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Boxing Year in Review 2015: The Super Bantamweights

The top of the division is strong but stayed put this year, and the hope is that youth will add depth to the 122-pound ranks in 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. Guillermo Rigondeaux (16-0, 10 KO)
  2. Carl Frampton (21-0, 14 KO)
  3. Scott Quigg (31-0-2, 23 KO)
  4. Julio Ceja (30-1, 27 KO)
  5. Moises Flores (24-0, 17 KO)
  6. Nonito Donaire (36-3, 23 KO)
  7. Hugo Ruiz (35-3, 31 KO)
  8. Cesar Juarez (17-4, 13 KO)
  9. Kiko Martinez (35-6, 26 KO)
  10. Albert Pagara (25-0, 18 KO)

It's been a weird year at the top of this division. Rigondeaux, 35, may catch flak for his style (including from me, I will admit), but he's done nothing to not be considered the best in the world in this division, other than have managerial and promotional troubles. After sorting that out by signing with Roc Nation and fighting again in November, he looked right about normal, maybe a slight bit rusty, but easily defeated Drian Francisco, which frankly is about as good a win as either of the two from Frampton, his main public perception challenger, in 2015. Rigondeaux was stripped of his WBO belt and functionally stripped of his WBA "super world" belt, but this was just sanctioning body nonsense. Rigondeaux had last fought on December 31, and the WBO stripped him in late October, with the WBA following suit in early November, just a few days later. Luckily Rigondeaux and Roc Nation found a sanctioning body willing to take a chunk of Rigo's purse for November 21, as the WBC found a vacant "Silver" belt to put up in his fight against Francisco. Phew. Thank goodness.

Frampton, 28, and Quigg, 27, both kind of treaded water in 2015. Frampton beat Chris Avalos in February and Alejandro Gonzalez Jr in July, the latter a bit tougher than expected as Frampton made his U.S. debut and was dropped twice. Quigg stopped former titleholder Kiko Martinez in two rounds that same July day in the UK, a more impressive win but his only one of the year, and a guy that Frampton has already beaten twice. The good news is they're finally going to face each other in February 2016, so the No. 2 man in the division will be made abundantly clear (hopefully?), and said winner will surely crow about being the REAL No. 1 since Rigondeaux doesn't find it easy to get people to fight him, or promote him for that matter.

Ceja, 23, has one loss in his career, and it keeps looking better. The defeat came at bantamweight in 2013, against Jamie McDonnell, who certainly has proven he can fight since then. This year, Ceja went 2-0, including a thrilling win over Hugo Ruiz in August to claim the interim WBC belt. Ceja was later promoted. This was a case of an interim belt that actually made sense, as titleholder Leo Santa Cruz was still undecided between staying at 122 or moving to 126. He chose 126.

Flores, 29, doesn't get a ton of attention, but the Mexican fighter had a solid year, beating Oscar Escandon in April and Luis Emanuel Cusolito in September. He has the interim WBA title -- which does not make sense, since the WBA had two other titleholders this year, both of whom were active, and he actually unseated a guy who had won the pointless interim belt in December 2014 in Escandon.

Donaire, 33, might honestly not even deserve to be this high, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt and/or show a great example of humans being creatures of habit. He went 3-0 this year in his return to the 122-pound ranks, beating mediocre opponents William Prado and Anthony Settoul in March and July, before barely escaping with a win over Cesar Juarez in December, which put the vacated WBO belt back on his shoulder. Juarez is a good fighter and was incredibly determined, but there are just a ton of warning signs that Donaire, while perhaps not "shot," is certainly barreling down the other side of the hill.

Ruiz, 29, is a fighter I might pick to beat Donaire, for instance, if they were matched up any time soon. It looks like Ruiz will rematch Ceja in March for the WBC belt, though. His August loss to Ceja was Ruiz's only fight this year, but it was a hell of a fight, better than the Santa Cruz-Mares main event on that ESPN show, which got a lot of Fight of the Year type attention.

Juarez, 24, was dangerous going into the Donaire fight. I was one of the few who thought so. That might not be true. I honestly don't pay that much attention to what anyone else says or thinks. Truthfully, everyone could have been calling for the potential upset and I would probably not have noticed. But he beat Cesar Seda and Juan Carlos Sanchez Jr, two pretty good fighters, in March and July. The loss to Donaire wound up razor thin, despite the scores making it seem fairly one-sided, with Donaire limping to the finish line (valiantly, and fighting hard, to be fair). Juarez is younge and has learned on the job.

Martinez, 29, seems like he's about 40 years old. But he's not. He's 29, as I just noted. The Spaniard -- a former European and IBF champion -- lost big to Quigg in July, but came back with three tune-up wins at home to close the year in October, November, and December.

Pagara, 21, is really still a prospect as much as a contender, and we'll talk more about him below. But this is a good looking young fighter starting to make moves in this division. He's beaten a bunch of veteran guys, including Rodolfo Hernandez, Jesus Rios, and William Gonzalez this year, stopping all three. Obviously none of those are HUGE wins, but he's on his way.

On the Cusp

The depth in this division is a serious problem for the time being, to the point that going in-depth in this section is, for once, kind of pointless. Here are three sets of fighters who round out this division for now.

25 and under: Alberto Guevara (25), Juan Carlos Sanchez Jr (24)

26-30: Chris Avalos (26), Jose Cayetano (28), Bernabe Concepcion (27), Rodrigo Guerrero (27), Ryosuke Iwasa (26), Gavin McDonnell (29), Yukinori Oguni (27), Shingo Wake (28)

30 and over: Joseph Agbeko (35), Paulus Ambunda (35), Zsolt Bedak (32), Tyson Cave (34), Oscar Escandon (31), Vic Darchinyan (39), Tshifhiwa Munyai (30), Juan Alberto Rosas (31)

This is not a case of me being bored with doing these features as we wind them down, I promise. But really none of these fighters have any real momentum or any serious hope of getting more than a charity title shot any time soon. Sanchez and Guevara, maybe Gavin McDonnell might seriously get into the race, and McDonnell would be a bit of a surprise.

One thing that has perhaps held back this division from establishing better depth is the fact that there hasn't really been a stream of fighters coming up from bantamweight recently. Donaire did, and then he went to 126, and now he's back. Abner Mares did, then he went to 126, and stayed there. Leo Santa Cruz did, and then he went to 126, and he's staying there. And the top guys at 118 right now seem largely content to stay there, too. Plus, 118 isn't that good right now itself. The most intriguing potential arrival in 2016 could be Tomoki Kameda, who lost his last two fights to Jamie McDonnell at 118, and might be looking to move up. Granted a guy coming up on two straight losses isn't exactly thrilling news on the surface, but maybe it's what he needs.

The best news, though, is there is a field of talented prospects here, led in my opinion by Pagara, but certainly not stopping there. This division may be due a youth movement sooner than later.

The Titleholders

WBC: Julio Ceja

  • Leo Santa Cruz def. Jesus Ruiz (TKO-8, 1/17)
  • Interim Title: Ceja def. Hugo Ruiz (TKO-5, 8/29)
  • Santa Cruz vacated title in November 2015, Ceja promoted from interim to full champion status

WBA: Scott Quigg

  • "World" Title: Quigg def. Kiko Martinez (TKO-2, 7/18)
  • Guillermo Rigondeaux stripped of "super" title on 11/2, moved to "champion in recess" status; Quigg now highest ranking active WBA titleholder

IBF: Carl Frampton

  • def. Chris Avalos (TKO-5, 2/28)
  • def. Alejandro Gonzalez (UD-12, 7/18)

WBO: Nonito Donaire

  • Guillermo Rigondeaux stripped of title on 10/28
  • def. Cesar Juarez (UD-12, 12/11 - WON VACANT TITLE)

Top 5 Prospects

Nicole Sarmiento/Bloody Elbow
  1. Albert Pagara (25-0, 18 KO)
  2. Jonathan Guzman (20-0, 20 KO)
  3. Diego De La Hoya (13-0, 7 KO)
  4. Manuel Avila (19-0, 8 KO)
  5. Ryo Matsumoto (17-0, 15 KO)

Pagara, 21, was mentioned above in the year-end top 10.

Guzman, 26, is a little older than a lot of guys on these notable prospects list, but he's just starting to make a mark, too. The Dominican fighter made his U.S. debut in October 2014, and went 3-0 on American soil this year, beating Juan Guzman, Christian Esquivel, and Danny Aquino, all by stoppage. He's fighting under the PBC banner now, too.

It is very easy to suspect that De La Hoya, 21, is more name than fighter, as he's the younger cousin of Oscar, and pretty much his entire career has been televised as a result. Not in main events or anything, but just as part of the show, keeping his name out there. Since basically everything he's done has been easy to see, it would thus be easy to pick apart his flaws. And sure, he has some. But constant exposure has revealed something else: the kid can fight, and he's making improvements all the time. He's gotten some favors out of being a De La Hoya, but he isn't some nonsense experiment, either. He's a real prospect. He's not going to be Oscar, but how many people are?

"Tino" Avila, 23, got a chance to show what he can do on a Golden Boy/Main Events co-promotion on HBO Latino in August, and didn't disappoint, scoring a nice win over Yoandris Salinas. The fight ended because Salinas had a hand injury, but Avila was impressive. He won fights in May and October this year, as well.

Matsumoto, 21, has shown considerable punching power. Most of his wins -- including all four of his wins this year -- are against marginal foes, but he did blast out veteran and former flyweight titleholder Denkaosan Kaovichit in 2014, if that's worth anything. (It may not be.) He has the size, youth, and power to carry considerable upside, even if he's thus far untested.

Other prospects of note, in alphabetical order: TJ Doheny, Joet Gonzalez, Shun Kubo, Adam Lopez, Jessie Magdaleno, Hikaru Marugame, Hinata Maruta, Sho Nakazawa, Vic Pasillas, Luis Rosa, Genesis Servania, Hairon Socarras, Kazuki Tanaka, Rey Vargas, Gamal Yafai

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