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Boxing Year-End Top 10: The Lightweights

It’s a competitive class with no clear ruler, and that makes 135 fun.

Iron Mike Judgement Day At American Airlines Arena Photo by Johnny Louis/FilmMagic
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

1. Rances Barthelemy (25-0, 13 KO)

The Cuban won a world title at 130 in 2014, took a couple fights as a junior welterweight, and then moved back to lightweight to win the IBF belt in December 2015. This year, he fought just one time, beating pretender Mickey Bey on June 3 in Florida, a fight that was a split decision only because judge Hilton Whitaker Jr is terrible at his job. Barthelemy is not a clear cut No. 1 for me, as I could hear arguments for Jorge Linares and even Robert Easter Jr. But I edge the spot to him for now.

2. Jorge Linares (41-3, 27 KO)

Linares was described by the late, great Emanuel Steward as “a beautiful boxer,” and that’s been true through his career. He also cuts easily and doesn’t have the best chin in the world. But no matter what you can say about his flaws, he’s still around, he’s won world titles in three weight classes, and he is currently on a 10-fight win streak. He’s really had a pretty terrific career, all things considered. At 31, he’s still in his prime, too. He’ll rematch Anthony Crolla on March 25, after beating Crolla for the WBA “world” title on September 24 in Manchester.

3. Terry Flanagan (32-0, 13 KO)

Flanagan, 27, holds the WBO belt and made three successful defenses in 2016, though the quality of opposition left a ton to be desired. When an aged Derry Mathews is the best of three opponents, there are issues. An ancient Mzonke Fana was shut out in July, followed by Orlando Cruz in November, Flanagan winning that mismatch by 8th round stoppage. Flanagan is not unskilled, but the matchmaking does make you wonder about what his handlers really think.

4. Robert Easter Jr (18-0, 14 KO)

Maybe the best young fighter in the division, Toledo’s Easter, 25, is tall, rangy, powerful, and skilled, and it may not be long before he takes the top spot. He thrashed former 130-pound titleholder Argenis Mendez on April 1, then gutted out a tough decision win over Richard Commey on September 9 to claim the vacant IBF title. He’s due to return on February 10 against fringe contender (if being generous) Luis Cruz.

5. Anthony Crolla (31-5-3, 13 KO)

One of boxing’s best stories and perhaps one of its most likable fighters, the 30-year-old Crolla was gameplan-perfect in his May 7 win over Venezuelan slugger Ismael Barroso, absorbing early punishment and fatiguing his opponent before knocking him out with a body shot. In September, he dropped a decision to Linares in a good, competitive fight. They’ll rematch in March.

6. Denis Shafikov (38-2-1, 20 KO)

A veteran contender who’s never quite gotten over the hump, Shafikov, 31, is a tough southpaw who went 2-0 in 2016, beating prospect Jamel Herring and the very tough Richard Commey. He’s in line for another title shot sooner or later, having gone 0-2 in IBF title opportunities thus far in his career, losing in 2014 to Miguel Vazquez and in 2015 to Barthelemy.

7. Dejan Zlaticanin (22-0, 15 KO)

The Montenegro native Zlaticanin will really get a chance to make a big statement on January 28, when he faces Mikey Garcia. And don’t count Zlaticanin totally out in that fight, either. He’s short, but he’s tough and relentless, and Garcia has just one fight in the last three years. That said, if Garcia is himself, he should win, and Zlaticanin’s reign as WBC champion will be short-lived. His only fight in 2016 was a mismatch victory over a totally outclassed Franklin Mamani on June 11, which put the WBC belt around his waist.

8. Luke Campbell (15-1, 12 KO)

Campbell did lose in 2015, and he’s rebounded very well. More likely than not, the Mendy fight taught him some lessons, and maybe he overlooked his opponent that night. This year, Campbell scored very solid wins over Gary Sykes, Argenis Mendez, and Derry Mathews, with Sykes and Mathews falling early, and Mendez going the 12-round distance. He’s the current Commonwealth champion and has the WBC “Silver” title.

9. Richard Commey (24-2, 22 KO)

Suffered back-to-back losses to Easter and Shafikov, but in the meantime showed he absolutely can fight, and that his previous unbeaten record wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. Both losses were split decisions in tough situations — Easter is a celebrated prospect and was the favored man, and Shafikov was at home in Moscow. Plus, you know, they’re both quite good. Commey deserves more good fights.

10. Felix Verdejo (22-0, 15 KO)

Even though the second half of 2016 was lost to injury, Verdejo did go 3-0 on the year, with two wins on HBO, and he’s set to return to action in February, and then tentatively in June on Puerto Rican Day weekend in NYC. The 23-year-old is highly skilled and though he’s taken some criticism for not being a destroyer, he also hasn’t so much as been tested thus far, and if he were going to be a true letdown, he’s faced a couple guys who might have shown some chinks in his armor. If he stays healthy and active, the sky’s the limit.

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