As is usually the case, boxing’s stars got old in 2015. Floyd Mayweather is gone, Yoan Pablo Hernandez is gone, Manny Pacquiao and Wladimir Klitschko lost the skills that made them such stars in their primes, and others like Shane Mosely and Roy Jones Jr. continue to fight, years past any chance at a title.
Luckily, on the end of the scale, there are always youngsters coming up who will be the heart of the next generation of great fighters. Here are five prospects to watch in 2016.
Naoya Inoue, junior bantamweight
Normally, a 22-year-old with eight fights wouldn’t have accomplished enough to make this list, but Inoue breaks the rules. For one thing, he won the WBC junior-flyweight title in his sixth pro fight by knocking out champ Adrian Hernandez.
Eight months later, he ate a couple cheeseburgers, moved up from 108 points to 115, and knocked out linear junior-bantamweight champ Omar Andres Narvaez in the second round. He’s not going to get much attention in the United States until he moves up a couple more weight classes, but a matchup at junior-featherweight Nonito Donaire could be a year or two down the line.
Vasyl Lomachenko, featherweight
Lomachenko is old for this list at 27, and his 5-1 record isn’t anything that jumps off the page, but he might be the best fighter in this article. The Ukrainian’s pro career was delayed by his two Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, but he didn’t take long to get rolling.
In his second pro fight, he lost a controversial split decision to Orlando Salido for the WBO featherweight title. Salido weighed in at 128.75 pounds, well over the 126-pound featherweight limit, and rehydrated up to 147, 11 more than Lomachenko. He then spent 12 rounds using Lomachenko’s testicles as a speed bag, all while Laurence Cole stood by and watched. Even then, several observers that the Ukrainian deserved at least a draw.
Salido was stripped of the belt for missing weight, so Lomachenko got another shot at it, this time against 24-0 Gary Russell Jr. – a strong contender. Lomachenko won a majority decision, and with Russell having gone on to earn the WBC belt by knocking out Jhonny Gonzalez, a 2016 rematch could be on the cards.
Anthony Joshua, heavyweight
Joshua is 15-0 with 15 knockouts and, more importantly, he’s the British heavyweight champion, having just won the belt vacated by Tyson Fury. Joshua is a national hero in Great Britain after winning gold in the London Olympics, and most British boxing fans would love to see him take the heavyweight title off Fury.
Joshua knows he’s not ready for that, but he plans to spend 2016 fighting tougher opposition to get himself ready for a 2017 title fight that could easily sell out any soccer stadium in England.
Errol Spence, Jr., welterweight
They didn’t get a lot of hype, but the U.S. did send a boxing team to the London Olympics, and Spence has been its face in the pros. At 19-0, he’s already moved up to No. 10 in a loaded welterweight division.
There aren’t a lot of easy fights above him in the class, but 2016 will be the year that he will have to start taking on tougher opposition. He could go after Lamont Peterson first, and try to build himself into position for a shot at Kell Brook, Keith Thurman or Amir Khan in 2017.
Felix Verdejo, lightweight
Everyone who sees Verdejo predicts stardom, and with 135 pounds on a skinny 22-year-old body, he will have a chance to move up several weight classes over his career. The only problem? At some point, he’s got to fight someone with a pulse.
After 19 career fights – the same number as Spence – he’s only managed to move up to No. 44 in the lightweight division, strictly because he’s still fighting tomato cans. In April, he beat Marco Antonio Lopez, who had lost four of his previous six fights, and in June, he won a lopsided decision over Ivan Najera, who came it at 14-0 with an even easier list of opponents than Verdejo.
He finished off 2015 with a second-round knockout of Josenilson Dos Santos, who prepared by getting knocked out in two of his last three fights. The third fight? He knocked out Renato Pedro in the second round, dropping Pedro to 1-25.
Verdejo has talent, but he’s got to start taking a few minor chances if he’s going to move into contention before the end of the decade.