Boxing’s featherweight division has been a weird one to make a top 10 out of for a while now, with inactivity, upsets, and a field of talented fighters who have had their ups and downs in various ways.
We’ve spoken about it a lot over the last year or so in our rankings updates, and had to do it again in this week’s post, following Mark Magsayo beating Gary Russell Jr for the WBC title in Saturday’s Showtime main event.
There is one clear fact about the division right now, and that’s that WBO titleholder Emanuel Navarrete has staked a deserving claim as the No. 1 man. After that, it gets a lot harder to figure.
So who is the No. 2 fighter at featherweight right now? I doubt we’ll figure it out, but let’s discuss it anyway, and look at five candidates for the spot.
Pros: Obviously, the win over Gary Russell Jr is a really good one on paper. Unbeaten (24-0, 16 KO), still young at 26, could get better going forward.
Cons: Russell was unquestionably a one-armed fighter on Saturday, and you could still argue — in my opinion — that Gary won the fight. It was very close. Does a two-handed Russell beat Magsayo? I think a lot of people would say yes. Magsayo had also struggled in other fights, coming from behind on the cards to stop Julio Ceja in 2021 and winning a very debatable decision over Rigoberto Hermosillo in 2020.
Pros: Had a great win over Josh Warrington in early 2021, taking the “0” from a guy who had held and relinquished the IBF title. Their rematch seven months later went nowhere, ending on a clash of heads in the second round, but Lara really looked the part when he broke Warrington down and stopped him 11 months ago. He’s very young at 23, and his best could still be to come.
Cons: Other than the win over Warrington, he’s unproven. His two losses aren’t that big of a deal given his youth, but they do exist.
Pros: Kiko Martinez is a rugged, tough, game as they come veteran who won the IBF belt with a huge upset win over Kid Galahad last November. He is and should be a fan favorite, there’s nothing about Kiko to not like, and you can always expect him to show up to win.
Cons: Martinez has 10 losses on his record, he’s 35, and his win over Galahad came down to basically landing one game-changing punch, he was being pretty well dominated before that. He was outclassed by Gary Russell Jr in 2019, the last time he had a featherweight title fight, and has losses at the weight to Josh Warrington and Leo Santa Cruz, too; he was competitive with Warrington — whom he rematches on Mar. 26 — but not so much with Leo.
Pros: Looked terrific in his win over Xu Can last July to take the WBA’s “world” belt, which is usually their secondary belt but given the sanctioning body’s refusal to acknowledge that Leo Santa Cruz hasn’t fought at featherweight in nearly three years, really might as well be the one everyone counts and cares at all about.
Cons: He’s 33 and was beaten by Jazza Dickens in early 2020. He’s definitely switched things up and looked a career-best in his last two fights after that, but Wood was never seen as a world-level contender, really, before he beat Xu — he did beat Xu, and clearly, mind you.
Pros: His record at 122 lbs was good, holding the WBC belt from 2017-19, making successful defenses against Ronny Rios, Oscar Negrete, Azat Hovhannisyan, Franklin Manzanilla, and Tomoki Kameda, after winning the strap against Gavin McDonnell on the road in the UK. If you watch all these guys fight, it’s hard to say Vargas isn’t the most skilled of the lot. He’s not a “wow factor” sort, but a polished, well-rounded boxer.
Cons: Doesn’t have the résumé at 126 lbs, at least not yet. He’d been ordered to fight Russell last year, but that never came to pass, and he finally returned in November to beat Leonardo Baez.
There are also other names who are or will be in the mix. If Warrington beats Martinez, he’ll be right back in there. Ruben Villa, who gave Emanuel Navarrete his toughtest fight as a pro, hasn’t fought since 2020 but has the skills to be in this conversation. Gary Russell Jr, if he gets healthy and a rematch with Magsayo, could get in there. And if Michael Conlan beats Leigh Wood in March, there’s a name to switch in at Wood’s spot.
We could also see someone come up from 122, with Brandon Figueroa already saying he might have to move up in weight. And if Stephen Fulton Jr got the idea to move up — he seems content at his weight for now, but it could happen by the end of the year — he’ll be a handful for anyone.
Who would you go with right now? Is there even a particularly clear choice in your mind?