Ten boxers at 26 and under with the ‘It Factor’
Watching WBO junior featherweight titlist Isaac Dogboe last Saturday brought up a question which has nothing to do with his skills. Those are obviously available in excess; however there are special people who have an appeal just by being themselves. They have a secreted ability to attract a following. Call it charisma, personality or just plain allure but there is, no doubt, an “It Factor.” The gold standard for this is Muhammad Ali; he was braggadocios without crossing the line into villainy, a trick Floyd Mayweather Jr. never pulled off. Where Ali mouthed off with a knowing and barely perceptible smile, Mayweather’s persona mostly grated, as his comments came with a sneer of superiority that offended most of the boxing proletariat.
It is a fine line to walk, which is why so few are able to pull it off. Some did so by becoming an antihero with negative implications like Mike Tyson or Hector Camacho. They were forgiven with the passing of time, maybe because we assume that anyone given special gifts are limited in other ways such as social etiquette. Oscar De La Hoya, fitting into a third category, was adored by the masses but somewhat shunned by hardcore fans, who saw him as too slickly manufactured to come off as a natural “it” guy. So whom at age 26 and under has the “It Factor” going for them? Here are my 10 nominees and just missing the cut were Josh Kelly, Kosei Tanaka, Shakur Stevenson, Eimantas Stanionis, Vergil Ortiz, Daniel Dubois and Hiroto Kyoguchi.
Isaac Dogboe (23) – I’ll start with the aforementioned gift from Ghana. The man is devout and that could be a key to his charm, as nothing about Dogboe seems fake. In other words, you can’t fake sincerity. What you see or hear with Dogboe comes from the heart and his fire-and-brimstone style needs no translation. Dogboe comes to the arena without fake humility or phony posturing, taking the fight to opponents in straight and lethal lines. Has quickly built a following who proselytize for him on social media – boxing three times in eight months will do that – and is not afraid to travel, fighting in America, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Ghana and New Zealand. Won the WBO junior featherweight crown by demoralizing and then demolishing the division’s most dangerous titleholder (Jessie Magdaleno) and called out everyone in the division afterward. What else does this guy have to do to become a star?
Naoya “Monster” Inoue (25) – Japan’s finest television export since Godzilla; Naoya is 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, soaking wet, but the diminutive beast has wreaked destruction like few before him in the lower weights. Forget about size. To date, this prodigy is a three-division champion (accomplished in 15 fights!) in the boxer-destroyer mold. An iconoclast who overpowers with speedy precision, impugning a sense of hopelessness upon disoriented foes. Inoue’s knockout of defensive master Omar Narvaez was dazzling, both in its dominance and surgical coldness. Notably Inoue has looked his best against the toughest opposition, a sure sign that he is motivated by a challenge. The Japanese are known for respect and decorum, which is why we see more ambition than ego from Inoue. Simply put, Inoue radiates a Bruce Lee-like zen that is missing from athletes who use their mouths more than their spirit.
Gervonta Davis (23) – Some boxers become unforgettable for their ability to polarize as much as their athletic gifts. Think Ali, Jack Johnson, Roberto Duran or more recently Floyd Mayweather and Tyson Fury. Is Davis more Mayweather or Adrien Broner? In other words…can Davis back up his trash talk? Won a world title in only his 17th bout and displayed further ambition traveling overseas to defend it (which few American boxers do) against a credible foe in Liam Walsh. The greats retain their focus while causing lapses in others’ focus. That is something Davis may lack, given an ordinary outing against Francisco Fonseca in which he was stripped of the IBF junior lightweight title for failing to make weight. I was an early backer of Davis, who endured orphanages and Baltimore street life because of drug dependent parents, before finding refuge with his grandmothers, confident that he would unseat Jose Pedraza. Recently Davis has caused me doubts but retains an ability to stir emotions and controversy, which could be is his key to fame.
Ryan “Kingry” Garcia (20) – Count me a victim of the generational gap here; I don’t see the fascination with Kingry yet but pay it due deference. To me, Garcia is still Ralph Maccio’s “Karate Kid” instead of full-blown Chuck Norris. However given 1.1 million Instagram followers, Garcia obviously possesses more than just boxing ability. I like that the youngster speaks out, not shying away from welcoming homosexual followers on his media platforms, in a real display of maturity. Garcia has that gift of gab, telling ESPN’s Dan Rafael, “I could have been the next Babe Ruth. No doubt about it. I was a prodigy and then I realized that baseball was a team sport. They handed me a fourth place trophy and I was pissed because we were fourth and my teammates let me down.” Garcia needs to win to be great and has a great foundation, sporting a 215-15 amateur resume with a ton of international trophies. Despite not going to the Olympics, because he was too young, Garcia has De La Hoya-level crossover potential with a similar million dollar smile.
Jaime Munguia (21) – Some guys have that indestructible look, accompanied by a knowing smirk (Stanely Ketchel, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon) and, for me, Munguia is of that breed. You can sense he came up tough, turning pro at age 16 in blood-soaked Tijuana rings, but did not let tough environs corrupt his soul. I am saddened that his winning a major title will likely stop Munguia following the Saul Alvarez school of fighting as many times as possible, which has enabled Munguia to log 30 fights so quickly. I will liken Munguia to another Mexican legend in Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. (stop cursing and hear me out), in that he is not a uniquely gifted boxer with flashy speed or great power. Like Chavez Sr., Munguia will find popularity being a blue-collar fighter without the need for showboating. Munguia’s ability to cut weight and put it back on quickly is a major factor, given his straight-ahead engaging style. Also Mexican boxers have a built-in advantage, being able to draw on fans from both sides of the Rio Grande.
David Benavidez (21) – The American version of Munguia with less charisma but more boxing ability, Benavidez is a young gun with an old head. Won a title and dispatched competent and varied opposition with ease. All of this from a boxer who has yet to find his proverbial “man strength” and, like Munguia, turned pro at age 16, in Mexico. A prodigy of sorts, Benavidez sparred former and current middleweight champions like Kelly Pavlik and Gennady Golovkin, in his teens. Has that hard-to-find combination of a relaxed “Let the fight come to you and let the others make mistakes” style, combined with a killer instinct that only surfaces when opportunity presents itself. That odd blend and Benavidez’s lack of bravado does not make him the most magnetic boxing presence. That can change with more experience, which will allow Benavidez to open up on offense and go in search of knockouts instead of waiting for them to unfold. Benavidez is lightning in search of thunder.
Teofimo Lopez (21) – It seems right that an American-bred boxer of Honduran heritage from Brooklyn has incorporated a multitude of boxing gifts into one dangerous package. Teofimo has star dynamism with a dangerous edge reminiscent of Fernando Vargas. Like Vargas, Lopez uses intelligent boxing to set up knockouts instead of brute power or blazing speed. Don’t get me wrong; Lopez is plenty fast and packs a solid punch but the boxing IQ behind the combinations sets him apart for anyone to see. Can play the heel, given fast talk that reflects his confidence, but will that continue to play if not seen as youthful brashness? Has an excellent amateur pedigree, winning 170 of about 200 bouts, topping out at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Built a reputation as a gym rat, sparring everyone from Guillermo Rigondeaux to Shawn Porter. Most importantly it is hard to take your eyes off Lopez, once the bell sounds.
Devin Haney (19) – All the boxing ability is there with this San Francisco-born stylist but it lacks a persona to match the undoubted abilities. It is not good enough to be dubbed “Mini-Mayweather.” At some point, boxers have to break out of others’ mold, and find their own. Haney is young enough to do so and is daredevil enough inside the ring to draw comparisons to Mayweather or Rigondeaux. Haney won seven national amateur tourneys en route to a 130-8 amateur record and his ambitions forced him to travel to Mexico, at age 16, to turn pro. Haney is even a student of himself, “I study myself a lot, to find a flaw to find something that my opponent can capitalize on. I am always trying to get better. I’m intimidating and I know it. I’ve been calling out all the big game’s names in my weight class.” States matter of factly, without much bluster but plenty of conviction, that he is ready for anyone. Fans will probably wait to jump on Haney’s bandwagon until his image or brand matures.
Michael Conlan (26) – Beats out fellow U.K. prospect Josh Kelly for the final spot, and is the boxer I have the least confidence of competing at the highest level. Not because Conlan lacks a multifaceted skill set (some insiders have pushed back on that) or pedigree but only a few greats were able to harness and control their anger over a long period. Conlan famously ended his amateur career as the rash Irishman who stood center ring and flipped off Olympic judges, after losing a controversial decision to a Russian opponent at the 2016 Olympic Games. Now Conlan is looking to make a bold statement in the pros with just as much venom but expressed in a more constructive form. Americans love a boxer with attitude and Conlan has that in abundance. A strong amateur background, developed over nearly 350 bouts, of which Conlan only lost 14, should overcome what bravado may not. If Conlan’s boxing ambitions are met, fans will only remember his Olympic gestures as the opening salvo of an explosive career.
Carlos Adames (24) – Sometimes having just one fantastic tool is good enough to attract crowds and in this Dominican I see a raw Ike Quartey-like quality. A strong silent type with a brooding aura of invulnerability, who steamrolled two former Olympians with his straight-forward aggression. Is not all brawn though, Adames showed versatility dominating every round against former junior middleweight champion Carlos Molina, using his jab to set up combinations and scoring a beautiful uppercut knockdown. Top Rank Vice President Carl Moretti said of his protege, “All of us can’t wait to catapult him to the next level. Carlos’ exciting all-gas, no-brakes style of fighting will resonate with all boxing fans.” Naturally ambidextrous, Adames switches stances at regular intervals to find punching angles and still fans are transfixed by Adames’ physicality, given his brutish presence.