It is wonderfully symbolic that the last two fighters to whom Oscar De La Hoya lost, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, now occupy the position held for so long by "The Golden Boy." For years, De La Hoya was the crossover superstar who served as the face of boxing to the mainstream public. Mayweather and Pacquiao, together, have done the same in the three-plus years since Oscar's retirement from the ring.
The torch is not always passed so directly, but it is always passed eventually. Mayweather and Pacquiao will not rule boxing forever. Given Mayweather's periodic retirement announcements and Pacquiao's frequent talk of being just a handful of bouts from the end, their two-headed reign could actually end relatively soon. And who will be the face of the sport then? At the moment, eight young stars are showing the kind of potential needed to lead the next generation. Who do you think is likely to step up?
Record: 23-0 (19 KOs)
The 22-year-old from St. Louis has one of boxing's best nicknames ("The Problem"), impeccable tonsorial grooming, natural showmanship, and, oh yeah, eye-catching pugilistic talent. "Adrien Broner has always had a flash about him," said top trainer Naazim Richardson, who has known Broner since the Cincinnati native was an 11-year-old amateur. "His shtick is real; he's always been like that. And as a fighter, he reminds me of Floyd Mayweather, but with power." That power was on display in Broner's last three outings, against Jason Litzau, Vicente Rodriguez, and Eloy Perez. Combined, those three bouts spanned eight rounds. Broner hasn't proven himself against elite opposition yet, but The Problem clearly has the potential to be The Solution in a post-Mayweather-Pacquiao world.
The Next Steps: A fight with Yuriorkis Gamboa would spoil one man's undefeated record while launching the other man into the fight game's stratosphere. But Broner doesn't need to rush into that. There's talk of a fight with former U.S. Olympian Vicente Escobedo, which is a more logical progression bout for now. Broner's breakout can probably wait until 2013.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
Record: 45-0-1 (31 KOs)
From the moment he made his pro debut at age 17 (with a baby face that could have passed for 14), Chavez had star power and the ability to put derrieres in seats. Now that Freddie Roach is training him (and now that Chavez apparently wants to be trained), the in-ring capabilities are catching up with the marketability. Tough wins over Sebastian Zbik and Marco Antonio Rubio have helped earn Junior respect from those who once were highly skeptical. "I compare his situation to that of Eli Manning," said HBO broadcaster and New York Giants play-by-play man Bob Papa. "Eli constantly gets compared to his brother, and it's really not fair. With Chavez Jr., he's also got a hard name to live up to. The thing that'll be interesting with Chavez Jr. is he doesn't come from the same cloth as most fighters-that air of desperation, coming from absolutely nothing. So you wonder, in a sport in which you can't run, hide, and make excuses, will he have that ultimate drive to push himself to places he may not want to go?"
The Next Steps: Despite demand from some corners for Chavez to challenge legit middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, it truly makes no business sense for the Mexican ticketseller at this time. Chavez already is one of the biggest names in boxing. So the next steps should simply be more incremental advances in quality of opposition, against fighters like Andy Lee and, if he can be lured out of Germany, Felix Sturm.
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez
Record: 39-0-1 (29 KOs)
Alvarez has much in common with Chavez Jr. Both are Mexican, both are wildly popular, and both are gradually winning over their doubters. The big difference is that whereas Chavez's marketability is built around his surname, Canelo's is built around his atypical appearance: red hair, freckles, and features that apparently make young women swoon. Also, Chavez is 26 years old. Alvarez is reaching similar heights of popularity and accomplishment at just 21, with the likes of Carlos Baldomir, Alfonso Gomez, and Kermit Cintron each vanquished within six rounds. "He's probably my number-one candidate to carry that torch of being boxing's next superstar," said Marquez. "I like his style. He takes his time, fights when he wants to fight, can go inside or outside. The thing now is that he's got to keep winning. In boxing, once you lose one or two fights, you're not that guy anymore."
The Next Steps: Alvarez will face Sugar Shane Mosley on the May 5 undercard of Floyd Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto, giving him an opportunity to add a huge name to his resume. After that, don't be shocked to see Canelo jump up to a fight against the elite-like one of the two main event fighters on that May 5 show. Alvarez offers the sort of risk-reward balance either Mayweather or Cotto might like, and the kid seems eager to test himself.
Record: 26-2 (18 KOs)
What is a fighter who lost his most recent bout doing on this list? Kellerman explains: "Losing fights, this is what happens when you fight top guys fight after fight. When you're willing to fight Tim Bradley and you do fight Marcos Maidana and then Lamont Peterson, eventually you might lose. Amir Khan is actually a little underrated now. I wish all fighters were like Amir Khan. He's a prize fighter." A star in boxing since he won the Olympic silver medal for England in '04, Khan has been one of the most talked-about fighters in the game for several years now, boasting a balanced combination of marketability, skill, athleticism, and entertainment value. And let's not forget: Most observers thought Khan deserved the "W" against Peterson, even after a couple of point deductions.
The Next Steps: Plainly, Khan must win the rematch with Peterson on May 19. If he does that, he's right back on track and recognized as one of the top two 140-pounders in the world. If he loses again, it'll be tough to find a future on the pound-for-pound lists.
Record: 29-0-1 (22 KOs)
A gifted boxer-slugger who can't help but make exciting fights, Rios has been dropping opponents lately-most notably Urbano Antillon, Anthony Peterson, and Miguel Acosta-with the same casual ease with which he drops F-bombs. "He's a guy that will fill up arenas because of his exciting style," observed former fighter and bilingual boxing broadcaster Raul Marquez. "He doesn't come to dance or hug and kiss. He gives people their money's worth. A fighter like that, the question is how long does his career last? For however long it goes, he'll be one of the top guys fans want to see."
The Next Steps: Since he won't be taking one giant leap against Yuriorkis Gamboa on April 14 (through no fault of Rios'), he'll instead take one small step against Richard Abril. If Rios can land a fight with living legend Juan Manuel Marquez later in 2012 and prevail, that would instantly make him one of the 10 biggest names in boxing.
Record: 21-0 (16 KOs)
Forget for a moment that Gamboa has alienated fans and industry insiders alike by cancelling his April fight with Brandon Rios; the boxing world has a short memory and any recollection will subside the moment Gamboa gets back in the ring and does something spectacular. And with his Roy-Jones-like combination of speed, power, and unorthodox technique, something spectacular is always just one punch away for the Cuban dynamo. Plus, he has a resume after five years in the pros that improves even when he doesn't fight. "Look back at Gamboa vs. Orlando Salido," noted HBO color analyst Max Kellerman. "At ringside, we were kind of critical of the performance against Salido, but that win, in retrospect, is quite impressive. Gamboa's upside is really high. The downside is, who's his dance partner in his natural weight class, featherweight? He may have to leave his comfort zone to find his big fight, and then how special is he?"
The Next Steps: The first step is to, um, fight. At age 30, Gamboa doesn't have a lot of time to waste. Maybe instead of jumping all the way to 135 pounds to fight Rios, he should be looking to a freak-athlete dream fight with Adrien Broner at 130.
Record: 28-1 (18 KOs)
It seems like eons ago that the entire fight fraternity expected the little-known Donaire to get slaughtered by Vic Darchinyan. Instead, the Filipino-American scored a shocking upset knockout and has rattled off 10 wins in succession since, climbing to as high as number three or four on most P-4-P lists. Sometimes his performances are spectacular (ask poor Fernando Montiel), sometimes they're more workmanlike, but Donaire's talent and charisma are undeniable. The biggest roadblock to crossover stardom is that his reign thus far has spanned from 112 to 122 pounds. "I think it'll be difficult, at his size, to be a superstar who carries the sport, at least in North America," opined Papa. "You have to get into at least about junior lightweight before the American public starts looking at a guy as a bona fide star. But I think Donaire will naturally start to fill out and climb up weight classes, and with his dynamic abilities and tools, he can be just as explosive at those higher weights."
The Next Steps: As Papa said, true superstardom will be easier to achieve once Donaire moves up another division or two. In the meantime, though, who wouldn't want to see a 122-pound showdown between Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux?
Record: 22-0 (14 KOs)
Sometimes the transformation from prospect to contender happens overnight. Or in the span of 36 minutes. Last October, when Garcia shook off a rough start to dominate veteran Kendall Holt, the 23-year-old from Philadelphia instantly changed categories. But it was an overnight transition that was about a decade in the making. "Everybody used to beat his ass when he was a little kid," Richardson remembered. "I told him when he was 12 years old, ‘We all gonna eat, but we all can't sit at the table at the same time.' He understood that. It wasn't his time yet. It's his time now. He's a beast now, and what makes him a beast is determination. You can't deter him."
The Next Steps: Another massive transformation is coming if Garcia can defeat the legendary Erik Morales on March 24. It's young stud vs. old warhorse, and on paper it's reminiscent of the night in September 1997 when Morales ended the career of Daniel Zaragoza. To this point, Manny Pacquiao remains the only fighter to convincingly vanquish "El Terrible." That's a prestigious little list that Garcia seems to have the potential to get his name on.
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