By Tyson Bruce
The crown jewel in the current boxing culture is the Welterweight division and its “junior” and “super” subsidiaries at 140 and 154-pounds. The sports two biggest stars, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, fight in those weight classes and it’s where the most lucrative pay days and most talented fighters can be found. It’s also, however, where the most pervasive form of boxing politics exist. The corporate Cold War between Top Rank/HBO and Golden Boy/Showtime/Al Haymon has divided the division and made most of the top match-ups exist only in the realm of fantasy.
Much like the heavyweight division from the turn of the century through the 1970’s, the welterweight division has largely eclipsed boxing’s other talented weight classes where politics play a much smaller role. Almost silently over the past couple years, however, the junior featherweight division has reemerged as one of the best divisions in boxing. Perhaps not since Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera engaged in one of the best fights of the 2000’s has the division been packed with as much talent and potentially mind blowing matchup’s.
Labeling the 122-pound division as one of the best in boxing seems like an oxymoron because it shouldn’t even really exist in the first place. Until 1976, when Panamanian Rigoberto Riasco defeated Japan’s Waruinge Nakayama, there was no such thing as the junior featherweight division. Like many other “junior” divisions the only practical purpose it serves is for the sanctioning bodies to have one more weight class to gouge fees out of fighters. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s this all began to change as the division became flooded with a number of excellent fighters that would go on to become household names. Fighters like Junior Jones, Kennedy McCinney, Naseem Hamed, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and the now legendary Manny Pacquiao engaged in some of the most memorable bouts of the last thirty years.
Eventually many of the division’s top fighters moved up in weight in search of more titles and bigger paydays but the junior featherweight division will always be remembered as the place where they made their bones. As a result, the division went through a dry spell between 2003 (when Pacquiao vacated the title to fight Barrera for the lineal featherweight championship) until the mini summit meeting between Nonito Donaire and Fernando Montiel in 2011. Donaire won the bout and the lineal championship with one of the most brutal and spectacular knockouts in the history of the division. Just like that the division had a new kingpin and a bona fide pound for pound star.
Nonito Donaire’s reign as champion turned out to be a relatively brief one as he was soon upset in 2013 by the legendary Cuban amateur star turned professional Guillermo Rigondeaux. Rigondeaux proved that his boxing talent has perhaps had no equal when he put on a virtuoso display of boxing technique—making one of the world’s best fighters in Donaire look like a one-dimensional amateur in the process. It’s around this time when the division was quietly becoming one of the most interesting in boxing but also vastly more complicated politically.
In Great Britain, perhaps the boxing’s most thriving marketplace, Belfast’s Carl Frampton and Manchester’s Scott Quigg have scooped up alphabet titles and are quickly becoming the Chris Eubank-Nigel Benn domestic rivalry of the moment. They also both possess serious fighting talent and contrasting fighting styles that has the whole sporting culture salivating at the potential showdown. The matchup goes much further than just a boxing match between two young exciting talents in that it plays on a historical rivalry between the Irish and British that goes back centuries. Boxing is always at its best (or worst depending on how politically correct one chooses to be) when ethnic pride is at stake. This match has that and then some.
In particular Carl Frampton, 19-0-0-(13), has his home nation of Ireland captivated by his fighting talent and the thought that he may have the ability to someday go down as the nations greatest fighter. After just a few fights Frampton’s skill and natural athletic talent became something to see. Frampton, who went 100-8 as an amateur, has faced stiff competition right from the get go, including a six round demolition job of Steve Molitor and a second round knockout of two-weight division champion Hugo Cázares. In the process Frampton has become one of Ireland’s great sporting hero’s—routinely drawing tens of thousands of screaming fans to his fights.
It’s Frampton’s most recent win over Kiko Martinez, however, that really has people buzzing about his potential. Frampton had previously stopped the Spaniard in 2012 when a competitive fight suddenly ended after one sensational Frampton right hand in the ninth round. After that bout, however, Martinez went on a rampage picking up an alphabet belt and destroying the highly respected Huzumi Hasagawa and Jeffrey Mathebula (who went 12 hard rounds with Nonito Donaire). In the rematch Frampton was clearly dealing with a more complete and dangerous fighter and many insiders saw an upset in the making. Instead, Frampton put on a virtuoso boxing display, scored a knockdown and thrilled an astonishing 16,000 fans in what was a star making performance.
While Guillermo Rigondeaux is clearly the lineal champion and best fighter in the division (it’s really not even close), it’s another boxer from the Western hemisphere that has become the TV draw. That fighter is of course California’s Leo Santa Cruz. Cruz came to prominence because of his immensely entertaining come forward style and light-hearted personality. Cruz has built his resume in a series of fights against well-known former titleholders that were generally considered past their prime. This is a very common process in building a young fighters record and Cruz has past every test with flying colors. In fact, Cruz has the fourth-highest plus/minus rating in all of boxing, behind only Mayweather, Alvarez, and Golovkin.
Despite his success, however, a growing number of fans and media are beginning to get impatient with Cruz’s progress. Cruz is managed by the infamous Al Haymon and seems to be falling into a familair managerial pattern of Haymon’s other prized talents in that after becoming champion his quality of opposition is actually going down instead of up. While many hoped to see Cruz fight a Frampton or Rigondeuax on the Mayweather-Maidana undercard, he instead received a 700k payday to fight Manuel Roman—a career bantamweight that used to be Cruz’s sparring partner. The result was utterly pointless and an insulting second round knockout for Cruz.
After the fight Cruz, to his credit, called out Rigondeaux. But we all know that fight is never going to happen. Rigondeaux is not affiliated with Haymon and he’s far too dangerous for what he brings to the table. Could he fight Frampton or Quigg instead then? Likely not. The reason is simple: if he receives 700k for fighting tomato cans on an undercard, than why would he ever need to fight anybody that threatening? In all likelihood if a Frampton fight were to happen then Cruz’s team would demand that Frampton come to America. In America Frampton would receive far less money than he would fighting in Belfast where he sells more tickets in a night than Cruz has in his entire career. It just doesn’t add up but then again few things in boxing do these days. Still, attractive and makeable fights with the likes of Johnny Gonzales or Abner Mares remain viable options for Cruz.
The odd man out in this equation is the division’s champion, Guillermo Rigondeaux. The fighter they call “El Jackal” is an almost mythical talent. Rigondeaux won two Olympic gold medals, a pair of world championships and two Pan American championships and World Cup titles in an amateur career that spanned over 450 fights. Most American Olympians could never even win a national title in Cuba where Rigondeuax ruled with an iron fist for nearly a decade. Beneath his cold and almost yellow eyes lies one of the greatest pure boxers of our time. Rigondeaux, out of pride and allegiance to his craft, will not conform his style to the pro game—he fights to win not please the crowd.
As a result, fighters, managers, and promoters that are petrified of his talent use his lack of marketability as an excuse to basically have him black listed from televised boxing. Unfortunately for Rigondeaux he doesn’t have a domestic violence rap sheet or Bugatti to charm the money out of peoples wallets. Very few top fighters at or around his weight class will even mention his name in passing. In a different time fighters would be willing to fight Rigondeaux just for the chance to be called the real champion but that is not what drives today’s fighters or boxing culture. With all of the belts out there basically anyone can convince themselves they’re a champion, so why risk a payday just for glory, right?
Despite the obvious roadblocks standing in the way of some of the biggest fights at 122, fans are clearly in store for some dramatic and thrilling fights in coming years. With the 126-pound weight division also packed with talented fighters like Donaire, Lomachenko and Walters you can bet that the matchups will become interchangeable between weights. Many of the best fights of the last generation happened in the featherweight divisions, so buckle your seatbelt because 2014 is looking a lot like 2001 right now.