The boxing world has a bad case of ‘Chocolatito Fever’ these days. The diminutive flyweight champion displayed spectacular form in dismantling an experienced and tough Brian Viloria on last week’s Golovkin vs Lemieux card at Madison Square Garden in New York, and with the victory and the exposure has come a resurgent interest in the lower weight classes.
The lighter weights are filled with an interesting mix of consummate boxers and ferocious brawlers, but these smaller fighters don’t get the recognition they deserve despite some of the silkiest skills and hardest punches in the business. Gone are the days of the big men reigning supreme; the heavyweight division has been in decline for some time now and we’ve seen a plethora of middleweight, welterweight and even lightweight fighters achieve mainstream success. So perhaps its time for the ‘little big men’ to shine, none more so than the ones on this list, one aptly titled ‘The Magnificent Seven.’
1. Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez. 44-0, 38 KO’s. WBC flyweight champion.
Roman Gonzalez is the man of the moment right now and is ranked by many as the number one boxer on the planet, pound-for-pound. It’s easy to see why. He’s an offensive juggernaut who throws sublimely accurate combinations; his uppercuts against Viloria could be described as pure poetry in motion. At its highest level, boxing is about combining rhythm and balance and Gonzalez embodies total control of this sophisticated synergy. His footwork is masterful and he uses angles like no other, plus he has excellent power with 38 knockouts in 44 fights.
Perhaps noted fight scribe Kevin Iole summed up Gonzalez’s recent ascendancy best when he described his victory over Viloria in his column for Yahoo Sports: “With the Garden filled to the rafters, Gonzalez put on the kind of performance that made legends of many who fought here previously, including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Roberto Duran, who was seated at ringside.”
2. Guillermo Rigondeaux. 15-0, 10 KO’s. WBA/WBO junior featherweight champion.
Guillermo Rigondeaux is good; so good in fact, he struggles to get fights. A boxer of the highest ilk, his style is unique and the talent he displays, unquestionable. The man known as ‘El Chacal’ (The Jackal) fights with a distinctly Cuban style. He displays great hand speed, controls distance masterfully, counter-punches with ease and exhibits excellent defense. Add in the fact that he’s a southpaw and it becomes apparent why he’s so highly thought of and so highly avoided.
An amazing run at the amateur level, which included two Olympic gold medals, forced Rigondeaux to start late in the pro game. Now 35-years-old, the biggest question of Rigo’s career is when will other elite fighters finally step up and take him on? And if they do, will the aging champion have enough left to defeat them?
A recent Deadspin article by Charles Farrell put Rigondeaux’s troubles into perspective: “Rigondeaux won’t lose to a better fighter, because there are none around. He’ll lose soon because he’ll be forced, through a lack of options both economic and fistic, to overcome obstacles too great for a man of his size and age to handle. Whoever beats Rigondeaux will be much bigger and much younger than he.”
3. Juan Francisco Estrada. 33-2, 24 KO’s. WBA/WBO flyweight champion.
Juan Francisco Estrada is still a young man at 25 years of age, a young man with a very bright future but he just happens to also fight in the same weight division as Roman ‘Chocolatito’ Gonzalez, whom he lost to back in November of 2012. Estrada has improved greatly since the loss and many fans are calling for a rematch between the two flyweight stars.
Estrada brings a lot to the ring in terms of skill. He has a solid punch, high work rate and throws the one-two on a consistent and varied basis, which ensures he controls distance quite well. He is known to wear down opponents with his versatile punching, something Hernan Marquez found out recently. He also displays a good chin, having had little trouble taking heavy shots from the division’s biggest punchers.
The Transnational Boxing Ranking Board rates Estrada at number six in their current pound-for-pound list and he has held the WBA and WBO titles since April of 2013 when he defeated Brian Viloria. But the real test will be how he handles Roman Gonzalez in a rematch for the real flyweight crown.
4. Naoya Inoue. 8-0, 7 KO’s. WBO junior bantamweight champion.
Naoya ‘The Monster’ Inoue is just that, a monster. Don’t let the fact that he has fought a mere eight professional fights distract you from his fistic brilliance.
Inoue began his professional career in 2012 in his homeland of Japan and just 18 months later he was the WBC light-flyweight world champion, having dismantled Adrian Hernandez, an experienced titlist who had fought in 32 bouts prior to being stopped by “Monster.”
As Robert Portis reported, Inoue’s performance was truly astonishing: “Like an unknown singer on The X Factor blowing everyone away the second she opens her mouth, Inoue, right from the opening bell, shocked everyone with his confidence and assertiveness. He swept the first four rounds with constant aggression, excellent timing, astonishing accuracy and damaging power. Like a pint-sized George Foreman, the heavy-handed challenger showed Hernandez no respect, landing thunderous blows and battering the champion from one side of the ring to the other.”
A brutal, power punching man-child, the 22-year-old has dispatched all but one of his opponents by knockout with his devastating combinations. Inoue is without doubt a legitimate star in the making and was The Fight City’s Fighter of the Year for 2014.
5. Donnie Nietes. 37-1-4, 21 KO’s. WBO junior flyweight champion.
Forget Manny Pacquiao or Nonito Doniare; Donnie Nietes is currently the longest reigning champion from the Philippines. A titleholder since 2007, Nietes is a thinking man’s fighter, a cautious boxer who creates distance with good footwork and an excellent jab. His style may not be for the casual fan but his ability to keep opponents at bay and connect with crisp counter-punches remains truly impressive.
Nietes recently fought for the first time on American soil, defeating Mexican Juan Alejo by unanimous decision, a win which has prompted many to ask about the possibility of a meeting with Roman Gonzalez at flyweight. Where Nietes takes his career from here is anyone’s guess, but at 33 years of age he needs a big name opponent, and soon, should he wish raise his profile in America. “Chocolatito” may fit the bill.
6. Shinsuke Yamanaka. 24-0-2, 17 KO’s. WBC bantamweight champion.
Shinsuke Yamanaka has held the WBC title since November of 2011 and has nine defenses of the belt to his credit. Despite a recent controversial decision victory over Anselmo Moreno, he remains one of the very best bantamweights in the world. A tall southpaw, Yamanaka’s height and reach advantages make him a formidable challenge as he boxes effectively behind a long jab and a heavy straight left hand. While that hard left is responsible for 17 stoppage wins, the Japanese pugilist is more than just a power puncher as he exhibits well-rounded technique and skill.
A rematch with Moreno is a fight that needs to happen for Yamanaka, as is a meeting with the general consensus number two bantamweight in Juan Carlos Payano. Both matches are ones fans should be calling for in earnest.
7. Vasyl Lomachenko. 4-1, 2 KO’s. WBO featherweight champion.
Vasyl Lomachenko, like Naoya Inoue, is a vastly inexperienced professional but his five pro outings have come against excellent opposition and the former amateur star has proven he belongs in the upper echelon thanks to a superlative skill set.
Stylistically, Lomachenko is a fine boxer. He has fast hands and great footwork. His ability to put himself out of striking range with his footwork is a joy to watch and his combination punching is up there with some of the best in the business, as is his use of angles.
Like fellow two time Olympic gold medallist, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Lomachenko is finding it hard to secure meaningful fights due to his supreme ability and southpaw stance. A featherweight, the Ukranian star is the biggest man on this list and it’s likely he may have to go up in weight to find suitable opponents but he clearly has the skills to compete in the higher divisions. — Daniel Attias