The Featherweight division has gone through a lot of changes recently and we wouldn't be surprised to see it shine as a division in 2020 with a lot of very interesting match ups already being spoken about for the year ahead, one of which is just a few short weeks away.
IBF - Josh Warrington (30-0, 7)
One of two champions in the division known more for their volume punching than their power is Englishman Josh Warrington. The IBF champion claimed the belt in May 2018, when he dethroned Lee Selby, and has made 3 defenses, including wins over Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad. Warrington is a massive star in Leeds, and can fill out the local football stadium and at 29 is coming into his physical peak. Talk of unification bouts, with either WBO Shakur Stevenson or WBA Can Xu, have done their rounds and both of those would be very interesting bouts for Warrington, if the Englishman wants to prove he's the best in the division.
WBA - Can Xu (18-2, 3)
Chinese fighter Can Xu really burst on to the global scene last year when he took the WBA title with a win over Jesus M Rojas. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, defending his title against Shun Kubo and Manny Robles III. Like Josh Warrington it's fair to say that Xu is more known for his volume, and according to Compubox threw over 1,500 in his last bout, than his power. Despite that Xu does seem to hit harder than his record suggests and he has enough on his shots to get the respect of his opponents, even if he can't stop them. After his second defense he did call out Josh Warrington, and that would be an insane bout to watch, though we would be surprised to see that fight being made next. As the face of Chinese boxing Xu has the potential to bring huge attention to the sport, and could be a very significant figure going forward.
WBO - Shakur Stevenson (13-0, 7)
Fast rising American star Shakur Stevenson turned professional on the crest of momentum following a very impressive run at the 2016 Olympics. The expectation was that he would be an immediate star. It did however take a little while for Stevenson to settle into the pro ranks and really find his feet. In his last few fights however the Top Rank Promoted youngster has looked fantastic blowing out Viorel Simion, stopping Jessie Cris Rosales and dominating Christopher Rosales and Joet Gonzalez. It's still early days for the 22 year old, who only won the WBO title in October, but the future looks very, very bright for Stevenson. Rumour was that he would be facing Warrington next time out, but it now seems that his first defense will be against 33 year old Colombian Miguel Marriaga, who has quietly rebuilt since a 2017 loss to Vasyl Lomachenko.
WBC - Gary Russell Jr (30-1, 18)
It's hard to think of a man with the talent of Gary Russell Jr who has squandered their prime in a similar fashion. Russell had the ability to take the Featherweight division by the scruff of the neck and make it his. He could have been the face of American boxing and a massive star with his lighting quick speed and under-rated power. Instead his WBC title reign, which began in March 2015, has seen him defending the title just 4 times so far. That's once a year! It's unclear whether Russell doesn't like fighting, or just can't be bothered but his horrific level of activity has sat the WBC title on a shelf and really damaged both the title and his reputation. He is expected to make his annual appearance for 2020 in February, when he defends the WBC title against Tugstsogt Nyambayar. At the age of 31, and with his 32nd birthday coming in June, Gary Russell Jr really has wasted his career. A massive shame.
When we talk about how interesting a division is, we sort of want to see not only top fighters, but also mouth watering match ups and active champions. Sadly the Featherweight division is lacking in terms of activity, and also has a very messy title scene, with a WBA special of having 3 champions, a WBC champion that fights once a year and a WBO champion who has sadly been inactive for almost a year due to a nasty injury.
Gary Russell Jr (29-1, 17) - WBC (3 defenses)
When we mentioned the WBC champion fights once a year, we're not kidding. The insanely talented Gary Russell Jr is one of the fighters blessed amazing speed, good boxing IQ and an exciting style, but not the hunger and desire to prove himself on a consistent basis, with 1 fight a year since 2015, the year in which he won his title. His first 24 fights were his apprenticeship, if you will, before he fought in his first world title bout and lost to the then 1-1 Vasyl Lomachenko in 2014. The following year he stopped Jhonny Gonzalez, to win the WBC title, which he has defended against Patrick Hyland, Oscar Escandon and Joseph Diaz. If Russell Jr was active he could be one of the biggest names in US boxing, but instead he's inactive and very easily forgotten, a real shame for someone with so much ability.
Oscar Valdez (24-0, 19) - WBO (4 defenses)
Hard hitting Mexican Oscar Valdez has been on the sideline since taking a 12 round unanimous decision win over Scott Quigg in March, in a bout saw him suffer a bad injury. Prior to that bout he had been active, and had been the man who looked like being the division's #1 star in the near future. A participant at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic's Valdez was groomed for stardom early on and he would win the WBO title in July 2016. Just 14 months after winning the title he had racked up 3 defenses, smashing Japan's Hiroshige Osawa, before winning FOTY contender's against Miguel Marriaga and Genesis Servania. Sadly much of 2018 has been written off due to the injuries suffered against Quigg. He was pencilled in for a January return against Andoni Gago, but that now looks to be off, with no plans yet being announced for his return.
Josh Warrington (28-0, 6) - IBF (1 defense)
The real revolution of the division in 2018 has been Englishman Josh Warrington, who went from being a local star in his home city of Leeds, England, to being recognised as one of the division's top fighters. He has done that thanks to 2 huge wins in 2018, first beating Lee Selby for the IBF title and then beating Carl Frampton to make his first defense of the title. Given his massive rise in 2018 he's going into the new year as a genuine star of the division and appears hungry to prove himself. Although not the best boxer, or the biggest puncher, Warrington has an incredible engine, a brilliant work rate and exciting style that should help grow his popularity when he does finally venture outside of the UK, something he doesn't need to do but sounds like he wants to do.
Leo Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19) - WBA "super" (2 defenses)
Exciting Mexican Leo Santa Cruz is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, and really was something special at Bantamweight and Super Bantamweight, where he was a perpetual punching machine, who ground down opponents. Sadly "El Terremoto's" current reign as the WBA "super" champion has been a disappointing one. He won the belt in January 2017, avenging his loss to Carl Frampron and has only made 2 defenses, beating the less than great Chris Avalos in October 2017 and then beat Abner Mares in June 2018. Essentially in almost 2 years as champion Santa Cruz has beaten a man he had already beaten and a fighter who didn't deserve to be in the ring with him. He's talented, exciting, and we want to see a lot more of him, which we suspect we'll see in 2019 as he has a bout set for February 16th against Miguel Flores and has fighters snapping at his ankles for a world title fight.
Jesus M Rojas (26-2-2-1, 19) - WBA "regular" (0 defense)
Puerto Rican puncher Jesus M Rojas has had a long career, having debuted in 2006, but has gradually made his way up the sports ladder of success. He would suffer his first loss in 2008 suffer a draw against Jose Luis Araiza in 2012, and have a No Contest against Jorge Arce that same year, before going on to claim the WBA interim title in 2017, and later being upgraded to the "regular" champion. Although not a heralded fighter he has beaten the likes of Abraham Lopez and Claudio Marrero, shown himself to be a heavy-handed and tough fighter and a nightmare to fight. Sadly he was beaten last time out, but kept the title after his opponent, Joseph Diaz failed to make weight. He will be returning to the ring on January 26th to defend his title against Chinese challenger Can Xu.
Jhack Tepora (22-0, 17) - WBA "interim" (0 defenses)
The WBA mess in the division has seen the division have 3 champions, Santa Cruz, Rojas and Filipino slugger Jhack Tepora. The 25 year old Tepora is the least well-known of all the "world" champions in the division but is a rising force thanks to huge wins on the road over Lusanda Komanisi, in South Africa, and Edivaldo Ortega, in Malaysia, to claim the WBA interim title. Tepora is a crude boxer-puncher, who is very heavy-handed and despite being a bit on the slow side does have good timing and boxing skills. Fighting out of the southpaw stance Tepora looks like the sort of awkward fighter who will be a nightmare for more gifted opponents, but he also looks like he will need to improve technically before facing the best in the division. Tepora will be defending his title on January 19th on his US debut, with his opponent expected to be Mexican puncher Hugo Ruiz, in what should be an explosive clash.
Takahiro Onaga is a regular contributor to Asian Boxing and will now be a featured writer in his own column where his takes his shot at various things in the boxing world.