Podcast: Joshua vs. Klitschko Preview + State of Heavyweight Division

HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney take a comprehensive look at the state of boxing's heavyweight division as the Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko showdown nears. They discuss Tyson Fury and the lineal title, up-and-comers like Deontay Wilder and Joseph Parker, older fighters like Luis Ortiz and Alexander Povetkin, and whether the heavyweight division is about to get exciting again.

Joshua vs. Klitschko airs in primetime on HBO on Saturday, April 29 at 11 p.m. ET/PT.

State of the Division: Heavyweight

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Eric Raskin

“As the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing.” It’s an old fight-game bromide that, since Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in 2002 and effectively brought to an end a great heavyweight era (or at least a great American heavyweight era), has been proven partially true. On the one hand, while the heavyweight division was slogging through several of its least interesting years ever, smaller fighters like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao picked up the slack and set box-office records. On the other hand, with conversation about heavyweight boxing on the decline, the sport has steadily, with each passing year, continued its slide further from mainstream relevance in the United States.

Now, boxing’s most historically glamorous division finds itself at an inflection point. As Wladimir Klitschko — the most dominant figure of the post-Lewis-Tyson era — readies to take on Anthony Joshua — the most promising figure of the new era — on April 29, the stage is set for a new generation to take over and maybe, just maybe, return heavyweight boxing to some semblance of its former glory. This could be a passing of the torch that ushers in a series of fights between big men that we’ll be telling our grandkids about.

But it could also be exactly the opposite. The torch might stay firmly in the grasp of a 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, and fight fans eager for the next big thing would be left to watch their hopes set ablaze.

Here’s a look at who’s who in the only weight class without a weight limit, on the eve of the ultimate crossroads clash:

The Inactive Champion: Tyson Fury

Photo: Hennessy Sports

Photo: Hennessy Sports

Let’s get the elephant in the room (no weight jokes, please) out of the way first. Fury beat Klitschko in November 2015. It was ugly, but it was effective, and it made the 6’9” scrapper from the UK the one, true heavyweight champion of the world. But he hasn’t fought since. Fury has struggled publicly with mental health issues and drug issues. He was going to rematch Klitschko, then he wasn’t. He was retired, and now he isn’t — or so he says. Since he appears to be well over 300 pounds in recent photographs, it might be a while before Fury (25-0, 18 KOs) is ready to box again. He’s only 28 years old; there’s certainly time for him to get his head on straight and return to the title picture. But for the moment, Fury is little more than an asterisk as the division moves forward without him.

The Aging Great: Wladimir Klitschko

The Hall of Fame bonafides of the Ukrainian veteran of more than two decades in the pro game are beyond debate. He encountered one of the weakest heavyweight talent pools ever, yes, but he ruled over it for a ridiculously long time and, after being written off in 2004 following his third TKO defeat, rattled off a 22-fight winning streak that lasted more than 10 years. But he just turned 41 and hasn’t fought in 17 months, and, though Fury’s awkwardness is partially to blame, Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs) looked truly terrible in dropping the title. He simply couldn’t pull the trigger. If he beats Joshua, a man who won Olympic gold 16 years after Wladimir did, it could go down as the defining win of his career. It could also go down as the fight that puts that career, and the era of the Klitschko brothers, to bed.

The Potential Savior: Anthony Joshua

Photo: Lawrence Lustig

Photo: Lawrence Lustig

If you were designing the next super-duper-star heavyweight boxer in a lab, you might very well come up with a prototype that resembles Joshua. Standing 6’6”, weighing just under 250 pounds, chiseled, handsome, articulate, charismatic … and, oh yeah, he can box a little and punch a lot. Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) is drawing enormous crowds in England, and while he still has plenty to prove in the ring at age 27, when stepping up slightly against fringe contenders like Kevin Johnson, Charles Martin, Dominic Breazeale, and Eric Molina, he’s taken care of business easily. The Klitschko fight at Wembley Stadium represents a massive leap in pedigree. But it’s indicative of how impressive “AJ” has been so far that he’s more than a 2-1 favorite to win.

The Disgraced Veteran: Alexander Povetkin

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

Maybe the best non-Klitschko heavyweight of the post-Lewis, pre-Joshua years, Russian former beltholder Povetkin’s future is now as murky as Fury’s. The 37-year-old failed not one but two drug tests in the past year, scuttling bouts with both Deontay Wilder and Bermane Stiverne. Povetkin’s record of 31-1, 23 KOs, is impressive; the only loss was to Wladimir Klitschko in 2013, while wins have come over the likes of Chris Byrd, Ruslan Chagaev, Carlos Takam, and Mike Perez. The problem is, nobody knows if Povetkin was clean and how legit those results were. He’s currently barred from fighting for certain sanctioning body titles and, as capable a fighter as he is, it’s conceivable that he won’t ever have another fight of real significance again.

The Lurking Beast: Luis Ortiz

Photo: Golden Boy Promotions

Photo: Golden Boy Promotions

He might be a little old, at 38, for “next big thing” consideration, but Ortiz, who only turned pro seven years ago after escaping his native Cuba, is nevertheless on the short list of fighters with a chance to rule this division in the immediate future. His seventh-round knockout of Bryant Jennings in 2015 was eye-opening, and a sixth-round destruction of Tony Thompson in his next fight offered confirmation. “King Kong” found an unlikely Godzilla, however, in the form of Malik Scott’s stink-‘em-out style, and his stock dropped with each passing round of a dreadful distance fight. Still, Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs, 2 no-contests) is a heavy-handed southpaw with skill, and the next top heavyweight contender who calls him out will be the first.

The Polarizing Puncher: Deontay Wilder

Depending on where you sit, Wilder is either the most scintillating or the most carefully matched American heavyweight up-and-comer in a couple of decades. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist is now 31 and presumably about as good as he’s going to get, so hopefully answers are coming soon. Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs) boxed effectively in his step-up fight against Bermane Stiverne a little over two years ago, but ever since, he’s struggled more than expected against middling opponents — before ultimately locating his punch and knocking them down and out. If they can both remain undefeated, Wilder vs. Joshua could be the biggest cross-continental fight the division has seen since the then-record-setting Lewis-Tyson showdown.

The Other Young Gun: Joseph Parker

At only 25 years of age, undefeated, and boasting an 82 percent knockout rate, Parker should theoretically be as a big a deal as Joshua, Wilder, and Ortiz right now. But there’s just something about him that makes him a less sexy choice to get behind. The 6-foot-4 Kiwi’s step-up fights have been a mixed bag: impressive third-round knockouts of Kali Meehan and Alexander Dimitrenko, mildly disappointing narrow decision wins over Carlos Takam and Andy Ruiz. Parker (22-0, 18 KOs) is, for now, the other guy to keep in the back of your mind. But he’s such a well-rounded prospect that it should shock no one if he turns out to be the centerpiece of the next heavyweight era.

Also In The Conversation:

Kubrat Pulev, Carlos Takam, Andy Ruiz, Dillian Whyte, Tony Bellew

State of the Division: Middleweight

Gennady "GGG" Golovkin, a perfect 36-0, has piled up 23 consecutive knockouts.

Gennady "GGG" Golovkin, a perfect 36-0, has piled up 23 consecutive knockouts.

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

Canelo next faces Julio Chavez Jr. on May 6.

Canelo next faces Julio Chavez Jr. on May 6.

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

Jacobs faces Golovkin on March 18. Photo credit: Andy Samuelson/Premier Boxing Champions

Jacobs faces Golovkin on March 18. Photo credit: Andy Samuelson/Premier Boxing Champions

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

Lemieux, who took a beating from Golovkin in 2015, is looking to prove his staying power when he battles Stevens on March 11.

Lemieux, who took a beating from Golovkin in 2015, is looking to prove his staying power when he battles Stevens on March 11.

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
 

State of the Division: Welterweight

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Eric Raskin

Technically, any fight with a weight limit above 140 pounds and not above 147 is a welterweight bout. That means that this Saturday night in Macau, officially, Manny Pacquiao and Chris Algieri will square off in a welterweight fight. It doesn’t matter that the fight is at an agreed-upon “catchweight” limit of 144 pounds, or that Algieri last fought at junior welter, or that Pacquiao’s people are talking about a possible drop to junior welter in the near future. For record-keeping purposes, this weekend, they are both welterweights. Which means that for the moment, Pacquiao and Algieri are part of the most star-packed, financially fruitful division in the sport.

It’s been that way for a considerable portion of the last 35 years, actually. From the days of Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Wilfred Benitez, through the age of Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Pernell Whitaker, and Shane Mosley, to the modern rivalries of Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, and Juan Manuel Marquez, heavyweight is probably the only division that has generated more money than welterweight. Boxing’s biggest names just keep finding their way to the 147-pound class.

So here’s a look at who’s who in this deep division, on the eve of one of its two marquee superstars stepping through the ropes:

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Pound-For-Pound King: Floyd Mayweather

Maybe if Andre Ward was fighting regularly (or at all), Mayweather wouldn’t be the clear P-4-P king anymore. But Ward isn’t, so Floyd is. He looked more vulnerable this year than ever before, winning two grueling decisions over Marcos Maidana to run his record to 47-0 with 26 KOs, but Mayweather is still a marvel at age 37. The only significant knock on the defensive genius is the same one that’s been knocking for the better part of the last decade: He tends to be somewhat risk-averse in his matchmaking. But even if Mayweather’s legacy isn’t all that it could be, he remains undefeated and is laughing all the way to the betting window.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Beloved International Icon: Manny Pacquiao

The greatest offensive fighter of his generation doesn’t have quite the same offense he used to—but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s any less effective. Following his stunning 2012 knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez, Pacquiao returned a smarter boxer who uses angles and footwork more and reckless power lunges less. He looked tremendous outpointing fellow pound-for-pound entrant Tim Bradley in April, extending his ledger to 56-5-2 with 38 KOs, and now he prepares for a different sort of challenge in the taller, rangier Algieri. It has been five years since “Pac-Man” last scored a knockout win, but given his adjusted in-ring approach, it’s quite possible that he doesn’t care whether he brings an end to that streak.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Little Engine That Does: Tim Bradley

For much of his career, “Desert Storm” Bradley was roundly underrated. Then he won a bogus decision over Manny Pacquiao, and he became roundly disrespected. But after winning the 2013 Fight of the Year in a brawl with Ruslan Provodnikov, outpointing Juan Manuel Marquez, and losing competitively in the Pacquiao rematch, Bradley finally seems to be properly rated and properly respected. He’s now 31-1 with 12 KOs, and he has an intriguing fight coming up on December 13 against Argentina’s Diego Chaves. Much as we’d all like to see Bradley-Provodnikov II, the Chaves fight seems a reasonable facsimile from an action perspective.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Mexican Maestro: Juan Manuel Marquez

Our fourth welterweight taking up residence in most experts’ pound-for-pound top five, Marquez continues to perform at an elite level at age 41, although he’s slowing down from a scheduling standpoint. His lone fight of 2014 was an off-the-floor decision win over Mike Alvarado that advanced his record to 56-7-1 with 40 KOs. Marquez is a hair slower than he used to be—in part because of added bulk that has raised its share of suspicion—but he’s still as clever a counterpuncher as there is and a willing give-and-take warrior who packs pockets of excitement into every fight. A fifth fight with Pacquiao seems his best moneymaking option for 2015, but so far Marquez has been pricing himself out of it.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Relentless Brawler: Marcos Maidana

It isn’t easy to elevate your stock with an 0-2 campaign, but that’s exactly what Argentine assailant Maidana did in 2014 by pushing Mayweather close to his limits over 24 rounds. He’s not the most consistent performer—the one-sided nature of his 2012 loss to Devon Alexander remains puzzling—but when he’s on his game, “El Chino” can defeat the world’s most arrogant fighters (Adrien Broner) or come close (Mayweather). Though his record fell to 35-5 (31 KOs) this year, Maidana has taken major steps toward becoming a household name and would make a dangerous opponent for any of the welterweights listed above him here.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Upside Guy: Keith Thurman

With the division’s biggest names all in their 30s or 40s, it’s nice to have a guy like Thurman exploding onto the scene and looking like a threat to the welterweight elite as a 25-year-old. He has speed, power, and personality; what Thurman doesn’t have is an A-level opponent on his 23-0 with 21 KOs resume. That won’t change when he faces Leonard Bundu in December. Hopefully it will change next year, because “One Time” is entering his prime and you’d hate to see it wasted.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Handsome Stranger: Chris Algieri

As a natural 140-pounder, Algieri might prove to be a non-factor in the welterweight division. But you can’t do a roundup of the state of the division without including the guy who’s about to fight Manny Pacquiao, because the ramifications if Algieri were to win would be enormous. He’s not much of a puncher at 20-0 with 8 KOs, but he had the skill and heart to upset Ruslan Provodnikov earlier this year, and he’s good-looking and articulate enough to cross over into the mainstream in a big way if he somehow gets the better of Pacquiao.

In The Conversation:

Kell Brook, Shawn Porter, Devon Alexander, Amir Khan, Robert Guerrero, Sadam Ali

Read previous State of the Division pieces on the Light Heavyweight and Middleweight divisions.

 

State Of The Division: Light Heavyweight

Photo: Will Hart

By Eric Raskin

 Bernard Hopkins’ accomplishments in the middleweight division were extraordinary. He set records for length of reign and title defenses, he unified every possible belt, and he dominated the division into his 40s. By most metrics, he secured himself a spot in the division’s all-time top five, joining names like Robinson, Greb, Hagler, and Monzon. Just as Brett Favre will always be remembered first as a Packer, and Greg Maddux went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in a Braves hat, Hopkins’ legacy is rooted in what he did in his prime as a 160-pounder.

But what he’s doing at light heavyweight ain’t exactly Favre on the Jets or Maddux on the Padres. What Hopkins has done in eight years as a light heavy is almost starting to rival what he pulled off at middleweight.

He’s held the legit world championship twice, is in the midst of a third reign as an alphabet titlist, and handed an undefeated champion on pound-for-pound lists his first loss. And he’s done it all between the ages of 41 and 49. Now, two months before his 50th birthday, “The Alien” has a chance to score possibly the most meaningful win of his entire light heavyweight run. All he has to do is add undefeated knockout artist Sergey Kovalev to the list of vanquished opponents young enough to be his sons.

Hopkins vs. Kovalev is a fascinating matchup on countless levels, and a fight with seismic ramifications for the rest of the 175-pound division. Either a new star will be born at the expense of a future Hall of Famer, or a ridiculous run will become more ridiculous at the expense of one of boxing’s brightest potential stars. Here’s a look at who’s who at light heavyweight before either Hopkins shakes up the world (again) or Kovalev shakes up Hopkins.

Photo: Ed Mulholland

Photo: Ed Mulholland

The Lineal Champ: Adonis Stevenson

By knocking out Chad Dawson, who outpointed Hopkins, who schooled Jean Pascal, who upset Dawson in a battle of the top two contenders after Joe Calzaghe retired as champion, Quebec-based Haitian Stevenson has a clear claim to the lineal crown. What the 37-year-old puncher doesn’t have is the support of the public, after running from a fight with Kovalev and then surprisingly sidestepping a fight with Hopkins. He even reportedly priced himself out of a fight with Pascal, leaving “Superman” with about as much respect as Jimmy Olsen. Still, he’s a southpaw who can box a bit and crack more than a bit and his record of 24-1 (20 KOs) includes a one-round, one-punch wipeout of Dawson (back when that still meant something) and a dominant win over Tavoris Cloud (back when that still meant something). He is the ideal opponent for the Kovalev-Hopkins winner, provided Stevenson can remember how to put his name on a dotted line.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Living Legend: Bernard Hopkins

Most of what needs to be said about B-Hop and his remarkable 55-6-2 (32 KOs) career has already been chronicled. Anything else would happily be said by the man himself if you dare put a microphone in his face. His ring IQ is unsurpassed, he does things at 49 that most fighters couldn’t do at 29, and, importantly for Saturday’s fight, he has historically feasted on straight-ahead punchers. On the other hand, he hasn’t scored a knockout in more than a decade and is slightly easier to hit now than he used to be. Kovalev is either the perfect opponent for him or the absolute worst opponent imaginable.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Wrecking Ball: Sergey Kovalev

He spells “Krusher” with a “K” and he spells defeat for nearly all of his opponents with a “KO.” Ignoring a meaningless two-round technical draw, 23 of Kovalev’s 25 fights have ended inside the distance, and only once has the 31-year-old Russian been extended past the seventh round. However, it must be noted that Kovalev hasn’t yet faced a top-tier opponent; the closest he’s come has been to then-undefeated Nathan Cleverly and former titlist Gabriel Campillo. All that we have to go on with Kovalev is the eyeball test—which he passes with flying pelvic thrusts. He can wipe opponents out with a single punch with either hand, is as aggressive a finisher as anyone in boxing, and slows runners with exceptional bodypunching. A willingness to dig to the body could prove critical if he’s going to make Hopkins look (within 15 years of) his age.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

The Lurking Veteran: Jean Pascal

The second Canadian-based Haitian on this rundown, the athletic Pascal has had some stops and starts in recent years but remains competitive at the elite level. His lineal championship reign was brief and undistinguished—after claiming the title against Dawson, he eked by Hopkins on a draw in his first defense and lost the rematch—but Pascal has since put three more marks in the win column, including a major showdown with Lucian Bute to bring his record to 29-2-1 (17 KOs). With idol Roy Jones in his corner, the 32-year-old Pascal is a heavy favorite to beat Donovan George in December, then we’ll see if he can secure another shot at the lineal strap in a Montreal mega-fight with Stevenson.

The Feisty Underdog: Andrzej Fonfara

When Fonfara got a shot at Stevenson shortly after Kovalev fought Cedric Agnew, most figured it was a similar sort of mismatch. It wasn’t, which suggests either Kovalev is better than Stevenson, Fonfara is better than Agnew, or perhaps a bit of both. Whatever the case, the 6’2” Fonfara recovered from two early knockdowns, dropped Stevenson in the ninth, and pushed the champion to the limit en route to losing a unanimous decision. In combination with solid wins over former titlists Glen Johnson, Gabriel Campillo, and Byron Mitchell, there’s now evidence to suggest the Chicago-based Pole is a credible light heavyweight contender. He’s 26-3 (15 KOs) and, at age 27, probably just now entering his prime.

The Captivating Newcomer: Artur Beterbiev

Why is a six-fight “novice” cracking our list of the top light heavyweights? A skeptic would say it’s because any new fighter from a former USSR country is automatically a person of interest in 2014. A fan who’s been paying close attention would say it’s because Beterbiev had an exceptional amateur career and, through just six pro fights (all knockout wins), already has the look of a finished product and a threat to anyone in the weight class. The only name you’d recognize on the 29-year-old Beterbiev’s record is Tavoris Cloud, who he thumped in two rounds in September. There’s much still to be proven, but it’s reasonable to assume that more thumpings for more recognizable names await.

In the conversation:

Juergen Braehmer, Beibut Shumenov, Isaac Chilemba, Eleider Alvarez, Gabriel Campillo, Karo Murat, Edwin Rodriguez

State of the Division: Middleweight

Middleweight lineal champ, Miguel Cotto  Photo: Will Hart

Middleweight lineal champ, Miguel Cotto

Photo: Will Hart

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:

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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