By Eric Raskin
The middleweight division has as clear and indisputable a current championship lineage as any weight class in boxing. Bernard Hopkins won a unification tournament in 2001 (then added another alphabet belt, for what that’s worth, by knocking out Oscar De La Hoya three years later); Jermain Taylor decisioned Hopkins in ’05; Kelly Pavlik knocked out Taylor in ’07; Sergio Martinez outboxed Pavlik in 2010; and earlier this year, Miguel Cotto overwhelmed Martinez at Madison Square Garden—the very arena in which Hopkins stopped Felix Trinidad to begin this unbroken lineage.
As clear and indisputable as the identity of the 160-pound division’s true champion is, the identity of the division’s best fighter is almost as unanimously agreed upon. And it’s not the same as the lineal champion, which is where this conversation starts to get very interesting.
On Saturday night in Carson, California, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin puts his perfect record on the line against Marco Antonio Rubio. He also risks his reputation as the best middleweight fighter on the planet—a reputation he hopes to back up someday soon by facing Cotto for the lineal title. It is an imperfect situation, having the champ and the perceived “baddest man” not be one and the same and not (yet) be scheduled to fight each other. The middleweight division is at once crystal clear and frustratingly muddied. Here is a breakdown of who’s who at 160 pounds heading into this weekend’s Golovkin-Rubio clash:
The Lineal Champ: Miguel Cotto
The beloved Puerto Rican warrior is a surefire future Hall of Famer, and his 10th-round TKO win over “Maravilla” in June was the most historic achievement of his 39-4 (32 KOs) career. But his middleweight credentials remain in question because this was his first fight above 154 pounds and his true prime was probably from 2005-'08 at junior welterweight and welterweight. Has he found, at age 33, a second prime under Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach? Or did he just find the perfect opponent in an injury-riddled Martinez? Cotto is aiming to provide some answers in a showdown with 154-pound superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in 2015. Oh, and he’s aiming to collect a massive payday as well, as Cotto-Canelo is by far the biggest event in boxing that doesn’t have the names Pacquiao or Mayweather attached to it.
The Uncrowned King: Gennady Golovkin
Whether you love violence delivered with a smile or unintentional comedy delivered with an accent, this boxing blend of James Bond and Borat is guaranteed to entertain. And over his last 17 fights, Triple-G has been guaranteed to end matters inside the distance. Though he hasn’t yet faced an A-list opponent—for reasons seemingly beyond his control—the Kazakh phenom appears damned close to being the perfect fighting machine. He has one-punch power, world-class hand speed, technical precision, and flawless footwork, and his record of 30 wins, no losses, and 27 KOs is as spiffy as they come. There’s no time to waste at age 32, which is why he’s fighting three or four times a year and hoping to corner the lineal champ at the negotiating table soon.
The Dangerous Outsider: Peter Quillin
As a boxer who competes on a rival network and is “advised” by an individual in Al Haymon who tends not to do business with HBO, “Kid Chocolate” faces significant impediments should he decide he wants to fight one of the division’s three top attractions, Cotto, Alvarez, or Golovkin. But that should not obscure the talent of the 31-0 (22 KOs) Brooklyn-based boxer-puncher. Wins over Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam and Gabriel Rosado—the former a thriller in which Quillin scored multiple knockdowns in three separate rounds—helped separate the personable Quillin from the also-rans of the division (while also exposing potential limitations). He recently turned down a career-best payday to face Matt Korobov and gave up his alphabet belt in the process, placing his management decisions under a microscope. But for now, Quillin remains part of any discussion of the elite 160-pounders.
The Aging Ex-Champ: Sergio Martinez
Have we seen the last of Martinez in the ring? Maybe—he’s currently awaiting the results of physical evaluations and trying to decide whether he has one last run in him with his 40th birthday just a few months away. Even if he gets the go-ahead and decides to add numbers to his 51-3-2 (28 KOs) record, the evidence presented in the Cotto fight suggests that what awaits might be nothing more than his Shaq-on-the-Celtics phase. But until we know for sure, Martinez’s name and résumé make him a conversation piece and a desired opponent. Which means he’s part of the middleweight mix until he either loses again or decides not to risk losing again.
The Steady Contender: Martin Murray
On a rainy night at an outdoor stadium in Buenos Aires 18 months ago, Murray might have become the middleweight champ if not for the fact that defending champ Sergio Martinez was responsible for drawing more than 40,000 paying customers; there was little chance of an obscure fighter from the UK winning a close decision in Martinez’s homecoming. But Murray hinted at being a legitimate top-five middleweight that night, and has since run his record to 28-1-1 (12 KOs) with three subsequent victories. On paper, he’s the sort of fighter that Golovkin bowls over in about three rounds. But to this point, nobody has bowled over the 32-year-old Murray, nor even come close.
The Unlikely Resurrection: Jermain Taylor
On the one hand, the less said about former champ Taylor, the better. He was once diagnosed with a brain bleed, peaked about eight years ago en route to his current 33-4-1 (20 KOs) record, and might soon be going to jail on charges of first-degree domestic battery and aggravated assault for shooting his cousin. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a guy blocking out his past and his distractions and defeating the monumentally awkward Sam Soliman at age 36. Like it or not, “Bad Intentions” (free legal tip, Jermain: don’t mention your nickname in court) has muscled his way back into the middleweight title picture. It was unexpected. It makes us all uncomfortable. But the ending to the Jermain Taylor story has apparently not been written yet.
In the Conversation:
Daniel Geale, Sam Soliman, Felix Sturm, Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam, Matthew Macklin, Daniel Jacobs, Marco Antonio Rubio, Matt Korobov