Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Boxers I'm Glad Won Titles (1-5)

(See Boxers #6-10 and a description of this list here).

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5. David Diaz (Lightweight, 36-4-1, 17 KOs)

Hey, remember when folks were wondering whether 135 lbs was just too high for Manny Pacquiao? David Diaz does. Part of the trifecta of Diaz's (the others were Juan and Julio) who possessed lightweight titles, David Diaz was seen as the weakest of the three when he was picked as the opponent for Pac-Man's experiment with higher weight classes. In retrospect, that's probably unfair (I think his career stacks up quite well against Julio Diaz). But anyway, I get ahead of myself.

Diaz is the sort of guy who's always performed above expectations. He earned a spot on the 1996 Olympic team by upsetting far more heralded Zab Judah, losing in the second round to eventual silver medalist Oktay Urkal. Diaz started his professional campaign 26-0 before being knocked out by Kendall Holt (see below). A year later, Diaz won the interim WBC lightweight title by defeating Jose Armando Santa Cruz, then, after being elevated to full titlist, defended against what was thought to be a long-faded Erik Morales in a win that looks much better in hindsight.

That paved the way for the payday against Pacquaio, who wowed the boxing world by destroying Diaz over the course of nine rounds. That set up Pacquiao's mega-fight with Oscar De La Hoya, and the rest, as they say, is history. Though I do like to point out that Diaz gave Pacquiao more of a challenge than either De La Hoya or Ricky Hatton. Diaz lost in his attempt to get his old title back from Humberto Soto, and then was knocked out in a hellacious war this past year versus prospect Hank Lundy.

4. Luis Collazo (Welterweight, 31-5, 16 KOs)

A skilled southpaw fighter from Brooklyn, Luis Collazo has been on the short end of several close decisions where he was the short money -- something that I imagine would be particularly gnawed at him had he never managed to hoist a belt. But fortunately, that wasn't the case, as he won the WBA welterweight title in 2005 against Jose Antonio Rivera, and defended it once against Miguel Gonzalez before accepting a challenge from undefeated Junior Welterweight star Ricky Hatton, who was moving up in weight and looking to establish himself as a superstar.

Collazo lost a unanimous decision in a fight many thought he won, but in which a Collazo victory stood to lose various boxing promoters massive sums of money (it would have, for example, derailed Hatton's ability to become a viable opponent for Pacquaio and Mayweather). Collazo lost more clearly to Shane Mosley before challenging HBO blessed-son Andre Berto for his WBC belt. In a life-or-death struggle that could have gone either way, Berto escaped with an exceedingly narrow unanimous decision win.

Since then, Collazo fell virtually off the map, winning a bounceback fight immediately after the Berto loss, then taking a nearly-two year layoff. Upon his return, he lost a disappointing decision to fringe contender Freddy Hernandez (whom Berto had earlier starched in one), which may have spelled the end of Collazo's run as an elite contender.

3. Kendall Holt (Jr. Welterweight, 27-5, 15 KOs)

Kendall Holt is nicknamed "Rated R", but he might as well be nicknamed "Enigma". I'm not sure I've ever seen a fighter in as many different varieties of fights as the Patterson, New Jersey-based fighter. Sometimes he unleashes devastating, one-punch KOTY candidates like against Julio Diaz. Sometimes he wanders aimlessly around the ring and is lethargically outboxed, like against Danny Garcia. Sometimes he's involved in all-action slugfests that last round after thrilling round, like against Ricardo Torres. Sometimes, he's involved in all-action slugfasts that don't last past the first round, like against Ricardo Torres in the rematch (or Thomas Davis).

Sometimes, all these qualities manage to come together within the space of a single fight, like against Timothy Bradley. There, he alternated between being utterly dominant (knocking Bradley down twice in the first and twelfth rounds) and utterly disinterested (most of the rest of the fight). To my eyes, it looked as if Holt was thoroughly in control for any part of the fight where his head was actually in the bout -- unfortunately, that consisted of a bare handful of rounds.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Kendall Holt story. The athleticism is there. The power is there. The head is most certainly not there. The upshot is a wildly inconsistent fighter who did manage to lift the WBO Jr. Welterweight title and hold it for one defense in 2008.

2. Cristobal Cruz (Featherweight, 39-12-3, 23 KOs)

Cristobal Cruz turned pro in 1992 at age 14, winning his debut by second round knockout. His record began to reflect that of a Mexican fighter with no serious promotional backing who turned pro at 14, and in 2007 when he faced a comebacking Zahir Raheem, he sported a fugly 34-10-1.

The Raheem fight was ugly, as Zahir Raheem fights often are, but in my opinion Cruz acquitted himself quite well -- I scored the fight a draw. The judges all gave the fight to Raheem by shutout or near-shutout, which is what happens when you're a 34-10-1 fighter against a former champion in an ugly fight. And that figured to be the Cristobal Cruz story -- a journeyman guy who got on ESPN2 once as a comeback opponent, did better than expected, and was firmly not rewarded for it by judges who weren't paying attention.

But by stroke of luck, the powers-that-be brought in Cruz as opponent for Thomas Mashaba as the latter geared up for a title shot. Cruz and Mashaba went to war in an incredible fight that saw Cruz break the Compubox record for most punches thrown in a fight. But it was a tight fight, and nobody knew how the scorecards would read. As it happened, Cruz managed to squeak out the upset majority decision victory, and the title shot that would have gone to Mashaba instead was handed to Cruz.

Cruz met Orlando Salido for the vacant IBF featherweight title, in a rematch of a fight Salido had won. In an exciting match, Cruz won by split decision and approved his record to 37-11-1 in the process. Cruz defended his title three times, including a spirited match against Jorge Solis which featured new and exciting innovations in fouling, before losing it to (who else) Salido in the 2010 rubber match.

A twenty-year pro now at age 34, Cruz is still going strong, scheduled to fight Juan Carlos Burgos in February 2012.

1. Nate Campbell (Lightweight, 34-9-1, 25 KOs)

Nate Campbell is number one on my list for several reasons. He's a genuinely nice guy, and he won his titles (three at once) in a pretty sizable upset. But most importantly, Campbell tops this list because of what he would have been remembered for if he hadn't managed to finally, at age 36, win the title that had eluded him for so long.

Campbell got a late start to boxing, originally inspired to try the sport after shadow-boxing to stay awake during late shifts at his job. His career started off with 23 straight wins before losing to Joel Casamayor in a closely contested bout. But it was his next big shot, an IBF title eliminator against Robbie Peden, that nearly defined his legacy. Well ahead on the scorecards going into the 5th round, Campbell stuck his chin out, daring Peden to hit him ... and proceeding to get himself knocked out. He was knocked out again in a rematch with Peden for the IBF Junior Lightweight title, then lost again to Francisco Lorenzo. Career momentum that was regained after an upset victory over undefeated Kid Diamond seemed arrested when he lost a split decision in a title eliminator to Isaac Hlatshwayo.

Going back into the trenches, Campbell kept at it, winning another eliminator against Matt Zegan and then (because this is boxing) yet another eliminator by thoroughly beating up Ricky Quiles. This made him the mandatory for IBF lightweight champ Julio Diaz, but his shot was delayed to make way for a (Julio) Diaz vs. (Juan) Diaz unification match. The latter, younger Diaz won, and Campbell was the decided underdog against the undefeated "Baby Bull" -- a charismatic Mexican-American fighter who now held the IBF, WBA, and WBO lights and that many were heralding as the next big thing. Campbell, for his part, never blinked -- I still remember Dan Raphael describing "The Galaxxy Warrior" as "supremely confident" in the months leading up to the fight.

And he backed it up. Campbell came out aggressive and put unprecedented pressure on Diaz. A cut caused by an accidental headbutt seemed to rattle the young champion, and Campbell kept on him. Most observers thought Campbell had won, but hearts stopped when the announcer declared it a split-decision. But in the end, the right guy had his hand raised, and Nate Campbell had the victory he had been searching for his entire career.

After the Diaz fight, Campbell's characteristic bad luck reasserted itself and his career spiraled downward with astounding celerity. A big payday against Joan Guzman fell through when the latter came in grossly overweight and refused to fight. Campbell declared bankruptcy, then lost his belts on the scale in a fight against Ali Funeka. The Funeka fight was Campbell's last great hurrah, seemingly battling father time as much as the South African, seemingly falling behind the fight only to surge back on the strength of 2nd and 11th round knockdowns. His majority decision victory was the last major triumph of Campbell's career -- he was being thoroughly dominated by Tim Bradley before that fight was stopped (it was later ruled a no contest), then lost to Victor Ortiz. A defeat to journeyman Walter Estrada led Campbell to announce his retirement, but he came back to lose to Danny Garcia and Khabib Allakhverdiev.

Still, I know of not a single person in the boxing community who does not consider themselves a Nate Campbell fan. Brash and occasionally foolhardy as he may be, he just seemed to exude a likeability and professionalism that won him admirers across the sport. And while most of us wish he'd end his career, we also hope he stays in the game as an announcer (for which he's shown natural talent). And all of us remember that great day in Mexico, March 8th, 2008, when he upset an unbeaten star to finally put those belts -- those belts which fans dismiss and commentators deride, those belts which cheapen the sport and drive away new viewers, those belts which Campbell had been pursuing fruitlessly for 8 years -- around his waist.

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