Some fighters get all the love. Most of them deserve it. Some fighters, though, don’t get the zealous affection they should.
Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton definitely get love. Both have devoted followings in the home countries and amongst those who hail from their homelands, and when they fight one another for Hatton’s junior welterweight championship, they will net 10 figures each. They’ve earned it with their all-action styles, winning personalities and quality performances that have made them two of the pound-for-pound best in the world.
On the outside looking in is lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez got plenty of love after his knockout of Juan Diaz, a Fight of the Year candidate that proved he’s no worse than the second-best active fighter alive, behind only longtime rival Pacquiao. But he may never make as much money Pacquiao will against Hatton May 2, and he’s had to claw through a lot to even get this far.
Marquez is the first man on this list of elite fighters who deserve better.
They are top-notch boxers who fight in a fan-friendly style, but don’t have a corresponding number of fans. And because of that, plus a few other reasons, they don’t always get the fights they ought to or make the money that is rightfully theirs.
It’s time to recognize them, the Unjustly Unloved. Maybe – just maybe – it will help them a little in their quest for just desserts.
Juan Manuel Marquez
Even after his now near-annual Fight of the Year candidate in 2008, against Pacquiao, fewer than 100,000 people bought his pay-per-view bout with Joel Casamayor in September. Even relatively close to the border of his native Mexico, Marquez was not the fan favorite on Saturday against Houston hometown hero Diaz.
Marquez is a magnificent fighter – “Juan Manuel Magnificent,” according to this very boxing site – and loads of fun to watch, plus he’s the best Mexican fighter left standing and he pledges every fight is for his home country. And yet, he hasn’t totally won over that boxing-mad land or its descendants.
Career mismanagement didn’t help. An early tendency toward technical, cautious boxing didn’t help. Living in the shadow of two more beloved Mexican fighters, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, didn’t help. But all of those things appear to be behind him now. Best case scenario: He gets the winner of Pacquiao-Hatton. And this time, finally, he gets the paycheck to go along with the now-universal recognition. After his most recent performance, teams for both Pacquiao and Hatton are thankfully mentioning him as a possible future opponent.
Sure, Mosley got great paydays against Oscar De La Hoya, and at times, he’s filled stadiums. But it was Antonio Margarito, not Mosley, who was the fan draw when they fought in his backyard of Los Angeles in January. And fighting in the same region in September, nobody came to see him fight Ricardo Mayorga.
Mosley wants to be in the sweepstakes for the Pacquiao-Hatton victor. He would like a rematch with Miguel Cotto, but on his terms. He has long chased Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who recently turned him down again. He is most likely to end up with Andre Berto – a good fighter, but not someone likely to rake in the dough the others would.
It’s too bad. Mosley’s a boxer, but he’s a true warrior who loves to stand and trade. He’s had memorable fights and memorable knockouts along the way. Perhaps the BALCO questions sidelined him, and perhaps they should have. Perhaps fans gave up on him after a few losses years ago. He’s back at the top now after knocking out Margarito, but when the management and promotional teams of Cotto and Pacquiao talk about their plans, they aren’t saying “Shane Mosley” all that loud.
Williams is not only a top-10 pound-for-pound player, but he’s a joy to watch. He’s a unique physical specimen – a welterweight with a heavyweight reach -- who was in a slugfest with Margarito in 2007 before adapting his hundreds-of-punches per round style toward big power to score two consecutive 1st round knockouts in 2008. Then he impressively fought through adversity after getting cut by Verno Phillips to demolish the sturdy veteran.
He wants to fight everyone: Bernard Hopkins, Joe Calzaghe, Mosley, everyone. And nobody wants to fight him. Maybe they would if he had a discernible fan base. But he doesn’t. Williams inherited the “most feared fighter” label when he beat Margarito, but Margarito proved that people will risk fighting a feared opponent if there’s money in it. Mosley wasn’t the only one who wanted a piece of Margarito after Margarito knocked out Cotto and energized the Mexican fans.
For whatever reason, the African-American fan base does not, as of now, appear mobilized and united behind many black fighters. Floyd Mayweather did it for them, but it took him a very long time. Hopkins does it for them, somewhat. Williams, and a few others on this list, may win over that segment of the boxing public eventually. Williams hopes to win over some more fans by beating his April opponent, his most well-known to date, middleweight Winky Wright.
Some fans dismiss Dawson as overrated and perhaps a little boring at times, but who didn’t enjoy his terrific battle against Glen Johnson? What wasn’t there to like about the flashy combinations he used to defeat Antonio Tarver in one of 2008’s best performances?
After watching Dawson on rival network Showtime, HBO has wised up, and intends to broadcast the (unfortunate) contracted Dawson-Tarver rematch. That will offer him more exposure still. But prior to Joe Calzaghe’s retirement, Dawson was the nearest threat in the light heavyweight division. Alas, Calzaghe knew Dawson would offer relatively little money, so he didn’t see him as someone for whom he should stick around.
It’s unwise to generalize about what makes a boxer appeal to a certain ethnic group. Part of Mayweather’s appeal was that he essentially had a rap star’s persona, brash and cocky, that appealed to some younger black fans. Dawson has amped up his trash talk of late, but he also seems to be a nice guy – and being a nice guy never hurt "Sugar" Ray Leonard. If he can play up the aspects of his personality that appeal to an audience, any audience, he certainly has the talent to go along with it.
Johnson explained in a segment that aired over the weekend for his ESPN2 Friday Night Fights headlining bout why he isn’t as popular as perhaps he should be: He hails from Jamaica, a country that doesn’t particularly embrace pugilism.
If only another country would adopt this 40-year-old marvel, who earned the nickname “The Road Warrior” by traveling the world over to get fights that he often won, even if home town judges didn’t see it that way. From his crushing knockout of Roy Jones, Jr. to his nip-and-tuck battle with Dawson, Johnson puts on a show every night. And he’s a serious threat to any pound-for-pound fighter who dares get in the ring with him.
But the 2004 Fighter of the Year lost momentum after Tarver avenged his loss to Johnson, and not even another member of this list, Dawson, is interested in a rematch. So Johnson just keeps putting on his road gear, fighting anyone he can, beating them with his irrepressible style, and hoping he gets another big match. As of now, it looks like he'll get a shot at another alphabet title belt, but in a fair world, he gets more than that.
Donaire, too, knows a little about lost momentum. In 2007, he scored the best knockout of the year when he flattened knockout artist Vic Darchinyan with one perfect left hook. That won him one more fight on Showtime, another exciting performance against Luis Maldanado.
Then came the feud with his promoter, Gary Shaw. A switch to Top Rank got him a spot on a small pay-per-view card where he defended his flyweight title belt, but entropy has enveloped efforts to arrange his next fight. A Showtime-headlining fight with junior bantamweight Fernando Montiel would have given him a chance to prove how good he was and regain the spotlight. But Montiel dropped out months in advance, saying he couldn’t make the weight anymore, only to later challenge Darchinyan -- who has a sizeable fan following -- for his junior bantamweight belts. Several replacement opponents and reschedulings later, Donaire’s manager pulled the plug on a spring fight altogether.
Donaire is positioned to capitalize on the Filipino boxing market, not that he has always pleased that segment of that group of fans with some of his family feuding – although he has begun healing some of those rifts. In the ring, he just needs to get top opponents. Shaw harbors a fan-unfriendly vendetta against Donaire that makes a rematch with Darchinyan unlikely, and a number of top junior bantams, including Darchinyan, are fleeing the division. It’s hard to see where Donaire will get those top opponents.
Some perceive Clottey as a plodding, defense-first welterweight, but check again. His 2008 fight with Zab Judah featured tremendous two-way action, and it was Clottey who was drawing the “ooos” and “ahhhs” early on in his 2006 fight with audience favorite Margarito before he injured both hands.
So when it came time for the iron-chinned Clottey to test his punch resistance against huge puncher Kermit Cintron early in 2009 – two of the top 10 fighters in the glamorous welterweight division – all the networks lined up to broadcast it, right? Quite the opposite. No one wanted Clottey-Cintron, reportedly, and just as it looked like it would be relegated to the undercard of a small pay-per-view, Cintron got offered twice the money to fight junior middleweight Sergio Martinez on HBO.
It’s gotten so bad Clottey has threatened to drop boxing and focus on soccer, but there may be hope yet for the tough Ghanaian: He, along with Cintron, is in the running for a June date with Cotto and Madison Square Garden. Cintron may have the edge because his Puerto Rican heritage, like Cotto’s, could help sell a fight that coincides with the Puerto Rican Day parade. But Clottey has the better argument for being unjustly neglected, and since both Clottey and Cotto are promoted by Top Rank, the promoter can kill two birds with one stone by making Cotto-Clottey happen.
Personality has counted against a number of fighters on this list. Some of them lack charisma. Not so with Campbell. He’s passionate, funny, a great trash-talker and even when he screwed up, as he did by not making weight for February’s fight with Ali Funeka, fans are inclined to give him a pass because he showed obvious remorse. He is as likeable as any boxer around.
After a cracking good war with Juan Diaz last year, which saw Campbell pick up three lightweight alphabet title belts, it finally looked like Campbell might break through. He’d hit the pound-for-pound top-20 lists and was in one of the sport’s most loaded divisions. But bouts against Pacquiao and Marquez never materialized.
He turned to a high-risk, low-reward fight with Joan Guzman, but Guzman didn’t make weight and pulled out. That led to a bankruptcy filing and some promotional drama, and his desire to hold on to some of his belts led to a tough fight against little-known Funeka. Now, moving up to junior welterweight, Campbell is in some demand, with Judah, Paulie Malignaggi and others interested in fighting him. But nobody who would offer him a mega-payday is, at least not yet.
Caballero no doubt hurt himself with an ugly, awkward performance on Showtime in 2007 against Jorge Lacierva, but some of the blame for that goes to Lacierva. It’s not, at any rate, the norm for Caballero. His performance against Steve Molitor in late 2008 was far more typical – an all-offense steamrolling – and his battle with Daniel Ponce De Leon in 2005 had plenty of exciting exchanges.
The problem with Caballero is that A. he’s really good and B. he’s 5’11” in a junior featherweight division where 5’7” is tall. He may have some fans in Panama, but they haven’t been enough to overcome those two things and get him a showdown against moneymakers like Israel Vazquez, Rafael Marquez or Juan Manuel Lopez.
That means he’s confined, for the time being, to defending his two alphabet title belts. And the longer he has to wait for one member of the Vazquez-Marquez-Lopez triumvirate to fight him, the harder it will be for him to squeeze his frame down into 122 pounds. And there’s nobody at featherweight right now who can offer him that kind of money, either.
Most of these fighters are probably a notch beneath the above top 9 in terms of their elite status as of now; the last two have different reasons for not cracking the list.
Humberto Soto, junior lightweight: A mini-Margarito. Hit the scene in 2005 by defeating Rocky Juarez, then hit a spate of misfortune when he couldn’t chase down Guzman, got a b.s. d.q. against Francisco Lorenzo and a pay-per-view with Pacquiao faded after Pacquiao went for Oscar De La Hoya. Could get good money and competition against Robert Guerrero.
Steve Cunningham, cruiserweight: Patriotic back story, loads of skill, nice as all get-out. Fought overseas repeatedly before going home for December’s Tomasz Adamek fight, losing one of 2008’s best battles, thereby losing a lucrative bout with Bernard Hopkins. May not get an Adamek rematch, either.
Gerry Penalosa, bantamweight: Driven out by boxing politics, the sharp Filipino fighter paved the way for Pacquiao and Donaire. Had a comeback 2007, knocking out Johnny Gonzalez and deserving the win over Ponce De Leon. Getting a good money bout against Lopez in April, but has spent a lot of time trying to get paid well for his efforts.
Librado Andrade, super middleweight: May have the best chin in the sport, and may have been robbed of a knockout win against Lucian Bute last year. Made some fans in Canada in the process and will soon be on an undercard there. Warranted as a Bute rematch appears, it doesn’t seem to be in Bute’s plans.
Kendall Holt, junior welterweight: As talented as anybody. At his best, is as exciting as anybody. Has probably shot himself in the foot with a few underwhelming performances, though. Difficult April fight with Timothy Bradley offers a chance to springboard himself up toward, say, a Hatton, but even under the best circumstances, it’s unlikely.
Steve Luevano, featherweight: Basically the same story as Holt. Talented, but sometimes exciting and sometimes not. Manager may have undercut him by not being willing to go to Texas to fight Rocky Juarez, and Chris John instead got that slot. John is now getting a lot of plaudits that might have gone to Luevano. Top Rank pushing him hard, though.
Ivan Calderon, junior flyweight: A top-10 pound-for-pound boxer who may be the most technically proficient fighter around. Two problems; size makes him a difficult sell, and lack of pop makes him “for purists only.” Moderately popular in Puerto Rico, though. Lots of people covet fights with him, but Cesar Canchila, one possible foe, instead is doing a rematch with Giovanni Segura.
Joan Guzman, lightweight: All-elite, talent-wise. Hurt himself badly with two terrible moves: fighting safe against Soto guaranteed he wouldn’t get Pacquiao, then not making weight against Soto almost thrust him into pariah status. Alphabet title shot looming nonetheless.
Read more from Tim Starks at his boxing blog, The Queensberry Rules (queensberry-rules.com).