1. Carl Frampton (23-0, 14 KO)
Frampton, 29, finished off his run at 122 with a significant if stylistically unimpressive win over Scott Quigg in February 2016, then moved up to featherweight and knocked off Leo Santa Cruz to win the WBA “super world” title on July 30 in Brooklyn. The two will rematch in late January 2017, and with Vasyl Lomachenko moving up to 130, I think they deserve to be called the 1-2 fighters at 126. Long gone are the days when people chuckled at Barry McGuigan for selling Frampton as a potential world-beater. He has proven McGuigan right at every turn in his pro career, and become one of the best fighters in the world.
2. Leo Santa Cruz (32-1-1, 18 KO)
Santa Cruz, 28, used to get some stick for fighting mediocre opposition, but he always said he was open to fighting anyone, he just did what his team set up for him. No matter the opponent, Santa Cruz would be ready as if he were facing the world’s best. And I think we’ve seen evidence that he was sincere about all of that. He faced and defeated Abner Mares in August 2015, and after a title defense against Kiko Martinez in February, he took on Carl Frampton in July. He lost, but went for the immediate rematch. Don’t count him out the second time around, either.
3. Gary Russell Jr (27-1, 16 KO)
One of the most skilled, quickest fighters in the sport, has been troubled by injuries and plagued by bad matchmaking. It was a one-and-done year for Russell, as he faced an overmatched Patrick Hyland on April 16 at Foxwoods, disposing of his opponent in the second round. Russell seemed almost annoyed at the fight and the level of competition presented to him. He’ll face a bit tougher a test next, with Oscar Escandon waiting in February. Hopefully, this is a year where he can stay active and face contenders.
4. Abner Mares (30-2-1, 15 KO)
The 31-year-old Mares was written off by some, it seemed, after his 2015 loss to Leo Santa Cruz. But after over 15 months on the shelf, Mares returned with a new fire on December 10, beating Argentina’s Jesus Cuellar to win the WBA “world” featherweight title in Los Angeles in a good fight where Mares came out just looking like the more well-rounded boxer. Mares has won world titles in three weight classes, has faced a lot of good opposition, and really has been one of the best overall fighters in the sport for the last nearly seven years. He’s still got a bit left, too, clearly.
5. Oscar Valdez (21-0, 19 KO)
A rising star with a pleasing style and a great attitude, Valdez, 26, made some waves this year with wins over Evgeny Gradovich, Matias Rueda, and Hiroshige Osawa. The victory over Rueda netted him the vacant WBO title. Now, listen, Valdez is, by pure definition, a paper champion. His belt is just a belt, and he hasn’t beaten a serious contender yet. But the skills are obviously there, and he hasn’t just beaten his opponents so far, he has decimated them. Does he have flaws that better fighters will exploit? Sure. Everyone in the history of boxing has had flaws that better fighters can exploit. But what level proves to be “too much” for him is a big question. Valdez isn’t super young, really just about to enter his physical prime, and he’s ready for the biggest stars in this division. On paper, I wouldn’t count him out against anyone at 126.
6. Lee Selby (23-1, 8 KO)
Maybe not a standout fighter, but solid, and holder of the IBF title. Selby seems like he’s the titleholder everyone would love a crack at, since on paper he’s the most vulnerable and relatively easiest to defeat. But he’s a good technician and smart, even though the “Welsh Mayweather” gimmick was short-lived and always a bad idea. He faces Argentina’s Jonathan Victor Barros on January 28, and that’s no easy fight.
7. Jesus Cuellar (28-2, 21 KO)
His loss to Mares came as a mild surprise to some, perhaps, but Cuellar is still in the mix. At 30, he’s in his prime, and a few tweaks might bring him right back into the top five of the division by the end of 2017, particularly if he gets a shot at a belt. Would you pick him over Selby? I might.
8. Scott Quigg (32-1-2, 24 KO)
Quigg has followed Frampton up to featherweight, starting his run at the new weight with a TKO-9 win over Jose Cayetano on December 10. Quigg is an odd fighter — he was taken more seriously as a prospect than Frampton for a good while, which meant he was rated higher and more highly regarded. But what are his best wins? He’s beaten a lot of B- type fighters. But he does have talent, of course, and could still have some real upside in the division.
9. Oscar Escandon (25-2, 17 KO)
Will get a shot at Russell in February, and Escandon, 32, isn’t a pushover. That said, there’s a good chance he gets blown away. Styles make fights, and Russell’s speed is a handful for anyone. Escandon fought once this year, beating Robinson Castellanos by seventh round knockout on March 5, which was his first fight at featherweight since 2013.
10. Simpiwe Vetyeka (29-3, 17 KO)
The 36-year-old South African has been pretty quiet since losing to Nonito Donaire in 2014, but he’s 3-0 in South Africa since then, and if he can get some sanctioning body help, he could get a title shot again. Vetyeka may go down in history mostly as the man who retired Chris John, but he’s still out there.
Honorable mention: Joseph Diaz Jr, Jonathan Victor Barros, Ronny Rios, Claudio Marrero, Cristian Mijares, Josh Warrington