With a black cowboy hat atop of his head, Brian Castano stood in his locker room in dismay. The WBO junior middleweight champion thought he did enough to win, and the overwhelming majority of the public agreed. Yet after 12 grueling rounds with Jermell Charlo for the undisputed 154-pound championship, the fight was declared a split draw.
“I feel that they robbed me,” Castano told ESPN in Spanish through a translator in July. “I’m not taking anything away from Charlo: he’s a big puncher, he caught me with some good punches at times, but I survived.”
Ten months after the first meeting, Charlo, owner of the WBC, IBF and WBA titles, and Castano will once again attempt to determine junior middleweight supremacy with Saturday’s rematch in Carson, California (9 p.m. ET, Showtime). The rematch was originally set for March 19, but it was postponed when Castano suffered a partially torn right biceps in sparring.
The first fight was action-packed and featured numerous ebbs and flows. Both Charlo and Castano were hurt at times. Castano applied relentless pressure behind a high guard, while Charlo looked to counter off the ropes.
Charlo is 1-0 in title rematches. Can he make the necessary adjustments to prosper in another return bout? Will Castano replicate his success in the first bout? Already, he scored a minor victory after Castano and his team pushed for the fight to land outside of Texas after they believed Charlo was the benefactor of a friendly hometown decision from the judges in San Antonio (Charlo is from Houston).
Beyond the two champions, a deep well of contenders (both young and established) wait in the wings for their own title opportunities. Fighters like Sebastian Fundora, Erickson Lubin and a rejuvenated Liam Smith are pushing for title opportunities sooner than later.
Before Charlo and Castano meet again, ESPN surveys the 154-pound landscape.
The unified champion, Jermell Charlo
Jermell, 31, the twin brother of middleweight champion Jermall Charlo, easily boasts the best résumé at 154 pounds. His lone defeat came against Tony Harrison in 2018, a controversial decision he avenged via KO.
Charlo’s crushing power also shined in a first-round KO of Lubin and an eighth-round KO of Jeison Rosario. Charlo (34-1-1, 18 KOs) has seven stoppage victories in his past 10 fights and he’ll look to use that fight-changing power once more against Castano. Down on the scorecards in Round 10 of their first encounter, Charlo landed a crushing left hook that buckled Castano, and could have ended the fight.
“You don’t give people like me opportunities again,” Charlo said. “I hate that I didn’t close out the first fight the way I should have. I’m going to be better, faster, stronger and more relentless in this fight. I’m going to be the old-school Jermell Charlo.”
A skilled puncher with a wealth of championship experience, Charlo, ESPN’s No. 2 ranked fighter at 154 pounds, was never tested like he was against Castano. A victory on Saturday would mark the biggest of his career.
The titleholder Brian Castano
Argentina’s Castano, 32, ranked No. 1 in the division by ESPN, first exhibited his impressive blend of pressure fighting mixed with guile in a 2017 victory over Michel Soro in France. His next opportunity at the top level didn’t come until 2019, when he fought to a draw with Erislandy Lara in a fight-of-the-year contender.
After he won the title in dominant fashion from Patrick Teixeira in 2021, Castano (17-0-2, 12 KOs) appeared to do more than enough to add three more belts when he met Charlo last year.
“This time, we’re going to try everything to make sure we don’t leave the fight in the hands of the judges,” Castano said. ” … He’s powerful, but I’m going to bring my power too. We learned from the first fight and we’re going to correct any errors we made.”
Aptly nicknamed “The Towering Inferno,” Fundora’s nearly 6-foot-6 frame and 80-inch reach has overwhelmed the opposition. Still just 24, Fundora (19-0-1, 13 KOs) has improved with each outing.
Never has he looked better than in his toughest test yet, a ninth-round TKO of Lubin in April in one of 2022’s best fights. Fundora, ranked No. 3 by ESPN at junior middleweight, vanquished Lubin by the end of the bout, using a nonstop attack with punches flying from seemingly every possible angle. He proved he could handle adversity, too, after he survived a seventh-round knockdown.
It’s going to take a special fighter to solve the Fundora puzzle. He almost guaranteed himself a shot at the winner of Charlo-Castano 2 with the triumph over Lubin.
Through his pro career so far, Tszyu (21-0, 15 KOs) has proven to be much more than just a man with a famous last name. The son of Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu is clearly ready for far better opposition now and proved as much in his last outing in March.
In his biggest win to date, Tszyu, 27, rallied from a first-round knockdown to score a unanimous decision over Terrell Gausha. Like Fundora, it was the first time Tszyu truly faced adversity in the ring, a valuable developmental moment as he works his way up the ranks.
The aggressive Australian, ESPN’s No. 4 junior middleweight, is now in line for one of the four titles that will be held by the winner of Charlo-Castano 2. He’s durable, packs plenty of pop and is already a star in Australia.
Madrimov, 27, only has eight pro fights, but already, the accomplished amateur is on the doorstep of a title shot.
The skilled Uzbek, ranked No. 7 in the division by ESPN, has impressed with his movement and speed, all on display when he took a quantum leap in competition in December in a bout with Soro. Just as the close fight was heating up, it was over, but not without heaps of controversy.
Madrimov (8-0, 6 KOs) buckled Soro toward the end of Round 9 before he landed numerous blows after the bell rang. The referee erred twice: first, by not stepping in between the boxers at the sound of the bell, and then by ruling it a TKO victory for Madrimov.
The WBA ordered a rematch due to the circumstances, and the title eliminator is on deck for this summer.
“Beefy” lost his 154-pound title to Canelo Alvarez in 2016 and wasn’t competitive with Jaime Munguia in a bid to regain a belt two years later, but suddenly he’s found new life.
After he dropped a controversial decision to Magomed Kurbanov in May 2021, Smith (31-3-1, 18 Kos) has reeled off consecutive TKO victories over solid opposition.
First, Smith stopped Anthony Fowler in October. Then, more impressively, he brutalized former two-division titleholder Jessie Vargas en route to a 10th-round stoppage on the Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano undercard.
Smith, 33, isn’t flashy, but his fundamentals, grit and conditioning have him in position for another title opportunity. He’s ranked at No. 8 by ESPN in the junior middleweight division.
After the type of damage Lubin sustained against Fundora, he might not be the same fighter again. Once the most highly touted amateur in the United States, Lubin (24-2, 17 KOs) has now suffered stoppage losses in his two title fights.
But Lubin also showed just how resilient he is in the loss to Fundora. Despite the punishment, Lubin never wilted, and surely would have kept swinging for the knockout if trainer Kevin Cunningham didn’t save him from himself.
Lubin, ESPN’s No. 6-ranked 154 pounder, was on a hot run before the loss, and he’s still just 26. He’s earned a nice respite, but once he’s back in the ring, a victory over another name on this list should bring him closer to one more title shot. With his blend of power, toughness and punch variety, Lubin shouldn’t be counted out.
Like Liam Smith, Harrison is now surging years after losing his title. The Detroit native has always been a slick boxer, and it was on display in full force in a dominant decision over Sergio Garcia last month.
What hasn’t been reliable is Harrison’s chin. All three of his losses came via KO/TKO: against Charlo, Jarrett Hurd and Willie Nelson.
A fight with Lubin makes a lot of sense at some point in the foreseeable future.
The Frenchman will receive a chance to right wrongs when he meets Madrimov in a rematch this summer. Soro, 34, is one of the most proven fighters at 154 pounds, with a lengthy run at the weight class that includes plenty of KO victories over lesser fighters, and some razor-thin bouts with the upper echelon.
His split-decision loss to Castano in 2017 showed off his ability, and a rematch for the undisputed title, should he and Castano prosper in their upcoming rematches, is a realistic possibility.
Soro (35-3-1, 24 KOs) did plenty of good work against Madrimov — in his opponent’s home country. He’ll likely receive his second shot in neutral territory and should only be counted as a slight underdog. After all, the No. 9-ranked Soro carries a lot of power in his punches and has the boxing acumen to compete with the best.
One of the most intriguing fighters in the division, Conwell (16-0, 12 KOs) isn’t spectacular but his overall game could lead him to a title run.
The Clevelander owns a tough, rugged style that’s difficult to contend with. So far, he hasn’t had the competition to prove just how good he can be.
The 24-year-old represented the United States in the 2016 Olympic Games but didn’t medal. After a scheduled stay-busy fight against Abraham Juarez Ramirez on June 2, Conwell should be ready for a true step-up bout later in the year.
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