25 and Under: Boxing’s best young fighters in 2020
mvpboxing |  March 22, 2020, 05:10 PM

Copper Box Arena Boxing Photo by Tess Derry/PA Images via Getty Images

Who are the best rising stars in the sport today? We take a look.

Most of boxing’s current established stars are in their prime years or starting to fade (or have clearly already begun fading), and like all sports or any other field, really, new blood has to keep coming along for the wheels to keep spinning.

It is often said from generation to generation that the new kids stink and the old people were better, but boxing just keeps churning out fighters, over and over, and eventually at least some of the names on this list might be your Saturday night headliners, the big fights you look forward to seeing.

This is not a “best prospects” list, simply a list of the best fighters who are as of this moment 25 years of age or younger per division. It’s also, obviously, just something to talk about with the sport on coronavirus hiatus.

Heavyweight: Daniel Dubois

The 22-year-old Dubois, nicknamed “Dynamite,” is a fast-rising heavyweight prospect from London who has already won the British title and minor WBC and WBO belts. He’s been a big spot on the radar for a little while now, emerging as one of Queensberry Promotions’ best young talents and someone they feel can be a star.

Dubois (14-0, 13 KO) has pounded the opposition thus far, with only the master survivalist Kevin Johnson going the distance with him, back in Oct. 2018. He won five fights in 2019, including victories over Razvan Cojanu, Richard Lartey, Ebenezer Tetteh, and Kyotaro Fujimoto, but the most notable was a fifth round knockout of fellow prospect Nathan Gorman in July. A lot of pundits and fans thought Gorman’s craftier style might prove tough for the powerful but raw Dubois, but the raw power was way too much for Gorman.

Next up for Dubois, tentatively scheduled for July 11, is a fight with 35-year-old Joe Joyce, a former Olympic silver medalist and unbeaten pro who may well be able to match power with Dubois and give the youngster easily his toughest test to date. It’s an ambitious fight for Dubois at this age

Cruiserweight: Jai Opetaia

Jai Opetaia v Mark Flanagan Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

Now 24, Samoan-Australian Opetaia is 19-0 (15 KO) in his pro career, which began in 2015. He competed at the 2012 Olympics at age 17, fighting as a heavyweight (201 pounds) and losing a tight first round decision to Azerbaijan’s Teymur Mammadov, who went on to win a bronze medal in London.

Opetaia has thus far fought exclusively at home in Australia as a professional, meaning he hasn’t exactly been facing the stiffest competition, but again, he’s a young fighter. In 2019, he won a trio of fights, including one-sided performances against Nikolas Charalampous in July and former title challenger Mark Flanagan in November.

Light Heavyweight: Umar Salamov

25-year-old Salamov recently signed with Top Rank, and will be taking part in the WBO’s four-man tournament to fill its title vacancy. The native of Grozny, Russia, turned pro in 2012 and has traveled around a bit. 12 of his first 13 fights took place in Ukraine, including a solid 2015 win over veteran Doudou Ngumbu, and then he won four fights in Russia before going to Australia for a pair of bouts in 2017.

In the first one, Salamov stopped Emil Markic in the fourth round. In the second, he was on the wrong end of a controversial decision with Damien Hooper, a former Aussie Olympian and talented fighter, who took unanimous scores of 96-94 on the Pacquiao-Horn undercard in Brisbane.

Salamov (25-1, 19 KO) didn’t dwell on the loss, and has since won six straight, five in Russia and one in his 2018 U.S. debut against Brian Howard in Detroit.

Super Middleweight: David Benavidez

The 23-year-old Benavidez is an undefeated two-time WBC titleholder at 168 pounds, first winning the belt in 2017 when it was vacant, taking a tough split decision over Ronald Gavril. He was stripped about a year later for failing a drug test (cocaine), but returned in 2019 to thrash J’Leon Love in a tune-up, then take the belt back via ninth round corner stoppage against Anthony Dirrell in Los Angeles.

“El Bandera Roja” is quickly becoming a fan favorite. His older brother, Jose, was once a blue chip prospect expected to blossom into a star professional, but he’s had his issues and never quite matured into what he was supposed to be. David (22-0, 19 KO), on the other hand, looks to be the real deal, and if he stays focused with his head on straight, the sky might be the limit for him not just at 168, but at 175, which is currently a pretty old division and could use some new blood in the next couple years.

Middleweight: Jaime Munguia

The 23-year-old Munguia broke out big in 2018, coming out of Mexico to demolish Sadam Ali and take the WBO 154-pound belt, which he defended five times, and only once with any real controversy, a disputed decision win over Dennis Hogan in 2019.

Munguia (35-0, 28 KO) moved up to middleweight in January, beating down Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan in San Antonio. There’s plenty more to prove at 160, and this is a weight where he won’t have the huge natural size he did at 154. Some believe Munguia is simply waiting to be found out against true top-tier opposition, and that may well be true, but after the Hogan fight where Munguia’s limitations were exposed some, he did hire a new trainer in Erik Morales, and has looked to make legitimate improvements, knowing that his form against Hogan wasn’t going to be good enough for long.

And even if he is eventually ripped by elite tier fighters, Munguia’s style and attitude should make it fun getting there, and probably for a while after, too. If he tops out at “reliable action fighter,” we can always use those.

Junior Middleweight: Jeison Rosario

Julian Williams v Jeison Rosario Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Hard to pick anyone other than the 24-year-old Rosario (20-1-1, 14 KO), a Dominican who exploded up the rankings with a January upset of Julian Williams, winning the WBA and IBF titles at 154 pounds.

Rosario was stopped in six by Nathaniel Gallimore, a fringe contender type, back in 2017, but he was very young and got caught. He also fought to a draw in 2018 with Marcos Hernandez, then stopped Hernandez in a rematch last year. He’s also picked up solid wins over Justin DeLoach, Jamontay Clark, and Jorge Cota, so he’s not trading entirely on the win over Williams. This is a young fighter who has gotten better in the last couple of years, and capitalized in a big way when opportunity came knocking.

With Williams not exercising his rematch clause, Rosario will be free to take a fight with someone else, be it unification or something of a victory lap.

Welterweight: Vergil Ortiz Jr or Jaron Ennis

There are two good choices here. The 21-year-old Ortiz (15-0, 15 KO) has had places on big Golden Boy cards and emerged into a DAZN headliner in his own right. He main evented his last two cards, wins over Antonio Orozco and Brad Solomon, and was set to do the same on Mar. 28 against Samuel Vargas. He’s had the consistent exposure and a strong promoter/network push.

Then there’s Boots Ennis (25-0, 23 KO), a 22-year-old from a Philly fighting family who looks like he’s going to be the cream of the crop from his clan.

If I absolutely had to pick the guy with the higher upside, I’m saying Ennis, who has seen his career fiddled with by outside forces but looks to really get cooking as soon as possible. And that’s no disrespect meant to Ortiz. These are two extremely exciting young fighters who have major star potential.

Junior Welterweight: Mario Barrios

I’ve said before that I was more intrigued when the now 24-year-old Barrios (25-0, 16 KO) was a 5’10” junior featherweight, but having settled in 10 pounds north at 140, he’s still a good fighter. He had a tough test last time out from Batyr Akhmedov, but Akhmedov is no slouch or anything. That was a good matchup going in and turned out to be one.

Barrios might have a bit more limited upside than some guys — I don’t think he has that real superstar ability — but he’s a very good young fighter who may well be more than that. He can box a little, he has power, and he’s young enough to still get notably better. The San Antonio product has proven capable thus far.

Lightweight: Teofimo Lopez

If there were just two names to mention, I’d do what I did at 147 and list them both in the big text. But lightweight has four really significant young names at 25 or under.

Of the group, my pick is the guy most likely to leave the division soon: Teofimo Lopez (15-0, 12 KO), who won the IBF title in sensational fashion on Dec. 14, knocking out Richard Commey in the second round. It silenced the remaining skeptics, at least for the most part, who watched his five five months prior with Masayoshi Nakatani and saw flaws. And there were some to see, but they may have been overstated. Lopez was just about to turn 22 years old in that fight, Nakatani is a solid, smart, and rugged fighter, and it was a good test. Good young fighters always get good tests.

But don’t discount the upsides of 21-year-old Devin Haney (24-0, 15 KO), who won the WBC belt, kinda, though he doesn’t hold it anymore because he got injured; 21-year-old sensation Ryan Garcia (20-0, 17 KO), who I firmly believe is more than a social media phenomenon, there is legitimate ability there; and 25-year-old Gervonta “Tank” Davis (23-0, 22 KO), a two-time titleholder at 130 pounds with skill and power and his own dedicated fan base.

Junior Lightweight: Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov

Rakhimov (15-0, 12 KO) is a 25-year-old Tajikistani based in Russia, who turned pro in 2015 and has scored some solid wins over veteran fighters, and last September stopped previously unbeaten Azinga Fuzile in the eighth round. He has decent amateur experience, though he was never a standout on the international stage.

Honorable mentions go to Muhammadkhuja Yaqubov, also of Tajikistan, a 24-year-old with a record of 16-0 (9 KO) and Joe Noynay (18-2-2, 7 KO), a 24-year-old Filipino who has a couple losses, but none since 2017, and he scored a one-sided upset win over Japanese prospect Satoshi Shimizu last July and was hanging nicely with Kenichi Ogawa in December before the fight ended in a technical draw. Noynay may be a fighter really putting it together after turning pro as a teenager.

Featherweight: Shakur Stevenson

Terence Crawford v Amir Khan Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Not a hard choice here at all. The 22-year-old Stevenson (13-0, 7 KO) is a former Olympic silver medalist and in that regard, the most successful men’s amateur fighter from the United States since Andre Ward won gold back in 2004.

Stevenson’s upside is big, and Top Rank are huge believers in him, and he’s become someone they’ve pushed hard since their deal with ESPN began. Bob Arum recently said he believes Stevenson could be “the second coming of Floyd Mayweather,” which is promoter speak, sure, but it’s also seemingly at least largely sincere.

Stevenson went 4-0 in 2019, beating Jessie Cris Rosales, Christopher Diaz, and Alberto Guevara before taking the vacant WBO featherweight belt with a wide win over Joet Gonzalez. He was set to defend against Miguel Marriaga on Mar. 14 before the card was canceled, and there was serious talk of him unifying against Josh Warrington later this year, at least before Warrington went back to Matchroom. Shakur has been adamant about getting big fights as soon as possible, so hopefully we’ll see one soon. (Hopefully we’ll see anything soon, but you get what I mean.)

Junior Featherweight: Emanuel Navarrete or Murodjon Akhmadaliev

25-year-old WBO titleholder Navarrete (31-1, 27 KO) burst into the upper echelon of the division with his Dec. 2018 upset of Isaac Dogboe, and cemented that as no fluke with their May 2019 rematch, where Navarrete beat Dogboe even more convincingly. He’s won four fights since, staying busy against third-tier fringe contenders in one-sided wins.

Akhmadaliev (8-0, 6 KO) is also 25, and if you made me pick between the two, I’d go with MJ. The Uzbek has the better amateur background and his win over Daniel Roman to take the WBA and IBF titles was just as good as Navarrete’s win over Dogboe, and it also didn’t seem partially due to a significantly favorable style and size matchup. I like Navarrete, but Akhmadaliev would be my guy if I had to choose one, which I don’t, really.

Also worth keeping up with PBC fighters Brandon Figueroa (20-0-1, 15 KO), who has the WBA’s secondary belt, and Stephen Fulton Jr (18-0, 8 KO), who are 23 and 25, respectively. Both are emerging contenders, and Fulton in particular seems like he could be trouble with his heavy jab and good grounding in the basics.

Bantamweight: Takuma Inoue

The younger Inoue (13-1, 3 KO) is certainly not the “Monster” that big brother Naoya is, but the 24-year-old showed himself to be a solid contender in defeat to Nordine Oubaali last November, too.

Mexico’s Alejandro Santiago (21-2-5, 11 KO) doesn’t have the prettiest W-L-D record, but the 24-year-old from Tijuana gave Jerwin Ancajas a serious fight in 2018, going to a draw over 12 rounds in Oakland, and he’s won five straight fights since then. His two losses came back in 2013 and 2014.

Junior Bantamweight: Jeyvier Cintron

Cintron (11-1, 5 KO) is coming off of a world title loss to Kazuto Ioka in December, but the 25-year-old southpaw and former Olympian might actually be Puerto Rico’s best male fighter at the moment.

Cintron looked more capable in that loss to Ioka than Felix Verdejo has as a celebrated prospect of a similar age (Verdejo is now 26), and he’s notably younger — on the way up instead of down, is what I mean to say — than a lot of the other top fighters from the island at the moment, save for minimumweight titleholder Wilfredo Mendez, who is 23.

Flyweight: Kosei Tanaka

BOX-WBO-JPN-CHN Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images

Tanaka isn’t just the top guy under 25 at this weight, he’s the top guy at this weight, period. The 24-year-old has won belts at 112, 108, and 105, and at 15-0 (9 KO) he’s targeting a move up and a shot at countryman Kazuto Ioka at 115 next, aiming to become a four-division titleholder as soon as possible.

That’s not to say there are no other terrific young fighters at this weight, because we also have WBC titleholder Julio Cesar Martinez (16-1, 12 KO), a 25-year-old who has exploded in notoriety and popularity in the last year. And over in Japan, there’s also 22-year-old Junto Nakatani (20-0, 15 KO), who is slated to face Giemel Magramo of the Philippines for the vacant WBO belt that Tanaka has given up.

Junior Flyweight: Elwin Soto

Soto (17-1, 12 KO) has the feel of a fighter whose time at/near the top will be short-lived, but I’ve certainly been wrong before and probably will be about half or a third of this whole article, so whatever.

The 23-year-old “La Pulga” won the WBO title from Angel Acosta last June with a lot of controversy. Soto had given the fight a great effort, but he was down on all three cards going into the 12th and final round, when referee Thomas Taylor gave Acosta an arguably early hook 23 seconds into the frame. Soto then won a tight decision over Edward Heno, a quality fighter, in his next outing. He’s vulnerable, but he’s also extremely game and fun to watch.

Minimumweight: Wilfredo Mendez or Pedro Taduran

A pair of young titleholders. Mendez (16-1, 6 KO) and Taduran (14-2-1, 11 KO) both won belts in August of last year, with Mendez beating Vic Saludar for the WBO title, and Taduran winning the vacant IBF belt in an upset over Sammy Salva.

Mendez and Taduran are both 23 (Mendez is a little less than four months older) and hopefully on the rise. But either one of them seems he could lose his belt against a quality contender in any fight. It’s that sort of division unless you’re really, really good.

 

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