Welcome to “Road To Undisputed,” a brand new series where I look at every weight class in boxing, look at the champions and contenders and map out a road to crowning an undisputed champion and the chances of it happening anytime soon.
This week, we’ll take a look at the featherweight division, where there is plenty of talent with little hope of seeing an undisputed champion anytime soon.
Here are the divisions covered so far:
- WBA “Super:” Leo Santa Cruz
- WBA “Regular:” Can Xu
- WBC: Gary Russell
- IBF: Josh Warrington
- WBO: Emanuel Navarrete
- Jessie Magdaleno
- Mark Magsayo
- Ruben Villa
- James Dickens
- Tugstsogt Nyambayar
- Kid Galahad
- Eduardo Ramirez
- Manny Robles III
- Joet Gonzalez
- Isaac Dogboe
The division has seen stars come and go throughout the years with no real indicator as to who really is No. 1. Carl Frampton briefly enjoyed a title run after a phenomenal win over Leo Santa Cruz in 2016. Shakur Stevenson never really stretched his wings as a featherweight at the world title level once he became WBO champion last year. Other fighters over the years, such as Nonito Donaire, Mikey Garcia and Vasiliy Lomachenko held featherweight titles but didn’t stay too long at 126 pounds.
The current crop of champions are all talented, but their respective careers seem to be at completely different stages. WBC champion Gary Russell Jr. is one of the fastest fighters at 126 pounds and one of the most skillful boxers at that weight class, but his inactivity is something to be noted. In what has started to become a joke among some circles of the boxing community, Russell has only had one fight every year since 2015.
The WBA’s multiple-title situation once again reared its ugly head at featherweight. Technically, Leo Santa Cruz is recognized by many as the top WBA champion due to him holding the “Super” title. However, Santa Cruz spent the last year pursuing titles in higher weight classes. Santa Cruz, who has won titles in four weight classes, might not be coming back to featherweight for some time, likely never again, as he is also the WBA super featherweight champion and just got knocked out by Gervonta Davis in October. There’s no word what the future holds for Santa Cruz.
If Santa Cruz were to vacate his piece of the featherweight title, it would leave Chinese star Can Xu as the sole titleholder. Xu is a dynamite fighter with explosive levels of pressure and volume punching. Xu has yet to get a big fight, but he could be getting one in 2021 against another champion in Josh Warrington.
The unbeaten Warrington, holder of the IBF title, is a more technical fighter compared to the likes of Santa Cruz and Xu. But Warrington possesses deceptive power despite having only seven KO wins in 30 victories. Between his underrated strength and excellent boxing acumen, Warrington has perhaps the biggest case to be the No. 1 featherweight today. In addition, Warrington has solid victories over the likes of Lee Selby, Kiko Martinez and Frampton, all former champions.
Lastly, there is Emanuel Navarrete, the WBO champion. Navarrete is perhaps best known for being boxing’s most active male champion with six WBO super bantamweight title bouts in the span of 14 months. The unfortunate part of Navarrete’s super bantamweight title reign was his last four fights were all against horribly outclassed and subpar contenders. Navarrete had the best power punching at super bantamweight, but is still finding his footing as a featherweight. He defeated Ruben Villa to win the WBO featherweight title in October.
The contenders are a solid bunch from former champions (Jessie Magdaleno and Isaac Dogboe) to younger fighters with a lot of momentum (Mark Magsayo, Tugstsogt Nyambayar, James Dickens, Eduardo Ramirez). Magdaleno is likely next for Navarrete while fighters such as Nyambayar and Ramirez wait for another title shot.
What will it take to get an undisputed champion?
With so many champions at various career stages, it’s nearly impossible to map out a road to an undisputed champion.
If and when Warrington and Xu fight, the (sole) WBA and IBF titles would likely be at stake. That’s two of the four titles, but the other titles are a different story.
The good news for the Warrington vs. Xu winner is that their respective promoter has a good relationship with Top Rank, who promotes Navarrete. Theoretically, a three-belt unification is possible for late 2021/early 2022 if the stars align.
The main issue is Russell. As mentioned, he has fought just once a year every year since 2015. That streak appears to continue as he’s not fighting a second time in 2020 and targeting 2021 for his next fight.
Russell has been fighting under the PBC umbrella for years, but it doesn’t close the door completely on unification fights. The problem is that there’s no real way to schedule a road to undisputed with Russell’s schedule.
There’s also another problem with the unifications. Santa Cruz still holds the WBA “Super” title but there’s no guarantee he’s fighting at featherweight in 2021. Most sanctioning bodies would have an ultimatum for a fighter to decide which weight he’ll be champion of. But this is the WBA we’re talking about. It’s the same organization that still has Canelo Alvarez as middleweight champion despite not fighting at that weight since May 2019.
It’s entirely possible Santa Cruz does not fight at 126 pounds at any point next year and will still hold the WBA’s “Super” version of the belt. The WBA would happily go that route without hesitation.
Sadly, the four-belt era of boxing has seriously hurt the featherweight division’s chances of seeing an undisputed champion.
Chances of there being a featherweight champion in the next 18 months: 1%