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Forget the Heavyweights, who will save the Jr. Middleweights?
By Brent Hedtke (May 30, 2004) 
Oscar De La Hoya
It’s no secret that Oscar De La Hoya is boxing’s version of an ATM. When a fighter steps in the ring with the Golden Boy, regardless of the outcome, they can rest their weary head on the fat sack of cash that comes along with gracefully losing to the five- division champion. Even with De La Hoya receiving the lion’s share, there’s always more than enough money to satisfy even the most stubborn contenders. As surely as sharks can sense blood in the ocean, many junior middleweight’s will now follow Oscar as he drags his open sores into the middleweight waters, hoping for a shot at a “golden” payday.

Once the hottest division in the sport, De La Hoya’s exit will the leave the 154 lb. class in the hands of a few young sluggers and a some veteran tough guys. In the coming months De La Hoya will make his debut at middleweight against Felix Sturm which will set up a fall blockbuster with 160 lb. king Bernard Hopkins. With the Golden Boy gone, current Junior Middleweight Champion Winky Wright will likely have to search outside of his long time division to receive the paydays he so desperately seeks (and deserves).

With Winky gone Shane Mosley will be forced to follow him up to middleweight if he wishes to avenge his loss or possibly get a rubber match with De La Hoya. If Fernando Vargas does return to the ring, it has become very apparent that his muscular frame can no longer comfortably make the junior middleweight limit. Add Felix Trinidad’s return to boxing to the mix and you have a middleweight division that’s pockets are as deep as it’s talented.

Right now of course, this is all speculation. Though the situation may manifest itself in an alternate fashion, the aforementioned scenario seems to be the most likely. So where does that leave the junior middleweight division? Up the creek without a paddle? Not necessarily. There are a number of legitimate contenders in this division with the star quality to fill in the gaps where the previous fab four left off. The fighters that were once just “mandatories” will finally get their chance. And believe me, they are chomping at the bit.

The most likely successor is Kassim Ouma. Kassim “The Dream” has been the IBF mandatory challenger for almost a year now, but unfortunately the title shot has eluded him. Not to be dismayed, Ouma keeps winning and improving with every victory. Most recently he scored an impressive tenth round TKO over the formidable J.C. Candelo. Ouma showed surprising maturity and power in stopping the rugged veteran who just last year gave Winky all he could handle.

A native of Uganda, Ouma now resides in West Palm Beach, Florida. He has suffered many hardships in his young life yet remains extremely focused and poised while at the same time always positive and downright happy. Ouma has the kind of smile that toothpaste companies fawn over and the kind of fistic abilities that fighters 10 years his senior have not yet attained. At 25, Ouma has all the time in the world to fine tune the skills that have already garnered him a #4 ranking by the Ring Magazine.

Before Ouma can claim his place as next in line to the 154 lb. throne, he first has to get by veteran Verno Phillips. Phillips has been lingering around the top ten somewhere for the last few years. After a two year layoff from the ring in 1998, Phillips resumed his career with an impressive streak of victories. Winning six of his last seven fights, Phillips has racked up respectable victories over the likes of Shibata Flores, Bronco McKart and Michael Lerma. The only stumbling block along the way was Kassim Ouma. In their first fight back in September of 2001, Ouma banged out a ten round unanimous decision over Phillips. Ouma’s style seemed to frustrate Phillips, but that didn’t stop either of them from putting on a thrilling back and forth battle.

Phillips’ most recent outing came in the form of a one round shellacking of the rugged Julio Garcia. By making quick work of the always-tough Garcia, Phillips has shown a definite rededication to his career and proved he is a visible threat to any man across the ring from him. The winner of the June 5th showdown between Phillips and Ouma will make big strides toward securing his place as next in line in the junior middleweight division.

Nipping at the heels of the top ten is the ever dangerous, but oh so likable Tokunbo Olijade. Boxing has a history of successful fighters moonlighting as musicians. From the tap-dancing Ray Robinson and the R&B crooning Joe Frazier of yesteryear. To the sharp tongued rapper Roy Jones, JR. and the balladeer Oscar De La Hoya of today. Olijade is a smooth talking jazz horn player and his style in the ring mirrors his sophisticated demeanor outside it.

The 28 year old, Olajide has shown maturity beyond his years in rebounding from an October 2002 first round knockout at the hands of Epifanio Mendoza. A loss like this might detour many young fighters, but Olajide has trekked on, learning at every turn. More recently Olajide scored a four round TKO of tough veteran Emil Baku followed by a second round KO of former world title challenger, Larry Marks this past February. With a few more fights Olajide will be ready to make some serious waves in the 154 lb. division.

Let’s not forget the better late never arrival of Vernon Forrest in the junior middleweight ranks. Many predicted the demise of Vernon Forrest after his two losses to Nicaraguan slugger Ricardo Mayorga. Forrest though, is anything, but done. The two-time Shane Mosley conqueror and former pound for pound mainstay would like nothing more than to call himself a champion again. Forrest has had trouble finding an opponent to test the waters at 154 lbs., but once he does, his presence will add an aura of excitement and experience to a relatively young division.

Accompanying Ouma, Phillips, Olajide and Forrest in the renovation of the jr. middles are current WBO champ Daniel Santos and breakout star of last years Night of the Undisputed, “Tremendous” Travis Simms.

De La Hoya has now swept through five divisions from 130 lbs. to 154 lbs. and left a paper trail a mile long. The financial rewards De La Hoya can offer are more than most fighters could ever dream of. His presence will be missed by those he has outgrown, but to those he is currently leaving behind, the future is wide open. With names like Winky, Shane, Oscar and Ricardo heading to 160 to join the ranks of Bernard, Jermaine and Tito, the middleweight class looks like the new place to be to cash in your chips. This leaves the jr. middles in a state of renovation, but like Disco Diva Gloria Gaynor once said, “I will Survive.” With talent like Ouma and the gang that is certainly what the jr. middleweight division is screaming at us.
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