Thursday, June 21, 2012

Revisiting the Young Middleweights

Sixteen months ago, I wrote about the young crop of emerging middleweight fighters. I thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor to revisit the dozen boxers whom I identified and provide a status update of their careers. Most interestingly, two of the hotter prospects from early 2011 saw their career momentum fade with unexpected losses. In addition, one of the fighters whom I was skeptical of in the previous article has turned out to be a top talent in the division.  

Last year, I separated the fighters into three categories. I'll call them Top Talents, Solid Prospects and Suspects. I'll provide a quick progress report for each fighter along with an inflection mark (“+,” “-“ or “NC”), which indicates the trajectory of their careers from the last update in early 2011 to today ("NC" stands for "No Change").

I also will incorporate a few new fighters onto this list. These boxers have successfully forced their way into the crowded middleweight picture. Finally, I will re-rank these fighters based on their current status within the division.

2011 Top Talents

David Lemieux (-) Perhaps no fighter's stock has fallen as far as Lemieux's has over the past 16 months. Cruising through five rounds against Marco Antonio Rubio in a title eliminator, Lemieux hit the wall and Rubio rallied to earn a brutal stoppage. After an eight-month rest, Lemieux faced Joachim Alcine (a fighter thought to be washed up) and stunningly lost a decision. Lemieux has parted ways with his previous trainer and there have been whispers about his lack of dedication in training and his focus on the sport. His fast track to success has been completely derailed.

Dmitry Pirog (NC) Pirog spent most of 2011 angling for a big fight, which never materialized. Since his knockout victory of Danny Jacobs in 2010, he has made three stay-busy title defenses. In August, Pirog will finally get the big opportunity that he has been looking for when he meets Gennady Golovkin.

Fernando Guerrero (-) Guerrero faltered against veteran gatekeeper Grady Brewer in a major upset. Unlike many prospects, Guerrero had faced several serviceable fighters leading up to Brewer; he just couldn't withstand Brewer's body attack and pinpoint punching. Guerrero suffered a fourth-round knockout and has only fought a pair of eight-round fights against lower-level opposition since his defeat. He can still make another run towards the top of the division but his handlers are treading very carefully.

Gennady Golovkin (+) Golovkin finally built some momentum in 2011. He knocked out a rejuvenated Kassim Ouma and also had a KO-of-the-year candidate against LaJuan Simon. Aligned with the Klitschkos' K2 promotions, Golovkin was introduced to American boxing networks through a series of personal meetings in New York City, which has led to a coveted HBO slot against fellow European fighter Pirog in August. He had a stay-busy fight earlier in 2012 but is clearly ready for bigger challenges.

2011 Solid Prospects

Sebastian Zbik (-) Zbik fought a close battle against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. last year. He lost the championship rounds and fell short via a majority decision. He showed a fighting spirit but chose to engage in the wrong type of match against the punishing body puncher. Earlier this year, he had no answers for the hand speed of Felix Sturm and didn't make it to the tenth round. He no longer should be considered an emerging talent in the division.  

Matthew Macklin (+) Macklin had a much better outing against Sturm than Zbik did. Although he lost a split decision, the majority of observers felt that he should have earned the victory. In March of this year, he acquitted himself very well against Sergio Martinez before losing steam in the later rounds. Martinez turned the fight with his vicious counter left hands but Macklin won several rounds in the fight. After competing well with the top talents in the division, Macklin should be considered a legitimate threat to any fighter on this list.

Daniel Geale (+) Geale, an Australian, accomplished the unthinkable in 2011 by winning a decision in Germany. He bettered titlist Sebastian Sylvester and has since made two defenses in his native country. He returns to the scene of his greatest professional victory later this year when he takes on Sturm.

Darren Barker (+) Perhaps the most obscure fighter identified on the list in 2011, Barker faced Sergio Martinez and showed a number of positive attributes in his knockout loss. He clearly has a firm grasp of his strengths and weaknesses as a fighter. He also has a high ring IQ. Martinez eventually did outclass him, but Barker, who was a relatively unknown fighter in early 2011, would now make a credible foe against anyone on this list.

Daniel Jacobs (-) Jacobs has had far more serious problems to worry about than boxing. Trying to overcome osteosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that caused nerve damage and partial paralysis in his legs, Jacobs has faced a grueling recovery. He has insisted that he will return to boxing but even if he makes it back into the ring, his road back will be a long one.

2011 Suspects

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (+) In February of 2011, Chavez was still seen as a novelty act, a protected son of a legend who seemed uninterested in becoming a top fighter. Four fights later, Chavez is now viewed as a competitive aspirant to Sergio Martinez's top-dog status in the division. Working with Freddie Roach, Chavez has made great strides in his defense and rounding out his offensive arsenal. His destruction of Andy Lee earlier this month was the signature performance of his career.

Craig McEwan (-) McEwan's old conditioning problems surfaced against Andy Lee in March of 2011. Even though he had an early lead, he wilted down the stretch of the fight and was stopped in the 10th round. Later in 2011, he turned in a listless performance against Peter Quillin. McEwan returned to Scotland earlier this year and picked up a victory against a no-name opponent. He's now 30 and it's unclear if he can actually survive, let alone win, a 12-round fight.

Andy Lee (+) Remember, in February of 2011, Andy Lee was very much a suspect. A protégé of Emanuel Steward, Lee had seen his career stagnate with a loss to Brian Vera. But 2011 was a banner year for Lee.  He was able to rally to knock out McEwan and also avenged his earlier loss to Brian Vera in a solid performance. He was knocked out by Chavez earlier in the month, but he was ahead on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage. Lee may never win a title but he could be a solid B-side for a number of fighters on this list; he might beat a few as well.

2012 Additions

Peter Quillin Quillin infused some life into his career in 2011. He fought four times and had a nice stoppage win over McEwan. Quillin's talent was never in question but he had a number of promotional problems and injuries which kept him out of the ring for long stretches. Now aligned with power manager Al Haymon, Quillin defeated Winky Wright earlier in June. Although he scored a wide victory, he seemed tentative at many points and wasn't able to mount a consistent offensive attack. Nevertheless, I expect that he will have some significant opportunities over the next year.

Martin Murray Murray was an obscure, undefeated middleweight who was selected by Felix Sturm to come to Germany and lose. Instead, Murray fought bravely and earned a draw in a fight that could have gone either way. Since his solid performance against Sturm, Murray has marked time with a stay-busy fight. He waits for bigger game.

Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam N'Dam N'Jikam is an undefeated fighter from Cameroon now based in France. He was a 2004 Olympian (he beat Andy Lee) and has slowly climbed the professional ranks. He defeated Giovanni Lorenzo in 2011 and has picked up interim title belts in two different sanctioning organizations. Look for N'Dam N'Jikam, 28, to face some of the division's top talent over the next 12 months.

June 2012 Rankings

Top Talents
Julio Cesar Chavez
Daniel Geale
Gennady Golovkin
Dmitry Pirog

Darren Barker
Andy Lee
Matthew Macklin
Martin Murray
Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam
Peter Quillin

Fernando Guerrero
David Lemieux
Craig McEwan
Sebastian Zbik

Not Active
Daniel Jacobs

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