Middleweight was once one of boxing’s three most prestigious divisions, second to heavyweight and even with the welterweights.
In recent years, though, the middleweight division has become a sad sack, with little quality depth and few interesting matches.
That is all about to change. Top Rank on Tuesday announced that Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. will defend his World Boxing Council middleweight belt against former Irish Olympian Andy Lee at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on June 16.
That’s huge news for Lee, who was once a boy wonder in the division but has had to wait an abnormally long time to get a title shot.
It’s even bigger for boxing because promoter Lou DiBella said he’s already in talks to guarantee that the Chavez-Lee winner would fight lineal champion Sergio Martinez in the final.
The division is suddenly teeming with good fights and fighters. Most importantly, the matches which should be made are getting made.
“The fans are the real winners in this,” DiBella said. “Andy’s a real test for Chavez and that’s going to be a very fun fight. But we’re working on a contract for the winner to fight Sergio. That’s [expletive] huge. This is going to give this division a huge jolt.”
Lee is one of the sport’s most entertaining fighters, but he hasn’t received a lot of television exposure. He was highly regarded coming out of the 2004 Olympics, but an unexpected 2008 loss to Bryan Vera seemed to throw him way farther off course than usual.
Lee is 28-1 with 20 knockouts but is fighting for a title for the first time.
“This is a fight I’ve wanted for a while,” Lee said of a match with Chavez Jr. “I’ve been in position for a while now, and I’ve been waiting to see it get done.”
Lee fought for Ireland in the 2004 Athens Games and was heavily hyped when he turned pro. Yet it will have been more than six years into his career before he got a title shot.
Chavez didn’t take up boxing until later in his life and got much attention and notoriety early because of his Hall of Fame father. It was a running joke in boxing that Top Rank was searching graveyards to find opponents the young Chavez could beat.
Chavez was extremely popular with Mexican and Mexican-American fans, and Top Rank moved him slowly. But Lee said he sees a notable improvement.
“Early in his career, it was kind of a joke in boxing about him,” Lee said. “He was matched well because of his name and because he was a ticket seller. Top Rank did a good job with him, but since he’s been with [trainer] Freddie Roach he’s improved a great deal. He’s been fighting well and is a serious, serious fight for anyone in this division.
“He’s physically strong and aggressive, but I believe I have the skill to beat him.”