Last year's breakout middleweight, in the United States anyway, was titleholder Gennady Golovkin, who burst onto the scene with a devastating knockout performance against Grzegorz Proksa that had fight fans talking about it at water coolers everywhere.
Golovkin, who is from Kazakhstan and lives in Germany, had longed to compete in and find stardom in the United States. He seems to be on his way as one of boxing's hottest fighters, responding with one knockout after another.
Now one of Golovkin's 160-pound counterparts, titleholder Daniel Geale of Australia, is in a similar position and hoping to follow in his footsteps. And although Geale isn't the puncher that Golovkin is, he is a talented fighter with a solid résumé and a following in his native land. But he longs for the bigger fights that he can get only in the United States.
That's why Geale is in Atlantic City, N.J., this week, hoping to liven up the hot summer with a strong performance in his fifth title defense when he faces Darren Barker of England on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET/PT) at the Revel Casino-Hotel in the main event of a split-site tripleheader.
"I've been wanting to come over and fight in America for a while," Geale said. "We just found this was the perfect opportunity, and Darren Barker is a very credible opponent as well. It's not like we came over to take an easy opponent to get one on the board. Darren Barker has put up some good performances, so my idea is to come over and make a statement, and make American fans know me and my boxing by seeing me against another quality fighter."
Also in Atlantic City, junior featherweight titlist Jonathan Romero (23-0, 12 KOs), 26, of Colombia will make the first defense of his belt against Kiko Martinez (28-4, 20 KOs), 27, of Spain. In the other bout, light heavyweight titleholder Nathan Cleverly (26-0, 12 KOs), 26, of Wales, will make his sixth defense when he faces power-punching Russian contender Sergey Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KOs), 30, at Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff, Wales, in a bout that will be televised in the U.S. on a few hours' tape delay.
Last fall, Geale and promoter Gary Shaw went to Las Vegas to meet the media, talk to HBO about future fights and attend the middleweight championship fight between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., hoping to perhaps entice the winner -- Martinez -- to fight him.
Geale was just a couple of weeks removed from his biggest victory, a split decision in Germany against hometown fighter Felix Sturm in a world title unification fight (although he has since given up one of the belts).
Geale has shown no fear of traveling and has done something no other fighter can claim: Twice he has gone to Germany and twice he has defeated a reigning German titleholder on a split decision. When Geale won his first belt in 2011, he did so by outpointing Sebastian Sylvester.
The timing wasn't right for a Martinez-Geale fight, but stateside network TV interest remained high, so after Geale returned home for a big nationalistic fight in January with countryman Anthony Mundine, whom he easily outpointed to avenge a controversial 2009 split decision loss, it was time for the 32-year-old Geale (29-1, 15 KOs) to make his American move.
"I really wanted to have this fight and challenge myself and get out of my hometown, just take it to a new level," Geale said. "This is what I love about boxing. You can challenge yourself in many ways, and the United States is a great place to do that. I enjoy that challenge. It's one thing to be able to do it in your backyard, and I love fighting in Australia, where I have great fans and supporters. But if you want to really succeed, you have to do it where you're not comfortable. I know it's something that will take me to the next level.
"It's always tricky when you travel and it's not your backyard, but that is something that gets you the recognition. I enjoy it. It's a tougher job to travel, but I like it that way, when things are a little tough and harder."
Granted, Geale is facing Barker (25-1, 16 KOs), 31, of England, on neutral ground, but that doesn't mean the long trip and unfamiliar surroundings make it any easier.
"Yes, it's neutral territory, but it's still difficult," he said. "There's gonna be no advantage for either of us, but it will make it an interesting fight. Both of us had to travel, both of us are off airplanes and both of us have similar things against us."
For Barker, it could be the memory of his lone professional loss, which came three fights ago in 2011. That's when he went to Atlantic City to challenge Martinez, who had all kinds of problems with Barker in the first half of the fight before coming on strong and knocking out the Englishman in the 11th round.
"I've had two failed attempts in Atlantic City, really, so it feels like a third time [will be] lucky," said Barker, referring to the Martinez fight and his turn in the corner for buddy Lee Purdy's failed attempt to dethrone welterweight titlist Devon Alexander there in May. "He's an Aussie, I'm a Brit, so it's neutral ground but territory that I'm familiar with, having boxed there and been in Lee's corner. So I feel I have a slight advantage in that respect.
"I've heard people say in the past that you can learn from defeat, but I always thought that was mad. How can anything good come from losing? It's not until you experience something invaluable like a defeat in a world title fight to a world-class pound-for-pound star like Sergio Martinez that you appreciate the sentiment, and I really have taken that negative -- losing in a world title fight -- and built on it to go one better. I feel I've matured from it and I'm in my prime now."
Geale said that if his performance against Barker can trump Martinez's, it would be a big deal to him.
"It would make a huge statement," Geale said. "I want to come over and make a statement, but I have to keep things in perspective. I will fight my fight and win the fight the way I do. I'm not going to try to impress too much and put myself in position where it won't work out good for me. I will be smart.
"The way I see it, Darren has skills and ability and footwork and he can make it hard for anyone in the world. He's tough. That's the reason we wanted this fight. I believe I've been in bigger fights more regularly, as well, and that I have that experience on him. But when the fight is over, I want the American fans to want me back again, for sure, after seeing me fight. Hopefully, they will like what they see."
Geale, who follows his division closely, said there are fights he has his eye on if all goes well Saturday.
"Middleweight is strong, and I'd like to come back and fight the other guys in the division," he said. "I'd want Sergio Martinez, but he's got injury issues right now. Once he gets back, maybe that's a possibility, but there is also Golovkin and [titleholder] Peter Quillin.
"I never look past my next opponent, but if Golovkin comes up next, I am more than happy to fight him or whoever HBO and the American fans want to see me fight."