Thursday, June 08, 2023  |


State of the Game: Featherweights

Fighters Network

This is the seventh in a series of stories from “The State of the Game,” the popular annual feature of THE RING magazine. We’re posting one weight class per day, starting with strawweight and working our way up to heavyweight. The package was featured in the July issue of the magazine. The August issue, with Floyd Mayweather Jr. as the cover story, is on newsstands now. Today: Featherweights.

It’s often been said that in boxing, the top two percent of the fighters make about 98 percent of the money. Well, we’re about to feed directly into that inequity. Not only do the top two percent get most of the money, but they get most of the attention too, and in “The State Of The Game,” we focus primarily on that top two percent – the cream of every weight class. Maybe it’s not fair to the 145th best junior featherweight in the world, but hey, there’s a reason he’s only 145th best.

Still, you have to admit, we go deeper and include more fighters in State of the Game than just about any other article you’ll read all year. Where else will you find Wladimir Klitschko, Fernando Guerrero, Alfonso Gomez and Hekkie Budler all discussed in the same story?

Basically, the State of the Game is just what it sounds like: an all-encompassing exploration of where every division in boxing stands at this particular moment. As for the state of the sport as a whole, we know the balance of power is continuing to shift away from American fighters and away from the heavyweight division, but does that mean boxing is any worse off than it was a year ago or five years ago or 10 years ago? In a global sense, and judged in relativity to the economic climate across most of the world, no. Remember, some people in both the boxing community and the mainstream media opined three years ago that Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather was going to be the last megafight we’d see for years. How laughable is that now? We’ve since had four different pay-per-views cross the million-buy mark, and if Manny Pacquiao vs. Mayweather ever happens, it will crush every number Mayweather-De La Hoya posted.

Of course, all that this means is that the guys at the very top are getting exponentially richer while everyone else is struggling to make ends meet. Hey, that’s the way boxing has always been, and in a nutshell, that’s how life works. Boxing has loads of problems, no doubt, but year after year, it entertains and amazes those loyal followers who persevere through all the crap to get to the good stuff.


If the period from about 1997 (when Naseem Hamed invaded America) through 2004 (when Manny Pacquiao left the division) was a Golden Age for featherweights, then the next five years or so were a Rusty Age (sort of the opposite of “Golden,” right?). The valley was low, particularly compared to the peak that preceded it. Juan Manuel Marquez did nothing memorable at the weight after his draw with Pacquiao, Chris John didn’t venture beyond Indonesia or Japan until 2009, and the likes of Robert Guerrero and Jorge Linares passed through the division without leaving a legacy.

But just as quickly as the division went from scorching hot to ice cold, it has suddenly turned scorching hot again over the past half year. We’re not saying the current crop will outshine the Hamed-Pacquiao-Marquez-Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales era, but we also won’t say such a period of prosperity is impossible.

The anchor of the division is still No. 1-rated John, and the undefeated 30-year-old veteran of 12 title defenses took his show on the road in ’09 for two entertaining fights against Rocky Juarez. Any hope for a RING title fight still goes through John.

And unlike the last couple of years, there’s no shortage of worthy potential opponents for the Indonesian “Dragon,” including four who recently moved up from junior featherweight. No. 2 Juan Manuel Lopez is probably Puerto Rico’s most popular current fighter and he made a strong statement in his featherweight debut, knocking out No. 5 Steven Luevano in the seventh round. Celestino Caballero ranked right with Lopez at junior feather the last couple of years and turned heads with a one-sided beating of Daud Yordan in his first fight at 126 pounds. And No. 10 Rafael Marquez became a maretable, big-name opponent for anyone at 126 after he stopped rival Israel Vazquez in their fourth meeting.

Perhaps the most significant new addition to the featherweight division is a man who’s only been a pro for three years, Cuban expatriate and No. 7-rated Yuriorkis Gamboa. Even though he’s already hit the floor four times in his career, Gamboa has some observers believing he’s the best fighter at 126, particularly on the heels of his destructive display against Rogers Mtagwa in January. A Gamboa-Lopez showdown is in the works, though promotional company Top Rank wants to let it simmer a little longer, running the risk of letting the flame die down before the fight happens.

Elsewhere in the division, No. 4 Cristobal Cruz is an inspiring journeyman turned alphabet beltholder; No. 8 Elio Rojas and Miguel “Mikey” Garcia are talented youngsters; No. 6 Bernabe Concepcion is a Pacquiao prot├®g├® who will never be Pacquiao but isn’t half-bad; and No. 9 Daniel Ponce De Leon will matter for as long as he can still punch like a middleweight.

One quick note: It might seem unusual that we labeled Caballero as “Deserves A Title Shot” in the accompanying graphic after only one featherweight fight, but the problem is almost everyone else of note in the division either has a title, is scheduled to fight for a title, or recently lost a title. The lesson, as always: There are way too many titles.

Think About It: In some sports, there’s no more serious crime against the game than the use of steroids. In boxing, testing positive for performance enhancers is easily dismissed by most fans and by the establishment. For proof, look no further than the favorable treatment given to No. 3-rated Orlando Salido since he tested positive following what appeared to be a victory for the IBF featherweight title over Robert Guerrero in ’06. The result was changed to a no-decision and Salido lost recognition as titleholder, but otherwise, it’s like nothing ever happened. Salido got to fight in a title eliminator two bouts later. He won that, so he got a title shot against Cruz in ’08. He lost that, but got another shot against Cruz this past May — without beating any noteworthy opponents in the last four years — and won a split decision to claim a belt. Use performance-enhancing drugs, and the boxing world gives you a slap on the wrist (or, in the cases of such popular stars as Shane Mosley, tries to pretend nothing ever happened).


Best Puncher
Yuriorkis Gamboa
Best Boxer
Chris John
Most Protected
Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo
Most Avoided
Celestino Caballero
Is He Still Around?
Guty Espadas Jr.
Matchmaker’s Dream
Juan Manuel Lopez-Yuriorkis Gamboa
Deserves A Title Shot
Celestino Caballero
Most Fun To Watch
Israel Vazquez
On The Way Up
Mikey Garcia
On The Way Down
Hiroyuki Enoki
Best Fight In 2009
Chris John D 12 Rocky Juarez

JUNIOR FEATHERWEIGHTS: of the game junior featherweights//>