Taylor among top contenders in '05
Who among boxing's young guns will step it up in '05? Last year it was Jeff Lacy and Juan Diaz (considered to be top contenders by many, but mere prospects in other circles) who made the quantum leap from undefeated and untested young pros to world champions.
The following is a list of young fighters who have been reasonably tested and seem ready to take their promising careers to the next level.
These fighters are not veterans who have been to the big dance before but fell short of grabbing the brass ring (like Danny Green, Rodney Jones, Manuel Gomez, Junior Witter, Levander Johnson, and Jorge Lacierva), nor are they former title-holders who may get back in position to win another major world belt (such as Fernando Montiel or Diego Morales).
This list does not include top contenders who have already locked in world title bouts this year or have mandatory challenges ahead of them (such as O'Neil Bell, Rico Hoye, Sam Soliman, Kofi Jantuah and Nate Campbell).
These are advanced prospects - some are considered top 10 contenders, others are not - whose management and promotional companies believe are ready to go for major world titles (WBO, IBF, WBC and WBA) this year and who appear to have enough natural talent, skill and ring experience to win one of those belts.
Jermain Taylor, 22-0 (16 KOs) -- No other advanced prospect/contender in boxing has as many fans and media who are split on whether or not he is "the Truth" as the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist who makes his home in the middleweight division.
Those who are pro-Taylor point to his youth and considerable physical tools (natural strength backed up with a ram-rod jab). Detractors point out that the 26-year-old Arkansas native has numerous technical flaws (including a nasty habit of dropping his left before letting go with his right hand, and pulling back with the right).
Recent victories over aging former title-holders Raul Marquez and William Joppy were impressive but exposed very little in terms of Taylor's championship potential. The truth is, we won't know what the young man can really do until he takes on a true middleweight contender and the undisputed ruler of the middleweight division, Bernard Hopkins, and that's just what Taylor's promotional company, DiBella Entertainment, intends to do, starting with a Feb. 19 appearance on HBO (the co-featured bout to Hopkins' title defense against Howard Eastman).
"[Feb. 19] is down to either Troy Rowland or Daniel Edouard," Lou DiBella told MaxBoxing. "Both guys are young, ranked middleweight contenders. Personally, I like the Edouard fight. That would be spectacular for as long as it lasts."
Thomas Gerbasi, MaxBoxing co-editor and columnist, also likes the Taylor-Edouard fight and sees it as the perfect gut-check for Taylor before he takes on Hopkins.
"You know Edouard is going to come to fight," said Gerbasi. "Edouard will probably get knocked out eventually -- he was buzzed a few times in that war with Willie Gibbs -- but he will test Jermain's chin and his heart."
Gerbasi thinks Taylor will pass both tests, which is why he gives the young middleweight a shot at dethroning the long-reigning champion.
"[Taylor] does have a lot of flaws, but he also has a lot of things that cover up those flaws," Gerbasi said. "He's a got a great jab, he puts his punches together well, and I think he's got a chin, too. He's also got a mean streak. You saw it a little bit with the [Alex] Bunema fight. Bunema pissed him off and he took the fight to him and took him out.
"If Hopkins pulls his usual mind-games crap on Taylor, Taylor might come out fast and try to bomb him out early. Now that might work against Taylor, but you got to take the training wheels off sometime, and I think he'll do his best against an older fighter if he goes all out. The thing about Hopkins is that he's been fighting at his own pace lately. De La Hoya was in that fight, during the first half, because Hopkins was just taking his time. William Joppy was in there for the first half of his fight with Hopkins, too. He didn't do enough to win any rounds, but Hopkins didn't do much, either.
"If you let Hopkins get into his rhythm, yeah Hopkins will take you apart, but if you take it to him, hey, no one likes to be uncomfortable. And Hopkins has been able to fight his way for so many years, what happens if this kid comes out and cracks him hard in the first round and sets a fast pace for the entire fight. Then what?"
"I don't think Hopkins hits hard enough at this stage of his career to keep Taylor off him. One of the good things about Taylor is that he listens to his corner, and when Pat Burns says 'turn it up' he goes out and does it the very next round. Taylor's a hard worker. Once he gets rolling, it's hard to stop him."
DiBella plans to keep his star fighter rolling right into either a title fight or big match by the end of the year. Provided Taylor is successful on Feb. 19, the plan is to have him fight again by early summer and then go for the gold in the fall.
"We want Felix Sturm next for Jermain," DiBella said. "That's an HBO main event that I think lets the fans know who the best young middleweight is. If Jermain beats Sturm, and I think he will, we'll go for [Felix] Trinidad or Hopkins before the end of the year."
Kermit Cintron, 24-0 (22) -- The hardest puncher in the welterweight division picked up the WBO "interim" title last year with an eighth-round TKO of veteran brawler Teddy Reid, but to make it official the 25-year-old native of Puerto Rico has to beat the WBO's hard-nosed champ, Antonio Margarito. The two will share an ESPN-televised card next month and then they are scheduled to clash sometime in April, according to Carl Moretti, VP of Cintron's promotional company, Main Events.
Although Margarito has more experience and is one of the toughest and more aggressive volume punchers in the sport, the matchup will probably be viewed as an even-money fight by the majority of the boxing industry. Why? Two reasons: Margarito throws a lot of punches, but he also EATS a lot of punches, which gives a true puncher like Cintron the opportunity to land that perfect KO shot. And although both fighters weigh in at 147 pounds, Cintron, who carries the frame of a middleweight, is the naturally bigger fighter.
Some fans believe that Margartio was robbed in his last fight, a technical split-decision loss to Daniel Santos in Puerto Rico this past September, but they can't deny that the Tijuana native was not only dwarfed by Santos (the fight took place at 154 pounds) but buzzed on more than one occasion during the surprisingly entertaining scrap.
Cintron has the youth (he's only one year younger than Margarito, who has 11 more bouts and began fighting in his teens, but his body is fresher having entered the game at an advanced age), size and punching power to lift the WBO crown from the Mexican.
Almazbek Raimkulov (AKA Kid Diamond), 19-0 (11) -- Top Rank, Raimkulov's promotional company, believes that it has the goods with the former amateur standout from Kyrgyzstan, and Top Rank says it is ready to put him in with any of the 135-pound title holders this year.
The 27-year-old 2000 Olympian turned a lot of heads in boxing with his last fight, a five-round destruction of veteran Lamar Murphy on the undercard of the Nov. 27 Morales-Barrera rubbermatch.
"After the way he took apart Lamar Murphy, I wouldn't hold him back from anyone in the division," Top Rank president Todd duBoef told MaxBoxing. "Once we see that a guy can fight we let him go, just like we did with Floyd Mayweather or Oscar De La Hoya."
Raimkulov does not have the kind of natural speed and reflexes De La Hoya and Mayweather were gifted with, but he does appear to be made of sturdier stuff than the boxing masters. He doesn't just beat his opponents; he crushes them -- and he's looking better with each outing.
"He's looked more and more impressive as the competition has gotten harder," said duBoef.
From tricky southpaw Pascali Adorno to veteran trial horse Luis Lizarraga to prospect Raymond Narth to heavy-handed journeyman Jose Luis Soto-Karass to veteran contender Lamar Murphy, Raimkulov has either dominated on points or obliterated his foes with his fists. His victory over Narth, who was blown out in less than a round, was particularly impressive. The talented African was 9-0 at the time they fought and is currently 12-1 (11).
"[Raimkulov] knocked Narth out cold and made a prospect look like a journeyman," said Dan Rafael, boxing writer for USA Today, who has seen many of Raimkulov's non-televised fights from press row and even has a few on tape. "I've been hearing about him since he turned pro. He's an exciting fighter. He's aggressive and he can punch. He kind of reminds me of Kostya Tszyu. He's even got a little pony tail like Tszyu.
"He's smart too. I think he speaks five or six languages. His parents were doctors. He didn't have to box, he chose to do it and he's good at it. I know Murphy is not what he used to be, but he's still a tough veteran and Raimkulov knocked him out. Murphy had never been destroyed like that. Raimkulov lured him in by laying on the ropes. He waited for his opening and then put Murphy flat down in the middle of the ring with one shot.
"Head to head, I think he's competitive with anyone in the division. He'll beat most of the veteran contenders like Levander Johnson and Javier Jauregui. I think he beats [WBA title holder] Juan Diaz right now. I think he's an even fight with [IBF title holder] Julio Diaz, who might be able to survive because he can move and box. I don't know if Raimkulov beats everybody in the division, but I think he gives everyone a tough fight and that includes veterans like Joel Casamayor and [WBC titlist/The Ring champ] Jose Luis Castillo."
Kevin Iole, boxing writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a MaxBoxing columnist, has also seen Raimkulov's recent fights from press row and shares Rafael's enthusiasm for the rugged lightweight.
"Kid Diamond is strong, technically sound and he hits very hard," Iole said. "I think he can be ready to win a world title by the end of '05. He beats at least one of the Diazes, if not both, right now."
However, as high as Iole is on Raimkulov, he's also quick to point out some of Kid Diamond's flaws.
"He gets hit too much, but that's because he's aggressive and he knows he's strong enough to take the other guy out," he said. "His hands are not very fast either, not at the elite level. And his footwork leaves something to be desired. He's not a Fred Astaire in there. But he's good at what he does and that's break guys down."
Top Rank is looking to give Raimkulov some much-needed national exposure with a March 4 ShoBox-televised card that the lightweight will share with promotional stablemate Kelly Pavlik, according to duBoef. The opponent for the ShoBox bout will likely be a top-10 contender because the goal is to move Raimkulov, who is currently ranked just outside of the top 10 of the WBO and WBA, into the top 5 of the various sanctioning organizations by summer.
"It's not easy to get opponents for him as it is," said duBoef, "once everybody gets a look at him, we'll probably have to move him into a mandatory challenger position in order to get him a title shot."
Ricardo Juarez, 22-0 (15) -- Unlike Raimkulov, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist has already secured No. 1 contender status in two of the major sanctioning bodies (WBC and IBF), but as far as many fight fans and insiders are concerned, the verdict is still out if the compact 24-year-old featherweight is ready for the likes of Injin Chi and Juan Manuel Marquez.
Sometimes Juarez looks like the next star of the 126-pound division; other times he looks ordinary. Spectacular KOs of Antonio Diaz, David Murillo and Guty Espadas Jr. sandwich lackluster decision wins over Hector Velasquez, Joe Morales and Zahir Raheem.
One of Juarez's admirers and critics is Ray Alcorta, a California-based matchmaker and promoter who also helps train fighters.
"When you look at Juarez as a fighter, he's got a lot going for him. He's smart, he's strong, he can punch, and he's got a great amateur background, but his one draw back is that he's not consistent and it's hard to read a guy like that," said Alcorta. "Does he have the talent to win a world title this year? Yes, I think so. He'll probably win one, but will he hold on to it? Not the version that fought Raheem. That version of Juarez will lose his title in his first defense and say 'Well, I guess I had a bad night.' "
Main Events is assuming Juarez's bad nights are over, but just to be on the safe side, they will pursue the WBC title, held by the tough-as-nails but one-dimensional Chi, this year and leave master technician and counter-puncher Marquez alone for the time being.
"We'll bring Juarez back on March 4, against Ranchero Ramirez, in an ESPN fight and then push for the mandatory WBC shot in June or July," Moretti told MaxBoxing. "Oh, and by the way, the title fight will be held in the U.S., not Korea."
Fighting in one's home country is definitely an advantage (just ask the WBC's 115-pound titlist Katsushige Kawashima), but beating Chi, who proved to be a real threat at 126 pounds with a bold stand vs. Erik Morales three years ago and his recent title win over Michael Brodie, will not be easy. Chi is used to fighting on other fighters' home turf (he did so vs. Morales and Brodie), and he's as rough as he is tough, never one to shy away from using his head and forearms as much as his fists.
The good news for Juarez is that he will not have to look for Chi, who is a pure pressure fighter. Crafty stick-and jab movers like Hector Acero-Sanchez and Raheem have given Juarez the most trouble. The Korean doesn't have much of a jab and his sizable chin should be right there for the monster left hook that abruptly ended Juarez's fights with Diaz, Murillo and Espadas.
Daniel Ponce-DeLeon, 22-0 (21) -- Like Taylor, Juarez and Raimkulov, DeLeon is a 2000 Olympian (he represented Mexico) whose biggest strength is his youth and, well, his strength. But the Chihuahua native is so ponderous and flat-footed in the ring that he makes Raimkulov look like the Fred Astaire-type boxer that Kevin Iole joked about.
Still, DeLeon is a young fighter on the verge of a title shot, and perhaps a title win this year. Why? He's a real fighter, meaning he fights as often as he can (seven times last year and it still wasn't enough for him), he fights on short notice, and he fights when he's injured. This year DeLeon fought more than a few veterans who had better technique and were certainly more experienced than he was, but he always found a way to win. His method is very simple: come forward and beat the other guy up until he can't continue. So far only veteran title challenger Carlos Contrreras has been able to go the distance with DeLeon and that may have been because the junior featherweight brawler entered the bout with an injured left hand. Other former title challengers like Jesus Perez, Ivan Alvarez, Emmanuel Lucero and Julio Gamboa were not so lucky, as DeLeon literally pounded all of them into submission.
DeLeon's promotional company, Golden Boy Promotions, is looking to match the heavy-handed southpaw with yet another former title challenger, Jose Luis Valbuena, in an eliminator for the IBF title held by Israel Vazquez.
"I think Ponce will demolish Valbuena," said Alcorta. "That fight doesn't last more than four rounds. Valbuena's a tall, lanky fighter. His body is wide open. What most people don't realize is that Ponce does most of his damage to the body. When he knocks a guy out, it almost always starts with the body."
While DeLeon may be too strong for the 35-year-old Valbuena, Vazquez, who stopped the crafty Venezuelan in the 12th round to win the IBF belt last year, is a young veteran with solid pro skills and a heavy punch of his own.
Last month, Vazquez demolished No. 1 contender Art Simonyan in five rounds to retain his belt for the first time. But Alcorta, who watched the fight live, was not impressed.
"Vazquez did what he had to do, but didn't look great," he said. "There was a round, the second round, that Simonyan clearly won. All he did was throw more punches. And there were some shots that Simonyan couldn't miss Vazquez with, like the right hand."
The bottom line according to Alcorta is that DeLeon has the firepower to get Vazquez's respect that Simonyan, who only had seven knockouts in 15 pro fights, lacked. And he adds that Vazquez has a tailor-made style for DeLeon.
"Against Simonyan, Vazquez came straight forward the entire fight," said Alcorta. "That's what he does in all of his fights. That's what cost him against Oscar Larios. Ponce is most effective when someone comes forward on him. He's not a boxer, but he likes to back up and catch guys while they come in. Vazquez will come right to him."
Although DeLeon won't have to hunt Vazquez down, he'll have to pay the price if he wants the IBF belt.
"One thing you have to factor in is that Ponce does get caught with a lot of shots and Vazquez can punch," Alcorta said. "But Ponce will catch Vazquez at the same time he gets hit, especially to the body. I don't think Vazquez can take it to the body. Valbuena, who's old and doesn't have a lot of power, hurt Vazquez to the body. Just look at Ponce's recent knockouts, they all came from body shots or were started by body shots -- guys who went the distance with world champions, like Larios, were either stopped in their tracks or broken down with body shots.
"Another reason I think Ponce can win the title is because I believe he can take a punch. He showed that in his fights with Cesar Figueroa and Julio Gamboa. I'm not saying they are KO artists or anything, but they hit him with flush shots and nothing happened."
Part II: The Next 10 -- Fischer and a few of his peers will take a look at Samuel Peter, Sergei Liakhovich, Librado Andrade, Kelly Pavlik, Kingsley Ikeke, Chris Smith, Steven Luevano, Jhonny Gonzalez, Jose Aguiniga, and Brian Viloria.