Who has a shot at breakout stardom in '07?
Unlike other sports such as football, baseball or hockey, boxing is not a regenerative sport, where fans root for a city or uniform as much as the people who are wearing the logos. And no matter how much fans -- and sportswriters -- wish for it, there will never be another Ali, Dempsey, Duran, Sugar Ray, Louis, Marciano or Monzon.
But in the last couple of years, boxers such Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Rafael Marquez have shown that the future can be just as bright as its past. The question I have: Who will be the Pacquiao of 2007 -- a star who seemingly falls from the boxing heavens to reinvigorate fans who have tired of the same ol' boxers (horrifyingly, many are heavyweights) HBO, Showtime and other networks and promoters try to force-feed us?
Yes, we still have a few weeks left in 2006, but I am a progressive person who looks to the future even though I tend to write about the past at Maxboxing.com. Not listed are fighters such as John Duddy, Ruslan Chagaev, Bernard Dunne and Celestino Caballero, since they have made multiple appearances on American TV. A couple of the fighters on my list do not have the most exciting boxing styles either, but possess a skill set that leads to victory. Just as Manuel Medina and Sven Ottke excited me (yes, I know, not many beyond me) because of the way they employed their one great asset to offset the superior assets of opponents. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and every one of these boxers holds a level of intrigue.
10. Hector Saldivia (20-0, 15 KOs): I hate to choose someone who has never fought outside of his country, but Saldiva recently knocked out Omar Weis, with whom American fight fans became familiar in the early 2000s. The impressive Weis KO is not Saldivia's only positive, which wins over South American tough men Carlos Uribe and Walter Saporiti show. Saldivia has impressed Argentine fans on national TV twice, with stiff jabs, a straight right hand and baggy tiger-print shorts that remind you of Archie Moore (minus the tiger print). At 22, he is the youngest of this group, but I have had numerous e-mail contacts with followers of Argentine boxing who insist Saldivia is the real thing, not only based on his skills, but his solid mental fortitude and intangible assets that come through on the defensive side. And let's face it, Argentine boxers (Nicolino Locche and Pascual Perez excluded) are not known for defensive genius. The welterweight division is top-heavy, with Mayweather, Antonio Margarito, Ricky Hatton and Zab Judah, but with any luck, Saldivia could be a solid replacement for the aforementioned foursome.
Odds: No way, just not a commodity or name known beyond the ultra-hardcore followers of boxing.
9. Koki Kameda (12-0, 10 KOs): The Japanese have always been a bit ahead of Europe and America when it comes to spotting a cultural trend or movement. Maybe this is the case with Kameda as well, who drew an incredible 42.4 percent of the nation's television viewers during his latest title defense. Kameda was a moneymaker of sorts before he ever gained a world title when his contract was purchased by Kyoei Promotions for $300,000, which must seem like a steal now, as the WBA junior flyweight champion is riding the crest of a media-fueled exposure that has made him Asia's version of Naseem Hamed. Kameda's braggadocious personality has gained him as many antagonists as fans, which means both are tuning in for bouts. This bulldozer southpaw is a product of a boxing household, with his trainer/father being the driving force behind his meteoric rise. Kameda won the title by the skin of his teeth, holding off Juan Landaeta in the final two rounds to earn a split-decision win. (A rematch is set for December.) He still needs to defeat one or two more top-notch contenders or former champions to earn a TV slot. However, I have to admit I am intrigued by Kameda's aggressive flash, and a stage father that has two more potential champions in his home.
Odds: None, since he is a junior flyweight and his most attractive opponent, Brian Viloria, hit a speed bump named Omar Nino.
8. Sergiy Dzinziruk (33-0, 21 KOs): A Ukrainian southpaw based in Germany, whose KOs have dropped in frequency since gaining the WBO junior middleweight title. While his KO percentage has been diminished, the quality of his wins has increased with the scalps of long-reigning champion Daniel Santos, Sebastian Lujan, and Mamadou Thiam. A nine-bout KO streak, between 2003 and 2004, led Dzinziruk to the WBO title and included respectable wins over fellow prospects Andrei Pestriaev and Ariel Chavez. Has a solid amateur background, and a unanimous decision win over Santos (who gave Antonio Margarito fits), that included an eighth round knockdown, shows Dzinziruk has the smarts to compete at the highest level. The champ can best be described as workmanlike -- he lacks nothing in the fundamentals but needs to find a positive that sets him apart from other champions. At 6 feet tall, he is a lean and always-in-shape competitor that can win on his jab alone when on form.
Odds: Not good, even though there is a wealth of American TV opponents at junior middleweight such as Shane Mosley, Kassim Ouma, Vernon Forrest and Cory Spinks. The fact is that these men will fight lesser competitors with better names on HBO and Showtime, while Dzinziruk will defeat WBO contenders in Germany.
7. Chris John (38-0-1, 20 KOs): I want to see any man who has legitimately defeated, by unanimous decision, Juan Manuel Marquez. Granted, the fight was held in Indonesia, but there was no hint of controversy and the closest scorecard read 116-112. At 27, John is in his prime, and needs to step up his level of competition now. His resume also holds a very good decision wins over Derrick Gainer, Ratanachai Sor Vorapin, and underrated Osamu Sato. John came to boxing via martial arts, which probably accounts for unorthodox ring movements that befuddle opponents in their timing and trajectories. Needs to up his pace as WBA featherweight champ, as he only averages two fights a year. However, if both are on American TV, I would be happy.
Odds: Not good, unless Marquez wants to avenge his only decisive loss on American TV. Other than that, John would have to hope, beyond hope, that the Scott Harrison vs. Nicky Cook winner wants to unify titles.
6. Steve Molitor (23-0, 9 KOs): Unlike someone like Saldivia, Molitor can boast of impressive road victories, the last of which was his fifth-round KO of Englishman Michael Hunter for the IBF junior featherweight title. Another positive for Molitor is that the KOs on his record have come against his best opponents, and in his last three consecutive bouts, against Hunter, Debind Thapa, and a faded Scotty Olson. Molitor looks like the type of fighter who steps up his level when challenged, and has defeated styles as variant as Hugo Dianzo and Nicky Booth. He's a southpaw who uses good movement to keep opponents off balance, and seems to have added some sting to his punch over the last year. He prefers to counter, and has a good amateur resume, but showed good offensive skills against Thapa and Hunter in spurts. Having seen Molitor before, I have a feeling he can handle the pressure of top notch offensive competitors like Israel Vazquez and Daniel Ponce De Leon, but only HBO and PPV can confirm my instincts here.
Odds: Good, because he has the previously mentioned duo and other Latino opposition like Jhonny Gonzalez and Celestino Caballero to contend with on our Hispanic friendly boxing TV.
5. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam (63-2, 31 KOs): No losses in 10 years, 16 flyweight title defenses, and he is still only 29 years old! We are talking Hall of Fame numbers here, but unfortunately we have never seen this sleek and gifted southpaw on American TV. At 53 fights, Wonjongkam holds the longest current undefeated streak, but intriguingly has the type of opposition available to him, in Lorenzo Parra and Vic Darchinyan, to seriously challenge that streak. Unlike the vast majority of Thai fighters, Wonjongkam relies more on boxing skills -- even though he holds the quickest KO victory in flyweight history when he destroyed Daisuke Naito in 34 seconds -- than pure strength and aggression. He works beautifully behind his jab, and moves rhythmically from side to side without tendency to favor the right or left foot. It is a shame that a proposed fight with Jorge Arce, on the undercard of Pacquiao vs. Morales II, never came off. Wonjongkam has had wins in Japan, so it would be unwise to assume he would travel as badly as his Thai compatriots in the past.
Odds: Fair, but only if Darchinyan stays at flyweight and Showtime put up decent money to buy the event. I hope Showtime rewards their fans and buys this fight at a 10th of the percentage they put out for the overrated heavyweights that currently inhabit their schedule.
4. David Haye (18-1, 17 KOs): No young fighter -- he is 26 -- but I judge this in terms of quality of opposition on his pro record, and no one has given himself a harder schedule then Haye. For this, he needs to be complimented and for this, he also has a loss on his record. That loss came when he challenged 32-6 ultra-tough former WBO champion Carl Thompson, in only his 11th fight, after knocking out former IBF champion Arthur Williams in his previous fight. On Nov. 17, he knocked out previously undefeated Giacobbe Fragomeni in defense of his European cruiserweight title, and is seemingly poised to take on any of the current world champions. Like other European big men, Haye has tons of amateur experience, and in time could become the kind of good small heavyweight that many expected former Cuban standout Juan Carlos Gomez to be. I like a guy that believes in himself and pushes himself accordingly in the ring. I expect Haye to be like Kostya Tszyu, and overcome an early setback to set the cruiserweight division afire and possibly the heavyweight division, a la Evander Holyfield.
Odds: Good, as Showtime has shown an interest in the cruiserweight division and a fight with O'Neil Bell is a fan's and network's dream, given the duo's offensive prowess.
3. Mikkel Kessler (38-0, 29 KOs): No, the 45 seconds HBO showed of his knockout of Markus Beyer, to unify the WBC and WBA titles, do not count as a legitimate TV appearance. Unlike some American super middleweights of the past, Kessler has shown a willingness to go where the money is (yes, this is a reference to Roy Jones), when he traveled to Australia to defeat star-crossed super middleweight Anthony Mundine in impressive fashion. For those not paying attention, these were not Kessler's only inspiring wins. Kessler knocked out determined former champions Eric Lucas, Manny Siaca, and Julio Cesar Green, while decisioning Dingaan Thobela. A physically impressive and equally strong fighter, Kessler's only real problem in the ring has been hand problems brought by a full-throttle, high-punch output style. He sets himself apart with the devotion he pays to body work, and at 27 is clearly in his prime. Of the boxers on this list, Kessler has defeated a more varied array of styles than anyone -- from Colombian bangers to European stylists, he has seen and defeated them all.
Odds: Decent, if Showtime wants to give Jeff Lacy one more chance or HBO wants to give fans their money's worth when Jermain Taylor moves up to super middleweight. I think Showtime and HBO have learned from Calzaghe and Hatton that money can be made from European boxers below heavyweight.
2. Arthur Abraham (22-0, 17 KOs): American boxing writers and historians raved over how Muhammad Ali (and other greats of the past) fought through severely broken jaws to endure the price of victory. Abraham did the same when he overcame a hideously swollen, and broken, jaw to outlast power-punching Colombian challenger Edison Miranda to retain his IBF title. Abraham has proven he can beat bangers like Miranda, Kofi Jantuah, and Kingsley Ikeke. On top of that, he has defeated boxer/puncher Howard Eastman, the herky-jerky Ian Gardner, and standup jabber Nader Hamdan. The German-based Armenian showed me a good mental makeup by surviving Miranda's physical onslaught in the ring, and brushing off Miranda's verbal insults outside of it. In the ring, Abraham learned a ton as the chief sparring partner for former champion Sven Ottke, who retired undefeated, but is much more of a banger than his mentor. At 26, Arthur is said to be a diligent gymrat, and has used this to rack up three title defenses in 2006 when most champions are lucky to defend twice a year. Averaged seven bouts a year over his career, and only this broken jaw has slowed his eagerness to enter the squared ring. Constantly speaks of how the impoverished nature of his native Armenia prevents him from looking past opponents for fear of losing what he has. That is the kind of mind-set long reigning champions need.
Odds: Fair. The odds dropped from great after Jermain Taylor announced he might be moving up to super middleweight after his next defense of his middleweight title.
1. Edwin Valero (20-0, 20 KOs): Sadly, America should have already gotten to see a lot of Valero, but a New York City appearance that was to be aired on American TV was scrapped when an MRI showed Valero had sustained cranial damage in a 2001 motorcycle accident. Since then, he has been banned from fighting in America, but heavyweight Joe Mesi has proved there are ways around these rules. However, Valero is a Las Vegas main-event type of fighter, and needs to somehow get past this obstacle to be truly appreciated by the masses in America. Unlike many South American boxers, especially bangers like him, Valero had a good amateur career, going 86-6 with 57 KOs, starting at the age of 12. He was signed by Golden Boy Promotions, but has since moved to Japan's biggest promoter, Teiken, after his American career was scuttled by his New York MRI. His WBA junior lightweight title win over talented Vicente Mosquera (KO 10) proved Valero is much more than a knockout artist. Valero used a jab and smarts when in trouble after being knocked down in the third round, and proved his finishing skills would work at the highest levels. If someone teaches this kid how to maneuver defensively before he really needs it and the art of counterpunching, he might become this generation's Alexis Arguello.
Odds: Unsure. It depends if he can convince doctors to allow him to box in spite of his cranial injury.