1 - Andre Ward (31-0, 15 KO)
2 - Sergey Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KO)
Ward, 33, and Kovalev, 34, are still pretty much locked at the hip, as there was barely anything to separate them in their November fight, which Ward won via controversial decision. Luckily, they’re actually going to do it again on June 17 in Las Vegas, on HBO pay-per-view. A second fight might tell us a bit more — Ward could win clearer, or Kovalev could hand him his first loss with a decisive victory. Most likely, though, we see another razor-thin contest, and perhaps leave with almost as many questions, if not more.
3 - Adonis Stevenson (28-1, 23 KO)
Few careers in boxing have been as frustrating as Adonis Stevenson’s since he upset Chad Dawson back in 2013. Now 39, Stevenson is set for a rematch with Andrzej Fonfara on June 3, taking it at a time when that fight appears the most safe that it has since they first met in 2014. Here’s what Adonis has done since beating Dawson:
- defeated Tavoris Cloud, an ex-titleholder coming off of a loss
- defeated Tony Belew, a mandatory challenger who went on to success at cruiserweight
- defeated Andrzej Fonfara, a then little-known challenger
- defeated Dmitry Sukhotskiy, a fringe contender
- defeated Sakio Bika, who was 0-1-1 in his last two and was moving up in weight
- defeated Tommy Karpency, another fringe contender
- defeated Thomas Williams Jr, yet another fringe contender
Stevenson has either skillfully avoided the best in the division, or he’s just been darn unlucky. It’s boxing, so I lean to the former. In fact, you can argue that since Bellew, he hasn’t faced a single person who would have been considered a top 10 light heavyweight at the time, and only Fonfara became a top 10 light heavyweight. I believe Stevenson is a good fighter. I also believe he has steered clear of real challenges.
4 - Joe Smith Jr (23-1, 19 KO)
You could rank Smith, 27, ahead of Stevenson, and I’d have no real argument about it, other than I’d say, “Well, Stevenson holds the WBC title,” like that really means anything. The reason I’d go in with that idea is that in his last two fights, Smith has beaten Fonfara in 2:32, and then knocked old Bernard Hopkins’ career right out of the ring. Those two wins not only trump what Stevenson has done in his last two outings, but what Stevenson has done in his last six fights. I do still have the nagging feeling that something about Smith is kind of fluky, but that’s not his fault. All he’s done is perform.
5 - Oleksandr Gvozdyk (13-0, 11 KO)
That said, if you matched Smith with Gvozdyk, 30, I’d pick the Ukrainian without a second thought. Maybe that’s silly. Gvozdyk has been dropped before, legitimately, by Tommy Karpency, who is not the puncher Smith is, or as good of a fighter, period. But other than that one speed bump in one fight — which Gvozdyk ultimately won handily — he has been extremely impressive. His last four fights really should have graduated him from prospect to contender. He’s beaten former title challengers Nadjib Mohammedi (KO-2), Karpency (TKO-6), and Isaac Chilemba (RTD-8) convincingly, and the win on April 8 over Yunieski Gonzalez (TKO-3) was an eye-opener, as he simply overpowered the Cuban. Gvozdyk has tools that those ranked below him lack, even if his résumé isn’t actually a great deal stronger.
6 - Eleider Alvarez (22-0, 11 KO)
Alvarez, 33, is the mandatory challenger for Adonis Stevenson. So Stevenson paid him step-aside money to delay that fight even longer in order to face Fonfara again at a point where Fonfara isn’t exactly a hot property. Maybe Stevenson saw something he didn’t like in Alvarez’s KO-5 win over Lucian Bute on February 24. Maybe there was a bit too much fire and desire in Alvarez’s performance that night. Perhaps if he had cruised to a ho-hum decision, which had become Eleider’s forte, Stevenson would have taken the fight on immediately. Instead, Alvarez finally showed some spark. Hey, at least he got some money to wait.
7 - Sullivan Barrera (19-1, 14 KO)
Barrera, 35, defeated Paul Parker on HBO Latino on Saturday night (TKO-5), and has proven his ability every time out, even in his decision loss to Andre Ward in March 2016. Losing to Ward is no shame, obviously, and he followed that up by knocking out hot prospect Vyacheslav Shabranskyy. I’d consider him dangerous against anyone in the division besides Ward or Kovalev.
8 - Artur Beterbiev (11-0, 11 KO)
Hey! Remember this guy? Beterbiev, 32, turned heads with his 2014 knockout of Tavoris Cloud, laying waste to a former titleholder, which as a prospect in his sixth pro fight, was extremely impressive. He hasn’t topped that since, beating Jeff Page Jr, Gabriel Campillo, Alexander Johnson, Ezequiel Maderna, and Isidro Prieto. 2016 was an especially disappointing year for the Russia, with the wins over Maderna and Prieto amounting to a pair of tune-ups at a time when he should be facing contenders. He hasn’t fought this year, and has nothing on the table.
9 - Jean Pascal (31-4-1, 18 KO)
Former champ Pascal, 34, has had a weird run since his rivalry with Bernard Hopkins in 2010-11. He won a pair of tune-up fights, then beat Lucian Bute in a big Quebec showdown, then it was back to another tune-up to get ready to be battered by Kovalev, then he scraped past Yunieski Gonzalez, then Kovalev beat him up even worse, and then last December he had another tune-up. Right now he’s out there, still a contender of sorts, but without any career momentum, and he’s not getting younger. This is a division with good young talent on the move, and Pascal may be on his last legs.
10 - Andrzej Fonfara (29-4, 17 KO)
Fonfara, 29, clings to a top 10 spot because in three of his last four, he’s battered Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, won a war with Nathan Cleverly, and rallied to stop Chad Dawson. He also got stopped in the first round by Joe Smith Jr, but Smith’s win over Hopkins made that look at least a little better. There are more skilled fighters coming up, but Fonfara’s recent wins are still solid, and he’s got another crack at Stevenson on June 3.
11 - Nathan Cleverly (30-3, 16 KO)
12 - Dmitry Bivol (10-0, 8 KO)
13 - Marcus Browne (19-0, 14 KO)
14 - Radivoje Kalajdzic (22-1, 15 KO)
15 - Umar Salamov (18-0, 13 KO)
Cleverly, 30, holds the WBA “world” title thanks to his weird win over Jürgen Brähmer, and that matters enough that he’s slotted just outside the top 10, at least. I wouldn’t pick him to beat Dmitry Bivol, but that’s another story. Cleverly is in reality a fringe contender who has a belt.
Bivol, 26, made his ShoBox debut on Friday with a clobbering of Samuel Clarkson. The ShoBox TV crew made it out to be a step-up fight, because that’s their job, but it wasn’t, really. Clarkson is not near Bivol’s league. He’ll find tougher matchups in time, but right now he is rolling through people, and may be the best true prospect in the division, if you’re no longer counting Gvozdyk as a prospect.
Browne, 26, is the best American prospect in the division, a 2012 Olympian who has shown flashes of potential stardom as a pro. He also badly struggled with Kalajdzic, 25, back in 2016, and to many observers, didn’t deserve that win. But he was better against Thomas Williams Jr in his last fight. As for Kalajdzic, that controversial loss thankfully wasn’t just swept under the rug, and he’s been back on TV since. Both have potential to be contenders.
Salamov, 22, is a young Russian prospect based in Las Vegas, who has a few solid wins for where he’s at in his career. Of the fighters I considered for the 15th spot, he has the highest upside, so I went with him.
Don’t Forget About: Vyacheslav Shabranskyy (17-1, 14 KO)
OK, so he lost to Sullivan Barrera. Barrera’s a good fighter. Shabranskyy, 29, is still a prospect worth keeping an eye on going forward. He’s tentatively scheduled to fight on April 20, though as of this writing he doesn’t have an opponent, and that’s in just four days. I think Shabranskyy can bounce back and be the contender he was hyped to be, but we’ll have to see. How he responds to defeat is on him.