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The Top Ten Light-Middleweights of the Decade: 2010-2019

Matt McGrain

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154lbs had a fascinating decade. The first generation that came through with Saul Alvarez and Miguel Cotto soon made way for a younger generation made up of exciting young fighters like Jarrett Hurd and Julian Williams, in some cases, in real and visceral ways, trading leather over inches of real-estate in blood-teared boxing-rings. There is much head-to-head resolution in this list, sure sign of a healthy division.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. The light-middleweight decade was also marked with dreadful scoring and one or two straight-up robberies. Like every division I’ve looked at so far, it seems to run out of locked inclusions well before we hit the last berth, which is a cause for concern.

But we do get a fascinating gallery of characters and actors which includes two pound-for-pound contenders for the decade. 154lbs has surprised me during this review, and I hope it surprises you too.

Rankings are by Ring 2010-2012 and TBRB 2013-2019.

10 – Demetrius Andrade

Peak Ranking: 3 Record for the Decade: 20-0 Ranked For: 58% of the decade.

The saddest sight from this past 154lb decade was the steady descent of Demetrius Andrade down the light-middleweight rankings as he continued to win, win, win and win in the boxing ring. The reason? Alphabet politics, specifically the level of fighter Andrade has mixed with during his pitiful WBO title run. There was a time when even an alphabet belt could only enhance a fighter’s legacy.  No longer.

Andrade, out of Rhode Island, picked that title up in 2013 in a superb performance against Vanes Martirosyan in a fight that reeked of ambition. Both Andrade and Martirosyan were unbeaten, both legitimately skilled prospects with deep amateur pedigrees. Andrade won a superb fight that began with a bang but became a little too one-sided down the stretch to be branded classic; Andrade was bizarrely awarded a split in a fight he clearly dominated.

And that is his fistic peak. Three years later he dominated and stopped Willie Nelson, the then number nine contender, and that is what qualifies as Demetrius Andrade second best win.

Also speaking for him is his unbeaten decade and a quick, clean southpaw fighting style, but our number ten is a sign of the times. I’ve almost (but not quite) talked myself into replacing him with Tony Harrison.

09 – Miguel Cotto

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 7-4 Ranked For: 52% of the decade

Is Miguel Cotto being under-represented here at number nine? Arguably, but the following needs to be considered: Firstly, Cotto fought just eleven fights in this decade. Secondly, some of these were contested at middleweight, not light-middleweight. Third, of the 154lb contests he engaged in, he lost three; finally, he beat just one ranked contender, Yuri Foreman, in a strange, badly refereed contest where Cotto brought good pressure but unquestionably benefited from a serious injury to his opponent’s knee. This contrasts with his middleweight visit where he defeated some of the best fighters of the 160lb decade.

Cotto scrapes in at nine, then, based upon his defeat of Foreman and his exquisite performance in combat with a man unranked at 154lbs but who brought with him serious pedigree from the 147lb limit he stretched his 5’11 frame over, Antonio Margarito. Cotto’s first fight with Margarito was a thing of great infamy, and no more virtual ink need be spent on it here. The rematch at light-middleweight is what interests us.

Cotto was precise and sharp throughout; Margarito, reaching. Cotto’s sensational performance needs to be balanced against Margarito’s condition, questionable after his brutal dismantling at the hands of Manny Pacquiao but it also needs to be noted that it was Cotto, not Pacquiao, who scored the stoppage.

Cotto was unquestionably a better light-middleweight than he was a middleweight, but it is also unquestionable that he achieved more in absolute terms against elite opposition at 160lbs in the decade at hand. Nine, then, is where Cotto finds himself for 2010-2019 at this weight class.

08 – Austin Trout

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 10-5-1 Ranked For: 50% of the decade

Austin Trout had a fascinating decade, but he left the numerical trunk of his career back in the 00s and an ugly close to the decade marred his paper record. Trout was defeated by both Charlo brothers and Jarrett Hurd 2016 through 2018; the new generation feasted on him.

In fact, 2012 aside, Trout did not perform as well as some may assume. That year though, was a fine one. He kicked it off with a patient, waiting performance against Delvin Rodriguez, who was at that time hanging onto his number ten ranking by his fingertips. Trout deployed his tiring, distracting southpaw jab to its usual discombobulating affect and coasted to a wide points victory. Exceptional defensively against middling handspeed (and good against fast hands), Trout was a brave choice of opponent for Miguel Cotto, coming off a thrashing at the hands of Floyd Mayweather but certainly still elite.

Trout was brilliant that night. It is perhaps the defining example of how to avoid being pinned to the ropes by a pressure fighter, not just in this weight class but in any weight class for this decade. Every time Trout felt the ropes close in behind him, he made an exit by way of feint or punch and fleet footwork. He made Cotto look ordinary and he was deserving of his majority decision victory, despite a huge swathe of tight, swing rounds.

Then he ran into Canelo Alvarez. This fight is important. Despite Trout’s seeming surety that he had lost the fight clean, it was very close; what needs to be understood is that the WBC’s insistence upon open scoring made much of the last third of the fight moot and after Alvarez won the eleventh clear, the twelfth round a redundancy. Trout could only win by a knockout he was never going to score.  That he won the fight by a single point on my card is neither here nor there.

And that leaves me with a problem. Trout, a fine fighter, who turned in one of the finest performances of the light-middleweight decade, can sit no higher than eighth. Having won two meaningful fights in 2012 he went on to lose to every ranked man he ever faced; it is natural that no fewer than four of them rank above him here.

07 Jermell Charlo

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 23-1 Ranked For: 45% of the decade

Jermell Charlo, one of a pair of fighting brothers from Texas, also ran into Vanes Martirosyan, who served as an elite gatekeeper throughout the decade. A tension-drenched contest resulted with Charlo edging a fight that could have gone any one of three ways. Jermell hasn’t been blessed with the power of his twin brother, the inconveniently named Jermall (see below) but the quickness of his jab and decent accuracy make him a difficult opponent.

Adding a deceptively stinging hook gave him the feel of a completeness in his style and Jermell capitalized on the punch against a much-faded Austin Trout, dropping him twice to squeak home on the cards. With the division at his fingertips, the capable, defensively sound Tony Harrison came calling. To be clear, Jermell deserved the nod here for me, but the surprise loss he suffered on the cards did underline some of the problems in his execution. I saw no fewer than four of the twelve rounds close and difficult to call. Jermell perhaps deserved the benefit of the doubt here (and I personally gave it to him) boxing on the front foot and landing all but one of the hard, eye-catching shots in the fight – but he also failed, perhaps, to close the show in rounds where he had an edge but an arguable edge. He allowed Harrison to wait for him and failed to capitalize on the pressure he brought to bear. Jermell’s loss to Harrison was unfortunate but it was no robbery.

Jermell put the blot right in a rematch, surging in to attack where before he had waited, willing to get hit to land a superior, tighter offense. His pressure bore fruit; Harrison was stopped on his feet in the eleventh.

Charlo stands having learned a valuable lesson and ready to take a new decade on with precision aggression; he nevertheless did enough between 2010 and 2019 to stand here on merit.

06 – Jarrett Hurd

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 23-1- Ranked For: 25% of the decade

In a division festooned with classy boxers, Jarrett Hurd assumed the status of bogeyman. Huge at the weight, strong, iron-jawed, relentless with inconveniently deceptive footwork that re-introduces him to the space of even the most fleet-footed runner or stick-and-move artist, Hurd is death on a stick for a certain type of fighter.

That type: older, some tough rounds on him, a boxer. Step forwards Austin Trout. This fight is painful to watch as the ageing Trout, never stopped before, never stopped since, is pulled by his corner late in the fight. Hurd mauled and punched him into submission until he was little more than a crouch and some pit-a-pat offense in the sphere of influence belonging to a fighter who cannot be turned around by even serious punches.

Hurd stepped out of Trout’s ring and into Erislandy Lara’s, a different matter. Their fight was fascinating and brilliant, Hurd’s ceaseless hunting and adeptness in cutting off the ring against Lara’s guile and brilliant footwork. Then Lara quit on his stick-and-move strategy and stepped into Hurd’s pocket. The Cuban proceeded to outfight his much younger, bigger, stronger opponents for long stretches.

Power is power though. A visit to the canvas in the twelfth cost Lara the fight and made Hurd the breaker-in-general of 154lb boxers.

Hurd was ranked the world’s #1 light-middleweight post-Lara and it seemed, perhaps, a period of dominance might follow. Then Hurd ran into a fighter named Julian Williams.

05 – Julian Williams

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 27-1-1 Ranked For: 50% of the decade

Julian Williams suffered a disaster in his last fight, losing his strap and number one ranking to Jeison Rosario; but that loss occurred in January of 2020. Williams, whose career entered the Covid-19 lockdown in tatters, is unaffected here by that devastating loss.

He did suffer a loss between 2010 and 2019 at light-middleweight, to Jermall Charlo who also stopped him in five back in December of 2016; his rebuild was something rather special. He summited in the final year of the decade with a victory over number one contender, Jarret Hurd.  This was a superb thinking performance from a fighter who had learned his lessons well. He out-thought Hurd on the outside, making a seeming lie of Hurd’s clear reach and height advantages to out-jab him, then out-fought him on the inside, throwing out tides of short, snappy punches that had Hurd in such serious trouble in the second that it seemed, after dropping the number one contender, he might stop him. Hurd survived to drop a clear unanimous decision.

Hurd came to that fight based primarily upon his victory over Nathaniel Gallimore, ranked six, another taller, longer fighter. This was Hurd-lite for Williams, a dress rehearsal for that excellent performance. I was saddened to see Williams stopped early in 2020, his resurgence one of the finest lo-fi stories of the decade. As to whether he deserves the number five spot for that decade, that is debatable – although certainly, battering the fighter ranked number six helps.

04 – Jermall Charlo

Peak Ranking: 2 Record for the Decade: 24-0 Ranked For: 20% of the decade

Trout beats Cotto, Hurd beats Trout, Williams beats Hurd and finally Jermall Charlo beats Williams.  It’s helpful in interpreting the division, these matches, and there’s been refreshing traffic between the top ten light-middleweights of the decade. Jermall departed undefeated for the middleweight division before the decade was out but despite the temporal shortage, Jermall made his mark and ranks as a “best of the rest” #4, clear water between he and the number three, but a stretch between he and #5, also.

Jermall landed in earnest as late as September 2015, obliterating storied veteran Cornelius Bundrage in four rounds. Bundrage won not a minute of a round and was yoyoed throughout. It was easy.  Bundrage was shocked by Jermall’s offensive capabilities and you could see it, especially on the third knockdown. After stopping Wilky Campfort in similar short order, Jermall fought perhaps the most important fight of his career against Austin Trout. Trout had lost to both Alvarez and Lara in short order but had since rebuilt and was once more ranked the world’s number two light-middleweight.  Jermall edged him out in a close, absorbing contest, emerging as a fighter of economy and no little power, his jab a hurtful weapon, the speed on his straight right turning it into a slashing, hurtful punch. Trout didn’t go away and, in fact, made some very exciting adjustments to test Jermall to his fullest, but it was the younger man who emerged with the victory.

Jermall then scored what, in retrospect, would seem a sensational knockout over Julian Williams and stepped up to middleweight. This leave him not beyond reproach; he departed the division at the very moment it seemed ripe for his dominance and he began mixing with top contenders only a short time before; two keystones in his resume were men past their apex in the form of Trout and on the slide in the form of Bundrage. But it must be remembered, too, that Jermall got a lot done in a short time and that he looked, for the most part, superb in doing it. He spent most of the decade at the limit and left it without loss.

03 – Erislandy Lara

Peak Ranking: 1 Record for the Decade: 17-3-3 Ranked For: 83% of the decade

Erislandy Lara is still ranked among the ten best fighters in the light-middleweight division, sitting pretty at number six as of April 2020. Each of these divisions has kicked up a survivor, a fighter who hangs onto his ranking by hook or by jab and who becomes a key operator for that decade. Lara is that man at 154lbs.

To be honest though, I was a little disappointed putting him under the microscope. This is a man who rarely matched ranked contenders; in fact, Lara could be comfortably placed a little lower judged purely on quality scalps. Lara’s third best win is over Yuri Foreman.

But his longevity counts for plenty here and is illustrated by the fact that the first and best big win of his career came back in 2013, a twelve round decision awarded to him over Austin Trout. Lara exposed Trout’s limitations. If you can outland him in a given round, he will lose; if you are fast, he will struggle defensively; if you are patient, he will crack, which may have been the key to Lara’s wide decision victory.

Later, in 2016, Lara matched old foe Vanes Martirosyan, a name familiar from earlier entries. Lara had been on the bad end of a technical draw against Martirosyan in 2012 in a match he dominated but he took the unanimous decision in the rematch; he rolled straight out of that contest into a fight with Yuri Foreman over whom he scored a weird knockout in four (track it down).

And that is all. Is that enough for number three? It is not.

Untold are the interesting wrinkles. In 2012 he took the enormous, the terrifying, the rather past-it Paul Williams and timed, bullied, battered and countered the bigger, stronger, longer, ever game Williams to pieces – the judges, all of whom would be suspended from the sport in the wake of their actions, scored the fight for Williams. Lara is credited for a win over Williams for the purposes of this list.

In 2014, Lara was in an excruciatingly close fight with Saul Alvarez; I had the Mexican a winner 115-113 but the average media scorecard was 114-114. This was a fight that basically failed to settle the issue between the two and Alvarez passed on a rematch.

This is enough to close the distance on and then overhaul Jermall; Lara is the third most accomplished light-middleweight of the decade. He was also the most interesting.

2 – Saul Alvarez

Peak Ranking: Ch.  Record for the Decade: 24-1-1 Ranked For: 47% of the decade

Saul Alvarez followed a much-trodden path in his approach to his divisional summit: he walked the bones of former contenders like Carlos Baldomir, Lovemore Ndou, Kermit Cintron and a faded Shane Mosley. This is good practice for a well-funded prospect, and Saul Alvarez was always that.

But while the big bucks associated with his burgeoning fame was drawing in name fighters past their best, Alvarez was also breaking contenders in more interesting fights. Ryan Rhodes was ranked number four for their 2011 encounter while Alvarez was ranked number nine. Seeing the young Mexican learn and apply what he had seen during this fight was thrilling. He picks punches with more and more confidence as the fight nears its conclusion and indeed, he would seem to improve with every fight he had at 154lbs, eventually emerging up at 160lbs as complete a version of himself as could be imagined.

Rhodes succumbed in twelve and close victories over Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara would have made him the era’s outstanding light-middleweight.

Were it not for Floyd Mayweather.

Mayweather had made himself a force in the division before his retirement in the 00s and his re-emergence saw him inevitably clash with Alvarez in 2012. That Alvarez was so thoroughly beaten by Mayweather makes it extremely difficult to place him at number one here. This is especially hard on Alvarez because he was rendered number two up at middleweight, too – and for reasons directly opposite of those expressed here. The two differences are Mayweather’s total dominance over Alvarez and the fact that Alvarez managed fewer than half the decadal contenders that Golovkin did at middleweight.

In other words, Alvarez did not do quite enough in either division to be rendered number one, but for very different reasons in each case, which is a tough break. Had he remained at 154lbs, he would have done more than enough to justify the number one slot. As it is, he’s missed out by the narrowest of margins – the type of margin by which Floyd Mayweather might slip an oncoming jab.

1 – Floyd Mayweather

Peak Ranking: Ch.  Record for the Decade: 10-0 Ranked For: 34% of the decade

Floyd Mayweather rolled back into light-middleweight in May of 2012 and made Miguel Cotto, then rated divisional number one, look like a journeyman. Cotto was never anything less than brave and in round eight he looked his sensational self, but in the eleventh and twelfth, especially, it was clear that there was at least a full class between Mayweather and Cotto.

What most impressed about this was that Cotto was a fighter made in hell for an older fighter. Fast pressure, technically sure punching, a good engine and a withering body attack are the attributes you absolutely do not want to see named in the opposite corner when you are in your fourth decade. Mayweather, who had lost a step or two, found other ways to keep his more aggressive foe under control, first among them, peerless countering abilities. Cotto did as well as any Mayweather foe of recent memory but was, in the end, left well behind.

Arguably though, Saul Alvarez was the more dangerous challenge and for the purposes of naming the number one light-middleweight of the era is obviously the key combat. Younger and in his physical prime, Alvarez was also two weight-divisions bigger on fight night, coming to the ring a super-middleweight. Mayweather looked him over and proceeded to outbox him for ten of the following twelve rounds. It was a glorified spar; it was a fighter headed for the upper echelons of the pound-for-pound list reduced to the status of a training partner. Mayweather was landing trailing uppercuts and outlanded his opponent in all but one of the twelve rounds.

It was as vivid a demonstration of one fighter’s complete superiority over another as can be imagined over twelve and leaves no doubt as to which of the two is the superior fighter. However, a counterargument to Floyd’s holding the number one slot does present itself. As a rule, before agreeing a fighter’s final slot with myself, I look at said fighter’s third best victory under the conditions described (here, light-middleweight in a given decade). The answer to that question, for Mayweather is “Conor McGregor.” That is, Floyd’s third most impressive scalp here considered is an 0-1 MMA specialist. This is unimpressive.

Given that Shane Mosley hadn’t won a fight for more than three years when Alvarez faced him, it could be reasonably argued that Alvarez’s own #3 scalp is Ryan Rhodes and, more significantly, that what Ryan Rhodes was to Saul Alvarez, Saul Alvarez was to Floyd Mayweather. That was the gap that existed between the two in the ring.

So it’s Mayweather at number one for me, not locked given that Alvarez got better and Mayweather underwhelmed with volume of victories, but as the only man to beat two number one ranked contenders in the decade and more than that, made it all look rather easy, I’m satisfied he is the right choice.

Other divisions presented even tougher choices: Heavyweight, Cruiserweight, Light-Heavyweight, Super-Middleweight and Middleweight.

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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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