1. Shinsuke Yamanaka (26-0-2, 18 KO)
Another year passes and Yamanaka remains quietly perched atop the bantamweight division. The 34-year-old is in the home stretch of his career, but he scored wins over Liborio Solis (UD-12, March 4) and Anselmo Moreno (TKO-7, September 16) this year, both solid victories against legitimate contenders. It’s worth noting that he was dropped twice by Solis and once by Moreno, so he’s at the stage of his career where it seems an upset is a-comin’, sort of like we saw with countryman Takashi Uchiyama finally getting sparked this year against Jezreel Corrales. But for now, he is the clear No. 1 bantamweight in the sport.
2. Marlon Tapales (29-2, 12 KO)
The 24-year-old “Maranding Nightmare” has surged over the last couple of years, after a 2013 loss to David Sanchez and then some get-well fights. In late 2015, he knocked out Shohei Omori in the second round in Kyoto, and followed that up with an 11th round KO of Pungluang Sor Singyu on July 27, winning the WBO title in a wild fight where both had to get off of the canvas. Tapales did that on the road in Thailand, too, which is not easy.
3. Lee Haskins (34-3, 14 KO)
Haskins, 33, won his title on the scales when Randy Caballero couldn’t make weight in late 2015, and made a pair of successful title defenses this year, defeating Ivan Morales and Stuart Hall in May and September, respectively. Both wins were solid if not exactly anything to dance in the streets over, and that’s kind of the fighter Haskins is. He’s resourceful and smart, gets the most out of his skill set, and I’d give him a fair shot at scrapping his way past anyone here except Yamanaka.
4. Pungluang Sor Singyu (52-4, 35 KO)
Successfully defended the WBO title in February against “Silent Operator” Jetro Pabustan, which is a great nickname, and then lost it to Tapales in the July upset. But that was a fight that Pungluang led on two of three score cards before the 11th round knockout, too. He could easily hold another belt by the end of 2017.
5. Zolani Tete (24-3, 20 KO)
A former 115-pound IBF titleholder, Tete moved up to bantamweight in 2016 and looked good with a pair of stoppage wins in Liverpool over Jose Santos Gonzalez and Victor Ruiz. Not exactly amazing victories, mind you, but the last handful of wins he had at super flyweight do count for something, and I’d favor him over the guys below him on this list. He’s en route for a shot at Haskins’ IBF title.
6. Rau’shee Warren (14-1, 4 KO)
7. Juan Carlos Payano (17-1, 8 KO)
Warren got his big win finally this year, after falling short at the Olympics three times and then controversially losing his first pro world title shot. Now he’s got the WBA “super world” title at 118, and you have to feel good for him. He’s a guy who has lived and breathed boxing for so many years, and never let any of the setbacks knock him off course.
After a couple of debatable wins over Anselmo Moreno and Warren in 2014-15, Payano lost to Warren this year, but it was another very close fight. He’s a crafty boxer and certainly still a contender in this division, there’s really nothing that truly separates him and Warren over their 24 rounds, at least in my view.
8. Jamie McDonnell (29-2-1, 13 KO)
9. Liborio Solis (25-5-1, 11 KO)
McDonnell was top three in the division for me before his fight with Liborio Solis, which was a flat robbery, one of the worst of the year. Solis deserved that upset win in Monaco, but the judges somehow saw it not just for McDonnell, but clearly for McDonnell on at least two cards, which were 8-4 and 9-3 in his favor. There really should be a rematch before they move on to anything else. Solis deserves it, and McDonnell has questions to answer.
10. Luis Nery (22-0, 16 KO)
I edge Nery just ahead of Shohei Omori, Takuma Inoue, and veteran Anselmo Moreno for the time being. Nery is a good young fighter, has some pop, and is working his way toward a title shot. Moreno’s momentum is nonexistent at the moment, and Omori and Inoue are pretty much in the same spot as Nery, but I’m going with him. I don’t think there’s really a wrong choice there.