The junior middleweights (154 pounds) are one of boxing's admittedly weakest divisions. With no truly big names and no marquee titleholders, plus a vacant Ring Magazine championship, the division would be considered by most to be rather barren. But fear not -- there is some serious talent coming up.
Quick note: The No. 1 fighter in the division would be Oscar de la Hoya, but I don't feel it's truly fair to rank him. He has no interest in fighting anyone within the division and is content to stay at 150 pounds -- that is in this division, yes, but he's just not a truly active participant. Some would say that that should mean Floyd Mayweather, Jr., isn't really a welterweight, but it's apples and oranges. Mayweather defended his 147-pound title in December. Oscar is a catchweight attraction fighter. Nothing more, nothing less.
1. Vernon Forrest (40-2, 29 KO, WBC Titleholder)
This is the state of the division: a washed up 37-year old fighter with a bad medical record is the No. 1 fighter in the division, and I don't think it's all that close. Forrest could get blown away by one of the young guns if he were matched up with one of them, but he won't be. He won the vacant title (set free by Mayweather, won from Oscar) by defeating Carlos Baldomir, then defended it against Michele Piccirillo. He dominated both fights. And both fights really didn't mean all that much.
Forrest won some Comeback Fighter of the Year awards in 2007, which makes a point of how few notable comebacks there can really be in the sport. "The Viper" is still a quality fighter; he did hammer Baldomir and really laid a beating on Piccirillo. But the prime years Forrest, before the injuries piled up and the Mayorga losses had come and gone, would have blown those guys out like a water cannon aimed at Greenpeace protestors. He's due to fight totally undeserving "Contender" season one fraud Sergio Mora on June 7th, a fight Showtime is laughably positioning as the main event over the welterweight title rematch scrap between Carlos Quintana and Paul Williams, a bout Showtime should be thrilled to have. But neither of them are approaching 40 or ever won a reality show, so I guess you take what you can get. Give me a break.
2. Cory Spinks (36-5, 11 KO)
I still hate saying it! Cory Spinks got robbed against Verno Phillips. Look, Spinks will never be anyone's favorite fighter, unless they're gluttons for punishment, the boxing fan version of an extreme masochist, one that takes great pleasure from seeing and feeling the worst. His fights are brutally dull, and he doesn't even have such a remarkably wonderful defensive skill set that he can make slipping punches and jabbing an entertaining affair like Mayweather, Wright or even a good days Malignaggi can.
But he was robbed. And he's a quality boxer. Stick Spinks in a ring with just about anyone from 147 to 160, and there's a decent chance he'll outpoint them over 12 rounds. It's somewhat fitting that he's ultimately settled here, away from all the attention. Don King had to put his last fight -- which was a stinker live draw in Spinks' hometown, for the love of Pete -- on the internet for free. We got to see one of the few times that Spinks should have won a fight and wasn't rewarded for his efforts.
He is who he is, and that's never going to change. He boxes the only way that will allow him to be successful. He can't punch, but he can take a shot and he knows his way around the ring. Hate him or just hate watching him, he's here to stay. Cory's only 30; we've got at least another decade of him if he wants to stay that long.
3. Joel Julio (33-1, 30 KO)
Most would say I'm overrating Joel. I don't think so. Look around at this division. Outside of the crafty as all get out Cory Spinks and a few of the other technique-first sort of guys, I would whole-heartedly favor Julio to beat anyone in the division. A few were not impressed with his decision win over Ishe Smith. I was; I thought he legitimately won a fairly close fight, but fairly close wins count as wins. Ishe Smith is a solid fighter, the type of guy that might have beaten Julio a couple years ago when Quintana made him look the fool. Since then, Joel has changed. He's gone up seven pounds and become a more well-rounded fighter. And he's still only 23.
Forrest-Julio, tomorrow, full training camps are done and everything's even. I'll take Julio. This is a former Prospect of the Year fighter that took his first loss like a man and has rebounded from it. He didn't run and hide, he got back out there with tough vets like Cosme Rivera and Francisco Campos, and most recently Smith and K-9 Bundrage, and he's unbeaten since then. The Rivera fight was shaky, but he got past that, too. The young man is part of the long-term future.
4. Sergei Dzinziruk (35-0, 22 KO, WBO Titleholder)
He had some trouble with Lukas Konecny in late April over in Germany, but he'd also been out of the ring for almost a year. Nobody's ever going to fight this guy; there's nothing in it for them past the WBO title. You'd have to go to Germany, since he couldn't draw flies to dung over here, and he's a skilled southpaw that doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's beaten some good fighters, namely Daniel Santos, and it would take some sort of unruly money offer for a Forrest or a top prospect to get in the ring with Dzinziruk.
5. Joachim Alcine (30-0, 19 KO, WBA Titleholder)
In one of 2007's worst HBO/Showtime main events, Joachim Alcine outpointed Travis Simms in a disgustingly clinch-filled affair that had it all, so long as "it all" doesn't include much of a fight. It was a terribly unimpressive performance from both. Since then, Simms has gone back to his day job, complaining and not fighting, and Alcine has beaten Alfonso Mosquera, as he should have. No plans in the works currently, so far as I can tell. Nope. Nothin'. Another one of the division's exciting champions.
6. Yuri Foreman (25-0, 8 KO)
Top Rank is trying to get Yuri Foreman a title shot. Hey, good luck. He can't sell tickets, can't draw ratings, doesn't fight anything approaching an exciting style, and is just good enough that guys will avoid him like the plague. Totally technically sound and without any pop, young Yuri is a far more interesting boxing character than he is a boxer. Sure, he could grab a strap or two before all is said and done, but hey, so has Joachim Alcine. Spinks has had several. His personal life stuff is far more interesting than his fights. Nobody's ever said a bad word about him, and you can't help but wish him the best, but if I ever paid to see Yuri Foreman fight, I'd declare myself insane.
7. Daniel Santos (31-3-1, 22 KO)
Maybe he's got something left. Maybe he does not. He won a WBA eliminator on the Peter-McCline undercard in October, beating similarly-probably-spent Jose Antonio Rivera via eighth round TKO. If he does fight Dzinziruk again, he'll probably lose. Just too inactive. At 32, Santos is running out of time, and he's spent a long time doing nothing with said time. His greatest claim to fame will be a cut stoppage decision win over Antonio Margarito in a close fight when Tony tried to move up a weight class. You may also remember him taking Fulgencio Zuniga to class, recess, and detention way back in 2003. But the most recent truly notable thing on his record is his 2005 decision loss to Dzinziruk that took his title.
8. Verno Phillips (42-10-1, 21 KO, IBF Titleholder)
My favorite baseball team is the Baltimore Orioles. You might be able to tell. A long time ago, Earl Weaver played an infamous goof on the Orioles radio network where he launched into an obscenely profanity-filled tirade that included topics such as Tim Stoddard, tomato plants, team speed, and, most infamously, Terry Crowley. Weaver claimed Crowley was "lucky to be in f---in' baseball, fer crissakes!"
Verno Phillips is lucky to be in this f---in' top ten, fer crissakes. He should have lost to Spinks, and if he had, he'd be somewhere in the "honorable mentions" paragraphs, a 38-year old fighter with 11 losses, no title, and not a whole lot going for him. He would have failed in his final attempt at glory; he should have. In all honesty, he did. He fell short. But the win counts, he has the strap, and he's not a bad fighter or anything. He's not washed up like Stevie Johnston. But put him in the ring with one of the division's big three youngsters, and I think he gets knocked out, cagey veteranness and all.
9. Alfredo Angulo (13-0, 10 KO)
Another one most people would refrain from ranking. We'll get to the third in a minute. Angulo is tough, which he showed against Richar Gutierrez, and he can punch, which he's shown against everybody. He's got solid technique and he comes to fight. Thank God for these three guys, because they're about to save a division.
10. James Kirkland (22-0, 19 KO)
A monster. An offensive beast. On the prospect-geared B.A.D. on May 17th, I thought Kirkland was the one MOST likely to face a really stiff test. Instead he blew out a good fighter in a minute and six seconds. Absolutely stormed him like a great plains tornado, ripped Eromosele Albert apart like a weak trailer park. Guys that can punch will probably always trouble him, because he just leaves himself so open. He has no regard for defense -- none whatsoever. But damn if he's not exciting to watch fight, and he's got the sort of power and mindset to put anyone on the canvas quickly. He's like a 154-pound David Tua.
You Coulda Been a Contender...
Andrey Tsurkan (26-3, 17 KO) is part of an army of guys in boxing who are good, but just not good enough. It's really simple. He is just not good enough. Yuri Foreman outboxed him in December, but I'll always watch Tsurkan fight. He brings it, has enough pop that a KO is realistic in any fight, and he's just flat-out enjoyable. His destruction of Jesse Feliciano wasn't really up my alley since it was unfair, as Feliciano is tough and can't fight. It was like Homer Simpson v. Dreadrick Taylor.
Sechew Powell (23-1, 14 KO) still hasn't lived down his one-sided loss to Kassim Ouma, if you ask me. His decision win over Ishe Smith was pretty questionable, and since then he's waxed Terrance Cauthen and Kevin Finley. Cauthen is somewhere near mediocre, whereas Finley had absolutely no business being in the ring with Powell, which was made blatantly clear by Teddy Atlas on the ESPN2 broadcast for all two minutes and 23 seconds the fight lasted. It was pathetic. Powell will fight Deandre Latimore (18-1, 15 KO) on June 11, again on ESPN2. That one might have a few fireworks.
Ishe Smith (19-3, 9 KO) is a hell of an opponent. He'll never be much more than that, and he'll also never accept the possible idea that maybe he just didn't win that particular fight. His losses have come to Mora, Powell and Julio, also the three best fighters he's ever fought. Pattern?
Alex Bunema (29-5-2, 15 KO) knocked out Roman Karmazin (36-3-1, 23 KO) on the undercard of Jones-Trinidad, in the night's most surprising result. Solid fight, Bunema really performed well. Bunema is a King fighter, which means he got an attention-grabbing win, and before the iron could freeze over, nobody tried to get him on TV or anything. More than anything it's probably just time to accept that Karmazin isn't all that great of a fighter, and a loss to Bunema probably shouldn't be considered much of an upset at all. Kind of a 60-40 fight, really.
When's the last time someone fell as fast as Kassim Ouma (25-5-1, 15 KO)? One of boxing's great (read: most awful) stories, a lovable fighter that was an action machine at his best and stood up to middleweight champion Jermain Taylor in a fight that was hopeless for him on paper and in practice, pushing it 12 rounds. Since then he's taken 11 months off and lost to the likes of Saul Roman and Cornelius Bundrage. So long, farewell.
Travis Simms (25-1, 19 KO) is not Bernard Hopkins. He has never been Bernard Hopkins. He's 37 and has fought, I dunno, four good fighters, one of whom was eternal contender/pretender Bronco McKart, a great guy that I root for but isn't exactly world class. He's that final step of fighter before you start testing a prospect. Anyway Simms is a jerk and it wouldn't shock me if we never saw him fight again. Bad business deals and all that happen all the time, but Tremendous Travis has pressed the issue plenty at this point. Fight or don't.
If you were going to rank Ricardo Mayorga (29-6-1, 23 KO) anywhere, this is probably the division. He thinks he wants to fight welter again, but let's try to be serious and stifle the laughter. He's never been known for his wonderful training habits or his great physical condition on fight night. Even if you accept that all the drinking and smoking stuff is partially hype BS, Mayorga has never been an impressive physical specimen for a pro boxer. The man can still punch and brawl, though. Any given night. And God can he sell a fight. Still one of the sport's best villains. There's a reason that he's been mentioned as an opponent for Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley and Kelly Pavlik this year. He sells fights, has some name credibility, and would get brutally knocked out by any of them, but he'd go out in a blaze of glory, too. I still love that Mayorga-Vargas at 164 pounds was so much better than it had any right to be.
Past Mayorga victim Michele Piccirillo (49-4, 30 KO) actually fought again a couple weeks ago, beating some bum named Patrik Hruska, who came in with a 10-30 record. The Italian gentleman came to the States in 2005 and Mayorga kicked his ass. He came back last year and Forrest demolished him. He won't be back again unless he's taking his family to Disney World. He beat a few good fighters in his day on his home turf, but his day is over. Bob Arum bluntly said last year that he thought Piccirillo was retired before the Forrest bout. He really should consider that idea now.
Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. (36-0-1, 29 KO) will never be his father. And he's not the prospect that Julio, Angulo or Kirkland are. That does not mean he won't be a quality fighter. It doesn't mean he's not one already. He's not fighting the best guys in the world, but he's 22 years old and beating decent competition like Ray Sanchez. Chavez-Sanchez could've been a Shobox or B.A.D. fight and people probably would've been more impressed -- you know, not paying 30 bucks for it. In one way you can sort of respect Arum getting Latino-based cards out there for the sport's best fight fans, but in another way, he's just gouging those same great fans.
Sergio Martinez (42-1-1, 22 KO) is a joke. And a myth. That's really all I care to say about him. Until he ever beats someone worth their salt, my opinion will not change. Maybe it's unfair. He's more than welcome to prove me wrong by taking a real fight sometime.
23-year old Chechen Zaurbek Baysangurov (18-0, 13 KO) has wins over Hussein Baram and Marco Antonio Rubio. Not bad. Keep an eye on him. He's a former Russian amateur junior champion and won two junior bronze medals internationally. He's currently the European titleholder, which means little, really, but it's something.
Former Cinderella Man Carlos Baldomir (44-11-6, 13 KO) is probably all but done. I hate that some people look back on Baldy's short reign of fame with disgust -- "But he beat BALDOMIR, of all people!" -- when the whole thing was magical and really captured something for a brief period of time. No room for magic anymore, I suppose.