A few years ago, I read a news report on Carlos Baldomir's miraculous 2006, in which he scored a shocking upset over Zab Judah to win the Ring Magazine lineal welterweight championship (he then defended the title against Arturo Gatti before losing a lopsided decision to Floyd Mayweather Jr. later that year). In the story, Baldomir was referred to as a "journeyman", and I remember being quite offended. Obviously, Baldomir is not in the same league as a Floyd Mayweather, but there's a significant difference between someone who, even on a great night, is capable of becoming lineal welterweight champion, and a Reggie Strickland.
To try and rectify that, I'm trying to create a typology of boxing labels, so fighters are referred to properly and given their just due. I'm not saying they're perfect, or even that I myself have or will use them consistently. But I think they're solid benchmarks.
Superstar, Star, and Action Star
The best of the best (with one caveat, see below). What makes one a star (of any variety), in my book, is that one's fights are meaningful simply because the fighter is participating in them (and not because, say, a title is on the line). So, for example, Bernard Hopkins and Kelly Pavlik fought at a catchweight in 2008, with no belt at stake. But the fight still mattered, because Hopkins and Pavlik were in it. Obviously, a belt can help make a fight even more meaningful (e.g., Sergio Martinez and Paul Williams II for the lineal middleweight title), but the point is the fighters exert an independent gravitational pull.
Within the category, a superstar is a boxer whose popularity transcends the sport itself. A star's fights are important to boxing fans, but a superstar's fights are important to the public. Superstars show up in Nike commercials and are guests on Dancing with the Stars. They're the folks who, if you ask a random guy off the street what they think of boxing, respond "I don't watch it, but I hear that Pak-kow guy is pretty good."
An interesting permutation of this group is the action star. Unlike stars or superstars, an action fighter may not be amongst the sports elite. But like other stars, his fights are meaningful because of the fighter, not the belt. Usually that's because the boxer fights with an exciting style and has won a ton of fans. Arturo Gatti is perhaps the prototypical example of this: his fights were important because they were Gatti fights, but Arturo Gatti was never really amongst the sports top fighters. He was just an raw, brawling, tough, exciting-as-hell slugger, and folks loved him for it.
Superstars: Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather
Stars: Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto
Action Stars: John Duddy, Arturo Gatti
Champions and Titlists
This category exists parallel to the above -- one can be star and a titlist or champion, or one but not the other (or, of course, neither). A titlist is someone in possession of a sanctioning body belt, while a champion is the holder of the lineal, Ring Magazine title (a/k/a, "the guy who beat the guy who beat the guy") in his weight class. One would hope that most of the fighters good enough to win titles are stars in their own right, but it's not always the case (any Vyacheslav Senchenko fans in the house?). Even a champion doesn't necessarily have to be a star -- perhaps Carlos Baldomir is an example of that. And on the flip side, one can definitely be a star with no titles in one's hands -- Bernard Hopkins being a prime example right now.
Champions: Sergio Martinez (Middleweight), Juan Manuel Marquez (Lightweight) (note that both of these fighters are also stars in their own right).
Titlists: Andre Ward (Super Middleweight), Vyacheslav Senchenko (Welterweight) (Ward is also a star, but Senchenko most certainly isn't).
Contenders and Fringe Contenders
What makes a contender? A contender is someone who is not a star, doesn't have a title, but most observers think would have a decent chance of winning one on any given night he's put in the ring with a titlist. A contender might be as good or better than a current titlist -- he just happens not to be in possession of a belt. A fringe contender is someone who, on any given night, may be able to beat another contender, and fighting the fight of his life could upset a true titlist. A title bout against a fringe contender is generally considered a weak but not inexcusable defense (but one would rather see them defend against a true contender). Fringe contenders often also double as high-level gatekeepers (see below).
Contenders: Sakio Bika (Super Middleweight), Luis Collazo (Welterweight)
Fringe Contenders: Ray Austin (Heavyweight), Said Ouali (Welterweight)
Gatekeepers have widely varied divergent skill levels. What they share in common is their service as a measuring stick for prospects (below), letting observers get a gauge for how good another fighter is. Each one is a milestone for a fighter, letting them know they have progressed to a certain skill level. Gatekeepers are generally expected to lose to the prospects they face, but it's not necessarily a foregone conclusion -- the whole point is to test whether the guy is for real, or just a hype job. Consequently, gatekeepers usually have some amount of skill, sufficient to actually test young talent. Since they are "supposed" to lose, unfortunately, it also means they're often on the wrong end of the decision in tightly contested (sometimes not-so-tightly contested) fights.
Zuri Lawrence (Heavyweight), Jerson Ravelo (Light Heavyweight).
Who counts as a prospect? It's a little arbitrary, but I would say a prospect is someone who we can imagine reaching at least contender status at the pinnacle of his career. Of course, they're not there yet, and there is another degree of arbitrariness as to when a fighter graduates from prospect to contender. Incidentally, prospects skip over the "fringe contender" stage -- a fringe contender is nearly invariably someone who was once a contender but has since shown they couldn't hack it at that level.
Matvey Korobov (Middleweight), Sadam Ali (Welterweight)
Everybody else. Journeymen are the lifeblood of boxing. Most cards are filled with journeymen -- sometimes fighting each other, sometimes being fed to a prospect. They have a wide variety of records and talent levels. Sometimes they can even rise above their humble origins and become a fringe contender (or even a real one). Sometimes they're simply tomato cans. But in any event, they're worth saluting.
Reggie Strickland (Super Middleweight), Peter Buckley (Welterweight).
There's one category of fighter I can't think of a good label for -- and, ironically, it might be what characterized Baldomir before his fight against Judah. These are folks who have been fighting too long to be really be called prospects, but are effectively unknown against upper-level competition (they often are pretty obscure, until they get brought in as a random opponent for a name-guy). On the other hand, they're clearly better than journeymen, and it seems unfair to group them with the Peter Buckley's of the world. "Fringe Contender" probably comes the closest with respect to their typical talent level, but they haven't been hanging around the fringes of the division's top 10, so we don't really know for sure.
Suggestions would be appreciated -- but do them a favor, and don't call them "journeymen". They're better than that, and they deserve a better name than that.