout against Kendall Holt in 2007. Arnaoutis is not a bad fighter by any stretch, and he can give the top guys tough days, as he proved against Torres. And he should have beaten Torres. He literally allowed Torres to get back into that fight and hang around. He should have ran away with it. But there's no reason he couldn't win a world title from someone like Kotelnik.
Former WBA titlist Souleymane M'baye (36-2-1, 21 KO) of France has a nice record, but it's a regional record. We'll see what the 33-year old has left when he faces Ngoudjo in Canada. Personally, I thought Kotelnik beat him in both their 2007 draw in Liverpool, and in M'baye's 2004 split decision win in France.
St. Louis' Devon Alexander (15-0, 8 KO) has looked excellent in wins this year over Miguel Callist and ex-titleholder "Chop Chop" Corley. He's a Spinks protege, which is misleading, since he actually comes to fight. He dominated Callist, who spent most of the fight trying to do anything but fight Alexander. With Don King behind him and the fact that he's not a heavyweight, he won't get as many fights as he should. There's nothing scheduled for him right now. I really like Alexander.
Lovemore N'dou (46-10-1, 31 KO) is hopefully finished in world title fights. He didn't fight particularly better the second time around against Malignaggi; Malignaggi just fought a whole lot worse. The first time around, N'dou was embarrassed, and then spent months whining about how he was robbed by the referee. Was what happened on Saturday what he wanted to do? If so, what he was really saying was, "I sure wish that Malignaggi kid wouldn't move around so much and make me look so bad. I wish he'd stand still and let me hit him, and also not fight back. That'd be aces!" He's a C+ fighter who has had an eventful career, but every time he's fought a really good fighter, he's lost.
Juan Lazcano (37-5-1, 27 KO) is just not good enough. Never has been. He and N'dou have had somewhat similar careers, really. Both are fine fighters (Lazcano better, in my view), but just aren't good enough to beat a top guy. They've both had plenty of chances and always failed, no matter how hard they fought. Lazcano's performance against Hatton was admirable, but that'll be the last time he fights someone that good.