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Middleweight Mess: One of boxing’s glory divisions has become one of its worst

The middleweight ranks have thinned out and left a division in desperate need of star power. Who might step up?

Absences from Gennadiy Golovkin and Jermall Charlo have left middleweight without stars
Absences from Gennadiy Golovkin and Jermall Charlo have left middleweight without stars
Sarah Stier and Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The middleweight division is one of boxing’s all-time greatest. Many of boxing’s greatest fighters and biggest stars have been 160 lb champion, or titlist, or even just a top contender and box office attraction.

In 2023, this is no longer the case. Not too long ago, middleweight was still one of the sport’s premier divisions, boasting Canelo Alvarez and Gennadiy Golovkin, with dangerous titlists and contenders and hopeful stars like Jermall Charlo and Demetrius Andrade, among others.

A look at our most recent middleweight top 10 shows a division in ugly shape. The 41-year-old Golovkin still tops the list, but he’s well past his most monstrous form, and last his last time out in a trilogy fight with Canelo at super middleweight, looking unfortunately and simply “happy to be there” for much of the bout.

Canelo himself hasn’t fought at 160 since his May 2019 win over Daniel Jacobs, and he never will again. Currently the undisputed champion at 168, Canelo has also held a world title at 175, challenged again for one last year, and has flirted repeatedly with the idea of a cruiserweight title bout.

Charlo hasn’t fought in two years, officially hitting that mark this past Monday. The last time we saw him in the ring, he was winning a dull, non-competitive decision over Juan Macias Montiel to retain the WBC title in Houston.

The more time passes, the less likely it is we’ll see Charlo in action at 160 again; he, too, is reportedly fielding talks for a potential Canelo fight in the fall, which would come at 168, and he’s also yet again talking about a fight with the also-aforementioned Andrade, which would come at a catchweight north of 160, as Andrade left the middleweight ranks last year, vacating the WBO title instead of doing a mandatory defense against Janibek Alimkhanuly.

Even Jaime Munguia, who never really did much at 160 but had a star potential few can match, has already bounced up to 168.

In short, the division is a mess.

The current top fighters at 160

Officially, Golovkin is still active and not retired. But he also vacated both the WBA and IBF titles, which at least gives the impression that he’s just not that invested in fighting again, at least not at 160. With nobody else in the division having taken charge, GGG still deserves to be called No. 1, at least for the moment.

Past him, fellow Kazakh Janibek (14-0, 9 KO) has the WBO title, which he’d won in interim version before Andrade vacated and got him promoted to full status. The 30-year-old Top Rank fighter’s reign is not exactly setting the world on fire, with successful full defenses against Denzel Bentley and Steven Butler on mid-level (at best) ESPN shows, after beating Danny Dignum for the interim belt in 2022.

Carlos Adames, who fights this Saturday on Showtime, has the interim WBC belt with Charlo sitting around. Adames (22-1, 17 KO) will defend against former 154 lb titleholder Julian “J-Rock” Williams, who is 1-2 in his last three and hasn’t beaten a contender since 2019. With a victory, even dominant, Adames can prove little or nothing that people don’t already suspect, as he’s a -575 favorite; not the worst of boxing’s main event mismatches on paper, but clearly expected to win.

The WBA belt bounced to Erislandy Lara (29-3-3, 17 KO), the 40-year-old Cuban whose middleweight career consists of wins over Thomas “Corn Flake” LaManna in an 80-second laugher, and then Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan, a repeatedly proven pretender when in against contenders. Lara’s next fight appears as though it will be a catchweight bout against former 140 and 147 lb titleholder Danny Garcia in August.

As for the IBF belt, it will be decided on July 1 in Germany, where Esquiva Falcao (30-0, 20 KO) will face Vincenco “Vinny Walnuts” Gualtieri (20-0-1, 7 KO). Falcao, 33, won silver at the 2012 Olympics and has spent over nine years as a professional waiting for someone to reward him for that while fighting exclusively non-contenders. Gualtieri, 30, is ranked No. 93 in the world by BoxRec, a guy who wasn’t on anyone’s radar other than that of the IBF.

Veterans Liam Smith and Chris Eubank Jr are still in the mix, too, and are working on finally getting their rematch done, with “late August” now the target.

Potential near-future contenders

This is a division desperately, painfully in need of fresh blood and star power. The latter is hard to come by, and doesn’t always reflect top quality. The former is more doable and has a bit more you can at least try to predict.

I’m trying to be nice here, but the truth is, most of the people we’re about to discuss also don’t project to have much box office appeal, no matter how good they get.

Janibek and Adames are both “current” and figure to be in the race for a while longer. Janibek is 30, Adames is 29, there should be several good years left for them if all goes well.

Another Kazakh, Meiirim Nursultanov (19-0, 11 KO), seems to be targeting the WBO route himself. He’s held their “International” title since beating Andrey Sirotkin in 2022. He started his pro career in 2016 fighting mostly in the U.S., but now hasn’t been in a ring on American soil since 2019.

Poland’s Fiodor Czerkaszyn (22-0, 14 KO) is a good fighter with no sauce, no flair, nothing about him in the ring that suggests he’s anything close to a long-term answer. Britain’s Denzel Bentley (18-2-1, 15 KO) had a solid performance in defeat against Janibek last year and trucked Kieran Smith in his April return to action.

Felix Cash (16-0, 10 KO) handed Bentley a TKO-3 loss in 2021, but has now spent two years either inactive or looking really shaky in the two fights he’s had, both wins but just not impressive performances.

We’re at a point where the likes of Shane Mosley Jr (20-4, 11 KO) and Michael Zerafa (31-4, 19 KO) look totally viable as potential title challengers. No offense to either of them, but this is not an ideal situation. And there are others like this out there — Vincent Feigenbutz, Patrice Volny, Liam Williams, and so on.

The division’s young guns

The real hope is that one of the young fighters, those at 160 or maybe down at 154, will really step on the gas.

  • Matchroom’s Austin “Ammo” Williams (14-0, 10 KO) is one hopeful, even though at 27, he’s maybe a little older than you might be thinking. The southpaw has done what he’s needed to do thus far, and proved his mettle a bit in a decent test from a determined Kieron Conway last year. He’s wanted a fight with Felix Cash, but it keeps not happening.
  • PBC’s Elijah Garcia (15-0, 12 KO) is no longer a #teen, as he’s hit the big 2-0, but the young Arizona fighter is very intriguing. He’s got a maturity to his boxing for such a young fighter, and wins in March and April over Amilcar Vidal Jr and Kevin Salgado showcased someone on the way up.
  • Queensberry fighter Hamzah Sheeraz (17-0, 13 KO) has some real potential. The 6’3” 24-year-old has shown good power and some skill, and he has rehabbed his rep pretty nicely following some controversy against Bradley Skeete in 2021.
  • Ireland’s 23-year-old Aaron McKenna (17-0, 8 KO) has marketing potential but not real star fighter quality.
  • Troy Isley, 24, was a U.S. Olympian and is with Top Rank, but has earned mix reviews in his 9-0 (4 KO) young career.
  • Caoimhin Agyarko (13-0, 7 KO) is 26 and has potential, but didn’t thrill in his last fight.
  • Lorenzo “Truck” Simpson (13-0, 7 KO) had a bit of buzz a few years ago, but has stagnated promotionally a bit; that said, he is still just 23.
  • Speaking of stagnating, 24-year-old Nikita Ababiy (12-0, 6 KO) just seems like he might not in it, after building some heat on Matchroom prelims a few years back.
  • Nico Ali Walsh (8-0-1, 5 KO) is a novice marketing gimmick right now. If he’s ever going to be a contender, we’re talking years down the line, and a lot of improvement from what he is currently.

Fighters at 154 who could step up and make immediate waves are also in limited supply, other than perhaps Jermell Charlo, who has been on the shelf injured for a bit now.

I don’t have great answers or predictions. This really, for the time being, looks like a cycle that likely will continue for the foreseeable future, and it does happen. Look, heavyweight is also a glory division, and we’ve seen years-long stretches where it just wasn’t very interesting.

Someday, the middleweights will be on fire again. It just might not be for a while.

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