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Ranking the Middleweights: Saunders looking to make it a ‘Big 4’ at the top

Billy Joe Saunders’ win over David Lemieux firmly established him toward the top of a talented, exciting division.

Billy Joe Saunders Media Work Out Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

1. Gennady Golovkin (37-0-1, 33 KO)
2. Canelo Alvarez (49-1-2, 34 KO)

They’re the top two. You can argue that Daniel Jacobs is as deserving as the No. 2 spot as Canelo is, or even craft an argument that says he’s more deserving if you compare their two performances against Golovkin, but I think they’re the top two.

When Golovkin and Alvarez met on September 16, we got a long-awaited fight that pretty much lived up to the hype. It was compelling boxing theater, up to and even including the highly questionable scoring that resulted in a draw, where one judge had it 115-113 for Golovkin, one judge had it even, and Adelaide Byrd re-entered the discussion for worst judge in boxing with her unbelievably atrocious 118-110 Canelo card.

It was tense and competitive. The fighters clearly respected one another, enough that nobody took any huge risks, and despite the controversy over Byrd’s card, I don’t think it was a runaway Golovkin win, which is sort of the vibe that went out after the decision. “How could this happen?!” 7-5 for Golovkin, even a 6-6 draw, was not out of the realm of possibility to me. Finding seven rounds — let alone 10 — for Canelo is another story, but the fight was close enough that a rematch would have made perfect sense even if Golovkin had gotten the win I believe he deserved.

So we’ll probably see these two tangle again on May 5, in what should be the biggest boxing pay-per-view event of 2018, unless Floyd Mayweather comes back again with something ridiculous, like a rematch with Conor McGregor or a 45-year-old Oscar De La Hoya (which I want to say here, quietly, that I am not counting out).

Golovkin, at 35, is not getting any younger, and he looked plenty beatable against Jacobs and Alvarez this year. That said, I think he’s still the division’s top dog. Canelo, still just 27, is really just now entering what should be his prime, and might have seen all there is to GGG that first time around. If you count on one to be better the second time, I’d make it Alvarez.

The best news is that division doesn’t end here.

3. Daniel Jacobs (33-2, 29 KO)

Jacobs, 30, is a great boxing story, one you’ve heard told many times over at this point. He’s a likable guy, a really good fighter, and maybe — juuuust maybe — deserved a win in March against GGG, when he lost a razor-thin decision at Madison Square Garden.

After the showdown with Golovkin, Jacobs signed with Matchroom and promoter Eddie Hearn as part of their effort to become big players in the United States, as they have done in the United Kingdom. It also ensured that Jacobs, who was with Al Haymon and PBC when he fought Golovkin, would stay right in the mix to face the top names in the middleweight division. Considering boxing careers don’t last forever and often windows close quickly to be an elite fighter, it was a smart move by Jacobs, who is back under the HBO umbrella and ready to go.

Let’s say GGG-Canelo II doesn’t come off for May 5. Canelo will have to fight someone, and he’ll want that date. Billy Joe Saunders, who holds a belt, would be an attractive option, and so would Jacobs. But let’s say Canelo, the cash cow, goes for Saunders. That leaves GGG wanting an opponent, and there’s plenty of reason for him to rematch Daniel Jacobs.

Right now, HBO has control of the top of this division, and Jacobs is a big part of it. Hell, if GGG and Canelo do fight on May 5, as we expect and hope, then Saunders-Jacobs would be a great fight to make, too, although that could get complicated, as Saunders is with Frank Warren, and there’s plenty of bad blood between Warren and Hearn.

Anyway, Jacobs had a really strong year. He may only have gone 1-1 — he beat Luis Arias on November 11 — but the loss to Golovkin was a win for his career. He shut down the idea that Golovkin is invincible or unbeatable, after GGG had cut through his opponents like a hot knife through butter for so long. In a big year for the division, Jacobs was a key player, and remains so as we head into 2018.

4. Billy Joe Saunders (26-0, 12 KO)

The 28-year-old Saunders more or less introduced himself to the majority of the U.S. audience this past Saturday, when he wiped out David Lemieux over 12 rounds to retain his WBO title. But there remains some mystery about the brash southpaw, a former amateur standout who won his pro belt back in 2015.

The win over David Lemieux was a very good win, let me get that out of the way first. I was highly impressed not just that Saunders was victorious, but by how easily he dictated seemingly every second of that fight. Lemieux is a dangerous guy, a former titleholder, and Saunders made him look completely overmatched.

Style-wise, it was the right matchup for Saunders, but it still takes a lot of boxing ability and skills to keep Lemieux that far off of you for 12 full rounds. I dismiss claims of “running,” though Saunders did at points blatantly jog around Lemieux, in part, I suspect, to add to the humiliation he was heaping upon his opponent. He didn’t take big risks, but when he did engage Lemieux, he was fully in control. Lemieux never did anything to Saunders.

Still, I think Abel Sanchez has a point, that beating Lemieux is one performance. A terrific performance, really, at least in my opinion, and one that showcased a fighter who does potentially have the skills to cause anyone in the division some problems. But it’s hard to forget his late fight collapses against both Chris Eubank Jr (2014) and Andy Lee (2015), or his miserable showing against Artur Akavov in 2016, a performance Saunders has himself called “disgraceful.”

Saunders speaks of recapturing the love of the sport, finding himself again, and that’s great in the context of the Lemieux fight. But what about back in September, when he beat Willie Monroe Jr without anyone coming out of it suggesting he was primed to face GGG or Canelo or Daniel Jacobs? I scored that fight 7-5 for Saunders. It was a miserable style matchup, with nobody coming out of it looking particularly good.

Saunders is a very good fighter, I think someone whose boxing skills have been underrated for a while, even when he’s struggled through a few victories, because you could see in spots against Lee and Eubank, in particular, the potential for Billy Joe to do something like he did against Lemieux. But I keep some caution here. I think he’s probably as ready as he’s going to get to face those top guys, but I’m not 100% convinced that he’s a serious threat to beat them. He deserves to be considered the fourth-best middleweight in the world right now, and with a very strong top three, that’s not a bad thing.

He’s been doubted before, and so far he’s beaten everyone. But there is another level to go, and it’s up to Saunders to prove he’s at that level.

5. Sergiy Derevyanchenko (11-0, 9 KO)

I make no bones about this: I’m a fan of Derevyanchenko, and think he can compete with just about anyone at this weight. The 32-year-old Ukrainian hopefully will get the opportunity to do it before his aging bones become brittle.

This year, Derevyanchenko beat Kemahl Russell in March, then picked apart Tureano Johnson in August, stopping him in the 12th round. That win was an IBF eliminator, so Derevyanchenko is, in theory, in line for one of the belts held by Gennady Golovkin. Golovkin has bigger fish to fry at the moment, and frankly I think most people would be disappointed if GGG fought Derevyanchenko instead of rematching Canelo Alvarez, and the people making money from the fights would surely be very disappointed about the downgrade in how much they’d be taking away from the event.

All that said, it wouldn’t shock me if he got into the ring with a Golovkin or Canelo and found the waters a bit too deep. But so far, I’ve been impressed with Derevyanchenko every time I’ve seen him, and his domination of Johnson said a lot, at least to me, because Johnson can fight.

6. Ryota Murata (13-1, 10 KO)

Hassan N'Dam v Ryota Murata - WBA Middleweight Title Bout Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images

Murata, 31, is maybe the best-kept secret in the division, at least for the majority of U.S. fight fans, who just haven’t been exposed to him. Murata has a deal with Top Rank, but the biggest money for him has been fighting at home in Japan, because Top Rank has no middleweights for him to face in-house in the States.

Hopefully, something changes in 2018, because Murata deserves the spotlight in prime time on ESPN, and fight fans will want to see him. He should have won the WBA “world” title against Hassan N’dam in May, but he was flat robbed in Tokyo thanks to judges Gustavo Padilla and Hubert Earle. It was bad enough that the WBA ordered a rematch, which came on October 22, where Murata pounded out a win over seven rounds, when N’dam was pulled from the fight.

Murata is a former Olympic gold medalist (London 2012), he’s got a pleasing style, and more and more, we’re seeing U.S. TV expand to welcome international fighters. Whatever stigma there was about American fans not tuning in to see foreign boxers is dying rapidly, and one of my big hopes for 2018 is that we will, indeed, see Murata get more U.S. TV exposure. Not sure who he’d fight, given the promotional ties sort of limiting his options, but still.

7. Jermall Charlo (26-0, 20 KO)

A former 154-pound titleholder who smashed Julian Williams last December before moving up to 160 this year for a July win over Jorge Heiland, who got hurt early, but I don’t know that it would have made a big difference if he hadn’t.

I like the Charlos, both of them. They’re ferocious competitors, they have an edge to them, and they can both box and punch, which we’re seeing increasingly from Jermell, the twin still at 154 who was supposedly not as powerful as his brother. Jermall, 27, has the raw tools and power to be a big threat at 160. The biggest obstacle for him might be his promotional situation, and I don’t mean that as a shot at Al Haymon or the PBC brand. They’ve done a good job with Jermall, but most of the top fighters in the division are with HBO (Golovkin, Canelo, Jacobs, Saunders, Andrade). The biggest fight that maybe could be easily made for Charlo is Derevyanchenko, and, hey, I’d love to see it.

That’s not to say that if a good offer comes in, Charlo won’t be seen on HBO airwaves. Haymon has still worked with HBO in the right situations since branching off with the PBC brand. If something comes down the pike in 2018, here’s hoping Jermall gets the opportunity to take the fight.

8. Demetrius Andrade (25-0, 16 KO)

Andrade, at his best, was a top junior middleweight and has the skills to potentially be a top middleweight. But despite the unbeaten record, we’ve seen him not “at his best” a few times over his career, and it always gives me pause, which I admit may be unfair. When he looks good, he looks really good.

When Andrade, 29, came up to 160 and beat Alantez Fox in October on HBO, I wasn’t tremendously impressed, but a lot of that was perhaps due to Fox. Andrade looked like he wanted to put on a show, and Fox didn’t really comply. And Fox is a little tricky, too. So we’ll see. Andrade has the in-ring ability to be a challenge for anyone, I think, but like Charlo, he remains unproven at a weight where a good amount of fighters have proven something.

9. David Lemieux (38-4, 33 KO)

Still, I’d pick Andrade without question to beat David Lemieux, who at this point is sort of the line to me in the division. Lemieux was made to look miserable and amateurish against Billy Joe Saunders this past Saturday. In a way, it was the worst loss of his career.

The upset losses to Marco Antonio Rubio and Joachim Alcine back in 2011 exposed a raw fighter who had become too reliant on the belief that he not only could, but would knock out anyone he faced within a few rounds. The 2015 loss to Gennady Golovkin was expected. Saunders, though, wasn’t seen as the favorite — bookies had him as the underdog, in fact, and even most fight fans and pundits, including the ones predicting a Saunders win, figured it would at least be competitive. It wasn’t. Saunders wiped Lemieux out and embarrassed him.

Lemieux can still fight, and his power makes him dangerous, but the book is pretty well written on him at this point. He’s not old (he turns 29 in a couple of days), but he’s been a pro for a decade now, and we’ve seen him fight up and down the ladder. He is what he is.

10. Tureano Johnson (20-2, 14)

You could go with Johnson here, or former titleholder Andy Lee, or veteran Martin Murray (who is between 160 and 168 at the moment), or Hugo Centeno Jr, who lost a fight in 2016 to Maciej Sulecki, but has bounced back with a couple of wins, including a highlight reel KO of Immanuwel Aleem in August. Or someone else, maybe.

I’ll go with Johnson, 33, with no strong preference toward him against anyone else, other than to say he’s most recently been in the ring with a top middleweight, and the others haven’t. Sure, Derevyanchenko mostly dominated and ultimately stopped Johnson in August, but I’m more impressed by the toughness and determination Johnson displayed in a losing effort than I am by, for instance, Andy Lee beating KeAndrae Leatherwood in Lee’s only fight since 2015.

Of course, all this is just one man’s opinion. How do you see the division at the end of 2017?

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