by Kieran Mulvaney
It is often said that as goes the heavyweight division, so goes boxing, and that there is nothing wrong with the sport and its place in the public imagination that couldn’t be solved by the emergence of an exciting Tysonesque heavyweight champion.
Perhaps. But it’s no great secret that some of boxing’s most compelling contests are regularly at lighter weight classes. Who can forget the Marco Antonio Barrera-Kennedy McKinney war that opened Boxing After Dark? Or Barrera’s battles with Eric Morales? Or the unpredictable excitement that accompanied just about every Naseem Hamed performance? The brilliance of younger and lighter versions of Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez? The silky skills of Ivan Calderon, or the dominance of Ricardo Lopez?
This Saturday, HBO’s World Championship Boxing showcases what promises to be the latest in that long line of legendary lower-weight nights when Nonito Donaire clashes with Guillermo Rigondeaux in a matchup between two men who must surely be considered, especially now that Abner Mares has moved to featherweight, the very best fighters under 125 pounds in the world.
Rigondeaux’s exalted position owes little to his professional record – which, comprising just 11 fights (all victories), is incomplete. Instead, it is a testament to the almost legendary status accorded his amateur career, highlighted by two Olympic gold medals. It is a reflection also of the talent he has shown during his brief spell in the paid ranks, epitomized by a counterpunching style that can, should his opponent be stung, morph immediately into an all-out attack.
Donaire, on the other hand, has earned his stripes the old-fashioned way, grinding out wins against difficult opponents when necessary, producing spectacular stoppage wins when possible (check out his demolition of Fernando Montiel for evidence of the latter) and over the course of a 12-year pro career earning world titles at 112, 115, 118 and now 122 pounds. If his moves in the ring don’t seem quite as effortless as his foe’s, they pack more consistent punch, and Donaire has shown an impressive ability to adapt his style to that of the man in front of him, be it a willing brawler like Jorge Arce or a non-combative spoiler like Omar Narvaez.
Donaire, of course, first burst onto boxing’s radar with a 2007 knockout of Vic Darchinyan, who for several years was the terror of the lower weight divisions. Although Darchinyan’s peak has now passed, there are plenty of others ready to assume the mantle he once wore, and over which Donaire and Rigondeaux will do battle on Saturday. Here’s a selection of five to watch out for:
Featherweight Garcia is the biggest of the bunch, and in the eyes of some may have the highest ceiling. Already, at the age of just 25, he is 31-0 with 26 KOs; any doubts about his class at the highest level were eradicated when he dominated Orlando Salido in January.
Nicaraguan Gonzalez, known as ‘El Chocolatito’, may be the best boxer unknown to most boxing fans. Presently in possession of a world title belt at 108 pounds, and previously a titleholder at 105 pounds, his record after 34 pro fights is perfect. Like Garcia, he is only 25, suggesting there are many opportunities yet for him to showcase his skills on bigger and brighter stages.
Juan Francisco Estrada
It says much for the esteem in which Gonzalez is held that Estrada was granted a title shot against Brian Viloria because he looked relatively impressive while El Chocolatito was beating him. After becoming only the sixth man to take Gonzalez the distance, Estrada moved up to 112 pounds for the shot against Viloria and came away victorious, scoring a split decision win in last week’s HBO2-televised card from Macau, China. A Gonzalez rematch, with Estrada’s new crown at stake, may be on the cards.
Write off the ‘Hawaiian Punch’ at your peril. Although his previous three losses were disappointing, the loss to Estrada was a close call in an exciting contest against a guy who may well be better than previously advertised. Viloria has rebounded from each of his earlier setbacks to recapture world title glory; at age 32, climbing that mountain one more time will be difficult, but be certain he’ll make a compelling effort.
Big brother Diego may have fallen just short in his first title shot, on that same Macau card last week, but super bantamweight Jesse has long been considered the true class of the family. A real blue-chip prospect with knockout power, the younger Magdaleno scored a third-round stoppage in his last outing, on the undercard of Timothy Bradley’s win over Ruslan Provodnikov, and may be only a year or two away from a title tilt of his own.