The current generation of young boxers has made a tremendous impact on the sport over the past few years.
Look no further than the now two-time No. 1 fighter in ESPN’s top 25 boxers under 25, Teofimo Lopez. His victory over Vasiliy Lomachenko in October 2020 turned the lightweight division upside down. Lopez’s mandatory title defense against George Kambosos Jr. has been delayed multiple times, but should finally happen soon. In the meantime, he’s considered the undisputed champion at 135 pounds, having won the WBA, WBO and IBF titles, plus the WBC “franchise” belt, and between the division he currently rules over, and the weights just above and below him, fighters at or around the age of 25 appear ready to take over.
At 130 pounds, Shakur Stevenson is poised to add a world title in a second division before turning 25. The former WBO featherweight world titlist and current interim junior lightweight champ faces WBO junior lightweight belt-holder Jamel Herring on Saturday. Over the course of a year, Stevenson bumped himself up from No. 3 to No. 2 on this list on the strength of his performances in big title fights, and yet his fight against Herring is his biggest yet.
Devin Haney rounds out the top three, holding onto the lone true world title at lightweight that doesn’t currently belong to Lopez. While both have work to get done in the interim, a clash to officially crown an undisputed lightweight champion between this pair of talented young fighters would be a boon for the division.
There are champions and contenders dotted throughout ESPN’s 2021 top 25 under 25, as well as promising young fighters who are already seizing the moment for their own prolific climbs. Eleven of the fighters in this year’s top 25 are 24, and will age out in a years’ time, with eight more sitting at 23 years old.
Mike Coppinger, Ben Baby, Nick Parkinson and Timothy Bradley Jr. break down this list of the best young fighters in the world.
1. Teofimo Lopez (16-0, 12 KOs)
WBO, IBF, WA, WBC “franchise” lightweight champion
24 years old
2020 rank: No. 1
The fighter: The power-punching lightweight champion was a natural choice to top this list for the second year in a row. He’s a superb fighter who is already battle-tested on the elite level. Lopez became champion at 23 years old with a landmark performance last October, a decision victory over Lomachenko. In that fight, Lopez proved the immense hype surrounding him was real.
He’s a boxer who possesses an impressive blend of power, hand speed and timing. Outside the ring, he’s as brash and confident as they come, thanks in part to his father, Teofimo Lopez Sr., who trains him and doubles as a hype man. Lopez has all the makings to be one of boxing’s biggest stars for years to come. Now he just needs to stay active.
Accomplishments: No other boxer under 25 can come to matching Lopez’s biggest moment: the victory over Lomachenko to crash the pound-for-pound list. Lopez executed a wise game plan, hammering Lomachenko with stiff left hands every time a jab was thrown. It’s why Lomachenko was so hesitant to let his hands go during the first half of the fight.
After Loma rallied, Lopez delivered the best round of his career, a 12th round with 98 punches thrown to cement the victory. Teofimo owns three of the major four 135-pound titles, is ESPN’s No. 1 lightweight and No. 7 pound-for-pound boxer overall. He also owns a second-round KO of Richard Commey in his first title bid, another accomplishment that eclipses any other boxer on this list.
Future ceiling and expectations: Lopez’s momentum came to a screeching halt when his planned title defense against Kambosos was postponed after the champion tested positive for COVID-19. The June 19 fight was moved to Aug. 14, then pushed to several different potential dates in October before Triller was found in default and the promotional rights reverted to Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom.
Matchroom is now planning to stage the fight on Nov. 27 at New York’s Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. With an expected victory over Kambosos, Lopez could depart the lightweight division for a title fight against junior welterweight undisputed champion Josh Taylor in the spring. If he stays at 135 pounds, the natural matchup is against Haney. Haney is the WBC champion while Lopez is the organization’s franchise champion, leading to plenty of acrimony between the boxers surrounding Lopez’s claim as undisputed champion. It would also be a fantastic fight, provided Haney wins his Dec. 3 bout. — Coppinger
2. Shakur Stevenson (16-0, 8 KOs)
WBO interim junior lightweight champion; former WBO featherweight champion
24 years old
2020 rank: No. 3
The fighter: Stevenson is looking to make his mark in the junior lightweight division after a strong run at featherweight. He’s ranked No. 1 in the 130-pound weight class by ESPN, and he’s coming off a unanimous decision win over Jeremiah Nakathila in June, in which Stevenson knocked the challenger down and didn’t drop a single point in a technically sound defensive bout. Stevenson has excellent technique and uses his 68-inch reach to his advantage by operating skillfully on the outside. But he has been criticized for not turning dominant performances into stoppages. A mere half of his 16 wins have come via KO.
Accomplishments: Stevenson made his mark as a decorated amateur. He won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, which allowed him to start his pro career a few rungs up the ladder. Just two years after he turned pro, he won a share of the featherweight crown when he easily trounced Joet Gonzalez in a unanimous decision to win the WBO belt — a title he vacated in July 2020 to move up to junior lightweight.
Future ceiling and expectations: As this list indicates, Stevenson has one of the highest ceilings of anyone under 25. He is set to challenge veteran Herring for the WBO’s junior lightweight title on Saturday in Atlanta in what could easily be the biggest fight of his career. Herring has made three successful defenses of that belt. If Stevenson can capture that title, it could be his first of many in the 130-pound division, and the type of victory that could push him further up the list of boxing’s top stars. — Baby
Max Kellerman explains why he hopes to see Teofimo Lopez vs. Devin Haney next.
3. Devin Haney (26-0, 15 KOs)
WBC lightweight champion
22 years old
2020 rank: 4th
The fighter: Haney, No 3 in ESPN’s lightweight rankings, turned pro at 17 years old and has rattled off 26 consecutive wins to start his career. He overcame his biggest test to date by surviving the last two rounds of his fight against Jorge Linares in May, after getting hurt at the end of the 10th round. He retained his WBC lightweight title by unanimous decision and showed a lot of heart to absorb late pressure to claim the victory.
Accomplishments: At the age of 20, Haney defeated Zaur Adullaev for the interim WBC lightweight world title, and he was upgraded to full champion status in October 2019 when Lomachenko was crowned the “franchise” champion of the division. Including his victory over Linares, Haney has made three successful world title defenses, including a unanimous decision victory over Yuriorkis Gamboa in November 2020.
Future ceiling and expectations: At 22, Haney is still a work in progress, but he showed he can take a big punch and manage a crisis against a quality opponent in Linares, who fought Lomachenko three years ago to decide the best in the division. It was a good developing fight for Haney, who will be stronger for the experience. Future fights against fellow young sensations Ryan Garcia and Lopez continue to elude Haney. Garcia and Joseph “JoJo” Diaz were set to fight in a title eliminator for a chance at Haney’s WBC lightweight belt, but with Garcia pulling out due to injury, Diaz might be back on the table. Haney hopes to fight again on Dec. 3, and as long as he continues to challenge himself, fights against the likes of Lopez and Garcia will become more likely. — Parkinson
Vergil Ortiz Jr. outlines the possibility of fighting fellow Texas native Errol Spence Jr. Watch the full interview on Max on Boxing at 5:30 ET on ESPN2.
4. Vergil Ortiz (18-0, 18 KOs)
Welterweight title contender (No. 5 in ESPN rankings)
23 years old
2020 rank: 7th
The fighter: What’s not to like about a boxer who has knocked out all of his opponents? Ortiz is fast becoming a fan favorite and this year he has sent out a warning to the welterweight division by stopping former junior welterweight world champion Maurice Hooker in March and top contender Egidijus Kavaliauskas in August.
Accomplishments: Ortiz now has a win over an elite contender in Hooker, which should erase any doubts about his potential. Ortiz won all but one of the rounds against Hooker, and floored his fellow Texan in the sixth round before the end in the seventh. Ortiz fought well at close quarters on the inside, and his combinations were varied and spiteful. Against Kavaliauskas, Ortiz fought through the first true in-ring adversity he’s faced in his career after getting staggered early in the fight, and then continued his knockout streak by knocking out the former title contender in the eighth round.
Future ceiling and expectations: After making such rapid progress in 2021, a world title shot is what this exciting fighter needs to continue the upward curve in his career. And he couldn’t be better positioned for that shot: he is the No. 1 contender with the WBO (champion: Terence Crawford); No. 2 with the WBC (champion: Errol Spence Jr.) and No. 2 with the WBA (champion: Yordenis Ugas). — Parkinson
5. David Benavidez (24-0, 21 KOs)
Former WBC super middleweight champion (No. 2 in ESPN rankings)
24 years old
2020 rank: 2nd
The fighter: Benavidez is big at over six feet, and long, with a 74 ½-inch reach. He has great hand speed and coordination for a big guy. Good reflexes. But his mentality is what really sets him apart. He has tremendous self-belief, and he wants to fight the best. That confidence in himself allows him to do what he does inside that ring. The sheer violence that he wants to unleash against every fighter he steps in there with is remarkable. His ability to pressure is off the charts — he’s a suffocating fighter. He can take a punch and he can give a shot right back. He’s incredibly fearless.
Accomplishments: Benavidez has already accomplished a great deal. He turned pro at 16, and from early on he featured on the undercards of some big fights, including Keith Thurman-Shawn Porter and Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz 2. He was 20 years old and already 18-0 when he fought Ronald Gavril — also 18-0 at that point — and won his first super middleweight world title. He won the rematch against Gavril. Then he faced Anthony Dirrell, and won that WBC belt for the second time.
Future ceiling and expectations: It’s hard to see a ceiling for Benavidez, as long as he stays on the right path. Benavidez got stripped of the super middleweight title the first time in September 2018, when he failed a drug test. After beating Dirrell and winning the title again in 2019, he couldn’t make weight against Roamer Alexis Angulo a year later and got stripped again. He was set to fight Jose Uzcategi on Aug. 28, but a positive COVID diagnosis pushed the fight to Nov. 13.
No one has shown they can beat him inside the ring, and as long as he stays focused, Benavidez can stand against anyone at super middleweight. Benavidez will be a world champion again. — Bradley
6. Ryan Garcia (21-0, 18 KOs)
Former WBC interim lightweight champion (No. 5 in ESPN rankings)
23 years old
2020 rank: 5th
The fighter: One of the sport’s fastest-rising stars, Garcia possesses the quickest hands in boxing and plenty of power to boot. The crushing left hand, fine-tuned under the guidance of trainer Eddy Reynoso at Canelo Alvarez’s San Diego gym, has proven to be a devastating weapon in the lightweight division. Just look at the way Garcia uncorked it in his most-damaging KO yet, a first-round vanquishing of Francisco Fonseca in 2020. With nearly 9 million Instagram followers and an outspoken personality, Garcia has a genuine chance to become a top PPV attraction for years to come.
Accomplishments: With his January 2021 fight against Olympic gold medalist Luke Campbell, Garcia proved that he’s far more than a social-media personality. He was dropped for the first time as a pro and rebounded to knock out Campbell, who was in ESPN’s top-10 rankings at 135 pounds before his retirement in July. The left hook is Garcia’s go-to weapon, but he proved in that bout that he has plenty of toughness, too, despite the labels many placed on him.
Future ceiling and expectations: Garcia is already one of the sport’s top attractions. He was set for his toughest fight yet, a Nov. 27 bout against former champion Diaz, but Garcia was forced to withdraw after undergoing surgery to repair a damaged right wrist, an injury suffered in sparring.
When Garcia returns, fights with the likes of Haney, Lopez and Gervonta Davis could await, but first up could be a rescheduled bout with Diaz. No matter whom he fights next, it would be a surprise if Garcia didn’t capture a world title at some point, and with his tremendous size for the division, a future move to 140 pounds and even 147 seems a formality at some point. — Coppinger
7. Jaron “Boots” Ennis (27-0, 25 KOs)
Welterweight title contender (No. 6 in ESPN rankings)
24 years old
2020 ranking: 8th
The fighter: Ennis has cemented himself as a true welterweight contender. The former Golden Gloves champion from Philadelphia has started to cobble together some serious wins and impressive performances. Ennis is coming off a stoppage victory over Sergey Lipinets, a former IBF junior welterweight titleholder. The win moved Ennis up to No. 6 in ESPN’s welterweight ranking, putting him over established stars such as Danny Garcia and Mikey Garcia.
Accomplishments: The win over Lipinets completed Ennis’ transformation from rising prospect to a contender who could be fighting for a title by the beginning of ’22. Ennis had a crack at a secondary welterweight title when he fought Chris van Heerden in 2020, but the bout was ruled a no contest after an accidental clash of heads caused a cut on van Heerden’s forehead in the first round.
Future ceiling and expectations: Ennis is still trying to chase the heights he reached as an amateur. He has the potential to be the No. 1 welterweight in the world at some point. His combination of measured offense and potent power makes him a very tough opponent for virtually anyone. Along with Ortiz, Ennis is already making some noise in the 147-pound division. He’s set to face Thomas Dulorme, who has decision losses to current champion Ugas and contender Jamal James — two fighters who are also in ESPN’s Top 10. If Ennis has an impressive performance, it further bolsters his case for a title fight next year. — Baby
8. Junto Nakatani (22-0, 17 KOs)
WBO flyweight champion
23 years old
2020 ranking: Tied for 15th
The fighter: Nakatani, a tall southpaw, has emerged as the latest world champion from Japan, a country that has produced many stars among boxing’s lighter divisions over the last 12 months. In his last fight, Nakatani was introduced to an American audience when he stormed to a fourth round TKO win over Puerto Rico’s Angel Acosta in Tucson on Sept. 10.
Accomplishments: Nakatani stopped Acosta, the former world light flyweight titleholder, in four rounds. As statements go, his first defense of the WBO world flyweight title he won from Giemel Magramo via eighth round knockout in November 2020 was a strong showing.
Future ceiling and expectations: The future is bright. Nakatani is an exciting fighter to watch with a high KO ratio for a flyweight. Expect Nakatani to follow the paths of Naoya Inoue and Kazuto Ioka and climb his way up through the lighter divisions. However, before he does that, it would be great to see him take on one of his rival world champions at flyweight, like Mexico’s Julio Cesar Martinez. — Parkinson
9. Brandon Figueroa (22-0-1, 15 KOs)
WBC, WBA “regular” junior featherweight champion
24 years old
2020 rank: 11th
The fighter: The Texas-based boxer, the younger brother of former lightweight world titlist Omar Figueroa, has had a wonderful 12 months, adding the WBC junior featherweight world title to his secondary WBA belt and rising to No 3 in ESPN’s 122-pound rankings.
Accomplishments: Figueroa pulled off a career-best win with a seventh-round knockout of Luis Nery in May. Nery suffered his first defeat after being sunk by a body shot, and Figueroa lifted his first full world title.
Future ceiling and expectations: Figueroa has an exciting short-term future ahead of him, starting with a unification fight with Stephen Fulton, scheduled for Nov. 27. Figueroa has been a better finisher in recent fights, and he is a good bet to unify the WBC and WBO belts in Las Vegas. But it’s a tough call in an excellent matchup between two pressure fighters. Regardless of the result against Fulton, Figueroa is going to figure in big fights over the next few years. — Parkinson
10. Jared Anderson (10-0, 10 KOs)
21 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: After an amateur career that included a pair of U.S. National championships, Anderson signed with Top Rank at 19 years old. He’s rattled off 10 knockout wins in 10 professional fights, and has only once had to fight beyond a fourth round. Anderson is not one of those one punch knockout types of guys, but he can systematically break down an opponent and get them exactly in the right spot for him to do what he has to. A lot of times in boxing, especially for someone on the rise, it’s not just about winning, it’s about how you look when you win. Anderson looks special — he looks spectacular.
Accomplishments: In his most recent fight on Oct. 9, Anderson featured prominently on the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder 3 undercard. It took Anderson less than three full rounds to finish 33-year-old Vladimir Tereshkin and hand Tereshkin his first professional loss in 24 fights. At this stage in his career, his overall unbeaten record is what jumps off the page.
Future ceiling and expectations: “Big Baby” Anderson is the future of the heavyweight division, when it comes to American fighters, and he has the best upside of anyone in that group right now. He has honed his skills since he was a child — boxing was never the second option. That gives him a huge head start, especially at heavyweight against guys who come from football and other sports after they don’t succeed in their primary pursuit. He’ll fight for a heavyweight title, it’s just a matter of when. — Bradley
11. Daniel Dubois (17-1, 16 KOs)
Former WBA interim heavyweight champion
24 years old
2020 rank: 9th
The fighter: Dubois put his “0” on the line in a high stakes heavyweight clash in November, but English rival Joe Joyce knocked him out in the 10th round. Dubois sustained a fractured eye socket in the loss as he was picked apart by Joyce’s patient jabbing. Dubois has since registered a pair of wins inside two rounds as he looks to make up for lost ground and fight his way back towards the top.
Accomplishments: Dubois racked up 17 straight wins to start his professional career, winning British and Commonwealth titles in 2019. Dubois was unable to seize the opportunity of his biggest career moment when he was stopped by Joyce, which pushed him away, at least momentarily, from a world title shot. But he won the interim WBA heavyweight title in June with his win over Bogdan Dinu. Despite the WBA eliminating its “interim” champion designations in August, that former title will likely put Dubois in line for a future title shot.
Future ceiling and expectations: Expectations are still high for the big hitter. David Haye, also from south London like Dubois, suffered a stoppage defeat early in his career but went on to win a heavyweight world title. Dubois is No. 1 in the WBA’s rankings, but with a rematch between new champion Oleksandr Usyk and former champ Anthony Joshua likely in the short term, don’t expect a world title shot in Dubois’ immediate future. A higher volume of fights in the short term will likely help him build back towards such an opportunity. DuBois made his debut on American soil on the undercard of Jake Paul-Tyron Woodley, and recorded a first-round knockout victory. — Parkinson
12. Edgar Berlanga (18-0, 16 KOs)
Super middleweight prospect
24 years old
2020 rank: 12th
The fighter: Berlanga, 24, delivered bundles of scary knockouts on ESPN as a super middleweight prospect, but 2021 has tested him with his first two fights that extended past the opening round. His win over Marcelo Esteban Coceres on Oct. 9, in Berlanga’s 18th career fight, went far differently than his first 17, and the eye-opening experience raised plenty of questions. Berlanga busted up his foe’s eye, sure, but he tasted the canvas in Round 9 and was in serious trouble.
Accomplishments: One of the biggest names under 25, Berlanga shot to prominence with 16 first-round KOs in his first 16 fights. Fight No. 17 was an eight-round decision victory over Demond Nicholson, with four knockdowns scored.
Future ceiling and expectations: Berlanga was never forced to show his defense or chin in his first 17 fights, and now, there are legitimate questions concerning both after all the clean shots he absorbed against Coceres. He suffered a torn left biceps in the fight against Coceres, cancelling plans for a Dec. 11 return on the Vasiliy Lomachenko-Richard Commey undercard on ESPN. Coceres was easily Berlanga’s toughest opponent to date, and with 18 rounds under his belt this year, Berlanga has now gained more experience than he did in his first 16 fights combined.
If Berlanga can learn from the Coceres performance, he’ll be better off for it. There’s no doubting his power and star appeal. — Coppinger
13. Sebastian Fundora (17-0-1, 12 KOs)
Welterweight contender (No. 5 in ESPN rankings)
23 years old
2020 rank: Tied for 26th
The fighter: Fundora’s size makes him an odd fit for his weight class. The junior middleweight is 6-foot-6, and he has a gangly 80-inch reach (two inches larger than current heavyweight champ Oleksandr Usyk) to accompany his long frame. But Fundora isn’t lacking power because of that length. Twelve of Fundora’s 17 wins have come via knockout, which is a reason why he’s usually an entertaining spot on the undercard of Premier Boxing Champions events.
Accomplishments: Fundora has slowly started to increase his competition level. His best win so far is a victory over Jorge Cota in May. Fundora whipped Cota with those long arms and produced a fourth-round TKO on the Omar Figueroa-Abel Ramos undercard. Appearing on the Errol Spence Jr.-Danny Garcia card, Fundora put on a show at AT&T stadium with a second-round TKO of Habib Ahmed. Fundora also has a win over Daniel Lewis, who previously represented Australia in the Olympics. He is still looking for a true signature moment to accelerate his ascent and position him for a title shot.
Future ceiling and expectations: Fundora’s size is what makes him a brutal matchup for others in the division. He has the height and reach of a heavyweight and will almost always be the biggest fighter in the ring. Because of his reach advantage and power, he can always be effective from the outside if he chooses to go that route. Based on his recent form and growing number of good wins, he has the tools to be a champion. — Baby
14. Elwin Soto (19-2, 13 KOs)
Former WBO junior flyweight champion (No. 4 in ESPN rankings)
24 years old
2020 rank: 19th
The fighter: The boxer, based in Baja California, stopped Katsunari Takayama in nine rounds for a third defense of his WBO junior flyweight world title in May, shortly after signing with Matchroom. His two-year reign as champion ended on Oct. 16, though, in a split decision loss to mandatory challenger Jonathan Gonzalez.
Accomplishments: Soto caused an upset when he knocked out Angel Acosta for the belt in June 2019, which is probably his best win to date. Since then, Soto has continued to show his strength and KO ability, as he was evident against Takayama.
Future ceiling and expectations: Just days out from his second professional loss to Gonzalez, Soto’s future is a bit unclear. He could revisit the Gonzalez fight, or a couple of comeback fights could be in order. IBF champion Felix Alvarado could be his most realistic option among the champions, as the others — Ken Shiro and Hiroto Kyoguchi — are too good right now, plus Soto would have to go to Japan to fight them. — Parkinson
15. Charles Conwell (16-0, 12 KOs)
Junior middleweight prospect
23 years old
2020 rank: Tied for 15th
The fighter: A hard-nosed fighter from Cleveland, Conwell is on the brink of a title shot, and currently sits just outside the top 10 at 154 pounds. Conwell is a pressure fighter who has proven crafty on the inside with the requisite strength to push his opponents around.
Accomplishments: The former Olympian scored a ninth-round TKO victory over Madiyar Ashkeyev in December 2020, in his best win to date. In his most recent fight, on the Paul-Woodley undercard, Conwell stopped Juan Carlos Rubio in the third round.
Future ceiling and expectations: Conwell figures to land a title shot in 2022 or 2023 as long as he keeps winning and stepping up his level of competition. The 154-pound division is deep, but outside of the three or four fighters, Conwell figures to be able to compete with them all right now. — Coppinger
16. Mauricio Lara (23-2-1, 16 KOs)
Featherweight contender (No. 2 in ESPN rankings)
23 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: This fighter from Mexico was catapulted from nowhere into the limelight following his ninth-round demolition of England’s Josh Warrington in February. A rematch on Sept. 4 ended in a frustrating technical draw at the end of two rounds, after Lara sustained a cut over the left eye created by an accidental head clash.
Accomplishments: Unquestionably the win over Warrington, who went into the fight as ESPN’s No 1 at 126 pounds and had recently voluntarily given up the IBF world title. Little-known Lara was supposed to be a warm-up for Warrington, but the heavy-handed, Mexico City-based boxer had other ideas.
Future ceiling and expectations: It is unclear whether there will be a third fight between Lara and Warrington. Nothing could be drawn from what we saw in the second fight before it was stopped. But Lara’s lofty position with the IBF means he is in a good spot for a world title shot in 2022, against England’s Kid Galahad. His power makes Lara a threat to all of the champions at featherweight. — Parkinson
17. Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez (14-0, 10 KOs)
21 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: Rodriguez packs a lot of power into a small frame and looks like one of the most talented fighters below 115 pounds. Under the tutelage of renowned trainer Robert Garcia, Rodriguez, a southpaw, has developed into a fearsome puncher that deploys a full arsenal of weapons. His older brother, Joshua Franco, is a 118-pound champion.
Accomplishments: Rodriguez hasn’t faced any adversity yet, but his fourth-round KO of Jose Alejandro Burgos on Oct. 16 was his first scheduled 10-rounder, telling us that Garcia believes he’s ready for better competition. Rodriguez is riding a six-fight KO streak, with just two of those opponents hearing the bell to open the fourth round. That run includes a first-round KO of Janiel Rivera in September 2020, and a second-round knockout against Saul Juarez in December 2020, on the undercard of Felix Verdejo-Masayoshi Nakatani.
Future ceiling and expectations: Rodriguez projects as not just a future champion, but maybe even a pound-for-pound mainstay, given his diminutive status and the ease with which notable fights are made at those weights. A fight with Sunny Edwards or Julio Cesar Martinez at 112 pounds would put Rodriguez on the map. At 115 pounds, he could match up with future Hall of Farmers such as Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada. He should challenge for a title in 2022. — Coppinger
18. Terri Harper (11-0-1, 6 KOs)
WBC women’s junior lightweight champion
24 years old
2020 rank: Tied for 20th
The fighter: The lone woman to qualify in this year’s top 25, Harper won the WBC junior lightweight world title in just her 10th professional fight, and has since made two title defenses. She currently sits at No. 9 in ESPN’s women’s pound-for-pound rankings.
Accomplishments: Harper announced herself as an elite fighter with an outstanding unanimous decision win over Eva Wahlstrom in February 2020. Wahlstrom was 16 years older than Harper and had made five successful defenses, but Wahlstrom was beaten by the English boxer and was given a count in the seventh round. Harper’s fought twice since, fighting to a split draw against Natasha Jonas, and a TKO victory against Katharina Thanderz. A unification fight against Hyun Mi Choi, the WBA champion, was postponed after Harper injured her right hand again shortly before the fight was set to happen in May.
Future ceiling and expectations: Harper defends her title against Alycia Baumgardner on Nov. 13 in the U.K. A fight against either Choi, from South Korea, or American Mikaela Mayer, the WBO champion, would be a step up for Harper, but she is willing to make these fights. “It’s still my dream to unify and be on the road to undisputed,” Harper said. — Parkinson
Top Rank is planning for Edgar Berlanga and Xander Zayas at Madison Square Garden next year for the Puerto Rican Day Parade weekend fight card. Zayas says he’s already looking forward to that and fighting 2-3 more times this year.
19. Xander Zayas (10-0, 7 KOs)
Junior middleweight prospect
19 years old
2020 rank: Tied for 22nd
The fighter: Zayas is the youngest entry on the list for the second straight year. He is far from a finished product, but the talent is obvious. He can punch, is fearless and possesses a fan-friendly style. Now competing at 154 pounds, Zayas has been bulking up. He’s still fighting low-level opposition in six-rounders, so it’s impossible to tell how he’ll deal with genuine adversity. But if he can continue to fight his way up, he has the potential to be a star with his Puerto Rican roots and megawatt smile.
Accomplishments: It’s hard to pick one moment just yet, considering his opposition, but Zayas fought through his rockiest moment in his last outing — a six-round decision win against Jose Luis Sanchez in September. Zayas was rocked on one occasion and absorbed plenty of power blows, but never stopped coming forward.
Future ceiling and expectations: Zayas will enjoy his greatest exposure yet on the Jamel Herring-Shakur Stevenson co-main event Saturday on ESPN. He’ll fight another nondescript opponent in Dan Karpency in a six-round bout. If he continues to develop his tools, he could develop into a world champion. But at 19, he’s farther away than most of the fighters on this list. — Coppinger
20. Brandun Lee (23-0, 21 KOs)
Junior welterweight prospect
22 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: Lee has all the makings of a future world champion. He has great size for a 140-pounder at 5-foot-10 and generates great leverage on his punches. Lee has already scored a bundle of highlight-reel KOs and has faced solid opposition for a prospect on ShoBox. Lee headlined the March 2020 ShoBox card that was one of the last events held before the sports world essentially shut down, and has won four times since.
Accomplishments: Through 23 fights, Lee has already scored 21 KOs, but none have been more brutal than his March finish over Samuel Teah. Lee dropped Teah with a six-punch combination, unleashing punches to the body before connecting on a hellacious right hand that rendered his foe unconscious.
Future ceiling and expectations: He’s just 22, but with the amount of fights under his belt, Lee figures to fight a top-10 boxer soon. He could challenge for a title late in 2022 or in 2023. He’ll return in December, sources tell ESPN. — Coppinger
21. Keyshawn Davis (3-0, 2 KOs)
Lightweight prospect; 2020 Olympic silver medalist
22 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: After an amateur career that included silver medals in the 2019 World Championships and Pan American Games, Davis seemingly set aside his longtime Olympic dreams by turning professional to take advantage of the opportunities at hand. He debuted on the undercard of Canelo Alvarez-Avni Yildirim, fought his second fight on the undercard of Jamel Herring-Carl Frampton and his third on the Alvarez-Billy Joe Saunders fight at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He had wins in all three fights, and the stage wasn’t too big for him at any point.
Accomplishments: Due to qualification changes over the course of the COVID pandemic, Davis got to fight in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo after all. His performances throughout the tournament were stellar, and it was great to see him win the silver medal. But it was also great to see his attitude and demeanor after he lost that gold medal fight to Andy Cruz, who had also defeated him in both of his amateur silver medal runs. Davis wasn’t down on himself. He got a chance to fight in the Olympics, which he thought he wasn’t going to have a chance to do after turning pro. He won silver, and after that was it, he said he was happy moving on to bigger and better things.
Future ceiling and expectations: He reminds me a bit of what I saw from Stevenson early on, and I gave Stevenson that stamp of approval as a future world champion. From what I’ve seen so far, I think Davis is going to be a potential future world champion, and one of the next generation’s top pound-for-pound fighters, if he stays on the right track. His footwork stands out to me — his feet are so damn educated, and that’s one of the things that makes this kid special. Defensively, he’s very sound, very mature for his age. Great timing and awareness inside the ring. Agility, power and amateur experience — he has it all. — Bradley
22. Lee McGregor (11-0, 9 KOs)
Bantamweight contender (No. 10 in ESPN rankings)
24 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: The native of Scotland is already on the precipice of a title shot at 118 pounds — a tall fighter for the weight class at 5-foot-7½ inches. He packs plenty of power in both hands, with knockouts in all but two of his 11 wins. McGregor throws compact punches and never neglects the body.
Accomplishments: It won’t land on his highlight reel like many of his blistering KOs, but his best win just might be his split decision victory over Kash Farooq in 2019. That was easily McGregor’s best competition, and in that contest, McGregor proved he could box his way past a quality fighter over 12 rounds.
Future ceiling and expectations: McGregor will return in an IBF title eliminator that’s supposed to come against contender Jason Moloney, after a purse bid was set in early October. McGregor is one win away from a possible title shot against unified champion Naoya Inoue, ESPN’s No. 3 pound-for-pound boxer. — Coppinger
23. Wilfredo Mendez (16-1, 6 KOs)
WBO strawweight champion
24 years old
2020 rank: 17th
The fighter: Mendez, a southpaw from Puerto Rico, has made two defenses of the WBO strawweight title. He’s part of a younger generation coming through to challenge Thailand’s grip on boxing’s lightest division. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mendez has lost momentum and has not fought since February 2020.
Accomplishments: Mendez won a world title in only his 14th pro fight with a shocking unanimous decision over Victorio Saludar, in which he displayed good boxing skills. He has made two defenses, against Axel Aragon Vega (TD-7) and Gabriel Mendoza (TKO-9).
Future ceiling and expectations: Mendez may have to travel to one of his rivals’ home nations to get further big fights and title opportunities. Wanheng Menayothi, 35, lost his crown in November to fellow Thai fighter Panya Pradabsri, while Knockout CP Freshmart, also from Thailand, is the WBA champion. Rene Mark Cuarto, 25, of the Philippines, is the IBF champion. — Parkinson
24. Isaac Cruz (22-1-1, 15 KOs)
23 years old
2020 rank: Unranked
The fighter: Cruz proves that a fighter with an overwhelming work rate is a daunting opponent. His fighting style also matches how he’s approached his career. While a good amateur in Mexico, Cruz never made it farther than the country’s Olympic trial finals. He was still 16 years old when he officially turned pro. Despite the lack of pedigree that others on this year’s list have, Cruz has made up for that with a busy pro career and a relentless attack that is always appreciated by fans and promoters looking to put on a good show.
Accomplishments: Cruz’s best win to date was a knockout of Diego Magdaleno. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because current lightweight champ Teofimo Lopez also knocked Magdaleno out in 2019, on his path to eventually becoming a unified champion. Magdaleno represented the toughest test of Cruz’s career, and he finished him in 53 seconds.
Future ceiling and expectations: With a listed height of 5-foot-4 inches, Cruz isn’t especially large for a lightweight. However, his power and work rate will always keep him in fights, and will be something opponents must adjust and account for. Because of his willingness to throw punches and take risks in the ring, he will always be capable of winning big fights. But he’s someone who still has to prove he can eventually become a champion. — Baby
25. David Morrell (5-0, 4 KOs)
Super middleweight prospect (holds secondary WBA title)
23 years old
2020 rank: 25
The fighter: A multiple-time national amateur champion in Cuba, Morrell has found a home in Minneapolis, where PBC is building him into a local draw. Morrell has good size for a 168-pounder at 6-foot-1, and he has displayed tremendous power. Despite just five pro fights, a title shot isn’t too far away.
Accomplishments: That would be his most recent outing, a spectacular first-round knockout of Mario Cazares that headlined a PBC on Fox card in June. He also owns a 12-round unanimous decision over Lennox Allen, a quality boxer who entered their bout undefeated, in a fight in which Morrell won a vacant interim WBA title.
Future ceiling and expectations: Morrell, who is guided by Luis DeCubas Jr., projects as a future world champion, though he already owns the WBA’s secondary title at 168 pounds. He was previously in talks to fight England’s John Ryder in a clear step-up fight, and that bout could still take place in the future. Morrell is set to return in December, sources tell ESPN. — Coppinger
Others receiving votes: Duke Ragan; Jesus Ramos; Raymond Muratalla; Ruben Villa; Michel Rivera; Xavier Martinez; Omar Aguilar; Justis Huni; Jayson Mama; Pedro Taduran; Rene Tellez Giron; Hector Tanajara; Agustin Gauto.
The 2021 ESPN top 25 under 25 was voted upon by a panel of: Mike Coppinger, Ben Baby, Timothy Bradley Jr., Kel Dansby, Nick Parkinson and Crystina Poncher. In order to be eligible, a fighter had to be under the age of 25 as of Oct. 21, 2021.