Whilst the Light Heavyweight division only really has 2 champions, in Artur Beterbiev and Dmitry Bivol, the division is packed with contenders and they make up a wonderful mix of rising youngsters, established contenders and former world champions, giving us one of the deepest and most interesting divisions in the sport.
Sergey Kovalev (34-4-1, 29)
Former multi-time world champion Sergey Kovalev is still one of the biggest names in the division, despite being past his prime and very much a fighter who's future doesn't look bright, at all. He had a strange 2019 in the ring, in which he avenged his loss to Eleider Alvarez, defended the WBO title in Russia against Anthony Yarde then lost to Saul Alvarez, and a controversial one of the ring, with legal issues. The future doesn't look bright for "Krusher" but as far as contenders go he is still there and a win over him still means a lot.
Eleider Alvarez (25-1, 13)
The now 35 year old Eleider Alvarez, like Kovalev, doesn't appear to have much time left in the sport. The Canadian based Colombian, dubbed "Storm", is a real talent, but a real frustration and all too often he has cruised in the ring instead of shining. He has notched big wins, over the likes of Isaac Chilemba, Lucian Bute, Jean Pascal and Sergey Kovalev, but has regularly done "just enough". At 35 he may get a chance to become a 2-time champion, but in reality we wouldn't be surprised to see him being avoided by the top guys as he heads into retirement.
Gilberto Ramirez (40-0, 26)
It's not often we see big Mexican fighters but Gilberto Ramirez has proven that Mexicans can indeed fight at the heavier weights. Ramirez is a former WBO Super Middleweight champion who moved up in weight last year, after struggling to make 168lbs. Sadly since moving up he has only fought once, beating Tommy Karpency last April, though he is now expected to get a place in a 4 man WBO world title tournament later this year and could potentially become a 2-weight champion. Although he can be an exciting fighter he has looked like a man who has maybe peaked already at 28 is perhaps not developing as many had previously hoped, when he began to break through make waves.
Oleksandr Gvozdyk (17-1, 14)
Former WBC champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk won his first 17 bouts before running into Artur Beterbiev last October. The talented Ukrainian held his own with the Russian brute through the first 9 rounds but was broken down in round 10, of a genuinely sensational fight. Despite the loss to Beterbiev we certainly wouldn't write off "The Nail" who we expect to see bouncing back from the Beterbiev loss and get himself straight back into the title mix. Do not sleep on this former champion who dethroned Adonis Stevenson in 2018.
Marcus Browne (23-1, 16)
American fighter Marcus Browne is a former WBA "interim" and WBC "silver" champion and someone who has got a lot of questions hanging over him, both inside the ring and outside. He's certainly a talented fighter, and his win over Badou Jack is one of the few times Jack has been beaten without a debate, though fair enough Jack did fight a lot of that bout with half of his head missing. Sadly though Browne was made to look very vulnerable by Jean Pascal last August and we can't see him being competitive with the two Russian world champions. In fact it would take a career best performance for him to over-come Oleksandr Gvozdyk.
Fanlong Meng (16-0, 10)
Upcoming IBF title challenger Fanlong Meng isn't a name that many will be too familiar with but the unbeaten 32 year old Chinese southpaw will be a man fans will hear a lot about in March ahead of his bout with Artur Beterbiev. Meng is a talented boxer who looks relaxed in the ring, and controls the range and tempo well, as we saw against Frank Buglioni. Sadly he's not the type of fighter who should be matched with someone like Beterbiev, who can really whack. At 32 years old it's now or never for Meng, but having been dropped by Adam Deines, last June, and Zura Mekereshvili, back in 2016, he has question marks over his chin. Meng is certainly a talent, but we can't help thinking that his chin will be a major issue against a rock fisted monster like Beterbiev.
Joe Smith Jr (25-3, 20)
One of boxing's feel good stories of the last few years has been the rise of Joe Smith Jr, who was a relative unknown before stopping Andrzej Fonfara inside a round in 2016. Smith Jr is a win some-lose some type of fighter, but with a solid chin, big power and decent work rate he's someone we can't help but enjoy watching. With wins over Fonfara, Bernard Hopkins and Jesse Hart Smith is certainly remains in the title mix, despite losses to Sullivan Barrera and Dmitry Bivol in his last 4 bouts. Aged 30
Umar Salamov (25-1, 19)
Once beaten Russian Umar Salamov will be getting a world title eliminator later this year and yet is relatively unknown outside of Ukraine and Russia. He began his career in Ukraine, back in 2020, and fought 13 of his first 14 bouts there, before fighting 9 of his following 12 in Russia, with two bouts in Australia and one in America. His only loss was a very close one in Australia to the once touted Damien Hooper, and since then he has reeled off 12 wins against decent, but unspectacular competition. In the ring he's heavy handed and aggressive, with a tall and long frame, but really lacks polish and looks like someone who perhaps finds himself getting his place in a title tournament a little bit too early in his career.
Maksim Vlasov (45-3 26)
Another Russian we expect to be involved in the title tournament is 33 year old veteran Maksim Vlasov, who seems to have been around for blooming years! Vlasov made his debut way back in 2005 and won his first 19 bouts before coming up short in a very competitive bout against Isaac Chilemba. Another solid winning run came to an end when he lost a relatively competitive bout against Gilberto Ramirez, A move up to Cruiserweight lead to another winning run before he lost to Krzysztof Glowacki, and then headed back down to Light Heavyweight, and avenged his loss to Chilemba. A solid, consistent professional
Joshua Buatsi (12-0, 10)
When we look at the best rising prospects in the UK, across all the divisions, few fill us with the hope that Light Heavyweight Joshua Buatsi does. The explosive 26 year old is ticking a lot of boxers and with stoppages over Marco Antonio Periban and Ryan Ford in 2019 he took big strides towards some huge fights this year. He's heavy handed, fast, exciting and although he's still a bit rough around the edges there is the natural talent there for his team to work with. At the moment the feeling, at least for us, is that he needs to face a few solid tests to prepare for a world title bout. Taking on someone in one of the top 15 next time out would serve his career well, though we suspect Eddie Hearn will move him slowly and wait for an opening, rather than risking Buatsi against someone like Beterbiev and Bivol. Very exciting, but still rather untested.
Rustam Tulaganov (3-0, 1)
Unbeaten Uzbek fighter Rustam Tulaganov turned pro in 2017 and debuted that year, then spent more than 2 years away from a professional ring before returning in late 2019. He now looks like the man in the division who is set to be fast tracked, and we wouldn't be surprised, at all, if he faces a world ranked fighter before the end of 2019. Earlier this month he took a clear decision over Polish veteran Norbert Dabrowski, in an 8 rounder, and the assumption now is that he will be moved in to 10 and 12 rounders whilst his team, Patriot Boxing in Russia, look to secure him a big fight. Aged 28 he does have time on his side, but we certainly expect him to be moved quickly regardless. Don't be surprised to see him gate crashing the rankings sooner, rather than later.
Ali Izmailov (2-0, 1)
Although Russian fighter Ali Izmailov isn't likely to be on the radar of many fans he's one that we suspect will be moved very aggressively over the next few years. The 26 year old debuted in August 2019, and in just his second bout he shut out Dmitry Sukhotskiy over 6 rounds. Next up for Izmailov is Gasan Gasanov, later this month, and we would expect that to be Izmailov's final bout over 6 rounds, with 8 and 10 rounders likely to come before the end of this year. Whilst he's super early in his career he's potentially the wird card at 175lbs, and someone to make a note of now as he rises through the ranks.
Historically the Super Middleweight division has been dominated by European fighters, with British boxers in particular having a great history there with the likes of Joe Calzaghe, Carl Froch and the recently retired George Groves being huge stars there. Today though the division has sort of shifted with a new found Mexican influence at the top.
So lets begin by looking at the top guys at 168lbs.
Callum Smith (25-0, 18) - WBA "super" (0 defenses)
English boxer-puncher Callum Smith claimed the WBA "super" title in 2018, when he won the Super Middleweight WBSS and stopped George Groves. Despite that being his first world title bout he had long been considered as one of the truly elite fighters in the division, having held English, British, European and WBC "Diamond" titles. At 28 Smith is in his physical prime and is a huge and imposing fighter at 168lbs. Sadly his size is likely going to be an issue and force him to move up sooner rather than later. However, as long as he's at 168lbs he will be one of the top guys there, and one of the best body punchers in the sport today. There are some technical flaws to work on, but the reality is that he's a big, strong, powerful talented guy who will typically be able to overpower more skilled foes.
Gilberto Ramirez (39-0, 25) - WBO (5 defenses)
Another huge fighter at the weight is unbeaten Mexican Gilberto Ramirez Sanchez, who has held the WBO title since April 2016. The 27 year old Mexican is seen as a fighter who may be moving up in weight sooner rather than later, as he's huge and stands over 6'2". Fighting out of the southpaw stance Ramirez has the hall marks of a big Mexican star. He's talented, looks good, can be exciting, if matched properly, hits hards and has good boxing fundamentals. Sadly his recent performances haven't been great, and his competition hasn't allowed to really show what he can do. He also seemed to suffer an injury last time out, so it could be a bit of wait until he faces another top name.
Caleb Plant (18-0, 18) - IBF (0 defenses)
Unbeaten American Caleb Plant, dubbed "Sweethands", showed how good he was in January when he dethroned Jose Uzcategui in LA, to claim the IBF title. The talented Planet proved he his harder than his record suggests, dropping Uzcategui twice, as managed to show great hand speed, movement and activity, at least early on. He struggled late in the bout, in what was only his second 12 round bout. Despite holding a world title Plant looks like a fighter who is still a work in progress, but the 26 year old American is certainly a solid boxer, with a likable personality and a back story that will have fans on his side for a long time to come. It's hard to imagine him beating any of the other champions at the weight, but in reality there's not many contenders that would be clearly favoured over him, and if he improve as we expect than he could end up having a very good reign.
Saul Alvarez (51-1-2, 35) - WBA "regular" (0 defenses)
A bit of an oddity here is that Saul "Canelo" Alvarez is the WBA interim champion, having won the belt in late 2018 from Rocky Fielding. That win showed that Canelo, at 168lbs, still holds a punch but appears to have been little more than a 1-off, for now. The 28 year old Mexican icon has since announced that he will be dropping back down to Middleweight to face Daniel Jacobs in a WBA "super", IBFand WBC Middleweight title unification. Alvarez will certainly end up at 168lbs down the line, but for now he's a Middleweight who dipped his toes at Super Middleweight and picked up a secondary title.
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.