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Ranking the Featherweights: Santa Cruz, Russell at top of division

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Leo Santa Cruz or Gary Russell Jr? It’s a close call.

Carl Frampton v Leo Santa Cruz Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

1. Leo Santa Cruz (34-1-1, 19 KO)

It’s a bit of a tough call between Leo, 29, and Gary Russell Jr, but I’m going with Santa Cruz for the time being. A theoretical head-to-head matchup between the two doesn’t even help me break the near-tie much; I think that’s about a 50-50 fight. Russell has speed and skills, but Santa Cruz is a terrific pressure fighter who could neutralize a lot of that.

Anyway, Leo takes the No. 1 spot for me. He avenged his 2016 loss to Carl Frampton in January 2017, and is otherwise 4-0 at featherweight, beating Jose Cayetano, Abner Mares, Kiko Martinez, and Chris Avalos. It’s not murderer’s row or anything, but nobody’s record in the division really is right now, either. Up next: vs Abner Mares, June 9

2. Gary Russell Jr (29-1, 17 KO)

The main complaint about Russell, 29, is that he doesn’t fight enough. After fighting three times in 2014, including a competitive loss to Vasyl Lomachenko, he fought once in 2015, stopping Jhonny Gonzalez to win the WBC title; once in 2016, ripping through the overmatched Patrick Hyland; and once in 2017, beating Oscar Escandon in dominant fashion. He just fought on May 19, beating Joseph Diaz Jr by decision, and the concern is that we won’t see Mr. Gary until 2019.

It’s OK if Russell doesn’t care to fight more than once a year. It’s his career and his life, after all. If he feels that’s how he’s at his best, then OK, but it does hurt his case in a discussion like this. You’re constantly left wondering how rust might affect him, if he’s lost something between fights, et cetera. I will say I think he’s the most purely talented fighter in the division right now. Up next: TBA

3. Carl Frampton (25-1, 14 KO)

Frampton, 31, beat Santa Cruz in 2016 and lost the early 2017 rematch. Since then, things have been kinda so-so for him. He looked off his game last November in a decision win over Horacio Garcia, a fight that wound up a lot closer than anyone expected, going the 10-round distance. And he didn’t exactly sparkle against faded Nonito Donaire on April 21, though he did win a clean and clear decision.

But Donaire, though he’s past his prime, is still a capable and competent fighter. Good enough to beat a Frampton? No, and Nonito is not really a featherweight, either, we knew that going in, it was proven by Nicholas Walters (and arguably by Simpiwe Vetyeka) years ago. Donaire even admitted as much back then. But it’s not a bad win, or something to totally overlook. Frampton’s gaze is on the new IBF champion, but Josh Warrington sounds unlikely to take that one next. Up next: vs TBA, August 18

4. Oscar Valdez (24-0, 19 KO)

Valdez, 27, is the division’s most enjoyable fighter to watch, a true “Mexican warrior” type of battler who has proven his worth after getting a gift world title matchup in 2016, when he beat Matias Rueda for the vacant WBO title.

Since then, Valdez has progressed bit-by-bit, with Top Rank utilizing smart and somewhat cautious matchmaking as he continues to build into being a complete fighter. He’s defended against Hiroshige Osawa, Miguel Marriaga, Genesis Servania (who was competitive), and Scott Quigg. Valdez has blood-and-guts nights in his future, and maybe some truly great fights. I don’t know how long he’ll stay up near the top of the division, but he’s going to be a welcome sight on TV screens for a long time. Up next: TBA

5. Abner Mares (31-2-1, 15 KO)

Mares, 32, feels like an old man in some ways. It was eight years ago that he fought Yonnhy Perez on Showtime for the IBF bantamweight title, going to a draw in a very good fight. Mares showed he was for real in that one, going from beating scrubs to fighting an unbeaten titleholder to a draw.

After that, he beat Vic Darchinyan, won the IBF belt from Joseph Agbeko, beat Agbeko again, and then moved up to 122, where he won the WBC belt against Eric Morel and defended against Anselmo Moreno. He then moved up to 126 and won the WBC belt from Daniel Ponce De Leon, before running into a first round shot from Jhonny Gonzalez.

Since the Gonzalez fight, Mares is 5-1, with varying performances. He clearly pushes his limits at featherweight, but has remained in contention and faces Leo Santa Cruz, the man who beat him in 2015, again in June. I favor Santa Cruz to repeat, but I don’t fully count Mares out, either. Up next: vs Leo Santa Cruz, June 9

6. Josh Warrington (27-0, 6 KO)

Boxing at Elland Road Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

A couple years ago, when I first saw Josh Warrington, now 27, fight in a bout that meant anything, I thought he was a good domestic U.K. fighter who wouldn’t translate to the world stage, wouldn’t win a world title.

This past Saturday, he lifted the IBF title from Lee Selby by split decision. You can argue all day about whether or not Selby himself was much of a world champion, but he won that belt in 2015 and defended it four times. Warrington beat him and can call himself world champion now. I didn’t expect that to happen. He beat the odds, knows it, and is rightly crowing about it in the days since. He should. He achieved his dream. If he faces Frampton down the line, I think his reign ends there, but crazier things have happened, too. Warrington proved he belongs in the discussion. Up next: TBA

7. Joseph Diaz Jr (26-1, 14 KO)

In his loss to Russell this past Saturday, I said during the bout after the tide had shifted that Diaz, 25, looked to me like someone who could win a world title, just not that world title on that night. Russell was the better fighter. Mostly, Russell was better able to make adjustments mid-fight. That’s what beat Diaz.

But if Diaz takes it as a learning experience, he’s got the tools to be even better going forward. I hate to say this because I don’t mean to dump on Diaz’s corner, but a new, top-tier trainer might do wonders for him going forward. It’s something he should be considering at the very least.

8. Lee Selby (26-2, 9 KO)

I pretty much talked about Selby, 31, in the Warrington entry, I guess, so I’ll just say, “This is where I have him now in the top 10.” Selby’s a good fighter, not a great one, but a good one. With his connections, I’m sure he’ll fight for a world title again. He had a three-year reign with the IBF title and no one can take that away from him, even if nobody really believes he’s an elite-tier guy.

9. Jesus M. Rojas (26-1-2, 19 KO)

Rojas, 31, is a Puerto Rican fighter on a four-fight win streak, and hasn’t actually lost a fight since December 2008, nearly a 10-year run with only a couple draws as blemishes on his sheet.

Last year, he fought twice, stopping Abraham Lopez, previously undefeated, in the eighth round, and knocking Claudio Marrero clean out in September. His name is in the mix now.

10. Scott Quigg (34-2-2, 25 KO)

The 29-year-old Quigg missed weight for his March 10 loss to Oscar Valdez, and he got his nose broken, too. But I think he still has to count as a featherweight — he’ll be operating at this weight for the time being, as far as I know, with no plans to try and move to 130 just yet. (Personally, the missing weight is what made me put him a spot below Rojas, not that I’m convinced he’d beat Rojas, either.)

Quigg’s a good fighter but has fallen short in his two biggest fights, against Valdez and Frampton, and it’s worth remembering he drew at home against Yoandris Salinas back in 2013, too, even though that’s mildly ancient history in boxing. What are his best wins? You could pick from any number of fringe contenders he’s beaten, but he doesn’t have a top-level victory at the world level. Up next: TBA