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Boxing Year in Review 2015: The Lightweights

The 135-pound ranks have become a highly competitive, pleasantly muddled division that could look totally different by the end of 2016.

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Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Year-End Top 10

  1. Rances Barthelemy (24-0, 13 KO)
  2. Jorge Linares (40-3, 27 KO)
  3. Denis Shafikov (36-2-1, 19 KO)
  4. Terry Flanagan (29-0, 12 KO)
  5. Anthony Crolla (30-4-3, 12 KO)
  6. Argenis Mendez (23-3-1, 12 KO)
  7. Miguel Vazquez (35-5, 13 KO)
  8. Dejan Zlaticanin (21-0, 14 KO)
  9. Ismael Barroso (19-0-2, 18 KO)
  10. Yuriorkis Gamboa (25-1, 17 KO)

This is a division still somewhat in flux. Terence Crawford dominated these ranks in 2014, but left for 140 this year, leaving a top spot to fill. There are two good arguments: Barthelemy and Linares.

Barthelemy, 29, gets the nod for me due to a quality win over Shafikov to close the year, and the fact that he hasn't shown the vulnerabilities that Linares has to date. The Cuban would probably be favored head-to-head against Linares, too. Barthelemy went 3-0 on the year, including wins above lightweight over Angino Perez and Antonio DeMarco.

Linares, 30, feels older than he is, and frankly may be older than he is in ring years. He's been through some tough ones, including a terrific May 30 bout this year, where he rallied from down on the cards to stop Kevin Mitchell. The Venezuelan may not have had the sort of career that former admirer Emanuel Steward, for instance, thought he was capable of, but he's won world titles at 126, 130, and 135, for whatever they're worth, and has showed great resilience and determination, both mid-fight and coming back from three stoppage defeats in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Linares' argument is in quantity, but does he have a win better than Barthelemy's over Shafikov? Debatable. You can't go wrong picking either guy, though.

Shafikov, 30, remains at No. 3 despite the December loss, because his only losses have been in world title fights against Miguel Vazquez (then No. 1 in the division in 2014) and Barthelemy (now No. 1, at worst No. 2 in the division), and he was competitive both times out. He would, really, be an excellent opponent for either of the next two guys, both titleholders who would like to argue their way into the top spot.

Flanagan, 26, has been a surprise. The former British champion defeated Jose Zepeda in July, though that win came because Zepeda dislocated his shoulder in round two. But the follow-up, which also ended in two rounds, was certainly conclusive, when Flanagan thrashed Diego Magdaleno in October. Flanagan is at an age where sometimes guys just come into their own and things click. That may be exactly what's happening for him.

Crolla, 29, won the WBA title in November, knocking out Darleys Perez. He deservedthe belt when they first met in July, but that was scored a shocking draw. It was maybe the best story in boxing this year, as Crolla nearly lost his career when trying to stop an invasion at his neighbor's home, resulting in serious cranial injuries. But here he is, able to call himself champion of the world.

Mendez, 29, and Vazquez, 28, are bunched right together at six and seven, due to their very close fight in October, which one judge laughably scored 99-90 for Mendez. It was a round or two either way, really, but the universe and stars seem to be trying to push Vazquez out of the upper ranks, and he makes it no easier on himself with his frustrating style, which is heavy on clinches. Still, Vazquez never should have lost his IBF belt to Mickey Bey in 2014, and could beat anybody in this division on any given night.

Zlaticanin, 31, signed with Al Haymon this year, and got his career going again. He beat Ricky Burns in 2014, but couldn't find decent fights after. This year, he fought just once, but he made it clear the Burns fight was no fluke, smashing prospect Ivan Redkach in four rounds on June 13.

Barroso, 32, came out of nowhere to stop Kevin Mitchell in December, after beating veterans Issouf Kinda and Ira Terry in March and April of this year. The Venezuelan's power was questionable going into the Mitchell fight -- a question of who he'd really beaten -- but it proved to be quite real. He got Mitchell's attention in the first round, and Kevin never really found his way into the fight after that.

Gamboa, 34, is right on the brink. This is not a weight that suits him, he's getting older, and his inactivity has hampered some of his recent performances. He deserved his win over Hylon Williams Jr in December, but it was no blowaway performance. Gamboa has a lot of issues right now, but his pure skill level keeps him at the back end of our top 10 -- for now.

On the Cusp

Petr Petrov (36-4-2, 17 KO) won the Boxcino lightweight tournament in 2014. This year, he fought one time, beating Gamaliel Diaz in April.

Darleys Perez (32-2-1, 20 KO) beat Jonathan Maicelo in January before his two fights with Crolla. He didn't look like himself in July, but did in November before he was stopped. He's still relevant in the division, but not in the top ten for the time being.

Mickey Roman (53-11, 40 KO) would be a more popular fighter in another time, probably. He's an action guy, he fights constantly (Roman went 5-0 this year), and he's capable enough, if not quite world level. He's on a 15-fight win streak right now.

"Crazy" Dante Jardon (28-5, 22 KO) is similar in level to Roman. In fact, the two fought each other twice in 2012, Roman winning a split decision and Jardon getting revenge by unanimous decision three months later. Jardon won four fights this year after a pair of losses in 2013-14 at 130 pounds.

Ray Beltran (29-7-1, 17 KO) had a chance to finally really break through this year, getting a vacant title fight with Takahiro Ao in May. But he missed weight by half a pound, then after he won, tested positive for steroids. He's not getting any younger, and his window might have closed.

Ghana's Richard Commey (23-0, 21 KO) is an intriguing name to watch this coming year. The 28-year-old has fought all over the place -- Ghana, South Africa, the UK, Denmark, the US, Germany -- and done nothing but win. This year, he went 4-0, fighting in Denmark, then South Africa, the US, and Germany.

Adrian Estrella (24-1, 22 KO) moved up to lightweight after a loss to Eden Sonsona at 130 in May, and came back with a pair of wins.

Dierry Jean (29-2, 20 KO) lost a 140-pound title fight to Terence Crawford in October, but he's really a lightweight, and a pretty good one. Both of Jean's two losses have come in 140-pound title bouts.

Ricky Burns (39-5-1, 13 KO) worked his way back down to 135 to close the year, after losing to Omar Figueroa in May at 140, then beating Prince Ofotsu in August. His win over Josh King in November was a dirty, ugly fight.

Mercito Gesta (29-1-2, 16 KO) is now with Golden Boy, and has another chance at success. The 28-year-old Filipino southpaw once fought like a Pacquiao clone, and in his first big fight against Miguel Vazquez in 2012, he was terribly befuddled by a difficult style matchup and just did nothing. He had a draw with Carlos Molina this year, followed by a win in October, but he's kind of existing on old hype value at this point. He's never been as good as the early advertisement.

Sharif Bogere (27-1, 19 KO) has stalled since his 2013 loss to Richar Abril. He fought two times this year, both in Mexico, beating Joksan Hernandez and going to a no-contest with Daniel Ruiz.

Ivan Redkach (19-1, 15 KO) might have been exposed a bit against Zlaticanin, but it might also just be that Zlaticanin is really good. The 29-year-old notched two wins this year, beating Yakubu Amidu in January, then coming back in October to knock out Erick Daniel Martinez.

Michael Katsidis (31-7, 24 KO) is still fighting, and will continue doing so in 2016.

The Titleholders

WBC: Jorge Linares

  • def. Kevin Mitchell (TKO-10, 5/30)
  • def. Ivan Cano (KO-4, 10/10)

WBA: Anthony Crolla

  • Richar Abril stripped of title on 4/10, Darleys Perez promoted from interim to world titleholder
  • Perez vs Crolla ended in draw (7/18)
  • def. Darleys Perez (KO-5, 11/21 - TITLE CHANGE)

IBF: Rances Barthelemy

  • Mickey Bey vacated title on 7/3
  • def. Denis Shafikov (UD-12, 12/18 - WON VACANT TITLE)

WBO: Terry Flanagan

  • Terence Crawford vacated title in early 2015
  • Ray Beltran vs Takahiro Ao ended in no-contest on 5/1, title on the line for Ao only as Beltran missed weight, originally winning TKO-2 but result changed after Beltran failed drug test
  • def. Jose Zepeda (RTD-2, 7/11 - WON VACANT TITLE)
  • def. Diego Magdaleno (TKO-2, 10/10)

Top 5 Prospects

Boxing: Verdejo vs Alcantar Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Félix Verdejo (19-0, 14 KO)
  2. Robert Easter Jr (16-0, 13 KO)
  3. Saul Rodriguez (19-0-1, 14 KO)
  4. Alejandro Luna (19-0, 14 KO)
  5. Scotty Cardle (19-0, 6 KO)

Verdejo, 22, was a standout at London 2012 for Puerto Rico, and an obvious pro prospect there, someone who was likely going to fare better as a professional than an amateur. But even as an amateur, he scored a pair of wins at the Olympics before losing to Vasyl Lomachenko, and while he was outclassed -- who wasn't against Lomachenko? -- he wasn't ridiculously outclassed, either, losing on a score of 14-9, giving Lomachenko his second-toughest test in London. (Cuba's Yasniel Toledo lost 14-11 in the next round, the semifinals.) Verdejo went 3-0 this year, fighting twice in Puerto Rico and once at Madison Square Garden, where Top Rank hopes he'll become the next big Puerto Rican star. The fan base seems to have already gotten behind him in a big way.

Easter, 24, has sort of flown under the radar a little bit. He's associated with the Broner camp in Cincinnati, and originally hails from Toledo. Still, he doesn't get a ton of hype as a prospect. When you watch him fight, though, it's hard not to be impressed. He's tall for the division at 5'11", and carries a 76-inch reach. He's got power and doesn't have the sort of awkward, gangly style some abnormally tall fighters wind up with at these weights. He went 4-0 this year, stopping veterans Alejandro Rodriguez, Miguel Angel Mendoza, Osumanu Akaba, and Juan Ramon Solis.

Rodriguez, 22, from Riverside, California, had an impressive year, beating four young, hungry fighters and making his mark as a prospect to watch on the Top Rank roster. His November win over Ivan Najera was a bit of a stunner, not that he won, but that he finished Najera off at 2:06 of the first round. Najera had gone a full ten -- albeit in a shutout loss -- with Verdejo in June.

Luna, 24, went 2-0 this year, beating veteran foulmaster Cristobal Cruz and Sergio Lopez in June and August. He suffered a cut early in the fight with Lopez. He's part of the PBC universe and should get some chances in 2016.

Cardle, 26, might rank higher for some, particularly those in the United Kingdom, but while he's certainly a solid young fighter, and now holds the British lightweight title after a win over Craig Evans in May (and a defense against Sean Dodd in November), he doesn't really have any standout qualities, and has the feel of someone who may max out at this level, or maybe the European level. As far as considering him a prospect despite his title status, I consider him already well accomplished domestically in the UK for sure, but feel he remains a prospect level fighter on the grander scale.

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