1. Oleksandr Usyk (11-0, 10 KO)
There was some mild criticism of Usyk during his win over Thabiso Mchunu on December 17, Usyk’s HBO debut. He wasn’t totally blowing Mchunu out of the water, didn’t knock him out early, and the crafty Mchunu made things a little difficult here and there. And then Usyk’s power started wearing on Mchunu. And then Usyk went for the finish. And then Mchunu was knocked out in round nine. Add that to a fairly dominant performance on September 17 against Krzysztof Głowacki, and that’s a massive breakout year for a very talented, powerful fighter who has the face of a deranged convict, in the best possible way.
2. Murat Gassiev (24-0, 17 KO)
Gassiev, 23, hasn’t even entered his prime yet, and he showed what he can do with an IBF-title winning performance on December 3 against Denis Lebedev, long one of the best cruiserweights in the world. He’s got power and skills, and Gassiev is the other half of the new blood at the top of one of boxing’s most enjoyable divisions. 2017 could be a big year for him; or, given the competition at this weight, he could lose next time out. Who knows?
3. Krzysztof Głowacki (26-1, 16 KO)
The loss to Usyk doesn’t drop Głowacki, 30, much, at least not in my mind. His 2015 win over Marco Huck was a big one, and his defense over a still tricky Steve Cunningham on April 16 was a solid win, too, a fight that was extremely competitive save for Cunningham repeatedly finding the canvas. Głowacki isn’t really a special fighter, necessarily, but he’s rock solid, has some power, and is tough to deter. That Usyk was able to handle him just says a lot about Usyk.
4. Tony Bellew (28-2-1, 18 KO)
I was, to be honest, never a big believer in Bellew. I knew he was capable and competent, but he just seemed like a guy who was never going to really get over the hump, like his best win would probably forever be his rematch victory over Nathan Cleverly. But in May, he got up off the canvas and stopped Junior Makabu, landing the WBC cruiserweight title, and he followed that up with a dominant October defense over longtime pretender BJ Flores, who nonetheless got a good week in making duckfaces for the media. Bellew is moving up to heavyweight for at least one fight, a grudge match with David Haye on March 4 -- if it happens. I personally expect him to be outgunned there, but I’ve doubted Bellew before, and recently, and been proven wrong. He’s a tough, heavy-handed man, there’s no doubt about that.
5. Marco Huck (40-3-1, 27 KO)
Huck, 32, took a bit of a step back in 2016, following his August 2015 loss to Głowacki. In February, he fought Ola Afolabi again, this time pounding out a stoppage, with Afolabi retiring after the 10th round. In November, he was back against Dmytro Kucher, and won a wide decision in Hannover. A potential fight with Mairis Briedis could be a great one.
6. Mairis Briedis (21-0, 18 KO)
Briedis won a May 14 slugest in Riga, Latvia, beating Olanrewaju Durodola, then went to the UK in October to showcase his talent against Simon Vallily, winning an easy third round stoppage. He also beat Danie Venter in February. Briedis, 31, is looking now to fight Huck, which could be a real war. He’s exciting and has a fearless sort of style.
7. Denis Lebedev (29-3, 22 KO)
At 37, Lebedev may be winding down. Well, I mean, he is winding down, we’ll see how rapidly. His loss to Gassiev was a split decision, but was pretty clear. That said, he did thrash Victor Ramirez on May 21, too, so it wasn’t a totally lost year, and there’s certainly no one saying he suddenly can’t fight. He’s still a contender in a good division.
8. Yunier Dorticos (21-0, 20 KO)
A 30-year-old Cuban fighting out of Miami, Dorticos took a big leap up in competition in 2016 with his lone fight, going on the road to Paris and warring with Youri Kalenga, winning by TKO-10 in one of the year’s best, most thrilling fights. In theory, he’s in line to face Gassiev. That’s only in theory, though. The WBA has talked a big game about getting rid of their extra nonsense titles, but mostly they’ve just talked.
9. Junior Makabu (19-2, 18 KO)
Makabu was stopped by Bellew, but there’s a reason I think as highly of that win for Tony as I do, and it’s because, again, Makabu can fight. He’s no pushover at all. Born in Congo and fighting now out of South Africa, the 29-year-old southpaw has a return date set on March 25 in his native country against veteran Enad Licina.
10. Krzysztof Włodarczyk (52-3-1, 37 KO)
35-year-old Polish veteran went 3-0 on the year, winning a trio of fairly easy matchups, following his loss to the now-inactive Grigory Drozd in 2015. He could very well still be a thorn in some sides. I took him for the spot just over Youri Kalenga, Thabiso Mchunu, Steve Cunningham, Maxim Vlasov, and Beibut Shumenov.