Boxing's Heirs Apparent Make Their Bid for the Throne

All Photos by Will Hart

More: Boxing's Best from 2015

By Kieran Mulvaney

Boxing, like any sport, undergoes cycles of renewal and refreshment, passes through phases in which an old guard transitions into a new one. Sometimes, such generational shifts are accompanied by a mild panic, all the more so in modern times as boxing, increasingly a niche sport, has become ever more dependent on a smattering of superstars to keep it in the public eye.

The decline and eventual departure of Oscar De La Hoya was the most recent cause of anxiety; in the post-Mike Tyson era, the Golden Boy carried the sweet science on his shoulders, and as his career began to wind down, few if any would have imagined he would be replaced atop the sport almost immediately by an American welterweight blessed with talent but short on fan appeal, let alone an explosive Filipino who at that time was thumping his way through the super-featherweight division.

In finally facing off against each other after five years of waiting, and then announcing their imminent retirements, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have brought down the curtain on their own era. And other fixtures of that period – Wladimir Klitschko, undefeated for 11 years until November, and Miguel Cotto, perhaps the biggest non-Mayweather-or-Pacquiao draw for much of the last decade – surrendered their heavyweight and middleweight crowns respectively.

But there is no sense of concern or panic. If anything, there is relief that those who have placed a stranglehold on the sport for so long are ceding the spotlight to a new generation of boxers who are more than ready to take the reins. The core of that crop is a quartet of exceptional talent, of widely varying backgrounds, personalities and fighting styles, who have bulldozed their way to the fore in the last year or two with combinations of strength and skill that have made them television staples and the darlings of boxing’s cognoscenti.

In selecting the members of that quartet, apologies are due. To Canelo Alvarez, who has probably assumed the mantle of boxing’s biggest star, but about whom the slightest of doubts still remain as to whether he belongs among the pugilistic elite just yet, his skillful defeat of Cotto not quite erasing the image of his 2013 loss to Mayweather. To Vasyl Lomachenko, perhaps the most naturally skilled boxer of any mentioned here, but still only six bouts into a professional career and with a style that enthralls some but frustrates others. And to Andre Ward, who may well be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, but whose professional career, interrupted by promotional disputes and injury, is presently mostly a rumor. He, however, has the chance to turn that all upside down in a hurry because, while he may be reluctantly on the outside looking in, he is slated before 2016 is out to take on one of those on the inside looking out.

That putative opponent, the Krusher from Russia, Sergey Kovalev, has forced his way into the inner circle of boxing’s elite in the space of a little over two years. Making his HBO debut in August 2013 against Britain’s Nathan Cleverly, the light-heavyweight from Chelyabinsk came pre-loaded with a reputation for ferocity and concussive power, and displayed both as he subjected the Welshman to a snarling bludgeoning over four rounds. He needed only half as long to eradicate Ismayl Silakh, whom he openly taunted as he lay on the canvas following a knockdown; “I wanted to punish him,” he said afterward of his fallen foe. He displayed a similar meanness of spirit in his most recent outing, shouting at overmatched Nadjib Mohammedi to get up after knocking him down in the third round. “I wanted to make him look like a clown,” he said. “I wanted him to look foolish. I wanted to give the fans more of a show.” Such in-ring nastiness is leavened by a dry wit outside the ring and, as he showed in his November 2014 decision win over veteran Bernard Hopkins, an ability to deploy a cultured set of boxing skills when he needs to. His star grows brighter with each outing; should he prove able to overcome the hugely accomplished Ward late next year, it will resonate with supernova magnitude.

He is joined at the table by another émigré from the former Soviet bloc, whose arrival on HBO, like that of Kovalev, was presaged by a hardcore fan base feasting on the scraps provided by YouTube clips and sketchy streams. The mythos of Gennady Golovkin was already fully fleshed out among the hardcores by the time he flattened Grzegorz Proksa in 2012, and has built consistently since then. Like his fellow Russian-speaker, the Kazakh-born Golovkin beats up his opponents and bowls them over: the last time he was taken the distance was 22 fights and seven and a half years ago. That knockout power can sometimes disguise the fact that Golovkin displays the kind of technical ability in the ring over which purists drool: notably, his deceptive footwork cuts off the ring and keeps his victims just where he wants them. So much does Golovkin yearn to display his full range of skills that he openly pines before each bout to be taken the distance; but not since the human trivia answer Amar Amari in 2008 has anyone been able to do so. Outside the ring, Golovkin’s soft-voiced charm is a calculated contrast to Kovalev’s junkyard dog; indeed, while Golovkin in person appears as genuine as can be, much of the public Golovkin persona has been brilliantly conceived and almost flawlessly executed, from his broken English to his determination to fight "Mexican Style," an evolution of his in-ring approach that has helped him become more TV-friendly and also earned him the overwhelming support of Latino fight fans in California and across the land. He has yet to convert that fan base to the extent that Alvarez has done, but of the four fighters featured here, Golovkin is surely the biggest star, and should he meet and beat Canelo sometime in 2016, he will unquestionably become the undisputed king of the sport.

It is a measure of the global appeal of the sport – and, perhaps, of the comparative decline of the domestic boxing scene – that one of the two most popular fighters in the United States over the last eight to ten years has been a Filipino who initially spoke little English. It is notable also that the two fighters mentioned thus far, although now living in America, are native Russian-speakers. But there is one American on the list, and from the heartland no less.

Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Terence Crawford is as reserved as Mayweather is flashy. Ask him a question and he’ll give you an answer, but little more, not because he is brusque but because he is disinclined to be unnecessarily expansive. And even hearing that answer may be a challenge, as his monotone Cornhusker words have a tendency to gently tiptoe out of his mouth. His demeanor disguises a tough youth highlighted by his being shot in the head while sitting in a parked car; the car’s window deflected the bullet so that it grazed Crawford’s skull rather than penetrated it, and enabled the profusely bleeding young man to drive himself to the hospital. That incident persuaded him to turn his life around, and he has done so in the ring in spectacular fashion, although his journey to the inner circle has taken a different path than the others. Whereas Golovkin and Kovalev arrived in the US already celebrated, Crawford has had to prove himself on HBO. His first exposure to many was stepping up in weight at short notice to take on and dismantle Breidis Prescott in 2013; in subsequent outings he displayed technical brilliance but not always excitement, and fans resisted the calls to see him as an exceptional new talent. Recognizing the challenge, Crawford added an extra layer of aggressiveness to his game, and a trio of one-sided but enthralling wins resulted in him being voted 2014’s Fighter of the Year. His ring craft includes the ability to switch fluidly from orthodox to southpaw and back again, and carries with it now a meanness that has turned him from boxing hipsters’ secret to must-see TV. That said, some members of the jury remain unconvinced: when he fights in front of his hometown Omaha crowd, the experience is Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium loud, but he has yet to carry that appeal elsewhere. And some of his biggest wins have been against smaller foes, like Yuriorkis Gamboa and Dierry Jean. But the eye test concludes that Crawford is a special talent, one who is merely awaiting the opportunity to show as much against the right foe.

There are, however, no doubts about the fourth of our horsemen, Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, whose rise to prominence has been at once rapid and long-awaited. Bursting into HBO consciousness with a devastating win over Edgar Sosa as recently as May, and following it up by dismantling former champ Brian Viloria in October, the diminutive Nicaraguan had already captured world titles at three weight classes long before he took his premium cable bow. Having captured a minimumweight belt in 2008 and a light flyweight strap three years later, he is now campaigning at the heady heights of 112 pounds, where he has reigned for the past year. His lack of size is deceiving: his perfect positioning in the ring allows him to deliver devastating punches from close range, which he rains down on his foes in torrential combinations that have brought him 38 knockouts in 44 wins. It is perhaps a testament to the increasing sophistication of the boxing fan base that, given the traditional if understandable obsession with finding the Next Great American Heavyweight, the new consensus pound-for-pound number one boxer in the world is a flyweight from Managua.

There are, nonetheless, heavyweights waiting in the wings, in the form of Britain’s Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker of New Zealand, as well as Cuban émigré Luis Ortiz – although at 36 years old, his time to shine may be limited. Indeed, if there is a note of caution to be sounded about the latest generation it is one of age: while Gonzalez and Crawford are in their twenties, Golovkin is 33 and Kovalev 32. But no generation lives forever, and if we may not be able to enjoy either for as long as we might like, we can certainly appreciate them while they are here. They, Crawford and Gonzalez, among others, are the sport’s new standard bearers, the presence of whom ensures that, instead of having to wonder where boxing’s next big star might be, fans can instead debate which of many will ultimately reign supreme.