1. Andre Ward (31-0, 15 KO)
2. Sergey Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KO)
I rank Ward over Kovalev because Ward got the nod. I scored the fight for Kovalev, but not by a ton, and I felt you could make a perfectly reasonable argument for Ward that night. It was controversial, but not a robbery.
That said, I don’t think there’s anything really separating the two. There should be a rematch, but Ward has always struck me as someone who legitimately will retire when he feels like there’s no more to prove, even if that comes in his prime. He’s talked about it. Now, in terms of media and fan perception, not doing a rematch with Kovalev might not sit well -- might not be “a good look,” as they say. We say. I say. You say. Someone says. But Ward has never much cared about what the media or fans think. He’s treated boxing like a business, and he’s been one of the best fighters of this current generation, too.
As for Kovalev, obviously he wants Ward again, because he thinks he won. If he can’t get him, where does he go then? Unless Adonis Stevenson is suddenly ready to fight, there’s Joe Smith Jr and, well, that’s about it for guys with buzz right now. Oleksandr Gvozdyk, but that seems unlikely. We’ll see. Hopefully they do it again. It was a good fight and one of the few that lived up to its billing in 2016.
3. Adonis Stevenson (28-1, 23 KO)
Fought once in 2016, knocking out game but outclassed Thomas Williams Jr on July 29. That’s it. That’s all he did. Stevenson is 39 years old and may go down as having one of the worst substantial title runs in recent memory. Since beating Chad Dawson in 2013, he’s beaten Tavoris Cloud (coming off a loss), Tony Bellew, Andrzej Fonfara, Dmitry Sukhotsky, Sakio Bika (coming off a loss), Tommy Karpency, and Williams. He’s never once taken on an opponent considered a serious contender. And the worst part of it all is, Stevenson can fight. We’ll just never really know exactly to what degree. And when he inevitably does lose to someone, he’s now old enough that his age can be the excuse.
4. Joe Smith Jr (23-1, 19 KO)
What a huge 2016 for Joe Smith Jr, who came into the year unknown and left it with two marquee wins, including becoming the first and likely last man to ever knock out Bernard Hopkins. Smith, 27, may be a bit one dimensional as a power puncher, but he’s also seemingly got a good gas tank and can be relentless. He started the year at the Paramount Theatre in Huntington, New York, stopping Fabiano Pena in two rounds. He was laughed at as an NBC main event opponent for Andrzej Fonfara. He knocked Fonfara out in 2:32 on the road in Chicago. He physically dominated an elderly Hopkins, knocking him clean out of the ring in the eighth round. Maybe it’ll be a career year. Or maybe he’s got something going. Right now, he’s up here.
5. Sullivan Barrera (18-1, 13 KO)
Proved his loss to Andre Ward wasn’t going to derail his career, as he returned in December to “upset” hyped prospect Vyacheslav Shabranskyy with a seventh round knockout. Maybe he’ll wind up falling just short of the top tier, but right now he’s a serious opponent against anyone but Ward and Kovalev.
6. Oleksandr Gvozdyk (12-0, 10 KO)
Gvozdyk, 29, lives in Oxnard, moving to California from Ukraine, and put together a really nice 2016. He beat club fighter Mike Snider in February, then followed that with stoppage wins over Nadjib Mohammedi, Tommy Karpency, and Isaac Chilemba, former world title challengers of varying quality. He did get caught early by Karpency, but rebounded nicely, and he gave Chilemba a shellacking in November. He’s directly on the cusp. Directly!
7. Artur Beterbiev (11-0, 11 KO)
Hey, remember when Artur Beterbiev got everyone talking with the way he pounded the hell out of Tavoris Cloud? Yeah, that was in 2014. The 31-year-old, Montreal-based Russian has really done nothing to capitalize on that momentum, beating Jeff Page Jr, Gabriel Campillo, and Alexander Johnson in 2014-15, and Ezequiel Maderna and Isidro Prieto in 2016. He’s been treading water for a couple of years now. Either his handlers know something we don’t, or they’re waiting for an exact right time to strike. Maybe both? Either way, he’s still unbeaten but has lost his buzz and most of the momentum.
8. Jean Pascal (31-4-1, 18 KO)
The 34-year-old Pascal has still proven more than most, and his December wi over Ricardo Ramallo got him back into the W column, anyway. His blowout loss to Sergey Kovalev came as no surprise; they’d fought the year before, after all, and while Pascal gave a great effort, Kovalev stopped him that time, too. It’s really anyone’s guess what Pascal actually has left in the tank, but he should really give in and make that fight with Adonis Stevenson if it’s available. It might well be winnable, and at this point Pascal’s time is ticking down.
9. Eleider Alvarez (21-0, 10 KO)
Alvarez, 32, is older than you might think, and he also has technically not fought as a light heavyweight since a close win over Isaac Chilemba in 2015. But he went 2-0 in fights against Robert Berridge and Norbert Dabrowski in 2016, so he’s still undefeated and his name is still out there. He’ll be facing veteran super middleweight Lucian Bute on February 24, and to be completely honest, a loss to Bute would hardly surprise me. Personally, I don’t see a whole lot in Alvarez, but it’s not like I’ve never been wrong, and he’s fairly well regarded.
10. Andrzej Fonfara (28-4, 16 KO)
Turns out that loss to Joe Smith Jr may not have been such a terrible thing after all. Either way, Smith came into Fonfara’s house and smashed him but good, but Fonfara still has a recent win over Nathan Cleverly, who went on to beat Jürgen Brähmer, so that’s something. Right now, Fonfara is kind of hanging onto this spot — it’s open for someone else soon.