The best of the rest: The fighters ready to take the next step in every boxing division

Erickson Lubin, left, Tim Tszyu, center and Jared Anderson are three fighters ready to take the next step into title contention. ESPN

There are 17 weight divisions in men's boxing, and in each one there is a champion determined by each of the four major sanctioning bodies: the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF. Some of these organizations also have a secondary titlist or an interim titlist, and all four have rankings in each weight class. Often, those lists are quite different.

So, who are the real contenders that are still fighting under the radar but have the talent to succeed?

Former two-division world champion and current boxing analyst Timothy Bardley Jr. picked his wild cards in each division.

Heavyweight - Cruiserweight - Light heavyweight - Super middleweight - Middleweight - Junior middleweight - Welterweight - Junior welterweight - Lightweight - Junior lightweight - Featherweight - Junior featherweight - Bantamweight - Junior bantamweight - Flyweight - Junior flyweight - Strawweight


Jared Anderson wins via knockout in Round 2

Jared Anderson knocks out Oleksandr Teslenko in Round 2 as the Madison Square Garden crowd watches on.

Jared Anderson, 22: At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, "The Real Big Baby" isn't one of the biggest fighters in the division. Tyson Fury (6-9, 275) would tower over him. But Anderson is as agile and fluid in his abilities. Anderson (11-0, 11 KOs) is ambidextrous, meaning he doesn't have a weak side and can punch hard with both hands. Unlike most of today's American heavyweights, Anderson, of Toledo, Ohio, isn't a football or basketball player who decided to give boxing a try. He's been living, sleeping and eating boxing since he was a kid, honing the ring instincts of a born fighter. Anderson is a middleweight in a heavyweight's body. He has the essential tools to take over the division: speed, power and, even more important, the brains to solve any puzzle inside the squared circle.

Justin Huni, 22: Have you heard of Australia's Huni? I bet most of you haven't. He's moving at a ferocious pace by testing his skills against undefeated heavyweights from Australia. When I watched film on him, the first word that came to mind: damn! His hand speed and coordination are excellent. Huni (5-0, 4 KOs) already understands his strengths, which is not always the case for a young fighter. He's got complete control of the center of the ring. He is a hunting technician with precise accuracy when applying his combinations to the head and body. Many of today's heavyweights lack conditioning and the ability to throw combinations, but not Huni.


Jai Opetaia, 26: I've always referred to this weight class as the "My growth was stunted" division. Some guys lack height. Other guys don't have the muscle mass to be a heavyweight. But Opetaia (21-0, 17 KOs), of Sydney, Australia, has it all. He's a southpaw boxer-puncher. He has excellent technical skills and great reflexes. We hear time and time again the phrase eyes are the window to the soul. Opetaia has perfect vision when it comes to throwing accurate punches and recognizing incoming fire. The way he moves out of harm's way is nearly flawless. His straight left is his kill shot, and his confidence is very high. It almost feels like a superpower.

Aleksei Papin, 34: Many of us look at a fighter's record and write him off because of one minor loss. Don't do that! Papin, of Reutov, Russia, is an orthodox bruiser, a gutty, hard-hitting fighter with a KO mentality. He has big, strong legs that help him set up and deliver powerful shots, yet he's still nimble enough to get out of the way if need be. Great technicians pay attention to detail, such as recognizing repetitive combinations, even punch patterns, or when someone is out of position and not ready to punch. Papin (13-1, 12 KOs) can uncover just about anything.

Light heavyweights

Joshua Buatsi, 29: Buatsi, of Accra Ghana, is a badass, and the sport needs to turn its attention to him now. He's an orthodox fighter who improves each time out, and as a result, his confidence seems to have opened his mind to create unscripted, single-punch, highlight-reel knockouts. His lightning-quick pistol-like jab blinds the vision, making opponents susceptible to the punching power in his right hand. Buatsi (15-0, 13 KOs) is physically strong, tall and sturdy for a light heavyweight standing 6-foot-2. His next step should be learning every facet inside the ring, as he is now beginning to box nicely off his front and back feet.

Gilberto Ramirez, 30: Ramirez, of Sinaloa, Mexico, needs no introduction. He is a former super middleweight champion now campaigning at light heavyweight. Ramirez (43-0, 29 KOs) is a 6-foot-3 southpaw who has improved drastically on his mechanics and is now utilizing his height and southpaw stance to his advantage. Fighting on the inside has never been a problem, as he is known for throwing and landing piercing body shots that will leave any man on the canvas. Toughness is unteachable in the world of boxing; champions are born and can succeed only through discipline. Ramirez is under the radar, waiting and in need of an opportunity to show his greatness in this loaded division.

Super middleweight

David Benavidez, 24: At 6-foot-½, Benavidez (25-0, 22 KOs) possesses height, reach and size advantages against many in the division. He also has plenty of hunger and is bold and deceiving at the same time. He's not muscular, nor does he have one-punch knockout power. But Benavidez, of Phoenix, Arizona, has unbelievable hand speed and a tremendous ring IQ when fighting from his right side. He puts blazing combinations together and applies relentless pressure. In addition, he's shown himself to have a great chin. Benavidez can physically and mentally break down his opposition when applying pressure. He enjoys staying just close enough, forcing his opponents to punch at his high, tight guard. Greats such as Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. used this tactic to suppress the will of competitors. Benavidez wants to take every fighter's heart anytime he steps foot inside the ring.

Pavel Silyagin, 28: Silyagin, of Novokuznetsk, Russia, is a technician with surgical ability and can operate seemingly without visibility, mainly because he relies on the muscle memory collected in his training. Silyagin (10-0, 5 KOs) is highly tactical. His jab is like a knife slicing through a stick of butter. He knows when to stand his ground and when to move and box. He has the tools to deal with any boxing style, making him a dangerous opponent for anybody in the super middleweight division.


Janibek Alimkhanuly, 28: A southpaw, Alimkhanuly (11-0, 7 KOs) is known for his impeccable timing and counterpunching ability. The fighter from Kazakhstan incorporates subtle lateral movement along with quick-twitch, accurate counters after he makes his opponents miss. He's a bit on the technical side, a master of angles and positioning. With only 11 fights under his belt, he seems to be the real deal. I can't help but notice his commanding presence, controlling every aspect of the ring. Alimkhanuly's ability to punch in between opponent's punches is challenging to master, as most fighters who do it do so unknowingly. He is highly aware of the vulnerability of a fighter who chooses to throw a punch. He is like the Hall of Fame NFL cornerback Deion Sanders, intercepting punches as opposed to footballs.

Demetrius Andrade, 34: While Andrade (31-0, 19 KOs) has been in boxing for a long time and has been a fixture in the division for years, you would think fighters would be lining up for a chance to face him, being a world champion and all. But many look elsewhere when Andrade's name comes across their table. The Providence, Rhode Island, native is much different from the rest -- a slickly moving fighter with Pernell Whitaker-like defense. Although he isn't as mean or tenacious as Whitaker was, Andrade relies on concentration and an ability to transition from offense to defense and back to firing, making him the ultimate chess player. Power punchers may be the most avoided fighters, but in the boxing world a pure, masterful boxer is the most feared.

Junior middleweight

Tim Tszyu, 27: The son of legend and Hall of Famer Kostya Tsyu fits the bill not by being a namesake, but by his continuous dominance inside the ring. Traditionally, offspring have an advantage, but in some cases, they don't, living in the shadows of their parents' success. I see Tim's desire and drive. Furthermore, he's a hard worker. Tszyu, of Sydney, Australia, is crude but technically sound. He operates from the outside in. His orthodox, upright stance and slightly lifted guard, a trademark of his father, allows him to fight at range and be in a position to counter without losing a second. Tim's jab and straight right cross are his best weapons. However, simplicity goes a long way in boxing. Fundamentals are becoming lost, but Tszyu (20-0, 15 KOs) inherited the cheat code for success.

Erickson Lubin, 26: "The Hammer" is known for his patience, punch placement and cerebral approach. He is a relaxed but ready-to-pounce southpaw. Lubin, of Orlando, Florida, is a positioning specialist who controls space and keeps his lead leg outside an orthodox opponent most of the time. In doing so, he usually comes out untouched after hazardous exchanges. However, occasionally Lubin will go against the conventional wisdom of boxing by moving toward the orthodox right cross. For example, he looks to set up his straight left cross after avoiding an incoming right cross. Lubin (24-1, 17 KOs) also possesses good punching power, which makes him even more dangerous off the counter.


Eimantas Stanionis, 27: The welterweight division is by far the healthiest in boxing. Fighters like Vergil Ortiz Jr. and Jaron Ennis are starting to make a name for themselves and quickly moving up the rankings, but there are a few more names who belong, starting with Stanionis. The orthodox sensation from Kaunas, Lithuania, never shies away from contact. He's a juggernaut, physically robust, consistent and not easily deterred. Stanionis' style is suitable to combat pure boxers, counterpunchers and even some southpaws. Volume pressure fighters like Stanionis (13-0, 9 KOs) are great at mounting real estate and making the ring smaller for their advantage. He is relentless in attacking the body.

Rashidi Ellis, 26: In boxing, like many sports, speed kills. Aggression and punching power, too. Hand speed is innate and not taught. Ellis, of Lynn, Massachusetts, is a right-hand-dominant welterweight born with speed. Ellis (23-0, 14 KOs) is explosive offensively, with power and flair. He varies his combinations, sometimes throwing combinations of three to five punches with one hand. He tends to get a little wide with his power shots, which can be dangerous against a counterpuncher, but one thing is for sure: The heart and will of Ellis are the power plant to his success.

Junior welterweights

Brandun Lee, 22: There is always a guy in every division for whom only time will tell us how great he will be. And that's true about Lee, of Yuba City, California. His footwork is money, efficient and rhythmic, and his punching power is his equalizer. He has displayed remarkable finishing qualities and has produced some of the best single-punch knockouts of this year. Lee (24-0, 22 KOs) has mastered fighting at a distance to maximize his punching power, and his punch placement makes him one of the most accurate fighters in the game.

Arnold Barboza Jr., 30: Barboza is tough, formidable -- and never mentioned amongst the best in this weight class. However, the orthodox fighter out of Long Beach, California, keeps winning as he waits in line for his earned opportunity for a championship. He isn't a power puncher or a pure boxer. Instead, I've categorized his fighting style as well-rounded and athletic. Barboza (26-0, 10 KOs) can do a little of everything, giving him the ability to make adjustments on the fly. If he fights a pressure fighter, he can outbox him. And if Barboza is fighting a boxer, he can pressure him on the inside. This ability has earned Barboza the nickname "The Locksmith."


William Zepeda, 25: There is a rugged warrior from Mexico looking to make his mark among the lightweights. Zepeda (25-0, 23 KOs) is a southpaw swarmer who punches with bad intentions. Zepeda's attack is persistent and violent, yet under control. Furthermore, his volume punching style makes him fun to watch. His good punching power completes his arsenal and adds another layer of danger to his game. Usually, pressure fighters box from the orthodox stance, but boxing has seen a rise in southpaw pressure fighters in recent years. The likes of Errol Spence Jr. and Joseph "JoJo" Diaz throw punches in bunches, making their games similar to Zepeda's -- but, of course, with a slight variation.

Rolando Romero, 26: There is something about Romero, of Las Vegas, Nevada, that bears our attention. It's not his technique or footwork and not even his boxing mechanics or ability. Romero is different -- mean, uniquely awkward, unbalanced and extremely powerful. He likes to explode offensively, off rhythm, catching his opponent by surprise. Romero (14-0, 12 KOs) has freakish physical strength and plenty of ambition. His quest to be the best is his motivation. He made this list based on mystery and uncertainty. However, if someone can escape his treacherous roughhousing tactics and his powerful spontaneous combinations, Romero can be beaten. But not without a fight.

Junior lightweight

Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov, 27: As a foreigner, making a name for yourself in the U.S. market is difficult. But Rakhimov (16-0-1, 12 KOs), a southpaw from Bokhtar, Tajikistan, has gotten my attention. He earned a draw with former champion JoJo Diaz in February 2021 in a highly entertaining matchup that lived up to the hype. He is an aggressive pressure fighter with good technical skills who likes to stand in front of his opposition. He can either attack first with combinations of three to four punches, or he will look to draw out mistakes with his presence. Much of his offense will come from the outside because, being tall and rangy, he knows that his power is at the end of the punch. Defensively, Rakhimov will move his head to avoid punches, but most of the time he will use a high guard to defend. Allowing fighters to punch at that high guard is his way of setting a trap.

Robson Conceicao, 33: The 130-pound brazilian has impressed me ever since he went 12 rounds with junior lightweight kingpin Oscar Valdez -- the man that dethroned the once-called boogeyman of the division, Miguel Berchelt. Imagine being in front of someone like Valdez, who has power in both hands coming towards you? Conceicao's game of keep-away from his opponents by leashing out when in range has been very effective. His defense and ability to fight at the perfect distance for him are unmatched. Conceicao (17-1, 8 KOs) is a physically strong, well-conditioned fighter, and will be a force at junior lightweight.


Robeisy Ramirez, 28: Ramirez's Cuban boxing background, hand and foot speed, combined with his punching power, put him on this list. Ramirez (9-1, 5 KOs) has regained his confidence after losing his pro-debut, but his skill is unmatched. And as his confidence and physical strength continues to grow, it's hard not to imagine multiple belts around his waist. Judging by his last few performances, he is a fight or two away from competing for a world championship.

Joet Gonzalez, 28: Maybe the most challenging moment in former title challenger Gonzalez's career is behind him. He was distracted by family turmoil before entering the ring against the highly talented Shakur Stevenson in 2019. Gonzalez, of Glendora, California, is a complete fighter. He has good hand speed and punching power. He's balanced in his attacks, changing levels, maintaining keen positions to counter effectively. Gonzalez (25-2, 15 KOs) is responsible for his defensive harnessing, a talent needed to compete with anyone in his division. Timing is a big part of his game; finding his opposition's rhythm and exploiting their weaknesses is his calling card.

Junior featherweight

Ra'eese Aleem, 31: Aleem is a former karate black belt . He was born for combat. Aleem (19-0, 12 KOs), of Muskegon, Michigan, is a reactive fighter governed by his reflexes and athleticism. His ability to compute and process things quickly while pushing at a rapid pace is what catches my attention. In addition, Aleem has keen timing and abrupt respectable punching power that has surprised his competition.

Ludumo Lamati, 29: Lamati is a big fighter for the 122-pound division, standing at 5-foot-8 and with a 70-inch reach. Being relatively tall, one would think he could fight off his back front and play keep-away with his opposition, but instead he has a bag full of tricks in his arsenal. Lamati (18-0-1, 10 KOs), from Eastern Cape, South Africa, has excellent pendulum footwork that helps him get in offensively and out defensively. He is also a prolific body puncher which makes him a triple threat for any opponent -- size, ring generalship and a punisher to the body. That's a recipe for success in any division.


Rau'shee Warren, 35: A great southpaw boxer can beat a tremendous orthodox fighter more times than not. Southpaw heavyweight Micheal Moorer defeated Evander Holyfield for the title. The great southpaw Manny Pacquiao dethroned Keith Thurman. Southpaws face orthodox fighters more often than conventional ones face southpaws. Warren, of Cincinnati, Ohio, a two-time US Olympian, is a speedster -- he has some of the fastest hands in the sport today. Although he has suffered a few close losses, his dedication and desire were evident in his last time out against Damien Vazquez. Warren (19-3, 5 KOs) produced a scintillating second-round KO win, which sent a message to the champions in this division and earned him a spot on my list.

Gary Antonio Russell, 29: The brother of former champion Gary Russell Jr. is a southpaw workhorse. He pressures fighters behind sharp technical skills and runs quick, accurate combinations set up by his jab. Russell (19-0, 12 KOs), of Capitol Heights, Maryland, sets a blazing pace early, testing the stamina and the will of his competition. It is crucial to be a double-fisted southpaw, as many southpaws use their lead hand as bait for their back hand -- but not Russell. His right hook is just as devastating as his straight left hand, and his desire to win is even greater.

Junior bantamweight

Jade Bornea, 26: The junior bantamweight division has gained a lot of respect in recent years. Naoya Inoue, Nonito Donaire, Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez have brought speed and power, and as a result, the little guys are magnified. Bornea, a switch-hitting fighter of Arakan, Philippines, is unbeaten, ruthless and a body snatcher. Bornea (17-0, 11 KOs) is not extremely fast like Pacquiao, but he has a tenacity common to many fighters from the Philippines. Having grit is something you're born with, and the environment you grow up in molds your character. Bornea is a true fighter, one who can take it and dish it, too. A warrior doesn't always need to have superior skill. Hunger can make up for the lacking of talent.


Kento Hatanaka, 23: "Prince" is the son of former WBC junior featherweight champion Kiyoshi Hatanaka. Hatanaka has inherited the talent and has been exposed to boxing early, giving him the feeling of invincibility when maneuvering inside the ring. Hatanaka (12-0, 9 KOs), of Nagoya, Japan, pushes the pace early while having the conditioning and total distance control throughout the fight. He injects his left hand up to the head and downstairs to the body, making me wonder if he's naturally left-handed. A puncher that can push the tempo, pay respect to defense, and one that can operate as a bricklayer with meticulous aggression deserves mention.

Junior flyweight

Agustin Mauro Gauto, 24: The orthodox fighter from Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a brilliant adaptive fighter with tremendous upper torso movement. Gauto (17-0, 12 KOs) has fast hands and uses deceiving tactics like level changes and high-guard traps to get opponents to throw precisely the punch that he intended them to release -- and then counter. Maybe I will call him "Little Canelo" because his movements and approach remind me of Canelo Alvarez.


Ginjiro Shigeoka, 22: If I only had one word to describe his fighting style, I would use "Destruction". Shigeoka (6-0, 5 KOs), from Kumamoto, Japan, is a southpaw with incredible one-punch power. I've never seen a man so little in boxing that possesses this kind of force. To add, he is extremely confident and precise with his offense, and a force to be reckoned in this 105-pound division.