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The Top Ten Cruiserweights of the Decade 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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The decade of 2010-2019 was a great one for the cruiserweights and it is quite possible that in this divisional rundown of the ten best in each weight class, 200lbs will not be bettered. It was two eras, really, with one or two of the giants from the first throwing wild hooks at giants from the second as the decade roared to an end. Multiple lineal champions, quality contenders of varied styles and proclivities made it the finest decade for fights and fighters in the division’s short history.

Rankings are by Ring Magazine until the inception of the TBRB in October of 2012.

10 – Ola Afolabi

Peak Ranking: 3 Record for the Decade: 8-4-1 Ranked For: 58% of the Decade

I suspect Ola Afolabi will be something of a controversial pick.

He shouldn’t be. This man defined the term “road warrior” after the retirement of light-heavyweight Glen Johnson. British, born to Nigerian parents, he was a fighter who trained out of California but came out swinging in places as far flung as Argentina, Russia, and many spots in between. A chin hewn of titanium and an underrated jab saw him do damage on four different continents. That story began in earnest in 2009 when he got his first of four shots at cruiserweight Don Marco Huck and dropped the narrowest of decisions in an excellent fight. Treading water through the early part of the decade, he was re-matched with Huck in 2012.

That fight was probably the best of the year and among the best of the decade; Huck-Afolabi II was a heart-fueled war fought tight by two men made of granite. They may have delivered the best twelfth round of the century.

The wider context here is the result of the fight as seen by the judges, which was both gratifying and surprising in Huck’s adopted German stronghold: a draw. Anything close would have been reasonable but Afolabi earned his share, the best result he would achieve against the Serbian tough in four attempts.

That draw and the fact that Afolabi over-achieved away from home is enough to get him to #10 here. It may sound thin but thin is enough; Afolabi’s best cruiserweight win is over Rakhim Chakhkiev, a victory from an Indian summer interrupting what was at times a bizarre final act in his career. It objectively puts him alongside the likes of Tony Bellew and Steve Cunningham (who did most of his good work in the decade before) so that precious draw with Huck makes Afolabi one of the ten most accomplished cruiserweights of the decade.

09 – Krzysztof Wlodarczyk

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-2 Ranked For: 70% of the Decade

Diablo (“Devil)” was at the vanguard of the European assault on the cruiserweight division in the early part of the decade, a clever, adaptable fighter who was well tooled but battled physical limitations while establishing himself at the top of the division.

Neither particularly fast, strong, nor powerful, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk isn’t even an elite counterpuncher in the truest sense of the word, rather he uses baiting footwork to invite opposition to pressure his space whereupon he launches left-hand heavy attacks led by the jab and a well-disguised hook. His underused right became something of a surprise weapon for him, almost by default. It rescued him against the likes of Danny Green, thousands of miles from home and behind on the scorecards. Diablo had some layers.

What he does not have is a deep resume for the decade, his best win a breakdown of Giacobbe Fragomeni in 2010. Fragomeni had been the recipient of a gift in the form of a draw the year before and in the rematch the Pole seemed determined to robe the judges of their responsibilities. In a signature performance he dominated with mobility and jab before introducing hurtful punches which had a terminal cumulative effect. Disciplined and controlled and only allowing himself to fight with more commitment when he had his opponent off balance or out of step, Wlodarczyk stepped up the pain and the pressure in the seventh to earn his stoppage win.

2013 was his prime year and included a curbstomp of anointed prospect Rakhim Chakhkiev but he could not stem the tide; Grigory Drozd and then Murat Gassiev found him, forcing him to make way for a new generation. He is still active though – and well-handled prospects still give him a wide-berth.

08 – Yuniel Dorticos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 22-1 Ranked For: 34% of the Decade

Here then is the first entry from the second era of the decade, Cuban puncher Yuniel Dorticos, although it should be noted that he started boxing professionally way back in 2009. It’s been a long and winding road for the Miami resident who has taken a relaxed route to the top but whose patience is now revealing the counterpunch. He meets Mairis Briedis in March to determine who is the first best cruiser of the new decade in a fight that is not to be missed.

Dorticos graduated against Youri Kalenga, an established fighter and a juddering puncher in his own right.  Joyfully, Dorticos confirmed himself as a boxer of direct aggression up against top-line opposition just as he was in dusting journeymen; his work also carries a pragmatists streak, however, and he recognizes advantages and actions them accordingly. Dorticos is listed at 6’3” with an 80” reach and so sometimes uses the backfoot.

He moved through the gears after Kalenga and Dmitry Kudryashov (his next opponent) to face Murat Gassiev in what was another wonderful fight but was also a step too far for Dorticos. Gassiev eventually broke the Cuban and sent him spilling through the ropes but not before he had swallowed bomb upon bomb and proven his chin and heart both. Rebounding since that lost with two wins against fighters ranked in the top five (Mateusz Masternak and Andrew Tabiti), Dorticos showed ambition to match that heart and chin.

07 – Krzysztof Glowacki

Peak Ranking: 3 Record for the Decade: 23-2 Ranked For: 37% of the Decade

Krzysztof Glowacki emerged from Poland to replace Wlodarczyk as his country’s premier cruiserweight and soon had overhauled him, becoming one of a stacked division’s preeminent fighters. In a 200lb class stuffed with deluxe brawlers he was, for a time, the best.

He proved it most dramatically by out-thugging Marco Huck, nearing the end, but still venomous in a throwdown, dangerous enough that he held a narrow lead at the opening of the eleventh round.  Glowacki, technically unequal to the task of out-fighting Huck, had invested heavily in the body.  Gradually, ominously, Huck’s hands began to drop to try to keep those booming hooks from his ribs and gut. Huck had been beaten just once that decade, in a questionable decision up at heavyweight, and to watch the younger, less experienced, but more substantial Glowacki crumble Huck’s battlement was one of the great sights of the decade in any division for those paying attention. There seemed a dreamlike inevitability to it which certainly had not existed at the first bell and when Glowacki landed a delightful little short right traveling up and through the head behind a grazing left-hook it made a strange kind of sense.  Huck survived that knockdown – they say the power is the last thing to go, though often it is the heart – but no man would have survived what Glowacki brought behind it. It was a minor upset and a true passing of the torch, from one streetfighter to another.

In his very next fight he devastated another old man, burying Steven Cunningham –39 and confusingly matching a fighter who is the very definition of nightmarish for an ageing warrior – under a barrage of knockdowns and picking up a decision, before running afoul of Oleksander Usyk. There is no shame here but when, after beating number five contender Maksim Vlasov, he was stopped in three rounds by Mairis Briedis in a rough fight, there was a sense that he had found his level – better than most, but not capable of hanging with the very best.

Hence, number seven.

06 – Mairis Briedis

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 25-1 Ranked For: 28% of the Decade

That Mairis Briedis is ranked outside the top six is indicative of just how strong this list of ten is. I’ll wager that no other weight division has a number six of this quality.

Briedis is iron-hued. He reportedly took some of Wladimir Klitschko’s finest punches in sparring without giving ground. A stylish and skillful boxer, he has delivered nineteen knockouts for his twenty-six victories and lost just a single contest, a majority decision where Oleksandr Usyk defeated him by a single point.

That, alone, is enough to get him on the shortlist, but Briedis has done fine work. He landed on the division in earnest in 2016, beating up a fellow prospect who had achieved contender status in the shape of Olanrewaju Durodola. It was a performance that oozed confidence and seemingly belied his limited experience although even as he (somewhat controversially) closed the show in a hurtful ninth round, Briedis seemed perhaps a little short of gas.

In light of that fact I was a little surprised to see him matched with Marco Huck little less than a year later.  Huck was on his way down the rankings, Briedis on his way up, but if ever there was a veteran possessed of the ability to make an inexperienced fighter short of stamina pay it was Huck. I needn’t have worried. This was the fight where Briedis showed his left hand as directly comparable to that of Usyk, taking a clear decision over his veteran foe all while smothering Huck’s offense and coping with his rougher tactics like a ten-year veteran

Briedis came up short against Usyk of course, barely, but has since dispatched no less a figure than Krzystztof Glowacki in three rounds. That, probably, was Briedis’s best win and it leaves him poised to become the pre-eminent cruiserweight of the next decade should he master Dorticos in March.

05 – Yoan Pablo Hernandez

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 9-0 Ranked For: 43% of the Decade

In a sense, Yoan Pablo Hernandez was the decade’s big disappointment. A product of the Cuban amateur system and German professional promotion, he was a strange mix of schooled and staid in style, borrowing from both boxing cultures and his southpaw right jab was a noted punch.

Lineal champion in the first part of the decade, Hernandez suffered badly with injuries and even illness.  Plagued by knee and elbow problems he spent the best part of a year sat out and plotting his comeback after a rather flat 2014 win over Firat Arslan. It would be his last. He never returned to the ring.

He had been dazzling, however, against Steve Cunningham in 2011 with the legitimate cruiserweight title on the line. A consummate boxer, Cunningham sought to move his way through that fight but Hernandez controlled him with superb footwork, keeping his toe outside of Cunningham’s left foot almost throughout while dropping an excellent jab to the body.

In his rematch with the deposed champion, he staged the best performance of his career and one of the finest in the divisional decade, battering Cunningham to a virtual standstill in the fourth and coming within a hair’s breadth of stopping him, the star punches a right hook to the body and a two-piece built from a jab and uppercut.

Hernandez’s resume for the decade isn’t particularly deep with victories over Troy Ross and Firat Aslan probably his next best; he wasn’t always as glittering as he was that second night against Cunningham either and it seemed for every such performance there was a Steve Helerius where he remained in control but perhaps not imperious.

Still, he was the lineal champion and a very good fighter. It is hard to picture the top five without him.

04 – Denis Lebedev

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 13-3 Ranked For: 88% of the Decade

Denis Lebedev is arguably the definitive cruiserweight puncher for the decade and is certainly the definitive survivor. No man was ranked for more weeks than the Russian, who managed to hang on for nearly nine of the ten years at hand, something both unusual and impressive.

He has been around long enough to have beaten up an injured James Toney and obliterated an out-gunned Roy Jones in 2011 but also to have staged a failed comeback attempt against current #8 contender Thabiso Mchunu just last year. In the trunk of his career he lost two fights: in 2010 he was unlucky to drop a desperately close split to Marco Huck in his German stronghold. Six years later he met fellow Russian Murat Gassiev, the “new Huck” in many ways and was unlucky once more in receiving the stiff end of the decision.

Lebedev was robbed in neither contest, but I preferred him in both. Huck was given the benefit of the doubt in three close rounds on my scorecard and I saw the result, still, as a draw. Against Gassiev I had it to the older man by a single point despite his being dropped heavily with body punches. These narrow, narrow losses hurt Lebedev. Had he won both, he would have been unbeaten for the decade, that disastrous comeback aside, and would have a case for making the #1 slot; had he won one or the other, he would rank above the defeated man. On such tiny margins do legacies turn.

Still, those close losses speak for him somewhat as do wins over Kalenga, Pawel Kolodziej, Toney, Jones and, best of all, a brutal second round dispatch of Victor Emilio Ramirez.

03 – Marco Huck

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 14-4-1 Ranked For: 71% of the Decade

Second only to Denis Lebedev for longevity of relevance, Marco Huck’s name resounds throughout the decade as one that matters.

In honesty though, he needed that decade to build his legacy; Huck has done more than the likes of Briedis but needed twice the time to organize it. His impact in the second part of the decade was very limited. The made men who fell to Huck fell during the first half of the decade when he was in his fearsome prime.

And what a prime it was. Huck’s rambling offense looked disorganized but was anything but and there was no fighter more skilled in the art of the wait. Patience is a commodity much less valuable since the reduction of the championship distance from fifteen to twelve rounds but Huck, from very early his career, had the smarts and the guts to make it work. The benefits were many but chief among them were that he carried his power and his workrate late into fights and his sense of when his opponent was beginning to give was as well developed as his strategic timing. With the possible exception of Usyk, nobody ever had Huck completely and finally beat; there was always the chance he might rally and crush a tiring opponent.

Lebedev was probably the finest scalp Huck took in his pomp, but Afolabi and Firat Arslan both succumbed more than once to Huck’s guile.

The second half of the decade though, overall, was not a success. Glowacki cracked him in eleven rounds, devastating his mystique; a relatively unimpressed Briedis outpointed him by distance; then Usyk put a bitter beating upon him.

Huck was my first choice for the second slot but a closer look gave me a feeling, despite his longevity as a contender that he was making up the numbers from around 2015. Still, a powerfully impressive first half of the decade secures him the number three slot.

02 – Murat Gassiev

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 26-1 Ranked For: 29% of the Decade

Murat Gassiev was ranked for a fraction of the time that Huck was ranked for, but only once could he have been considered a true underdog. Gassiev was Huck plus, patient in the stalk but both more powerful and precise in the punch.

The year after his razor-thin defeat of Lebedev, Gassiev found himself in the ring with another veteran in the shape of Wlodarczyk, still clinging on to a top ten ranking and still respected enough to command a berth in the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series tournament. As detailed above, Wlodarczyk, like Lebedev, like Huck, had all the necessary qualities to torture a less experienced foe. Gassiev steam-rolled him. He was thoughtful about it; he felt his man out – but in the end, he just bombed through him.  The body punch that ended matters was hard enough to end all resistance but casual enough to strike fear into the hearts of lesser men.

Yunier Dorticos though, didn’t box scared against Gassiev when the two met early in 2018 but Gassiev sat down on his work in the second half of the fight and finally dumped his game opponent out of the ring and onto the apron in the dying seconds of the twelfth. He had turned in two winning performances against two elite cruisers in back-to-back contests and when the match with Usyk was made that summer the boxing world appeared to have the fight it most wanted to see.

In fact, it proved a mismatch. Usyk summited to greatness that night and Gassiev found himself scrambling around in the foothills seeking survival rather than victory. Injury has since robbed him of heavyweight riches.

Nevertheless, he was a prestigious puncher at the 200lb limit and seemingly impervious to the violent attentions of elite opposition. Gassiev isn’t locked at number two, and Huck, certainly, has a very reasonable case for being ranked above him, but in the end I’ve been more forgiving of Gassiev’s failure to beat Usyk in his prime than Huck’s failure to beat Glowacki, Briedis and Usyk just past his.

01 – Oleksandr Usyk

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 17-0 Ranked For: 46% of the Decade

I’m unsure how many undisputed decadal number ones we will run into in the course of this series, but I do know that Oleksandr Usyk is one.

Marco Huck, ranked number three here, made the bad mistake of making things personal with Usyk in the run-up to their September 2017 contest. That is the Usyk fight to watch or re-watch if you want to see him at his most vicious. Not a noted puncher but one who hit often and hard enough to mix his man’s mind, Uysk is happy with a decision as a general rule but it was clear in the case of Huck that he coveted the stoppage. So motivated, he turned the trick more quickly than the brute Glowacki, taking him out in ten, faster than any other fighter. Tony Bellew, too, who returned from his adventures at heavyweight late in 2018 to confront Usyk, felt the full wrath of Usyk’s most full-blooded shots, succumbing in eight.

But it is as a boxer, not a puncher, that he has most excelled in the second half of this stacked decade, most of all (and in doing so proving his indisputable supremacy over the field) in his defeat of decadal number two Gassiev. Usyk completely outclassed Gassiev, turned his stalking style against him with deluxe footwork of the highest order that saw the division’s premier puncher reaching for nothing.

Briedis stretched him further with that cultured left-hand and smarts on defense closing the gap but dropped a decision, nonetheless. Throw in wins that had something of a routine feeling over divisional strongmen like Huck and Glowacki and two things become clear: Usyk is clearly the best cruiserweight of the decade and must be named among the very best fighters of the decade.

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The Top Ten Super Bantamweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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It has been interesting to see how transient fighters are when they inhabit the smaller divisions. Up at cruiserweight, fighters spent on average 50% of the decade in their division to earn their spot among the top ten; here at 122lbs it is nearer 30%.

This results in a list of fighters with less purchase on the list, generally. Occasionally though, even at the smaller weights, a fighter will rack up a list of serious victories in a short space of time and hit the heights – and the divisional stalwart is also not unheard of. Here, one of each of these type towers over the rest of the decadal division but the numbers ten through three kick up a lot of interesting fights, and some very interesting fighters.

In accounting for these fighters, the term “one hit wonder” is used liberally. Here I am not seeking to denigrate either the fighter or his wider opposition; it merely denotes a fighter who has one win of real significance which is often accounted for in some detail.

This is another symptom of a generation of fighters happy to put on a mere four pounds to visit the next division up for their next big test.

10 – Rico Ramos

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 16-6 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

The tenth slot was a shootout between Kiko Martinez, who did a little more at the weight, and Rico Ramos, who did a little less, but who was defeated at the poundage only by Guillermo Rigondeaux; Martinez, meanwhile, was thrashed twice by Carl Frampton and once by Scott Quigg. The Scott Quigg tilts me towards Ramos, whose purple patch of 7-1 gets him over the line.

The jewel in his super-bantamweight crown for the period January 2010 until December 2019 was his come-from-behind knockout victory over Akifumi Shimoda, one of the top contenders of 2010 and 2011. Shimoda himself has a claim to the number ten spot based primarily upon his superb victory over Ryol Li Lee, but Ramos eliminated him when they clashed in Atlantic City in July of 2011.

Ramos, an American of Puerto Rican descent, had been boxing since he was eight years old but seemingly had no answer to the Shimoda jab which was opening up other opportunities for the Japanese; Ramos, circling to his right at the beginning of the seventh, brought Shimoda onto a left hand, but it was unheeded and Shimoda continued to boss the real-estate and find a home for his bodypunches. A right hand from Rico seemed to gather his attention though and having landed yet another left Rico finally had his man rooted to the spot, and circling, he landed a left hand as beautiful as any thrown in the 122lb decade. Shimoda was up at nine but immediately took a second header to the canvas.

Ramos was chased from the division by Rigondeaux, as noted, but certainly there is no shame there.

09 – Rey Vargas

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 34-0 Ranked For: 42% of the decade

Rey Vargas has traced an old-fashioned career arc, occupying a spot at super-bantamweight since 2015 and slowly creeping his way up the ranks to inhabit the number one spot, without, really, meeting anyone to justify that ranking. Sometimes longevity is its own reward.

His highest-ranking victim was Tomoki Kameda, and it showed when they met in July of last year; Tomoki had real success early and took a handy lead out of the first third of the fight. Vargas though is a freakishly tall superbantam at near 5’11 and he has the reach to match. From the fifth on, he deployed a controlling jab birthed by a pedigree amateur career that has been augmented by some serious professional experience. The double-uppercut right hand he landed in that round set him apart; the cards may have been a little wide but clearly Vargas was the right man.

He was the right man too five months previously when he was faced with another tough assignment in Franklin Manzanilla. Manzanilla, out of Venezuela, had scored an impressive victory over Julio Ceja in just four rounds in his previous fight and set some problems for Vargas with his rushes and fouling. Vargas found himself with cuts over both brows from “accidental” head-clashes as early as the eighth and Manzanilla had two points docked for hitting on the break and pushing. But Vargas showed some of his best boxing, dominating at distance with the jab and outlanding Manzanilla with fluid combination punching when they met at mid-range.

Vargas has a little more depth than these two fights – Azat Hovhannisyan and Ronny Rios have both made waves since he beat them – but they remain his fistic cornerstones, and despite some impressive boxing this makes him borderline for inclusion. His paper record and longevity in the ratings at 122lbs has seen me favour him over one-hit wonders like Jeffrey Mathebula and Akifumi Shimoda.

08 – Isaac Dogboe

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 21-2 Ranked For: 18% of the decade

Isaac Dogboe’s pressure appeared functional rather than thrilling before his big step up against Jessie Magdaleno in 2018. Magdaleno had been inactive but had also defeated no less a figure than Nonito Donaire in 2016 and was heavily favoured.

In the first round Dogboe was dropped while pressing Magdaleno too hard and he lost the third too, to a gorgeous Magdaleno counter left. But all the while his pressure was beginning to look a little more than workmanlike. He was adept at keeping Magdaleno moving and again and again Dogboe, out of London via Ghana, would fetch his man up against the ropes and let go. Still very much in touch on the scorecards after four, Magdaleno was being aggressively outgeneralled and was steadily losing touch with the fight. His solution was to come out at the opening of the fifth and attack; Dogboe promptly dropped him with a single left hook.

Dogboe so dominated Magdelano that night that the favourite found himself in need of a knockout by the ninth. The then world’s number one super-bantamweight showed no sign he might achieve it and in fact slipped further and further from his technical best, eventually reduced to sagging on the ropes and beckoning Dogboe in. It was a sorry sight and one the referee interrupted in the eleventh after Dogboe perpetrated the second knockdown of the round over his withering opponent.

It was an impressive and rather unexpected performance, albeit against an opponent who seemed to struggle a little with rust after a year out of the sport and it set Dogboe up as the world’s number one super-bantamweight.

Dogboe never added to his 122lb legacy though; his own nemesis was lurking in the wings.

07 – Emanuel Navarrete

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 31-1 Ranked For: 26% of the decade

Like Dogboe, Emanuel Navarrete fought the usual learning fights, stepped up to take on some journeymen and was then launched right into the deep end to face off with the world’s number one super-bantam. Dogboe-Navarrete was a fascinating contest in that it pitted a Johnny-come-lately against an even more recently arrived contender. Dogboe, as the man with the pedigree opponent on his ledger, was favoured.

Navarrete, who is tall with a reach that seems planetary, allowed Dogboe inside to do his work. It felt wrong and even dangerous until Navarrete landed a triple left hook, up and down, on the inside, to win the second round. From here he controlled the fight, impressive and dominant in out-fighting the smaller pressure fighter whose nightmare had come to visit him in the ring: a fighter he could not push back but rather who was pushing him back. The ninth through twelfth were a parade, the bigger man marching down the smaller pressure fighter in what amounts to the most disheartening position a pugilist of any kind can find himself.

Unfortunately for Dogboe he had a rematch clause. Navarrete, who now knew how Dogboe moved, thought and fought, beat him mercilessly in that rematch. The fight becomes difficult to watch around the eighth; Dogboe’s corner, brave to the near last, finally pulled him as he was blasted to the canvas in the twelfth and final round.

It seemed to me that something special had emerged in that fight, but the truth is we don’t yet know. Navarrete has fallen afoul of the ABC strap he wears in defending against underqualified challengers whose selection for their “title shot” is based upon matters other than fistic. So, the jury remains out on Navarrete, who nevertheless was impressive enough in his twin maulings of Dogboe to comfortably make the list.

06 – Jessie Magdaleno

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1 Ranked For: 22% of the decade

Here, we meet the last of the one-hit-wonders on the list but Magdaleno possesses the finest of all of them: Nonito Donaire. Donaire, it is true, had had some of the glitter removed by Guillermo Rigondeaux, but in November of 2016 he remained the top contender to the legitimate title he had once held. Then Magdaleno came calling.

What most impressed me was Donaire’s near abandonment of his left hook. It was oft repeated that he had one of the “best left hooks in the sport” and if Bernard Hopkins had established the removal of such a potent weapon much ink would have been spent on his exaltation. Magdaleno was less fashionable and has remained so, but it was a wonderful technical achievement. Moving unhurriedly, seeking for single shots, he countered beautifully throughout with the right jab and right hook of his own, taking every opportunity to strike without – shades of Hopkins again – ever over-extending himself. The result was Donaire sheathing his own hook in obedience of the rule that you don’t hook with a hooker, while Magdaleno freely threw his own; to the body, especially, he was prestigious.

Donaire went to the straight right and a fascinating tussle ensued, summed up perfectly in the ninth where Donaire hurt Magdaleno on the ropes, only for Magdaleno to charge him and dominate the remainder of the round, putting him out of sight on the cards; Donaire closed with real strength as Magdaleno’s energy waned.

But the decision clearly belonged to Magdaleno.

It was not too long after this that Magdaleno ran into Dogboe. The reasonable question would be, if Dogboe beat Magdaleno how does Magdaleno come to be ranked above him here? It’s a fair question. The mathematics, for me, says that Magdelano’s defeat of Donaire is more impressive than Dogboe’s defeat of a rusty Magdaleno; I accept that this is arguable but balk at Magdaleno as low as eight given his wonderful performance against Donaire.

05 – Toshiaki Nishioka

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 4-1 Ranked For: 19% of the decade

Toshiaki Nishioka was the number one super-bantamweight coming into the decade and remained so until he was removed by the sumptuous power-punching of Nonito Donaire (and an over-excited referee).

How you feel about his overall standing here will depend upon how you feel about Rafael Marquez and his standing in October of 2011. Having lost three of his last six, including two of those wars with Israel Vazquez, Rafael was ostensibly on the slide, but the fight itself shows a fighter that, while no longer at his withering best, remained stoic and technically brilliant, very much a fighter that had to be mastered.

This, Nishioka did. To this day he maintains that Rafael is his most skilled opponent and he boxed with great care to control him, refusing to contest the inside and avoiding any over-commitment with the jab. Meanwhile he drilled Marquez with his trailing left, a wonderful punch that he throws with as much variety as anyone this century. Flying it quickly to the body was his stock in trade in the early going but he began to risk a wilder, wider, harder punch when he realised how wary Rafael had become. Rafael had success, not least in the second half of the eighth round where it seemed he might actually assume control of the fight, but Nishioka out-fought and out-worked the former lineal champion in the tenth and eleventh to put the decision to bed. It was a deeply impressive performance that cemented his status as the first number one super-bantam of the decade.

Nishioka’s other wins do little other than demonstrate his superiority over the field, especially his October 2010 contest with Rendall Munroe. Munroe brought guts but little else as the fight turned into something of a parade down the stretch; still, re-watching it was worth it for the feinted straight and uppercut through the middle that Nishioka used to tilt Munroe’s head back in the third.

Placing him at number five is a borderline call, but Nishioka was a clearer number one than anyone running eight through six. I am happy that should see him placed above, rather than below, the one-hit wonders.

04 – Leo Santa Cruz

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 27% of the decade

Leo Santa Cruz departed 122lbs in 2015 with his undefeated record intact having made his impact on the first half of the super-bantamweight decade. His meaningful arrival at the poundage, the equivalent of a Mack truck pulling up inside a jewellery store, came in August of 2013 against Victor Terrazas. Terrazas, a tough, dangerous fighter was unsupported by the type of chin that would have made him genuinely world class. Nevertheless, the world’s number two contender was a serious proposition for Santa Cruz, and was coming off a nerveless, brutal battle with Cristian Mijares which he won by the narrowest of margins.

Terrazas started aggressively as Santa Cruz brought pressure, all high guard and work-rate. But, as we saw while looking at featherweight, Santa Cruz is much more than that. His punch selection is excellent, his sense for the backfoot superb for a front-foot fighter, his jab is thudding and accurate but he can box squarely enough – weight generally over his back leg, when he does so – to lead with the right without courting disaster. Terrazas was complimented during fight commentary for “making this an inside fight” – but an inside fight suits Santa Cruz just fine. He has reach and the technique to use it but is comfortable trying to land punches behind the elbows.

The two fought on even terms until they didn’t, when towards the end of the second Santa Cruz, tougher and better, opened up while the two stood head to head at the ropes. Terrazas emerged wounded and in the third, emerged giving ground. Dropped twice, he seemed broken in part by the psychological pressure, although it was the consistent, severe punching that did the damage.

Santa Cruz’s number two win was over Mijares, undoubtedly damaged goods, but still ranked. Santa Cruz couldn’t stop him, but what he did was in many ways worse: in a fight as different as that with Terrazas as could be imagined, he thrashed Mijares and rendered him a fistic irrelevance.

Santa Cruz was a very dangerous super-bantamweight.

03 – Carl Frampton

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 24-2 Ranked For: 35% of the decade

Carl Frampton slotted in right behind Santa Cruz at featherweight, but here he nips in just ahead of his great rival. A clash at 122lbs would have been helpful though – there is very little to separate them.

What does separate them is the additional work Frampton did at the very top of the division. He met no fewer than three top five contenders during his time fighting as Guillermo Rigondeaux’s understudy – the Cuban was champion throughout Frampton’s stay at the poundage – and soundly defeated all of them.

First up was Kiko Martinez, who Frampton had already defeated in a European title tussle but met again in 2014. Frampton, who probably entered his peak that night, couldn’t put the more experienced Martinez away as he had in their first fight but he did dominate almost completely with a healthy mix of jabs and bodyshots. Chris Avalos, who failed miserably when he moved up to featherweight but was a serious super-bantamweight, visited Frampton’s Belfast stronghold in 2015.  This was Frampton’s finest performance at the weight, his right hand excellent, despite the scruffy squabbling in the second his dominance near-complete.

Frampton’s final fight at 122lbs showed the toll weight-making was taking upon him. He was dominant over the first six against a reticent Scott Quigg, even breaking his jaw in the fourth, but the Englishman came on in the second half of the fight which was, in the end, very close.

Santa Cruz was more impressive in the victories he did have at 122lbs but it was Frampton, in the end, who scored the more numerous and more impressive victories.

02 – Nonito Donaire

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 18-5 Ranked For: 25% of the decade

The decade 2010-2019 produced two legitimate super-bantamweight champions and it is fitting that these two lead the pack. Nor is it close – there is so much clear blue water between Nonito Donaire at #2 and Carl Frampton at #3 that they may as well be on different lists.

Donaire stepped up to 122lbs in 2012 and immediately tackled a divisional strapholder, the number eight contender, Wilfredo Vazquez; after taking a decision form him over the twelve, it was Jeffrey Mathebula, the number six contender who towered over Donaire but nevertheless gave up a similar decision. This second fight is crucial because against both he and Vazquez it is possible to see Donaire over-reaching, under-boxing, pushing far too hard for the knockout which he openly demanded of himself in the press. In the tenth round of his fight with Mathebula, Donaire was so completely out-boxed that in the eleventh and twelfth he limited himself to his more direct sphere of influence and in doing so dominated Mathebula completely, cracking one of his teeth in the process. You could almost hear the penny drop.

I consider that Donaire found himself at 122lbs that night and the result was Donaire’s 118lb form suddenly materialising in the super-bantamweight division. His next fight was against no less a figure than Toshiaki Nishioka, the most accomplished fighter in the division, a meeting between the two best super-bantams in the world and so the beginning of a new lineage at the weight. Donaire was the absolute pinnacle of cool as far as his inherent aggression would allow; he won every round and devastated Nishioka in the ninth round of a non-competitive rout propelled by his right hand rather than left hook. When he butchered Jorge Arce two months later, in December of 2012, he had completed the single best unbroken run of the decade at 122lbs and one of the better runs at any weight.

This being boxing, the end of that run was just around the corner.

01 – Guillermo Rigondeaux

Peak Ranking: Ch. Record for the Decade: 15-1 Ranked For: 92% of the decade

Donaire met with Cuban amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013 in a huge fight between the two best super-bantamweights in the world. It was also as one-sided as any top tier match of the decade as Rigondeaux, in absolute control for ten of the twelve rounds, picked Donaire’s wings off in a study of lethal economy.

Rigondeaux breaks rhythm. A combination of feints, very astute defensive dips and slips and single power-punches make establishment of offense against him agonising. Donaire, a fluid fighter who counter-pressures his opponents to the canvas, was particularly afflicted by the Rigondeaux malaise.  Rigondeaux threw infrequently; still he out-landed Donaire in every round but one.

The Cuban spent the years in which Donaire was tying together his superb 122lb run emerging from the pack and was just 6-0 when he tangled with number five contender Ricardo Cordoba. Rigondeaux dominated with ease until Cordoba snapped his head back with a jab, flashing him.  Rigondeaux responded in away entirely unacceptable to the American fight fraternity: he ran away.

Rigondeaux took a split decision and learned his final lesson: professional fighting in America calls for more fighting than amateur boxing does anywhere. Rico Ramos, then still unbeaten at 20-0, was the man to bear the brunt of this newly learned lesson as he was blasted to the canvas in the first round and tormented through the sixth when a body punch – and the better part of valour – kept him on the canvas.

So Rigondeaux was primed when he stepped into the ring with Donaire, for all that he was professionally inexperienced. Donaire was made to understand it and the litany of excuses he laid out after the fight – his shoulder was bad, he didn’t study his opponent, his was distracted by his wife’s pregnancy – could not disguise his out-and-out inferiority to Rigondeaux.

The argument as to who would be the decadal number one at 122lbs ended there, but there is more to recommend Rigondeaux as one of the longest serving lineal champions in boxing. In a division that sees fleeting commitment, even by its most prominent fighters, Rigondeaux’s devotion to super-bantamweight has been unusual.

He never became the superstar his management wanted to make him – too technical, too careful, too defensive – but there is no questioning his status as the best of the decade.

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Remembering “Doin’ Damage”

Ted Sares

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Remembering-Doin'-Damage

On June 3, 1997, Darroll “Doin’ Damage” Wilson met Courage “No Limit” Tshabalala at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon where no seat was a bad seat. The fight was a true Philly Classic, one of the most exciting fights of the year. The result was a surprise, but not as surprising as the upset that Darroll Wilson pulled off in March of the previous year when he fought the much bigger Shannon Briggs at the Convention Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Wilson vs. Briggs

Brooklynite Shannon Briggs (25-0) had achieved a reputation for being a guy who ended his fights early, as in first-round KO’s, but on this occasion, things kind of reversed themselves, as the gutsy Wilson (15-0-2 going in) survived a furious first round and then used his superior skills to shockingly take out “The Cannon” with a sharp left hook two rounds later.

Wilson, who lived close to Atlantic City in Mays Landing, N.J., had done considerable damage to his opponents until he met David Tua (24-0) in Miami and was KOd in the last second of an otherwise even first round by the streaking “Tuaman.” But losing to the short but super-powerful Tua was no disgrace. In fact, for Darroll, the best was yet to come.

 After beating limited Ron McCarthy, Darroll met the highly-touted Tshabalala (20-1). “Courage” had previously been shocked by Brian “Bam Bam” Scott (21-3) in the late Scott’s career definer in 1996, shattering the myth of the South African’s extraordinary power and alleged 72-1 amateur record (with 71 knockouts). Scott won using a fast and sharp combo, stopping him in the second round. Most of the 270-pound native of Kansas’s opponents had losing records which further amplified the shock factor– though Courage’s level of opposition was equally suspect.

Wilson vs Tshabalala (June 1997)

After Ed Darian Derian announced the fighters, the bell rang and Courage quickly decked Wilson with a power jab and then dictated matters for the rest of the round as he went on the stalk. The second round was uneventful until the last 15 seconds when Tshabalala opened up with a number of power shots. Wilson answered, but his answer came after the bell for which he received a firm warning.

Late in the third round, Wilson was hit clean by a perfect Courage right cross. He went down hard, got up, and then fell back down on Queer Street. Just as Referee Rudy Battle was about to signal the end of the fight, the round ended and Wilson was allowed to continue. Lou Duva, Courage’s manager, protested the call in his usual hyper/hysterical fashion but to no avail. Lou’s signature protests had acquired the feel of the little boy who cried wolf too often and this one was no exception.

Tshabalala came out fast in the next round trying to put away a still stunned Wilson, but the muscular Darroll did what he did against Briggs and, weathering the fierce storm, began to connect with his own shots. Both men went at it full-tilt boogie until the South African, exposing a stamina issue, finally went down, spit out his mouthpiece, and was counted out. He had nothing left. The Blue Horizon went bonkers.

Tshabalala had now participated in one of the upsets of the year and one of the most exciting fights of the year. Though a loser in both, he was nevertheless on everybody’s radar.

Bert Cooper (September 2002)

Darroll would go on to win some and lose some but against the very best opposition including David Izon, Frankie Swindell, Mike Rouse, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Oliver McCall. He ended his career in 2006 with a 27-10-2 slate and– before he took three years off–he scored another big win by stopping Bert Cooper (36-21) at the Blue Horizon in 2002. After this loss, Bert himself would take an eight-year hiatus from boxing, but for all practical purposes, he was done. (Cooper was a tragic figure with a deceptive record—a quintessentially sad boxing story– and the ups and downs of his life beg for a telling.)

As for Darroll Wilson, he always gave his best and on at least three occasions, he did some remarkable damage.

Ted Sares can be reached at tedsares@roadrunner.com or on Facebook.

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Leo Upends Williams as Boxing Returns to ‘Showtime’

Arne K. Lang

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Leo-Upends-Williams-as-Boxing-Returns-to-Showtime

Showtime Boxing kicked off their late summer/fall season tonight with a three-fight card behind closed doors at the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort in Uncasville, CT. Tonight’s show is the first of nine live boxing events that the cable TV giant announced on July 22. The season will run through Dec. 12 with the concluding match a WBC bantamweight title bout between defending title-holder Nordine Oubaali and ageless showstopper Nonito Donaire.

Unfortunately for Showtime, there was a COVID-19 complication right out of the box. Philadelphia bantamweight Stephen Fulton, who would have been the “A” side in tonight’s main event, tested positive on Wednesday, forcing some shuffling. Tramaine Williams was bumped up from the co-feature to challenge Angelo Leo for the WBO world super bantamweight title vacated by Emanuel Navarette.

Angelo Leo hadn’t prepared for a southpaw and it took him a bit find his groove, but he found it and won a fairly lopsided decision over a previously undefeated opponent who was fighting in his home state. The scores were 117-111 and 118-110 twice.

Leo, 26, worked the body well and had more fuel in his tank as the bout progressed into the late rounds. In winning, Leo became the first world title-holder from Albuquerque since Johnny Tapia. Promoted by Floyd Mayweather’s “Money Team”, he advanced his record to 20-0. It was the first pro loss for New Haven’s Williams who fell to 19-1.

It figures that Leo will make his first defense against Stephen Fulton.

Other Bouts

In another 122-pound match that was also penciled in for 12 rounds, Ra’eese Aleem thoroughly outclassed late sub Marcus Bates en route to a 10th round stoppage. This was their second meeting and Bates, who entered the contest 11-1-1, was looking to avenge his lone defeat. In their initial go in Philadelphia in April of 2018, Aleem won comfortably on the scorecards. Bates recently explained that loss away by saying that he believed that someone tampered with his water bottle, giving Aleem an advantage.

Aleem, 30, steadily broke Bates down. The referee halted the one-sided match when Bates, who appeared to have sprained his right wrist, turned his back on Aleem after absorbing a hard left hook. Aleem, the pride of Muskegon, Michigan, improved to 17-0 with his 12th knockout.

In the opener, a light heavyweight match slated for 10 rounds, Houston’s Joseph George (11-0, 7 KOs) landed a bombshell of a left uppercut in the ninth frame to put away Marcos Escudero (10-2) who was well ahead on the scorecards when lightning struck.

This was a rematch. When they fought last November on ShoBox, Escudero outworked George, but George landed the crisper punches and prevailed on a split decision. Escudero, who is from Argentina but had his early pro fights in Florida, outworked George again (George likes to fight with his back against the ropes, a strategy he needs to reconsider) but as they say, it only takes one punch in this business, and Joseph George, who is managed by NFL all-pro tackle Trent Williams, brought the howitzer.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott / Showtime

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