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Contenders wanted: How a banner month for lightweights will shape boxing’s deepest division in ’22

George Kambosos Jr.’s victory over Teofimo Lopez shook up the lightweight division in ways few could have anticipated, setting the stage for a scintillating stretch of fights in one of boxing’s deepest divisions.

Now that Kambosos stands as the guy at 135 pounds, the hierarchy looks drastically different than it did just a week ago. Lopez, the former clear No. 1 at lightweight, is seemingly headed to 140 pounds, and all of his previous titles are now owned by Kambosos.

Irrespective of Lopez’s impending departure, the 135-pound weight class is stacked with talent and some of the most highly recognized boxers in the sport. With four high-profile lightweight matchups in the span of 15 days, there will be plenty of action to sort out the division and set the stage for 2022.

“We’re going to let these other lightweights have their fights over the next couple of weeks and see who’s the most impressive,” Kambosos, the newly crowned undisputed lightweight champion, told ESPN on Tuesday. “I obviously made a big statement. I want to see these guys make a good statement.”

Kambosos is eager to see his potential future opponents in person. The 28-year-old will travel from Miami (where he usually trains) to Las Vegas to attend Saturday’s fight between WBC titleholder Devin Haney and Joseph Diaz Jr. (8 p.m. ET, DAZN). The following day, Kambosos plans to fly north to Los Angeles for Gervonta Davis’ matchup with Isaac Cruz on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, Showtime PPV).

Kambosos will then head home to Sydney, Australia, but there will be one more lightweight fight of prominence remaining in 2021: the Dec. 11 battle between former unified champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and Richard Commey (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The six boxers who follow Lopez-Kambosos will be hard-pressed to top the brutality and drama of that title fight, but the bar is now set.

“They can really turn into barn-burners, or it could be played safe,” Kambosos said. “I know what I did over the weekend; I know how good of a fight that was. It depends how much they want to prove who’s the standout guy.”

Kambosos’ monster upset of Lopez reminded us that it’s never a good idea to look ahead in boxing, but particularly when faced with a young, hungry challenger. And that’s exactly whom Haney is fighting in Diaz. Haney-Diaz shapes up as a classic mix of styles: an elusive defensive-minded boxer vs. a relentless pressure fighter.

“We are seeing an incredible run of lightweight fights and it’s fair to say it’s the hottest division in the sport right now,” Eddie Hearn, who promoted Kambosos-Lopez and will also stage Haney-Diaz, told ESPN. “Everyone is focused on George Kambosos vs. Devin Haney for the undisputed championship, but first Devin must get through Saturday, which won’t be easy.”

Indeed it won’t be. Diaz, the former 130-pound titleholder, was set to face Ryan Garcia on Nov. 27 before Garcia suffered a wrist injury that required surgery. Suddenly in need of an opponent, Hearn and Golden Boy moved quickly to deliver another enticing matchup.

Kambosos’ plan is simple: measure all the performances and then enter negotiations with whomever stands out best. But there’s a catch, of course.

“I’ve had to go into their backyards, travel thousands of miles away; it’s time one of these guys do the same and come to Australia,” Kambosos said. “We’re talking about 80,000 people in a packed-out stadium. It’s bigger than anything in the U.S. I’ve earned the right.”

Now, the other lightweights jockeying for position will have to earn a shot at Kambosos, beginning with Haney and Diaz.

Before they make their ring walks Saturday in Las Vegas, let’s survey the landscape of the 135-pound division — examining the contenders waiting in the wings, the prospects ready to make their move and even a couple of sleepers.


The undisputed champion:

George Kambosos Jr. (20-0, 10 KOs)

Kambosos was given little chance to trouble Lopez, much less dethrone him, but he executed the game plan to perfection.

The right hand that floored Teofimo in the closing seconds of Round 1 set the tone for the fight. Kambosos found his range quickly, and controlled it. When he jabbed, he did so with rhythm and presented a moving target for Lopez’s reckless power shots.

After Kambosos was dropped hard in Round 10, the scorecards were even entering the championship rounds — and that’s when the 6-to-1 underdog truly delivered. He swept Rounds 11 and 12 on one card and split the rounds in the eyes of the other two judges.

Kambosos’ resume was sorely lacking beforehand, with victories over Lee Selby and MIckey Bey standing above the rest. Now he possesses perhaps the best win in the division, a bloody, brutal battle that tested his will and skill.

“‘The Four Kings’ — it was everywhere on social media, everyone’s talking about ‘The Four Kings,’ but I just stayed in the dark,” he said. “I was the dark horse, but I knew ‘The Emperor’ would come over and would do the business and control everybody.

“Eventually I will fight all those guys and beat them all, like I did with Lopez. I’m here to fight the best. I’m very old school; I have that mentality of war.”


The other titleholders:

Devin Haney (26-0, 15 KOs), WBC lightweight champion

Haney turned pro weeks after his 17th birthday, gaining experience against low-level fighters in Tijuana, and he built up a big social-media following along the way.

The 23-year-old possesses perhaps the best defense in the division, but in his best win yet, he showed another dimension: toughness. His victory in May over Jorge Linares — the first former champion Haney faced — forced him to trudge through some tough moments late in the fight.

He was bucked right before the bell to end Round 10 but proved to have enough mettle to still grab the win. Haney usually plays it safe and boxes from the outside, but he was far more aggressive against Linares, opening himself up to plenty more damaging shots.

Against Diaz, he faces a better, fresher fighter than Linares. A convincing victory here, and Haney can set himself up for a fight with Kambosos for all the belts at 135 pounds.

“This is finally the fight that I’m going to get all the credit that I deserve, and I’m going to make everything of it,” said Haney, who lives and trains in Las Vegas.


Gervonta Davis (25-0, 24 KOs), WBA ‘regular’ lightweight champion

Tank Davis is not just the biggest attraction in the division, but one of the biggest ticket-sellers in all of boxing. Sunday’s fight against Cruz will be his third consecutive PPV headliner, but just his first fight at 135 pounds during that stretch.

His last lightweight performance: a December 2019 12th-round KO of a well-past-his-expiration-date version of Yuriorkis Gamboa.

Despite Davis’ star power, he arguably boasts the worst lightweight resume of the marquee names in the division. Part of that can be attributed to how Davis has bounced between three divisions, and he currently owns a secondary title at 140 pounds.

Still, there’s no debate when it comes to Davis’ immense power and talent, no matter what weight he’s competing at.

The Baltimore native was slated to fight Rolando Romero, but after the challenger was accused of sexual assault, Cruz stepped in on short notice.

“The change in opponent didn’t really affect my mindset or my game plan,” said Davis, 27. “We all have to get out there and perform when it’s time to.”


The former lightweight champions:

Teofimo Lopez (16-1, 12 KOs)

Lopez was looking ahead, past Kambosos, to a big 2022. He laid out a plan that would kick off with a fight against Haney before a jump to 140 pounds for a bout with undisputed champion Josh Taylor.

Now, it’s unclear where Lopez goes, but he’s seemingly done with 135 pounds a little earlier than expected.

“They’ve been draining me the whole time,” Lopez, 24, said of his difficulty to make the lightweight limit.

After a fight on DAZN, Lopez will return to ESPN platforms and hope to rediscover the form that led to his landmark victory over Lomachenko in 2020. He’ll also return to Top Rank, his home since turning professional — a promoter that’s proven to be the best at rebuilding careers.

Surely, Lopez will fight a soft touch (or two) at 140 pounds before landing a shot at Taylor or another marquee name in that division. Whether or not Lopez fights again at 135 pounds is uncertain, but what is clear is that he’s no longer the top lightweight in the world.


Vasiliy Lomachenko (15-2, 11 KOs)

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Vasiliy Lomachenko dominates his fight vs. Masayoshi Nakatani and forces the referee to call the fight in the middle of Round 9.

The former pound-for-pound king appears hell-bent to regain what was once his.

Lomachenko played it safe over the first seven rounds against Lopez before turning it on down the stretch, but it was too late. Turns out, Lomachenko fought with a torn rotator cuff. After surgery to repair the injury, he returned in June and picked apart reliable 135-pound gatekeeper Masayoshi Nakatani.

On Dec. 11, the 33-year-old will take on another former Lopez opponent with a fight against Commey. If the two-time Olympic gold medalist can come through with another spectacular performance, he could catapult himself to a shot at Kambosos next year.

After all the Ukrainian has accomplished during his Hall of Fame career, it would be foolish to count him out now.


Richard Commey (30-3, 27 KOs)

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Teofimo Lopez Jr. puts on a Joe Burrow jersey after defeating Richard Commey at MSG in December, similar to when Lopez sported a Kyler Murray jersey in his win the previous December.

The Ghanaian proved to be durable in narrow decision defeats against Robert Easter Jr., and Denis Shafikov before finally breaking through with a title victory over Ray Beltran in 2019.

But in his first title defense, Commey was stopped in just two rounds by Lopez. He’s being counted out against Lomachenko, too. At 34, Commey is fighting for another title shot, but more so, to remain relevant. Anything less than a competitive performance against Lomachenko and Commey will fall by the wayside.

Win, or at least push Lomachenko to the brink, and Commey will earn more meaningful fights, even if it’s as a hard-nosed, beatable opponent.

“Ever since the Lopez fight, all I have thought about is becoming a two-time world champion,” he said. “This fight against Lomachenko will get me one step closer to my goal. I know that most people consider me the underdog, but I am aiming to prove them all wrong and make Ghana proud once again.”


Jorge Linares (47-6, 29 KOs)

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Jorge Linares lands a right hand flush to Vasiliy Lomachenko that sends him to the mat. Lomachenko gets up and survives the round.

The former three-division champion has now settled into the role of gatekeeper. There’s certainly no shame in that. At 36, Linares is still good enough to beat all but the very best lightweights. And even against those talents, Linares will test their mettle.

He did just that against Haney, and would still represent a perfectly reasonable challenge for a fighter like Garcia or Romero. But the days of Linares whizzing past the competition appear to be over.


The contenders:

Joseph Diaz Jr. (32-1-1, 15 KOs)

The Olympian lost his 130-pound title in February after he failed to make weight for his defense against Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov. After they fought to a draw, Diaz moved up to 135 pounds and showed that, just maybe, this is his best weight class yet.

He dominated Javier Fortuna in his 135-pound debut and displayed an impressive 12-round engine without suffering through his usual weight cut. In his second lightweight fight, Diaz will face the toughest challenge of his career.

The 28-year-old’s game plan is no secret: He’ll apply pressure and attempt to cut off the ring against Haney, who will enjoy edges in height and reach.

“I feel like he’s smaller than me,” said Diaz, a native of Southern California. “He might be taller than me, but as far as the frame, I feel like [I’m bigger]. It’s going to show come fight night. I’m going to be breaking him down, landing some body shots, and he’s going to be trying to hold and hug all night.”

Diaz, so far, has displayed an unbreakable will. He battled through a gruesome cut to defeat Tevin Farmer and win his first world title in January 2020. Diaz also came close to springing the upset against Gary Russell Jr. in a featherweight title fight back in 2018.

In his third weight class, a stronger version of Diaz hopes the experience he holds over Haney will help push him to victory.

“Skills just don’t pay the bills,” Diaz said in a retort to Haney. “You’ve got to have heart and you’ve got to have the dog in you as well in order to become victorious inside this sport of boxing. … Devin Haney hasn’t been tested like that.

“He’s been hurt by a guy [in Linares] that is already old and washed up and didn’t want to go for the kill. I feel like I’m in my prime right now, so if I have him hurt, I’m going to do what I’ve got to do to take him out.”


Isaac Cruz (22-1-1, 15 KOs)

Ranked No. 24 on ESPN’s list of the top 25 boxers under 25, Cruz was in the running to fight Davis before Romero received the assignment.

However, shortly after the fight was announced, Cruz ended up landing the fight he was looking for all along. The Mexico City native is a 7-to-1 underdog in his first true test, and with good reason. Davis is among the biggest punchers in the sport, and Cruz is seemingly tailor-made for Davis’ style of fighting.

The 23-year-old is tough and determined, but he’ll have to walk through some powerful shots to launch the sort of attack necessary to upend one of boxing’s best.

“I have proven time and time again that my drive and desire to be champion is too big to be ignored,” said Cruz. “This fight won’t be the exception. I am going to pull off the upset and a brand new star will be born.”


Ryan Garcia (21-0, 18 KOs)

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Boxer Ryan Garcia shows off his quick hands with some rapid punches.

Davis is currently the biggest star at 135 pounds, but Garcia isn’t far behind. With a victory over Diaz this past weekend, he might have already surpassed him. But his return will have to wait until the spring.

He notched the biggest win of his career in January, a seventh-round TKO of Olympic gold medalist Luke Campbell. The performance showed why boxing fans are so enthusiastic about his potential. The public already knew that Garcia owned ultra-quick hands, but he displayed vast improvement when it comes to placing those shots.

The 23-year-old also showed resilience, brushing off a second-round knockdown against Campbell in his toughest test yet. Training alongside Canelo Alvarez with Eddy Reynoso, Garcia will eye a breakthrough 2022 once his wrist is fully healed.


Rolando Romero (14-0, 12 KOs)

Romero was set for a life-changing opportunity and a $1 million payday. Instead, he was sidelined after he was accused of sexual assault. An investigation was launched by the Henderson Police Department, but as of Dec. 2, no charges have been filed.

“This is still an open case; therefore, no information can be advised at this time,” a police information officer answered to an ESPN request on Tuesday.

Romero, 26, isn’t as skilled as the other top lightweights in the traditional sense, but his power is real and so is his size. The awkward angles he uses to throw those damaging shots is a handful, too. Add his outsized personality to the mix, and he made perfect sense as a PPV B-side.

For now, his career is on hold pending the investigation.


Prospects:

Michel Rivera (22-0, 14 KOs)

The 23-year-old from the Dominican Republic has turned heads with his blend of speed, size and power.

He fought three times in 2021, scoring knockouts in two of those bouts. He owns wins over solid opponents like Ladarius Miller and Jon Fernandez, and appears poised for a substantial leap in competition next year.


Keyshawn Davis (3-0, 2 KOs)

Davis turned pro before an Olympic run that netted him a silver medal in Tokyo. Finally done with the amateurs for good, Davis signed with Top Rank in November, and he will make his debut with the promotion on Dec. 11 on the Lomachenko-Commey undercard.

In his three pro fights, Davis has shown the type of potential that made him a coveted fighter for every promoter. With the experience gained in the Olympics, Davis could be fast-tracked to a title shot sooner than later.


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