Photos: Will Hart
By Eric Raskin
It’s long been said that the middleweight division is the weight class in which the power of the big men and the speed of the little guys most perfectly intersect. Less frequently observed is the 160-pound division’s distinction as a weight class in which the true champions often need to pay their dues and work extra hard to prove themselves. From Jake La Motta to Marvin Hagler to Bernard Hopkins to Sergio Martinez, the road to the top has often been littered with obstacles.
At the moment, there is some dispute as to who’s truly on top – and there’s some major separation in the number of hoops two particular fighters have had to jump through to stake their respective claims. It’s currently a strong division. It’s currently an attractive division. But above all, it’s currently a division in need of resolution.
Here’s a look at who’s who at middleweight, heading into back-to-back weekends of potentially thrilling main events that will assuredly move us closer – but not all the way – to that answer we crave.
The Lineal Champion: Canelo Alvarez
Alvarez is many things: a massive star, a talented fighter, the man who beat the man who beat the man. But there’s a complicated question looming over all of that: Is he really a middleweight? The popular (if polarizing) 26-year-old Mexican didn’t have to clear many obstacles to become the lineal middleweight champ. He got his crack against Miguel Cotto in 2015 and won, and since then he fought a welterweight, Amir Khan, five pounds below the middleweight limit, and he fought obscure Liam Smith for a junior middleweight belt. On May 6, he’ll meet Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. at the creative limit of 164.5 pounds. Alvarez (48-1-1, 34 KOs) has yet to fight a single bout for which he and his opponent were allowed to weigh 160. But in terms of the unbroken lineage that tracks back to Hopkins, Canelo is the middleweight champ.
The People’s Champion: Gennady Golovkin
He has been effectively the No. 1 contender to Martinez, Cotto, and now Canelo, but “GGG,” closing in on five years of fighting in America, is still waiting for his shot. So the Kazakh machine, with 23-straight knockouts highlighting his pristine record of 36-0, 33 KOs, has been collecting belts and scalps and will look to do more of that March 18 at Madison Square Garden against Daniel Jacobs. On paper, Jacobs appears to be Golovkin’s toughest test yet. But that’s been said before of other opponents, such as Matthew Macklin, Daniel Geale, and David Lemieux, all of whom were dispatched with ease. In the minds of most fans, Golovkin, 34, is the best middleweight in the world, even if he hasn’t yet been able to pin down the opponent against whom he can conclusively prove it.
The Human (Interest) Highlight Reel: Daniel Jacobs
They call him “The Miracle Man,” the perfect moniker for a fighter who overcame bone cancer. Jacobs’ personal story of perseverance has been told so many times that it tends to overshadow his boxing abilities, but as first-round knockout victim Peter Quillin can attest, the 30-year-old Brooklynite is much more than just a heartwarming story. He has elite speed, power (as evidenced by a record of 32-1 with 29 KOs) and skill. And on March 18 against Gennady Golovkin, he’ll put all of those talents to the ultimate test.
The Big-Mouthed Brit: Billy Joe Saunders
Best known for his NSFW interviews and his ability to find excuses when opportunities to fight Golovkin have been put in front of him, UK southpaw Saunders is just coming into his prime at age 27. He’s undefeated in 24 fights, with 12 KOs, but enthusiasm is tempered because his two most meaningful wins, against Chris Eubank Jr. and Andy Lee, were both razor-close decisions. The 2008 Olympian recent split from longtime trainer Jimmy Tibbs and is now joining forces with Adam Booth, but at the moment, he has no fights scheduled and his name doesn’t seem to be on the tip of Canelo’s or GGG’s tongues anymore.
The Handsome Slugger: David Lemieux
With a fan-friendly bombs-away style and a passionate following in his native Montreal, Lemieux, 28, is a fighter destined to keep getting opportunities for as long as he remains a credible contender. Lemieux (36-3, 32 KOs) got jabbed silly – and then hammered into a mercy stoppage in the eighth round – by Golovkin in 2015, but against all middleweights below that level, he’s acquitted himself well. Lemieux’s best wins have come against Gabe Rosado, Hassan N’dam, and Glen Tapia, and on March 11, he’ll have a chance to add Curtis Stevens’ name to that list – provided fellow puncher Stevens doesn’t detonate something on Lemieux’s chin first.
The Tough Out: Hassan N’dam
It’s not an encouraging stat: N’dam touched the canvas 10 times combined in his two losses, against Lemieux in 2015 and Quillin in 2012. But the positive news is that he got up every single time and lasted the distance in both defeats, and along the way the France-based Cameroonian (35-2, 21 KOs) has defeated the likes of Stevens and Avtandil Khurtsidze. Now 33, N’dam’s opportunities may be dwindling. But until someone can knock him down and keep him down, he’ll stand up as the middleweight division’s premier gatekeeper.
The Legacy Kid: Chris Eubank Jr.
The son of the eccentric 1990s middleweight and super middleweight titlist of the same name, Eubank might have seemed a typical nepotism-fueled hype job at first, but he proved his worth in a split-decision loss to Saunders in 2014. At 24-1 with 19 KOs, the sharp-punching 27-year-old still has much to prove, but he’s blossoming into a reliable attraction in his native England and more than just a wannabe skating by on the strength of his daddy’s name.
The Mercurial Banger: Curtis Stevens
Who is the real Curtis Stevens? Is he the vicious hitter who plowed through Patrick Teixeira, Patrick Majewski, Saul Roman, and Elvin Ayala in a round or two apiece? Or is he the guy who didn’t let his hands go enough and lost to Jesse Brinkley and Hassan N’dam, and would have suffered the same fate against Tureano Johnson if not for a final-round rally? Only one version of the 31-year-old “Cerebral Assassin” (29-5, 21 KOs) has a chance against Lemieux on March 11, but if that right version shows up, it will make for one of those nights of pugilism on which blinking is strongly discouraged.
Also in the Conversation:
Peter Quillin, Andy Lee, Sergiy Derevyanchenko, Maciej Sulecki, Willie Monroe Jr., Avtandil Khurtsidze