On Sunday we finished our Fighter of the Decade countdown, and now we look towards the future with out prediction of who will be the top 10 at the end of this coming decade. Before we start however we'll just reflect slightly.
For the decade we've just seen finish 2 of the top 10, including the winner, actually debuted after the decade began. The other 8 fighters had all debuted before the decade began, with 7 fighters debuting between 2000 and 2009 and 1, Manny Pacquiao, debuting in the 1990's. It's worth noting that two of those in our top 10 debuted in 2009, so essentially 40% of those making it into the top 10 debuted in either the final year of the decade, or in the decade it's self.
Only 3 of the top 10 went unbeaten during the decade, so an unbeaten record isn't necessary to claim a top 10 spot. Also there was 4 men who didn't move weight, showing that good enough competition and dominance in 1 weight class is enough to claim a place on the list. It does however help to have the ability to move through the weights, with that clearly being a big factor for several fighters.
Despite debuting in 2018 we don't expect many fight fans to be aware of Phoobadin Yoohanngoh, but the Thai teenager is someone well and truly worth attention, and is a long term one to watch. He's still only a teenager, and will be for a chunk of the decade, but the 130lb youngster is someone with a lot of potential and he showed that potential in 2019 when he won "The Fighter" tournament. He's still very young, and very much a work in progress, but he has time on his side a lot of room for development and the backing of a notable Thai promoter, with TL Promotion behind him. This is very much a left of center choice, but when looking at this coming decade we are looking at young fighters looking to make their mark over the coming years, and Phoobadin is just that type of fighter.
Having debuted in 2018 Ginjiro Shigeoka has got himself into a great position as we enter the decade. He is already a regional champion and looks likely to fight for a world title in the first year of the decade. At just 20 years old he has time on his side, and we mean a lot of time on his side, and we wouldn't be surprised to see him fight right through the decade, giving him 20 or so fights to build up his record. He has spoken about wanting to run up 20 defenses and given his frame there's a real possibility that he will only really fight in 1 weight class. We rate Shigeoka highly in terms of skills and potential, but his diminutive size will limit his potential to climb up the rankings.
Few Filipino prospects have shown that they have the tools to fly the flag over the next decade or so, but one that has is Dave Apolinario, who has skills, youth, speed and a boxing brain. The youngster was 20 when the decade began, giving him a full decade in the sport to come, and he has all the tools to develop a very credible career off of. So far he is pretty untested, but in reality that's expected to chance in 2020 and 2021 before he climbs through the ranks and begins to mix at a much higher level. In recent years he's been fighting at Flyweight, though could likely move up a couple of divisions before his career is over. He won't be fast tracked like some, but will certainly be worthy of attention when he hits his prime.
For the last decade Naoya Inoue took the #1 place for this decade however we see him sliding down the rankings a lot. Part of that is to do with his age, and what we see him achieving over the next decade. Entering the decade the "Monster" is 26 years old, so if he complete the full decade he'll be 36 by the end of it. We suspect that he'll probably finish his career a year or two before that, and he has mentioned retiring at the age of 35. Of course that is pretty much the full decade, so he has the potential to do a lot but with age and accumulated damage there's a chance he won't be mega active right through the decade. There's also the fact we suspect his maximum effective weight is going to be Featherwieght, which gives him only another 2 weight classes to conqueror. What he did last decade is impressive but has little bearing on what he'll do this decade, other than starting him at Bantamweight. We expect a big decade for Inoue, but not something that matches up with what he did in the 10's.
As mentioned previously 2 of the fighters who made it into the top 10 of the previous decade hadn't debuted by the start of the debut. With that in mind we should look at the fighters who haven't turned professional yet, but could do in the next couple of years. One such fighter is Hayato Tsutsumi, who currently 20 years old, still an amateur and at 5'7" has the size to move through a few divisions. He'll not turn professional until late this year, at the earliest, and could well have the backing of some very significant players in the Japanese when he does turn professional. We see Tsutsumi as being the Japanese ace of the future. Whilst we acknowledge it's a big call putting him this high up the list all signs point towards him being able to make a huge impact in the next decade.
Two things that really are key in how we can rank someone is their age as we enter the decade, and their ability to move through weight classes. Few fighters have the upside in those two categories as Junto Nakatani. He was 21 when the decade began, turning 22 on January 2nd, and standing at 5'7" he has the natural size to fill out his frame and move through the weight as he ages and matures. Just to put into some perspective just how big Nakatani the young southpaw he's more than 1" taller than Nonito Donaire, who managed to have success at Bantamweight. Whilst we're not expecting Nakatani to be the next Donaire we do expect him to be a major star in the next decade and a multi-weight world champion. He has all the tools to be one of the biggest names in Japanese boxing and fit in excess of 20 fights into the decade.
As with Hayato Tsutsumi we're picking outside the box again and looking towards amateur standouts with this pick as Thai teenager Atichai Phoemsap deserves a serious mention for the future. The 19 year old is a standout amateur, a truly brilliant little youngster who has already won gold at the Youth Olympics, World Youth Championships and Asian Youth championships in 2018. Of course amateur success on the Youth scene doesn't guarantee anyone success in the professional ranks, but from what we've seen of Atichai he has the potential to be a star in the professional ranks. Don't be surprised if he turns pro in a year or two and is raced through the ranks, backed by a strong promoter in Thailand and moved in a very aggressive manner. Entering the decade as a teenager and with serious potential Atichai is the dark horse to be a major player in the 20's.
If Uzbek fighter Israil Madrimov was just 2 years younger we would have placed him better on this list, but with his 25th birthday coming in February he'll be in his mid 30's by the end of the decade, and given his style is a very athletic based one we suspect he will be sliding by the end of the decade. Madrimov is a true athletic freak. He's quick, has great stamina, speed, timing, balance and power. Scarily he keeps those traits whether he's fighting orthodox or southpaw and he's going to be a very, very hard man to beat. Along with his age we are also concerned about his lack of stature, and at 5′ 8½″ his ability to move up the scales is limited. We suspect he has the natural tools to make a mark all the way up to Light Heavyweight, late in his career, but he'll likely struggle up there at 175lbs against naturally bigger, stronger men.
At 23 year old when we enter the decade we suspect that Uzbek Bektemir Melikuziev will have a better decade than his slightly older compatriot Israil Madrimov, though we suspect the two men will have very similar careers overall. The big punching, body snatching Melikuziev broke into the pros in June 2019 and ended the decade 4-0 (3) having proven that he can box, move, bang, brawl and fight. Oh and he can pretty much send an opponents stomach out of their body with a shot to the midsection. Although not quite the athletic freak that Madrimov is we see more technical polish with Melikuziev and with the slight age difference and slight height difference he just has those little advantages that we suspect could split the two men at the end of 2029.
Aged just 21 as we started the decade Sadriddin Akhmedov has the world at at his finger tips. He's entered the decade 11-0 (10) and appears to be the all-round star that Kazakhstan needs to replace the ageing Gennady Golovkin. He's heavy handed, technically very good, aggressive, exciting and knows how to box safely when he needs to. We do wonder whether Eye of the Tiger Management have the power to push him to the very, very top, but we suspect they will work with a bigger promoter, if needed, to net Akhmedov the top fights he needs to make the decade his. Given his youth he will fill out his frame and move quite easily from 154lbs to 160lbs and potentially all the way up to 175lbs. This young man is a very, very special fighter and someone we advise every fight to be following very closely going forward.
In November we counted down a number of honourable mentions for our 20 for 20. Now it's time to look at the 20 fighters who have managed to make it into the list properly, and they come from all over Asia and all over the weight classes. Some of these you may already be aware of, some are perhaps less well known, but either way these 20 men are going to be well worth following in the new year as they look to push forward in their career and move towards major success.
For these fighters we will look at the the reason why you should follow them, our expectations for them in the coming year and the issues they may face going forward. The one rule with all of these fighters is that they can have fought for a world title at the time of writing, as the fighters who have are, essentially, already ones to watch having dabbled at world level. Some of these are world ranked, and some of these may well be set for world title fights in the near future, but so far they have not had that top level bout.
Without any further ado, lets take a look at the man we have ranked #8 in our list of Ones to watch in 2020
Bektemir Melikuziev (4-0, 3)
Uzbekistan (but based in the US)
Super Middleweight (though suggestions are that he could drop lower down the scales)
A number of Uzbek fighters have proven to be god damn terrors since turning professional, and one of those is the frighteningly good, hard hitting, heavy handed and incredibly skilled Bektemir Melikuziev. The destructive Melikuziev is fighting above a weight we suspect is natural for him, and yet it taking out experienced professional like they are nothing, with some of the most fearsome body shots in the sport. He has also shown an ability to box, to go rounds, and to go to plan B if he needs to, and likely has plans C and D in his locker for the future.
Not only has Melikuziev been impressive in the professional ranks but he also shone in the amateurs, winning gold the Asian Championships twice, winning the the Asian Youth Championships twice and Youth Olympics, and winning silver at the Olympics in 2016. He's experience, very strong, heavy handed and is linked with Golden Boy Promotions.
Given Melikuziev has already beaten veterans like Martin Fidel Rios and Adrian Luna Flores we know he's a monstrous puncher, his body shots are brutal, his amateur pedigree is exceptional, he has strong promotional links and unlike many on this list he already looks like he can be let loose on world ranked fighters. He is one of the most complete offensive fighters we've seen and he appears to be someone who needs to be given really serious tests really early in his career. With that in mind we would not be shocked at all if Melikuziev fights for a world title in 2020, in his first 7 fights. He's supposedly a natural Super Middleweight, and given the state of the division there's no reason for him to be worried of any of the fighters there. A fight with someone like Billy Joe Saunders should be focus for the year.
What do we expect?
We made our expectations for Melikuziev pretty obvious in the "Why?" but we need to reiterate them again. We expect Melikuziev to win a world title in 2020, and do so at Super Middleweight.
The reality is that the likes of Billy Joe Saunders and Callum Smith haven't looked great recently. Saunders has never made us feel he's fighting at his best weight class whilst Callum Smith appears to have out grown the Super Middleweight division. Both men fight on DAZN, and essentially that will be where Melikuziev makes his name, so the bout shouldn't be impossible to make from a boxing politics point of view either.
Longer term expectations for Melikuziev are really hard to make. He's only 23 now, but already looks like a nailed on future world champion and could either have a very, very lengthy reign, or find himself committing to a career at Light Heavyweight down the line, and that could be where he finds himself really being tested. That however seems likely to be several years away, and is unlikely to come until after he leaves a notable mark on the Super Middleweight division, the division that his body seems most suited for.
Talking about Light Heavyweight he would be a small fighter there, but we suspect his power and physical strength would be more than enough to make him a very serious threat in the division.
One concern when it comes it Central Asian fighters in the West general is just how much their promoters are willing to financially back them. It took years for Golovkin to make his mark, and even then it wasn't until very late on that the reward for facing him out did the risk. If Melikuziev's promoters don't financially back him from the off his career could potentially be a frustrating one, and he may end up waiting far longer than needed for a shot at a world title.
Given how powerful and destructive he is there is also the potential issue in getting suitable opponents in the ring. He's been able to spar with top guys but his opposition are going to want solid pay days to step in the ring with him. Again strong promotional backing should alleviate this concern, but even then he might still struggle to get opponents willing to risk rankings and titles against him.
Longer term issues are whether or not he will still be as destructive at Light Heavyweight, when he finally commits to the division. At Super Middleweight we genuinely see him winning a world title with ease. The division should be on alert for his final arrival there, but his pursuit for titles in multiple weight classes is a concern as he will be dwarfed by some of the top fighters at 175lbs. This concern is, thankfully, not one that will rear it's head in 2020, but is something to consider in 4 or 5 years time.
(Photo: Tom Hogan / Golden Boy)
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features