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Boxing Year in Review 2015: The Featherweights

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Vasyl Lomachenko leads a division with plenty of quality fighters, and one that could stand more quality fights.

Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Year-End Top 10

  1. Vasyl Lomachenko (5-1, 3 KO)
  2. Leo Santa Cruz (31-0-1, 17 KO)
  3. Gary Russell Jr (26-1, 15 KO)
  4. Jesus Cuellar (28-1, 21 KO)
  5. Abner Mares (29-2-1, 15 KO)
  6. Lee Selby (22-1, 8 KO)
  7. Simpiwe Vetyeka (28-3, 17 KO)
  8. Satoshi Hosono (30-2-1, 20 KO)
  9. Eric Hunter (21-3, 11 KO)
  10. (tie) Ronny Rios (25-1, 10 KO) and Robinson Castellanos (23-11, 13 KO)

Lomachenko, 27, is a marvelously skilled boxer, without question. If you enjoy paying close attention to the technical side of things, there's no one better out there, I don't think. He has a grace that Guillermo Rigondeaux, as excellent as he is, too, just does not have in his skill set. And he's not as reliant on the counter game as Rigo, either, which makes him, while not exciting in the traditional sense, a little more fun to watch than his Cuban counterpart. At the same time, like, really, though, there are respected analysts out there calling for him as pound-for-pound top 10, top 5, even the best in the sport. All that because of one genuinely good win as a pro? The four other guys he's beaten are all non-contenders. The two wins he had this year -- Gamalier Rodriguez and Romulo Koasicha -- were overmatched opponents with no hope. Lomachenko did as he should have, but the fact that he won a world title -- by beating a guy who frankly also doesn't have much by way of quality wins -- so early in his pro campaign seems to overshadow the fact that his competition, through no fault of his own, to be fair, has been woefully lacking.

Santa Cruz, 27, cast aside any remaining doubts of his own legitimacy with a solid win in August over Abner Mares, who fought well but was just beaten by a better fighter in LSC. That was Santa Cruz's third win of the year, starting with a final garbage title defense at 122 against Jesus Ruiz, then a tune-up weight-tester in May against Jose Cayetano. Santa Cruz gets the No. 2 spot over the next guy because his best win is better, even though his best win came against a guy that the other guy's best win knocked out. But I've been over my feelings on first round stoppages at the high level enough in the last 10 years.

Russell, 27 (a great age for this weight, apparently), fought once this year, smashing Jhonny Gonzalez in March to win the WBC belt. It was surprising, kind of, but Gonzalez has never had a great or even good chin -- at best it's probably "passable" -- and he was an old fighter whose win over Abner Mares gave him a little extra smoke and mirrors life as a top fighter. Russell, like many, passes the eye test without question. But his opposition has been terribly lacking over his career, too. No one is doubting his talent, but who's he displayed it against, really? I realize I'm sounding highly negative right now, it's just that this weight class currently has three guys on top who all kind of have the same story. All can fight, no doubt, but there is the lingering feeling that they haven't been truly tested enough to get a serious feel for how good they are.

Cuellar, 29, is an Argentine southpaw who is as good as he's going to get, to switch gears. And he's a good fighter. This year, he knocked out an aged, tiny Vic Darchinyan in June, and then beat Jonathan Oquendo clearly by decision in December. If you were giving these guys letter grades, which I suppose one could quite easily do if one were so inclined, Cuellar would be a B or B- fighter. The idea of someone being a "B fighter" has been polluted. A B is a good grade; a B grade fighter is a good fighter. Just not great, and lacking the ability to be great. B grade fighters win world titles all the time. Always have.

Mares, 30, beat Arturo Santos in March, then lost to Santa Cruz with a spirited effort in August. That fight made clear that there's still something left in the tank for Mares, who has run the risk of aging prematurely thanks to a gruelingly tough schedule from 2010-13, when he fought Yonnhy Perez, Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko (twice), Anselmo Moreno, Daniel Ponce De Leon, and Jhonny Gonzalez. Oh, and Eric Morel. He also fought Eric Morel in the middle of all that. Cuellar-Mares would in fact be a terrific fight to make, and would seem doable as both are under the PBC banner.

Selby, 28, won the IBF belt from Evgeny Gradovich with a nice performance in May, then had some surprising issues in his U.S. debut against Fernando Montiel, though he did successfully defend the belt on October 14. Selby's a talented fighter, but let's stick to using his "Barry Boy Assassin" nickname, even if that doesn't entirely fit his style, and not say "The Welsh Floyd Mayweather" ever again.

Vetyeka, 35, has been treading water since his controversial technical decision loss to Nonito Donaire in Macau in May 2014. He returned about seven months later in South Africa, beating Arturo Santos, and then didn't fight again until late in November this year. Vetyeka beat Daud Yordan in 2013, which set up a fight with Chris John later that year, and he wound up the man who retired the Indonesian legend. (Legend in Indonesia, I mean. Good fighter. About a B.) As a result of treading water, plus the fact that he's South African and has no major promotional ties and gave Donaire more trouble than those scores and that decision reflected, he's kind of being pushed out of the top ranks of the division.

Hosono, 32, is another veteran hanging on in the top 10. This year, he won four fights, ending with a victory over Akifumi Shimoda on New Year's Eve. There are a few prospects on the way and some other guys who should be in the spots that Vetyeka and Hosono are clawing onto at this point next year.

Hunter, 29, is an interesting case. The Philadelphia fighter, nicknamed "The Outlaw," doesn't have the pretty record. But one of his losses came in 2007, a six-round split decision, and can be pretty much written off. The other two were disqualifications in 2010 against Luis Franco (repeated low blows) and 2013 against Mike Oliver (hitting on the break). Other than that, he's shown talent. This year, he beat Rene Alvarado in January, then knocked out Antonio Escalante, who always gets knocked out, in May. Hunter can definitely fight, but hasn't had great opposition, so in that regard he's kinda like the top three guys, just, you know, not as good. But he also might be a nutter butter, what with two DQ losses.

The tenth spot is a tie, and I'll explain why I just couldn't pick between the two. Castellanos, 33, is better than his record, but he was stopped by Rene Alvarado in February 2014. This year, his only fight came in January, when he cut short Rocky Juarez's attempt at a comeback. Castellanos beat Rios, 25, in October 2014, and did so in pretty dominant fashion, but Rios was so obviously not himself physically and/or mentally in that fight that while it certainly counts, it's hard to see a rematch going the same way. Rios came back strong this year, winning a March tune-up and then taking down Jayson Velez in a minor upset that maybe shouldn't have been seen that way on the Cotto-Canelo card in November. The upside here is with Rios, and if they rematched, I'd pick him to beat Castellanos the second time around. But that's speculation. Castellanos did beat Rios, and recently enough that it's relevant, and convincingly enough that it certainly can't be washed over. My head says Rios, but I also can't ignore the loss to Castellanos. So why not cheat? I mean, none of this means anything. So what the hell?

On the Cusp

Evgeny Gradovich (20-1-1, 9 KO) would be in the top 10, even with his loss to Selby, but for two other issues: first off, he struggled mightily and in my view deserved to lose to Aldimar Silva in October, and second, he's exploring a move down to 122 anyway.

Jayson Velez (23-1-1, 16 KO) looked good in a 2014 draw against Gradovich, but not so good when he was beaten by Ronny Rios in November. Between those outings, he beat a club fighter in June to keep busy.

South African guys I don't know enough about but have high rankings on BoxRec: Thabo Sonjica (21-2, 15 KO) and Lusanda Komanisi (19-4, 17 KO).

Miguel Marriaga (22-1, 19 KO) might still be worth considering in the division. He was beaten soundly by Nicholas Walters in June and doesn't have much by way of notable wins, but he was also facing a Walters who didn't make weight, plus, you know, Walters is pretty good and was at the time arguably the No. 1 featherweight.

Hisashi Amagasa (30-5-2, 20 KO) went back up to featherweight this year, winning a couple of lower-level fights, after knocking down Guillermo Rigondeaux twice on New Year's Eve 2014, although it's worth noting he didn't just lose that fight, he was well down and stopped after 11 rounds. Still, he is mentioned here. That is a fact.

Hozumi Hasegawa (35-5, 15 KO) is also still fighting, and dominated unproven and unbeaten Mexican prospect Horacio Garcia in May.

Marvin Sonsona (20-1-1, 15 KO) may be something of a wild card in this division. The 25-year-old Filipino was a hyper-hyped super prospects of sort back in 2009, when he was all of 19 years old. Then he had a draw in Canada with Alejandro Hernandez (who would later give Tomoki Kameda a surprisingly tough fight, too), and he lost to another young prospect, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr, in 2010, knocked out in four rounds. He didn't fight for almost two years after that loss, but has gone 6-0 since then, and turned some heads in 2014 with a win over Akifumi Shimoda in Japan, which he followed up by getting a measure of revenge against a faded Vazquez, and then beating Jonathan Arrellano in June of this year. Sonsona has talent and is still very young. He's dealt with what you might call "maturity issues," understandable since they happened when he was 19 years old. Will he become a real contender? Who knows? But he's worth mentioning. In some ways, he is still a prospect.

Yenifel Vicente (28-3-2, 20 KO) lost a couple of fights in 2014, but made a statement on December 8 this year, knocking out previously unbeaten prospect Juan Dominguez early in the third round on FS1. That show did abnormally high ratings for PBC on FS1, so my guess is that Dominicans are the core demographic for boxing on that network. Who knew?

Claudio Marrero (19-1, 14 KO) lost his unbeaten record two years ago, when he was "upset" by Jesus Cuellar. Well, turns out Cuellar is pretty good. Like, the grade of B good! Marrero has gone about his business since then, winning five straight fights, including two this year over competent veterans Orlando Rizo and Rico Ramos. Marrero is 26 and worth watching out for next year if he gets a bigger fight.

The Titleholders

WBC: Gary Russell Jr

  • def. Jhonny Gonzalez (KO-4, 3/28 - TITLE CHANGE)

WBA: Leo Santa Cruz

  • Title stripped from Nicholas Walters in June
  • def. Abner Mares (MD-12, 8/29 - WON VACANT TITLE)

IBF: Lee Selby

  • def. Evgeny Gradovich (TD-8, 5/30 - TITLE CHANGE)
  • def. Fernand Montiel (UD-12, 10/14)

WBO: Vasyl Lomachenko

  • def. Gamalier Rodriguez (KO-9, 5/2)
  • def. Romulo Koasicha (KO-10, 11/7)

Top 5 Prospects

  1. Oscar Valdez (18-0, 16 KO)
  2. Joseph Diaz Jr (19-0, 11 KO)
  3. Julian Ramirez (15-0, 8 KO)
  4. Toka Kahn Clary (17-0, 11 KO)
  5. Josh Warrington (22-0, 4 KO)

I mentioned above that in some ways, Marvin Sonsona is still a prospect. I won't include him here, but if I did, he'd be No. 4. I really just don't include him because I already talked about him. Let's talk about other guys.

Valdez, 25, is a two-time Olympian, representing Mexico in Beijing and London. In Beijing, he was 18 years old, and lost in round one. In London, he was a little older, a little wiser, a little stronger. He won two fights before falling to eventual silver medalist John Joe Nevin. With his development clear in London, it was also obvious that he, like many others at the Olympics every four years, had a style more suited for the pro game than the amateurs. John Joe Nevin likely would always beat Valdez in the amateur ranks. Would a pro version of Nevin beat a pro version of Valdez? I doubt it. (Nevin is fighting pro as a 130/135 guy, and has been so unremarkable thus far that he's barely made a sound.)

Diaz, 23, was one of the few 2012 U.S. Olympians to go pro and not sign with Al Haymon. In fact, there are two: Diaz, with Golden Boy, and Jose Ramirez, with Top Rank. The other seven all signed with Haymon. "Jojo" kept active again this year, going 5-0 with wins over a bunch of guys right around the same level. 2016 could see him target a world title, at least later in the year. He's still got a step or two between where he is and where he wants to be.

Ramirez, 22, is also with Golden Boy. Perhaps Oscar, or whomever is really running the show in the absence of Richard Schaefer and a bunch of guys who left with/around Schaefer, sees a big Jojo Diaz-Julian Ramirez fight someday. As a result of being in the same promotional stable, the same weight class, and around the same stage of development, they have overlapped opponents pretty significantly: Hugo Partida, Raul Hidalgo, Carlos Rodriguez, and Noel Mendoza have all lost to both prospects. Perhaps we can expect Ramirez to face Ruben Tamayo and/or Rene Alvarado in 2016.

Clary, 23, has been a familiar sight on Top Rank cards since his fourth pro fight in 2012, and has been developed by the company since then, taken slow, maybe a bit too slow at times. 2016 is a year for him to step up in competition. He went 3-0 this year.

Warrington, 25, is not a big puncher, but he's done well thus far in his career, and when he stepped up the competition a bit in 2015, he won handily over Dennis Tubieron in April and Joel Brunker in September. He's already held the European and Commonwealth titles. He may not be a guy who leaps out as a world level prospect, and perhaps he really isn't, but this isn't a terribly deep prospects division at the moment, either. A few guys might change that in 2016, though.

Other prospects of note, listed alphabetically: Dennis Ceylan, Francisco De Vaca, Jorge Lara, Mark Magsayo, Gustavo Morales