The cruiserweight division has never meant a gol-durned thing to American boxing fans, really, and certainly hasn't for a long time now, as the division has taken hold mainly overseas, notably in Germany and Russia, where big men who aren't big enough to be big men in the heavyweight division but are too big to be big men in the light heavyweight division ply their trade.
Sometimes, we lament the fact that the cruiserweights, who are about the size of the likes of Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, haven't gotten much play in the States. In a world where heavyweight boxing is deemed "better than people think, actually," if one out of ten major fights is decent, the cruisers are heavyweight-style fighters who actually can put together some decent action because they aren't so massive that they become robotic or, you know, "fat."
The division right now may lack an elite fighter, but there is at least one potential star coming along, and there are some solid guys near the top of the class. Who's the best?
Yoan Pablo Hernandez
Age: 30 | Record: 29-1 (14) | Titles: IBF, RING Magazine
For: Hernandez is the lineal champion of the division and hasn't lost since 2008. The case for him as the top guy is quite strong -- he has two wins over Steve Cunningham, and has followed that with wins over Troy Ross, Alexander Alekseev, and Firat Arslan, all solid victories on paper. He's a talented fighter, a 6'4" southpaw with skills and a sometimes awkward style. He's been winning and against decent fighters.
Against: He struggles within fights fairly often, even when he comes out as a convincing winner. Take the rematch with Cunningham in 2012, where Hernandez dropped his opponent and absolutely deserved the decision. He had some trouble in that fight, and looked vulnerable along the way. And his first fight with Cunningham was stopped because of a headbutt opening a cut on Hernandez, who had dominated early but was losing some ground to the resilient American. Ross gave Hernandez all he could handle and had an argument for the win. Old man Arslan was a split decision. He's also fought just once per year in 2013 and 2014, and has nothing scheduled at the moment.
Outlook: Hernandez is one of those guys who is both credible for his position and also seems like someone who could fall to pieces any given fight. But so far that hasn't happened, and depending on how much you care about lineal championships, especially given how many of them come from repeatedly broken lineages and are then based on one outlet's rankings of top contenders, Hernandez might be an easy pick for you here.
Age: 30 | Record: 38-2-1 (26) | Titles: WBO
For: People keep saying he's exciting to watch even when his fights are uglier than boiled sin, so he's got a reputation that helps his case a little bit, perhaps. Huck hasn't lost as a cruiserweight since 2007, when he dropped a fight to Steve Cunningham, and it's worth note that he maybe should have held a heavyweight title, too, as he was arguably jobbed against Alexander Povetkin in 2012.
Against: Huck struggles more often than you'd like to see, perhaps. His 2010 win over Denis Lebedev was a robbery, in my estimation. He drew with Ola Afolabi in 2012, and then barely got by Firat Arslan in their first bout that same year. He won rematches in 2013 and 2014, respectively, more convincingly against those fighters. (Actually, he's faced Afolabi three times, their first bout coming in 2009.) The good thing is that those are all good fighters, the bad thing is that he might deserve two or three more losses than he has.
Outlook: Huck is still a young fighter and has been at or near the top of the division for about six years now, since beating Victor Ramirez for the WBO title in 2009, after a failed world title bid against Cunningham in '07 and then a short and solid run as European champ.
Age: 35 | Record: 39-1 (27) | Titles: WBC
For: Drozd was the underdog against Krzysztof Wlodarczyk last September when the two met in Moscow, and he took the WBC belt convincingly with a pretty dominant performance over 12 rounds, nearly shutting out the respected veteran. At 35, he's a little long in the tooth, but he doesn't have a ton of miles, either, despite 40 pro fights over a 14-year career. He really entered the discussion with a European title win in 2013 against then-unbeaten Matuesz Masternak, stopping the Pole in the 11th round.
Against: Outside of Diablo and Masternak, Drozd's record is very thin. After those two, you get into guys like Jean Marc Monrose, Richard Hall, Ding-a-Ling Man Wilson, and Rob Calloway, whom Drozd dropped eight times in a 2008 victory. It's worth wondering if he might be a flash in the pan, and if he may have just caught Wlodarczyk on an off night.
Outlook: He rematches Wlodarczyk on May 22, so we'll see if that performance was for real on both sides. Drozd looked every bit the part of a top cruiserweight against Wlodarczyk the first time, but it feels like there's still something to prove. And maybe that fight won't do it, since he's done it once, but still.
Age: 35 | Record: 26-2 (20) | Titles: WBA
For: A big puncher and extremely tough. He's been in contention since 2010, when he lost the controversial decision to Huck in Lebedev's first title opportunity. Scored a memorably savage knockout of Enzo Maccarinelli back in 2009, and one in 2010 over Alexander Alekseev. More recently, he thrashed unbeaten Pawel Kolodziej last September, and had wins over legendary Americans James Toney and Roy Jones Jr back in 2011. He managed to somehow be mildly competitive while having his face beaten into a basketball by Guillermo Jones in 2013, a loss that still stands as official despite Jones failing a drug test for that fight, and then failing another for the same drug before a canceled rematch.
Against: Jones and Toney were a combined 6,008 years old at the time of those fights, and both were bullshit cooked up by Lebedev's rather obnoxious team, who then celebrated the victories as though they'd beaten time traveled versions of the two fighters. There was something downright off-putting about both of those fights. It could also be argued that he doesn't have a true standout win on his resumé.
Outlook: Lebedev faces a dangerous contender on April 10 when he takes on Youri Kayembre Kalenga, who could also be in this discussion, and certainly will be if he gets the W that night.
Age: 27 | Record: 17-1 (11) | Titles: None
For: One time he beat Eddie Chambers, who looked horrible as a cruiserweight. He is ranked No. 4 at BoxRec, largely based on that win.
Against: One time he lost to Zack Mwekeassa.
Outlook: Mchunu, a 5'11" southpaw, might be a true contender in the division. He might not be. It's hard to tell right now, but he did show some good skills against Chambers, even considering how woeful Chambers looked, and he had a pretty easy time with Garrett Wilson and Olanrewaju Durodola in follow-up bouts.
Age: 32 | Record: 21-1 (16) | Titles: None
For: A few years back, Chakhkiev looked like a potential destroyer in the division, and not just because of his unsettling unibrow. With skills and power, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist at heavyweight was a top prospect. And he was even doing quite well when he faced Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in 2013 for the WBC title. He put Diablo down in round three. He led on the cards 66-63, 66-64, and 66-64.
Against: But he was also floored in the sixth, seventh, and eighth rounds, where the fight was stopped in Wlodarczyk's favor. Since then, Chakhkiev has beaten up on second and third tier fighters as he tries to make his way back into another title opportunity. On the plus side of that, he has stayed very active, fighting four months after the loss to Wlodarczyk, and four times in 2014.
Outlook: A loss to Wlodarczyk is nothing to be ashamed of, and it certainly doesn't count Chakhkiev out of the race here. He's one big win away from being the fighter it was thought he would be just a couple of years back.
Age: 28 | Record: 6-0 (6) | Titles: None
For: As far as pure skill goes, Usyk may not just be the best of the listed fighters, he might flat-out smoke anyone else here. A decorated amateur, he fought and won medals in major competitions from middleweight to heavyweight between 2006 and 2012, capped by an Olympic gold medal as a heavyweight at London 2012. He scored a couple of major wins over hot light heavyweight prospect Artur Beterbiev, beating him at the 2011 World Amateur Boxing Championships and in London. He's got skills and raw power to spare, and he's fighting for K2 Promotions, which should give him a leg up on moving fast as a pro, as many of the 2012 Olympians have been doing. And his mettle has been tested a bit, too, as he wasn't exactly handling Danie Venter with great ease in his last fight, but did stop him in the ninth round. (Usyk led 78-74 on two cards and 77-75 on the third at the time of stoppage.)
Against: He lacks pro experience, which is the most obvious reason not to choose him at this time. I wanted to include him simply because by the end of this year, he may well truly be in the argument, and depending on how jazzed you are on his talents compared to the division around him, you might want to go with him already. There does not appear to be anything that will stop him from being a top cruiserweight.
Outlook: It's all on Usyk. The skills are there, the division may be there for the taking, but great prospects have failed countless times as professionals. Wait and see.