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.
The Light Heavyweight division is one which is very top heavy right now, but any of the top fighters would make for an excellent match up if put against each other, and it's incredibly hard to to define who is the #1 in the division, with 4 very strong claimants.
Oleksandr Gvozdyk (16-0, 13) - WBC Champion (0 defenses)
Unbeaten Ukrainian Oleksandr Gvozdyk is one of a number of talented fighters to have emerged from the excellent Ukrainian amateur system in recent years, such as Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk. "The Nail" won the WBC title back in December, when he ended the long reign of Adonis Stevenson, and is set for his first defense in March. Gvodzdyk is talented, heavy handed and is a technical boxer-puncher who can keep a relatively high pace, especially for the division. At 31, and turning 32 in April, his reign might not be an incredibly long one, but he is certainly someone worth watching.
Sergey Kovalev (33-3-1, 28) - WBO Champion (0 defenses)
Heavy handed Russian Sergey Kovalev recently regained the WBO title, avenging a prior loss to Eleider Alvarez. The 35 year old "Krusher" is coming to the end of his career, but is still a very dangerous fighter and someone who has very solid power and criminally under-rated boxing ability. He's slipped form his best, and has shown mental cracks in recent years, but is still a very good boxer-puncher who looked better than he has last time out. At his best he put fear into opponents with his power, though now it seems likely that he will be looking to use that power as a weapon in his arsenal rather than as his key way to victory. If he can stay on the right track he could beat anyone in the division, but out of the ring issues may end up derailing his renaissance.
Dmitry Bivol (15-0, 11) - WBA Champion (4 defenses)
Unbeaten champion Dmitry Bivol, born in Kyrgyzstan though regarded as a Russian fighter, is the youngest of the champions and is arguably the most rounded. He's a busy, active boxer puncher, with stiff power on his shots. He's not heady handed as Kovalev, Gvozdyk or Artur Beterbiev, but he's more technically sounded, a better ring general and a smarter boxer with more wrinkles to his game. He does have areas to work on, and certainly needs to work on things still, but the 28 year is proving to be a very talented, rounded and fantastic fighter who could be the best in the division. With wins over Sullivan Barrera, Isaac Chilemba and Jean Pascal in 2018 he has a very impressive resume that seems to be getting better with every fight.
Artur Beterbiev (13-0, 13) - IBF Champion (1 defense)
Another hard hitter in the division is IBF champion Artur Beterbiev, another Russian who punches like a mule. Beterbiev won the title in late 2017 but has struggled through his career with activity, management, and competition. He's been a professional for close to 6 years but has only managed 13 contests in that time. He has changed his team a few times and has been avoided, making his career one of the most disappointing. At the age of 34 he doesn't have long left in his career, and yet has only had 47 rounds as a professional. As an amateur Beterbiev was a star but as a professional his career appears likely to end up being an underwhelming one. A shame, but a very dangerous shame.
Marcus Browne (23-0, 16) - WBA "interim" Champion (0 defenses)
American fighter Marcus Browne had been bubbling under the surface for a few years whilst compiling a solid, yet unspectacular record. This past January however he put himself firmly in the mix when he defeated Badou Jack to become the WBA "interim" champion. The 28 year old former amateur stand out struggled past Radivoje Kalajdzic in April 2016 but sincee then has looked very good, beating not only Jack but also Sean Monaghan, Francy Ntetu and Thomas Williams Jr. He's the least accomplished amnd impressive of the top guys, but certainly appears to be developing well in recent bouts and could be the long term American hope of the division.
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.