This list might change big time in about a month, and if it does, hey, we'll just update it again. This is a division that stands up with the best in boxing, including the supposedly deep welterweights.
1. Juan Manuel Marquez (50-4-1, 37 KO, Ring Magazine Champion, WBO/WBA Titlist)
So when does he hit the wall?
Marquez may be a little slower than he used to be. It may also be on purpose. Most guys get more defensive minded and less fan-friendly as they age, even great warriors like Marco Antonio Barrera. Marquez, who turns 36 in August, has taken the exact opposite route.
Maybe he felt it was necessary to get over "the hump." His 2007 win over Barrera showed him more willing to trade and mix it up than in the past, and he won a hell of a good fight. He then demolished Rocky Juarez, took Manny Pacquiao to the limit for a second time, and has now won two straight, knocking out Joel Casamayor to win the lineal championship and then Juan Diaz to win the vacant WBO and WBA titles.
No one had ever stopped Casamayor before. Diaz doesn't have quite the resume, but no one had ever stopped him, either. Marquez dropped them both with emphasis and finished them off.
It's bizarre to me that Marquez has kept performing not just at as high of a level, but he might be better than he used to be. He's certainly more dangerous. By taking risks, he also gets off harder counter punches, and he's a master in suckering the other fighter into his game. He took clean, hard shots from Diaz, who just wasn't a big enough puncher.
But we're also talking about a guy with a great chin who's never been knocked out himself. I'll say again that if they meet a third time at 140 pounds, I think Pacquiao will stop Marquez inside the limit. Pacquiao is amazingly getting better and better, and 140 just seems too high for Juan Manuel. He's also met canvas four times in 24 rounds against Pacquiao, though just once in the last 23 rounds. But he might be turning into a straight-up all-time great. Were he to meet and beat Pacquiao, it puts the stamp on his Hall of Fame envelope. I think he's already there, but nobody could dispute it then.
2. Joan Guzman (29-0, 17 KO)
Guzman easily outpointed Ameth Diaz in Santo Domingo last December, and now he's out as one of the two challengers for the vacant IBF title. But whatever -- I'd pick Guzman over anyone in the division except Marquez, and as talented as I think Guzman is, I think Marquez would chew him up. JMM is a damn good boxer in his own right, and though Guzman is quicker, Joanie isn't a big puncher and Marquez would catch and hurt him at some point, I figure. He'll never be your favorite boxer, and he also may never reach accolade marks that many inferior fighters have. The "Little Tyson" and "Sycuan Warrior" nicknames haven't really panned out, and he should fight a lot more than he has (one fight in each of '07 and '08 doesn't cut it), but his talent is very real.
3. Joel Casamayor (36-4-1, 22 KO)
I figure some will argue this, but I think even the aged Casamayor would given Juan Diaz a lot of trouble, even if he did it with some of his trademark, erm, underhanded tactics. Casamayor is still a hell of a tactician and he kept himself in the fight against Marquez before getting gunned down in the 11th. Even though he's proven himself time and time again, Casamayor remains one of the most overlooked great fighters of his generation, and at 37 I still think he's got something left in the tank. He got the hardest matchup of the Lightweight Lightning PPV coming up in April.
Next: April 4 v. Julio Diaz
4. Juan Diaz (34-2, 17 KO)
I won't continue to harp on what I feel are the faults of "The Baby Bull," and instead I'll focus more on what I like about him, which is most stuff. He doesn't have a big punch, but that can be overcome. His volume punching is great, his speed is underrated, and he takes pretty good shots. While Diaz was controlling the early portion of the fight, he still took some nasty shots from Marquez that he didn't back down from. He's got some maturing to do still, but I don't want to forget that he's 25 years old. He's a really good fighter, still has the potential to be great, and can learn a lot from his two losses.
As for my views on Diaz, if you weren't around a year ago (and a lot of you weren't), these aren't new thoughts of mine. When he insultingly accused Nate Campbell of possibly being on steroids and Campbell ripped him to shreds for it, I was saying a lot of the same things I am now. It didn't start with the Marquez fight. I'll also say that his Campbell comments still don't sit well with me at all.
5. Julio Diaz (36-4, 26 KO)
The Julio Diaz that had the crap beaten out of him by Juan Diaz in October 2007 was not the Julio Diaz I'm used to seeing, and he's won two fights with ease since then. He knocked out previously-unbeaten David Torres last June, then easily outpointed Fernando Trejo, a tough veteran, in October. His next fight will tell us where he's at, and where Casamayor is at, too. Diaz, 29, seems older than he is, but he's still in what should be his prime years.
Next: April 4 v. Joel Casamayor
6. Ali Funeka (30-2-2, 25 KO)
The tall South African made a nice showing for himself in his U.S. debut against an overweight Nate Campbell. He also showed a great level of class by not just taking the fight with Campbell, which saved that show from total disaster, but not even getting at Campbell for extra money, which he would've been totally within his rights to do and I'd imagine the Campbell team wouldn't have argued much. Hopefully with Guzman out, Funeka will be in line to face Romanov for the vacant IBF title that he was the mandatory for prior to the loss to Campbell. He's got some things to work on, but there's always a promise with a guy who has this sort of physical advantage over the vast majority of his potential opponents.
7. Edwin Valero (24-0, 24 KO)
Valero's myth is what it is, but he's knocked out 24 guys in a row. Ask them how they felt after the myth of Valero put them down. His next one should be a barnburner.
Next: April 4 v. Antonio Pitalua
8. Antonio Pitalua (46-3, 40 KO)
An unheralded, 39-year old Colombian banger who hasn't lost since 2001 but also hasn't faced much competition in that time. His last fight, a sixth-round knockout of Jose Armando Santa Cruz, put the division on notice. If he takes Valero out, don't be stunned.
Next: April 4 v. Edwin Valero
9. Yuri Romanov (21-2, 14 KO)
Good, European-style, European-only boxer from Belarus. Romanov would have a legit shot against most guys in the division, but beating any of the top five would be a pretty big upset to me. He's good, though, and both of his losses have been closes (to Graham Earl and Krzysztof Bienias, the latter in his fourth pro fight).
10. Paulus Moses (24-0, 17 KO, WBA Titlist - note: Marquez is "super champion" of the WBA, which is ridiculous)
Moses beat Yusuke Kobori for the WBA "regular" title in January (115-113, 115-113, 119-109) on the road in Yokohama. The jury is out in many respects, but Kobori is a quality fighter and beating him is nothing to sneeze at.
You Coulda Been a Contender...
Michael Katsidis (24-2, 20 KO) is one of my favorite fighters, even though I'm completely aware of his flaws. What sealed it for me was not his action wars against Graham Earl, Czar Amonsot and Casamayor, but his loss to Juan Diaz, which was clear as day to everyone but Katsidis' corner and judge Glen Hamada. When asked by Max Kellerman if he should "take a softer touch," Katsidis replied, "Nah. Go big or go home." He did wind up taking a "softer touch" in his January comeback fight, but now he's back to going big. I truly believe he'd have fought Manny Pacquiao the day after he fought Diaz if someone told him to.
Marco Antonio Barrera (65-6, 43 KO) might have something left. He might not. His record speaks for itself in good and bad ways. He hasn't looked good since the loss to Marquez, which I had scored a draw, and he fought only to not get creamed by Pacquiao in their rematch, apart from his classless cheap shot late in the fight. Barrera is an interesting guy; he plays a gentleman most of the time, but Erik Morales' "HBO Countdown" description of him ("He's a mother****er") isn't that far off when he's in the ring sometimes. Barrera's chin, speed, defense and energy will be tested by Amir Khan (19-1, 15 KO). I favor Barrera because Khan has one of the worst chins you'll ever see, but if Khan overwhelms him early I won't be shocked.
Breidis Prescott (21-0, 18 KO) knocked out Khan in one last year, but we saw more of the real Prescott against Humberto Toledo this past month. That was the Prescott who's going to show up, and the luster is off after that Khan KO. He's not a top ten lightweight or too close to it; that was knee-jerk stuff. Who had Khan ever beaten for a loss to Prescott to jump Breidis from unknown to top ten?
Jesus Chavez (44-4, 30 KO) will face Michael Katsidis at Lightweight Lightning. I see one of two things happening. If Katsidis fights like he has in the past, all balls-out and bringin' the funk, Chavez is in trouble. He's 36 and has a bad knee, and has been away from the top tier of the sport since an injury KO to Julio Diaz in 2007, and prior to that he hadn't fought since the tragic win over Leavander Johnson in 2005. But if Katsidis tries to box the way he did against Diaz, he's so slow and his reactions so lethargic that I see Chavez having a real shot at outboxing him and winning an upset.
Antonio DeMarco (20-1-1, 14 KO) and Almazbek Raiymkulov (27-2-1, 15 KO) put on a heck of a good fight early last month, and I actually had Raiymkulov up close with the tide maybe turning. I wouldn't mind seeing them do it again given the circumstances of the finish, but I don't think DeMarco's handlers are going to be too keen on that. "Kid Diamond" is fighting for his career at this point. Not because he's bad, but because he's been so erratic.
Anthony Peterson (28-0, 19 KO): FWAH! He's going to be around a long time, and he's on the cusp of the top ten as it is. But he will never be a star. Both he and his brother, Lamont, are good boxers without much charisma.
Jorge Barrios (47-4-1, 34 KO) has charisma. He should loan some to the Petersons and see if they'll teach him how to calm down in the ring occasionally. He got the easiest draw of Lightweight Lightning, as he'll face 38-year old Carlos Hernandez (43-7-1, 24 KO), who has fought all of once since 2006. Clearly no bracketing going on. How would one explain Barrios-Hernandez and Casamayor-Diaz if there was?
David Diaz (34-2-1, 17 KO) is a tough, likable, down-to-earth dude that I can't imagine not rooting for. He hasn't fought since getting clobbered by Manny Pacquiao last June, and he's got nothing on tap.
John Murray (26-0, 14 KO), 24, is a Brit making some noise. He's stepped up his competition in his last two fights, and stopped both Lee Meager and Lee McAllister. If he's going to be a global star of any sort, those are guys he should beat without a lot of trouble, and he did it.
Yusuke Kobori (23-3-1, 12 KO) has lost just once since 2003, and he's faced some solid fighters along the way. Like many of the Japanese fighters, it's easy to think he's underrated and also easy to wonder who these guys are that he's fighting. It's not quite as comical as the puffed-up records of many Thai boxers, but it's sort of an insular circuit, too.
Zahir Raheem (29-3, 17 KO) hasn't been heard from since Funeka knocked him out in South Africa.
Jose Armando Santa Cruz (26-4, 15 KO) all but lost his career when knocked out by Pitalua. He was robbed against Casamayor and never got a shot to make it right, not that anyone wanted to see it again, even in the interest of fairness. It's a long road back now.
Remember Vicente Escobedo (19-1, 12 KO)? What the hell was he doing on Fight Night: Round 3?