Boxing is enjoying a renewed sense of excitement surrounding the sport. After a 2019 filled with thrilling and, at times, shocking results like the first fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr., Tyson Fury cemented his status as one of the most popular stars boxing has to offer by soundly defeating Deontay Wilder in the rematch of their compelling 2018 bout.
As boxing attempts to grow its audience, there are a handful of clearly established stars who stand out among the rest -- those who can draw in an audience for every single fight. There are others slightly down the ladder who can build up big fights with the right opponent, setting and context -- some on the rise, and some winding down toward the twilight of their careers.
In an effort to suss out the lay of the land in the world of boxing, Dan Rafael and Steve Kim assessed a total of 84 fighters on four criteria -- global drawing power, regional drawing power, boxing ability and intangibles. The 28 boxers who made the cut fell into one of three levels, with just three entries standing out above the rest as boxing's top-tier draws.
But before we dig into the top of the list, our project kicks off with a look at our third tier of fighters, who are either the future top draws in the sport or boxers who still have something significant to offer with the right opponent.
Kim: Ramirez walked into 2019 with many in the boxing world thinking he was just another solid world titlist. As the World Boxing Super Series 140-pound tournament got underway, Ramirez was left on the outside looking in. But when Top Rank cut a deal for Ramirez to face Maurice Hooker, who at the time held the WBO title, he received a golden opportunity to boost his stock.
That's precisely what Ramirez did, stopping Hooker on Hooker's home turf of Texas in six rounds. Now he finds himself as one of the handful of unified champions in the sport, and has a newfound respect from fans and boxing pundits alike. Ramirez isn't looking to sit and rest on his laurels as a regional draw in Fresno, getting protected from the best in the division -- he's a legitimate world-class prizefighter.
What lies ahead for Ramirez?
Ramirez will have some great opportunities to go to an even higher echelon, as there are plans to match him with Josh Taylor, who holds the other two belts (IBF and WBA), to crown an undisputed champion. That potential fight was made even easier when Taylor signed with Top Rank. Then there is talk of the winner eventually moving to welterweight, where a showdown with WBO belt holder Terence Crawford is very plausible. But first, Ramirez has to get past the awkward and difficult Viktor Postol, in a bout scheduled for May 9.
Rafael: Garcia, from a boxing family that includes older brother and trainer Robert Garcia, is a former junior lightweight world titlist who won a featherweight title against Orlando Salido in 2013, only to be stripped before his first defense for missing weight. Later in 2013, Garcia got knocked down, but rallied to knock out Roman Martinez to win a junior lightweight belt. After a 2½-year layoff while battling over his promotional contract with Top Rank, he finally got out of his contract and returned in 2016, eventually knocking out Dejan Zlaticanin in spectacular fashion to win a lightweight title in 2017.
Two fights later, Garcia outpointed Sergey Lipinets to win a junior welterweight belt. Garcia returned to lightweight and handily outpointed Robert Easter Jr. to unify two belts before making the audacious jump up two divisions to challenge Errol Spence Jr. for a welterweight title last March, losing a shutout decision. Garcia elected to remain at welterweight and on Feb. 29 returned to score a hard-fought decision win over former titlist Jessie Vargas in a highly entertaining fight.
What lies ahead for Garcia?
As much as Garcia has accomplished by winning titles in four divisions, he is focused on winning one in a fifth division, which could be very difficult given the talent at welterweight. Garcia is 32 and has probably already reached his peak. He insists on fighting at welterweight, but would be better served at junior welterweight, a weight he does not struggle to make. At welterweight, he is probably not big enough or strong enough to defeat the elites of the division. He will get big fights because he has a big name, a great record and a fan base. That's why he has a good chance to land a summer fight with Manny Pacquiao, who would be a huge favorite.
16-2, 13 KOs
WBA "regular" middleweight titleholder
Kim: Although Naoya Inoue is the most highly touted boxer from Japan, for years the most popular had been Murata, who turned professional in 2013 after winning a gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The 34-year-old is a national hero who garners huge television ratings in his home country.
Murata won the title by stopping Rob Brant in the second round of their rematch in Japan last July, after dropping a decision in their first meeting in 2018 in Las Vegas. It was reminiscent of how he first won the title in 2017; after dropping a controversial split decision to Hassan N'Dam in May, Murata crushed N'Dam in a mandated rematch in October. Murata ended his 2019 campaign by stopping Steven Butler in five rounds in late December.
What lies ahead for Murata?
Murata and his team believed that they had scored the opportunity of a lifetime in a deal to face Canelo Alvarez in May in an event that would take place in Japan. But the Mexican superstar changed his mind and ultimately chose Billy Joe Saunders as his next opponent. It's not clear where Murata will go from here, although Brant does have a rematch clause and thus, could be next.
Murata is a top-10 middleweight, but he's not considered to be near the elite level in terms of talent. While he is a considerably bigger overall draw than many others in the division, to be more than that, Murata will have to make a fight with an elite middleweight, and then beat him.
Rafael: At 25, Davis, a southpaw, is one of the best young fighters in boxing. He won a junior lightweight title with a lights-out performance against a good foe in Jose Pedraza in 2017 to become the youngest American world titlist at the time. But Davis missed weight for his second defense and was stripped when making weight remained an ongoing issue. In 2018, he stopped Jesus Cuellar to win a secondary junior lightweight title, defended it twice and then moved up to lightweight, where he struggled badly to make weight but finally stopped faded former featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa in the 12th round in December to claim a vacant secondary title.
What lies ahead for Davis?
Davis is an immensely talented fighter with good speed, brutal power and a ferocity reminiscent of a young Mike Tyson. He has also become a popular draw, with strong crowds at home in Baltimore, in his second home of Atlanta and even in Los Angeles and London, where he defeated Liam Walsh in 2017. His handlers at Mayweather Promotions and Premier Boxing Champions plan to move him to pay-per-view this year for a likely fight with popular and well-respected four-division titlist Leo Santa Cruz.
What will hold Davis back are his issues outside the ring. In addition to the constant issues making weight and being in shape for his fights, Davis has had myriad legal problems resulting in several arrests and other problems. He is facing a domestic violence charge after a confrontation with the mother of his daughter that was caught on video at a pre-Super Bowl charity basketball game last month. If Davis can find some maturity and behave himself, he can become a superstar. If not, it could be a quick fade-out.
Rafael: Taylor, 29, a southpaw from Scotland, was a 2012 Olympian who did not turn pro until 2015. He scored his first notable win in 2017 by stopping former lightweight titlist Miguel Vazquez in November 2017. Two fights later, he outpointed former junior welterweight titlist Viktor Postol. After that he entered the World Boxing Super Series eight-man tournament and won it, unifying two belts along the way. He smoked Ryan Martin in a one-sided seventh-round knockout win in the quarterfinals, dropped Ivan Baranchyk twice in a decision win to take his belt and then edged Regis Prograis in the final to add a second belt in a fight of the year candidate.
What lies ahead for Taylor?
Earlier this year, Taylor, who is in his prime, signed with Top Rank with the promise of some huge fights to come if he can keep winning. Many view him as the best 140-pounder in the world, although Ramirez has a strong case of his own. Taylor will have his first fight since winning the WBSS on May 2, against mandatory challenger Apinun Khongsong in Scotland. If he wins and unified titlist Ramirez, who is also with Top Rank, wins his mandatory defense against Postol on May 9, Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said he will match Ramirez and Taylor for the undisputed title later this year. Win or lose that fight, Taylor could then move up to welterweight for another major fight, with titlist Terence Crawford.
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
Kim: As you look at the record of the great Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, you see that there is only one man who has defeated him -- Sor Rungvisai, who did it twice. Back in March 2017, Sor Rungvisai handed Chocolatito his first pro loss in a hotly contested 12-round bout, although many observers believed Gonzalez had done enough to win that fight. In their rematch six months later, Sor Rungvisai left no doubt by dropping Gonzalez twice en route to a fourth-round KO victory.
In the fight that followed, Sor Rungvisai defeated Juan Francisco Estrada in early 2018. At that point he was considered one of the best fighters on the planet, but after losing the rematch to Estrada last April, in which Sor Rungvisai bizarrely attacked Estrada from the orthodox stance instead of his customary southpaw posture, there are questions about where his career goes from here at age 33.
What lies ahead for Rungvisai?
It's very simple for Sor Rungvisai, who is a traditional tough, hard-nosed fighter: If he can get the rematch with Estrada, or another go-round with Chocolatito, who has expressed interested in facing Sor Rungvisai again, Sor Rungvisai needs to walk out of that fight with a victory to be back in the saddle.
Kim: Garcia has leveraged social media better than any other fighter in the world, accumulating over 5.4 million followers on Instagram. It was largely how the 21-year-old got noticed after turning professional in Mexico in 2016, and ultimately helped him to get signed by Golden Boy Promotions. He's fast and flashy, and if recent fights are any indication, he's been showing major signs of improvement under the direction of trainer Eddy Reynoso.
Garcia, the 2017 prospect of the year, has exhibited physical maturity in blowing out Romero Duno and Francisco Fonseca in the first round. Boxing is built on stars and attractions, and judging by the attendance at the Fonseca fight on Feb. 13 in Anaheim, California, he certainly fits into those categories.
What lies ahead for Garcia?
"KingRy" is a social media star, and because of that, he can absolutely become one of the biggest draws in boxing. But he'll ultimately have to continue to hone his abilities inside the ring. If he continues to put it together between the ropes, the sky is the limit.
Rafael: Stevenson claimed an Olympic silver medal at the 2016 Rio Games and the Newark, New Jersey, product was tabbed for pro stardom immediately. Top Rank signed him, and he has not disappointed. In his first fight against a serious opponent, Stevenson rolled past former title challenger Christopher Diaz in a one-sided decision last April. Two fights later, Stevenson easily dominated Joet Gonzalez in another rout in October to win a vacant featherweight title. He makes his first defense on Saturday against hard-punching Miguel Marriaga, who is getting his fourth crack at a world title.
What lies ahead for Stevenson?
At 22, Stevenson appears destined for the pound-for-pound list and perhaps someday the No. 1 spot. He has that kind of talent. He has great speed, ring instincts and superb defense on a Floyd Mayweather level. But he also has solid enough power to keep opponents honest. Assuming he beats Marriaga, he is headed for a probable summer unification fight with England's Josh Warrington, a fight for which Stevenson would happily go to England.
Whether that fight happens or not, Stevenson said he is moving up to junior lightweight this year, and he has designs on winning titles all the way up to welterweight. Only two fighters in history have won titles at featherweight and welterweight: Manny Pacquiao and Henry Armstrong. Stevenson has that kind of potential, although he is a work in progress.
Rafael: Thurman, 31, of Clearwater, Florida, a charismatic fighter with good power, won an interim welterweight title in 2013 and defended it four times before being elevated to a full titleholder in 2015. He made defenses against Robert Guerrero and Luis Collazo before scoring a signature win against Shawn Porter. Thurman then unified two belts with another big win against Danny Garcia in 2017.
However, various injuries caused multiple long layoffs. He came back in January 2019 and outpointed big underdog Josesito Lopez in a far tougher fight than expected. That paved the way for a fight with Pacquiao last July, which Pacquiao won in a dazzling performance that included knocking Thurman down in the first round on the way to handing Thurman his only loss to date.
What lies ahead for Thurman?
Thurman's best days are probably in the rearview mirror. Injuries, including another one suffered against Pacquiao, have taken their toll. He has already made a ton of money in his career, which leads many to believe he is not going to be active for much longer. If he decides to continue his career, he should be able to land any number of major fights once he is healthy because he is with PBC, where most of the top 147-pounders fight. He could target rematches of his close victories against Porter or Garcia, or take on unified titleholder Spence. He could also move up to junior middleweight, where PBC has several top fighters, including unified titlist Jeison Rosario and Jermell Charlo.
Kim: Frampton has had a storied career, one that has seen him win world titles at 122 and 126 while scoring victories over archrival Scott Quigg and Nonito Donaire, as well as a split in a pair of entertaining bouts with Leo Santa Cruz. He is a legitimate draw in Northern Ireland and also played to large audiences in the States in his two fights against Santa Cruz.
Frampton is a solid boxer-puncher who is regularly involved in entertaining scraps. For his work in 2016, when he bested Quigg and Santa Cruz, he was the consensus fighter of the year. He lost his "0" in a majority decision loss to Santa Cruz in their rematch in January 2017, and then, after rattling off three straight wins (including one over Donaire), he lost to current IBF featherweight titlist Josh Warrington in December 2018.
What lies ahead for Frampton?
Frampton signed with Top Rank in 2019 but suffered some bad luck when a concrete pillar in a hotel lobby fell on his left hand just days before his scheduled bout in August. He came back in November and was able to defeat Tyler McCreary over 10 rounds on Thanksgiving weekend.
After winning titles in two weight classes, Frampton says he has one last remaining goal in boxing -- to become the first Irish boxer to win belts in three divisions. He could be getting his chance soon, as it appears that WBO 130-pound titlist Jamel Herring could be punching his passport to face Frampton in Belfast this summer. If Frampton is able to make history with a third world title, he has a clear claim to being the best Irish boxer ever and would continue to grow as a draw in his home country.
Rafael: Beterbiev, a two-time Russian Olympian, moved to Montreal to turn pro in 2013 and become one of boxing's best. He is a devastating puncher who has moved very quickly in his career, taking on legitimate opponents from the start. In 2017, he stopped Enrico Koelling in the 12th round to win a world title, and he has made three defenses, including a punishing 10th-round knockout of Oleksandr Gvozdyk in October to unify two belts and take over the lineal title. Beterbiev will be back in action March 28 against mandatory challenger Meng Fanlong of China.
What lies ahead for Beterbiev?
Beterbiev is 35, but he does not have a lot of wear and tear on him as a pro, so he could be around for several more years. He had some layoffs in his pro career because of issues with his previous promoter, but once that was settled, he signed with Top Rank in 2019. The company was able to give him a defining fight with Gvozdyk and is talent-rich in the weight class, which should provide Beterbiev with several quality opponents, assuming he wins his upcoming fight. Beterbiev has good skills, but his calling card is pure power, and if he lands solidly, he can knock any light heavyweight out.
Rafael: Prograis, 31, who fled New Orleans after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and relocated to Houston, began to get notice after knockout wins against then-unbeaten fellow prospect Joel Diaz Jr. in 2017 followed by former unified junior welterweight titlist Julius Indongo in 2018. Prograis landed a spot in the eight-man WBSS tournament and shined. He cruised to a decision over former lightweight titlist Terry Flanagan in the quarterfinals, destroyed Kiryl Relikh to take his world title in the semifinals and lost by a majority decision in a spectacular unification fight with Josh Taylor in the finals in October.
What lies ahead for Prograis?
Despite the loss to Taylor, Prograis still has a chance to win more titles and perhaps find a spot among boxing's pound-for-pound best. He has a dynamic personality and a desire to be great to go with his boxing ability and power. He's also not one to duck an opponent. He could have gotten an easy fight coming off the loss to Taylor but instead insisted on a serious opponent, so he will return to face fellow former titlist Maurice Hooker in April in what looks like a terrific fight on paper. With a win, Prograis is back in business with plenty of options at junior welterweight or with a move up to welterweight, where there is also lots of talent.
Rafael: In 2018, Warrington packed an outdoor stadium in his hometown of Leeds, England, to challenge featherweight titlist Lee Selby. Warrington won a decision in a mild upset and then notched an even bigger win when he outpointed former two-division titlist Carl Frampton later in 2018. Warrington then beat a third significant opponent in a row in a decision over mandatory challenger Kid Galahad last June, before finally getting a breather in a second-round blowout against soft touch Sofiane Takoucht. Since then, Warrington's promotional deal with Frank Warren expired and he signed with Matchroom Boxing's Eddie Hearn.
What lies ahead for Warrington?
Warrington, 29, is an overachiever and has proved a lot of disbelievers wrong in getting to where he has gotten, which is wide recognition as the No. 1 featherweight in the world. But whatever tests he had against Selby, Frampton or Galahad, it could be an entirely different story if the fight on the table indeed comes off this summer: a unification bout at home against the enormously talented Stevenson, whose all-around game could be a nightmare style matchup for Warrington. Of course, a lot of people didn't give him much of a shot against Selby or Frampton, either, and he proved them wrong. If he can do it against Stevenson, should the fight be finalized, that would be very impressive.
Kim: There is no denying the popularity of Conlan among the Irish. From the very beginning of his professional career, when he headlined at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and was led out to the ring by mixed martial arts superstar Conor McGregor, Conlan has owned St. Patrick's Day in New York. Even as a prospect, Conlan has consistently been the featured performer on televised cards in the States and back home in Northern Ireland.
He gained great notoriety for his double-middle-finger salute to the judges after dropping a controversial decision in the 2016 Olympics to Vladimir Nikitin, although he gained a measure of revenge by defeating the Russian back in December.
What lies ahead for Conlan?
The bottom line is that Conlan needs to start putting on more compelling fights. At this moment, although he's effective, he's far from entertaining. In fact, you could say his ring entrances provide more amusement than his actual bouts. To date, he doesn't seem to have settled into a groove as a professional, and he's still trying to find his way there. He's a friendly and personable individual, but unless he can provide better fights, his appeal and growth potential beyond his feverish Irish base will be limited.
Teofimo Lopez Jr.
Kim: Lopez has been fast-tracked by Top Rank, and on Dec. 14 he marked his arrival on a major stage by scoring a second-round TKO of the normally durable Richard Commey to win the IBF 135-pound title. Lopez and his father Teofimo Lopez Sr. -- especially his father -- do not lack for confidence, and thus far, the younger Lopez has shown sublime skills and natural charisma to back up his father's boasts
Lopez isn't going to babysit this title, either. For over a year, the Lopez clan has clamored for a crack at Vasiliy Lomachenko, who has two other belts at lightweight while the fourth sits vacant. They no doubt have in their minds that Lopez will beat Lomachenko in emphatic fashion, and then they plan to move up to 140 and conquer that division, too.
What lies ahead for Lopez?
Should the prophecy of Lopez's father come to fruition, Teofimo will hold three world titles at lightweight and skyrocket in stature and in market value, having solved one of boxing's great tacticians in Lomachenko. It truly would be, as they call Lopez, "The Takeover," and he would be set up to be a major presence in the pound-for-pound lists for a long, long time.
Andy Ruiz Jr.
Rafael: Ruiz, 30, of Imperial, California, turned pro in 2009 after a solid amateur career and was brought along slowly by Top Rank. But he never seemed to be in great shape. Still, he showed tremendous hand speed and good boxing skills and, in 2016, got a chance to face Joseph Parker for a vacant world title on Parker's turf in New Zealand. Ruiz put up a good fight but lost by a majority decision that really could have gone either way. He won his next two fights before Top Rank sold his contract to Premier Boxing Champions last year.
In his first fight with PBC, Ruiz knocked out fringe contender Alexander Dimitrenko in the fourth round on April 20, 2019. When Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller was dropped from a shot at unified world titlist Anthony Joshua because of failed drug tests, Ruiz campaigned to fill in and got the shot on very short notice. And on June 1 in New York, Ruiz shocked the world with one of the biggest upsets in history as he survived a knockdown to drop Joshua four times and stop him in the seventh round to become the first fighter of Mexican lineage to win a heavyweight title. Six months later, they met in a rematch and Joshua toyed with Ruiz in a one-sided decision to regain his three belts.
What lies ahead for Ruiz?
We more than likely saw Ruiz's ceiling on June 1 when he pulled the mammoth upset over Joshua. Nobody can ever take that away from him, but the chances of him replicating that or winning another title seem remote because Ruiz just does not put himself in the best position to succeed. He barely trained for the rematch and was out of shape for the bout, having put on more than 15 pounds (that wasn't muscle) since the first fight. He has since fired trainer Manny Robles and has not yet settled on a new trainer.
He does not seem to have the motivation to be great, and appears content that he made a lot of money over his past two fights. He is supposedly due back in the ring this summer, but don't count on ever seeing Ruiz being better or even anywhere close to the level he reached on that magical summer night in New York last year.
Kim: Long a middleweight mainstay, Jacobs is now plying his trade at 168 pounds, where he recently scored a fifth-round TKO of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. The Brooklyn native had a good run at middleweight, where he was able to win the WBA and, later, IBF titles. Along the way, Jacobs battled the likes of Gennadiy Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez, going the distance with both in decision losses.
Jacobs' is a story of perseverance, as he had a rare form of bone cancer in 2011 that nearly derailed his career. Eventually, he made his way back into the ring, and he has made millions of dollars doing so.
What lies ahead for Jacobs?
Jacobs has never been a particularly big draw on his own, but he is a better-than-average B-side to some of the bigger names in the sport. He'll probably play the same role at 168, where he no longer puts himself through the wringer to make weight. Because of his deal with Matchroom Sports and DAZN, he'll get another crack or two at super middleweight, and if he can grab a title, it's not inconceivable that he'll get one more major payday with a shot against a marquee name.