When will the stars of boxing return to the ring?

Vasiliy Lomachenko, above, is expected to face Teofimo Lopez Jr. later in the year to unify lightweight world titles. John Locher/AP

Boxing was one of the first sports to return to action as the world continued its battle with COVID-19. Starting in early June, Top Rank created a bubble inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and put on fights multiple times a week for fans of the sweet science to enjoy.

As great it was to see fighters back inside the squared circle, there was one significant element missing from the equation: big fights with the sport's biggest stars. Without the best performers in action, the fights didn't have much in the way of stakes for fans to invest in. The history of boxing is defined by its stars and the fights in which they participate.

The lack of fans and, more specifically, revenue from the gate changed the finances of the sport significantly. Deals with broadcast partners create revenue for both the fighters and the organizations, to be sure, but for the fighters and promoters, the money brought in from paying fans has always lined the pockets in a significant way.

As a result, there hasn't been a Vasiliy Lomachenko, Terence Crawford or Tyson Fury on TV. Canelo Alvarez, Errol Spence Jr., Manny Pacquiao and Oleksandr Usyk are also still in training, waiting for a chance to get back in the ring.

But that trend seems to be changing. The meaningful fights are coming. On Tuesday, Spence's name was attached to Danny Garcia's. Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez Jr. are making progress on their fight, and rumors about a potential Crawford-Pacquiao fight have surfaced.

Going off the latest ESPN pound-for-pound list, here's what's in store for boxing's elite in the upcoming months.

1. Vasiliy Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KOs): WBC franchise lightweight champion/WBA/WBO lightweight champion

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Lopez willing to fight Lomachenko anywhere

Teofimo Lopez is optimistic that a fight with Vasiliy Lomachenko will happen this year.

Previous fight: Lomachenko added the vacant WBC 135-pound belt to his collection by defeating Luke Campbell by unanimous decision in August at the O2 Arena in London. Campbell troubled Lomachenko at the start of the fight, but Lomachenko took over down the stretch to win a wide unanimous decision (118-109, 119-108 and 119-108).

What's next: A proposed mega-fight against IBF belt holder Teofimo Lopez Jr. on Oct. 3 in Las Vegas. Although many believe this is a tad too soon for the precocious Lopez, if you're the goods, you're the goods. Lopez has the natural size advantage, and when he's focused, he's as good as anyone in the division in terms of power and, just as importantly, timing. He is a masterful counter-puncher who can lay traps and exploit them.

This is one of the best and most intriguing fights that can be made right now because you have one of the very best practitioners of the sport in Lomachenko against a prodigy who believes he's on his way to bigger and better things. Is Lomachenko simply too seasoned and experienced for Lopez, or is Lopez simply too strong and powerful for the unified champion? In an era in which many fighters wait to make career defining fights, it's refreshing to see a young boxer take a bold leap such as this.

Early prediction: Lopez by decision over Lomachenko


2. Terence Crawford (36-0, 27 KOs): WBO welterweight champion

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Why Crawford prefers fight with Pacquiao before Spence

Terence Crawford explains why he'd like to fight the legendary Manny Pacquiao before setting up a megafight with Errol Spence Jr.

Previous fight: "Bud" Crawford got a bit more than expected when he battled Egidijus Kavaliauskas on Dec. 14 at Madison Square Garden. After getting buzzed in Round 3, Crawford steadily took over the fight, thanks to his superior skill set. I believe Crawford is the most dangerous and effective switch-hitter in boxing, and he's as tough and mean as he is talented. He controls distance and range with a great sense of anticipation. Crawford dropped Kavaliauskas three times en route to a ninth-round TKO victory. It was one of the better back-and-forth battles of his career, but given that he is 32, it left some wondering if Crawford has hit his physical plateau.

What's next: According to his promoter, Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, Crawford will return in November. There has been talk of this fight being overseas. The native of Omaha, Nebraska, has made it very clear that he isn't keen to take any type of reduction in pay, even if there is no live gate involved in the fight. The bigger question is whom Crawford will be paired against. Arum has hinted at a possible fight with current WBA 147-pound titlist Manny Pacquiao, who has been reticent to face Crawford in the past. There is also talk of a move up to 154, which would mean a shot at WBO belt holder Patrick Teixeira.

Early prediction: Crawford by decision over Pacquaio


3. Canelo Alvarez (53-1-2, 36 KOs): WBC franchise middleweight champion/WBA middleweight "super" champion/WBA "regular" super middleweight champion

Previous fight: The Mexican superstar ventured all the way up to light heavyweight in November, when he stopped Sergey Kovalev in Round 11 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to add the WBO 175-pound title belt to his vast collection. Alvarez, who has honed his skills the past few years, took his time and eventually broke down Kovalev with a left hook-right hand combination that had Kovalev down and out. That title reign was short-lived, though, as Alvarez quickly vacated the title.

What's next: It seems that the current fight for Alvarez is against DAZN, with whom he is still trying to come to a financial agreement in regard to a Sept. 12 fight. It's clear that despite Alvarez's being in the middle of an 11-fight, $365 million contract, those terms might not be met by the streaming service, given their current economic situation. Everyone from WBA super middleweight titlist Callum Smith (who's probably the best pure option from a fan perspective) to John Ryder (who lost a close unanimous decision against Smith in November) to Jason Quigley has been mentioned as a potential opponent for Canelo. Billy Joe Saunders, the original opponent scheduled to face Canelo in May, recently took himself out of the running.

Early prediction: I'll pick Canelo over the field.


4. Naoya Inoue (19-0, 16 KOs): WBA "super" bantamweight champion/IBF bantamweight champion

Previous fight: Inoue got all he could handle from future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament before scoring a hard-fought, unanimous-decision victory in the 2019 fight of the year. Inoue needed a late surge, which included a knockdown of Donaire from a left hook to the body, to seal the victory in November in Saitama, Japan. It was a banner year for Inoue, who also dismantled the previously undefeated Emmanuel Rodriguez in two rounds in the semifinals of the WBSS bantamweight tournament to win the WBA belt.

What's next: Inoue was scheduled to face WBO champion John Riel Casimero in a unification bout on April 25 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. That fight was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it's not clear if it will be rescheduled. Arum has said that if Casimero does not accept a lower fee than what was originally agreed upon, the fight will not take place. Arum also mentioned Jason Moloney as a possible opponent for Inoue.

Early prediction: Inoue by sixth-round KO over Casimero


5. Errol Spence (26-0, 21 KOs): WBC/IBF welterweight champion

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Spence hospitalized after car crash

Mike Greenberg provides details surrounding the one-car crash that left unified welterweight world champion Errol Spence Jr. hospitalized with serious injuries.

Previous fight: Spence and Shawn Porter went toe-to-toe for 12 rounds in a hard-fought welterweight unification fight in September. Spence finally got some breathing room when he scored a knockdown in the 11th round to win a unanimous decision by scores of 116-111, 116-111 and 115-112. Just 12 days after the bout against Porter, Spence was involved in a horrific, one-car accident that catapulted him from the vehicle. Spence was later charged with driving while intoxicated. His career could've been in jeopardy.

What's next: Spence is expected to return against former two-division titlist Danny Garcia in a pay-per-view card in November in what should be a very interesting bout because of the unknown. Spence would have been the prohibitive favorite over Garcia before the accident, but after suffering facial lacerations and broken teeth, Spence is a bit of a mystery. How does he react the first time he gets hit? Will he ever be the same dominant boxer in the ring?

Early prediction: Garcia via late KO over Spence


6. Oleksandr Usyk (17-0, 13 KOs): Heavyweight contender

Previous fight: The former undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world made his heavyweight debut in 2019, stopping late-replacement opponent Chazz Witherspoon in Round 7 in October at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago. It wasn't much of a fight, and there are still questions about Usyk's viability as a modern-day heavyweight.

What's next: Usyk was scheduled to face Dereck Chisora in March, but the fight was postponed after The British Boxing Board of Control extended the suspension of professional boxing in the U.K. because of the coronavirus. The fight has been targeted for October in London and should give us a proper barometer on what Usyk is as a heavyweight. There is certainly some risk involved for Usyk and his status as the WBO No. 1 contender, which puts him in line to face the winner of Anthony Joshua-Kubrat Pulev for that world title in 2020.

Early prediction: Usyk by decision over Chisora


7. Tyson Fury (30-0-1, 21 KOs): WBC heavyweight champion/heavyweight lineal champion

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Fury sends Wilder to the mat in Round 5

Tyson Fury lands a body shot, sending Deontay Wilder to the ground in the fifth round.

Previous fight: Fury demolished Wilder in a one-sided, seventh-round KO in a fight that, on paper, was a 50-50 toss-up in February. Employing a more aggressive approach, Fury stepped right to Wilder behind his hard jab and dominated Wilder by putting him on his back foot and taking away his ability to unfurl his lethal right hand. Fury sent Wilder to the canvas in Rounds 3 and 5, and then the fight was waved off in the seventh. This dominant performance gave Fury recognition as boxing's most dominant heavyweight.

What's next: Both Fury and Wilder are contractually bound for a third bout. The fight was originally slated for the summer, but it is now hoped that the bout will take place in December. The problem, as with many of the bouts on this list, is that this fight needs to be in front of some sort of live audience, given that the rematch generated almost $17 million in ticket sales. It would be very difficult to make the finances work for this mega fight without this portion of the revenue stream.

Early prediction: Fury by ninth-round KO over Wilder


8. Juan Francisco Estrada (40-3, 27 KOs): WBC junior bantamweight champion

Previous fight: In August 2019, Estrada stopped Dewayne Beamon in Round 9 in what was a stay-busy fight. Estrada gained revenge on Srisaket Sor Rungvisai several months prior to win the WBC junior bantamweight belt. The bout was supposed to be a prelude to a unification bout with WBA titleholder Kal Yafai, but Estrada suffered a hand injury.

What's next: Although Estrada yearns for a rematch against the legendary Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, it looks like Estrada will be facing Carlos Cuadras in a rematch. The two engaged in a memorable fight in September 2017, with Estrada eking out a decision victory by the score of 114-113 on all three scorecards.

Early prediction: Estrada by decision over Cuadras


9. Gennadiy Golovkin (40-1-1, 35 KOs): IBF middleweight champion

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Max revisits GGG's legacy

After saying that Gennadiy Golovkin should've lost to Sergiy Derevyanchenko, Max Kellerman reviews GGG's latest run of fights against elite middleweights.

Previous fight: Golovkin defeated Sergiy Derevyanchenko in October to win the vacant IBF middleweight world title at Madison Square Garden in New York. Golovkin, 38, looked every bit of his age against Derevyanchenko. Although Golovkin scored an early knockdown, Derevyanchenko consistently took the fight to "GGG," who certainly had his moments but was hit an alarming number of times to the head and body. Was this the night that Golovkin turned old?

What's next: GGG will face his IBF mandatory challenger Kamil Szeremeta in a fight expected to happen in September. The goal is for Golovkin to face Canelo for the third time in 2021.

Early prediction: Golovkin by sixth-round KO over Szeremeta


10. Manny Pacquiao (62-7-2, 39 KOs): WBA welterweight champion

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Is Manny Pacquiao the greatest fighter of all time?

Manny Pacquiao can make a case for being the best fighter of all time, according to ESPN analyst Max Kellerman. He's certainly a better pound-for-pound fighter than Floyd Mayweather.

Previous fight: Pacquiao added to his legacy by defeating Keith Thurman in July. He stunned Thurman, who was undefeated before the fight, by knocking him down in the first round, sweeping the early rounds and hurting him again to the body in the 10th to seal a split-decision victory. Pacquiao has been a world champion in four decades. Since dropping a disputed decision to Jeff Horn in 2017, Pacquiao has defeated the trio of Lucas Matthysse, Adrien Broner and Thurman.

What's next: At this stage of his career, Pacquiao will probably go with the best financial deal presented to him. Although there has been some chatter about a Crawford fight outside the U.S., that has yet to be confirmed. There was talk earlier in the year about a matchup against Mikey Garcia, and should someone such as Conor McGregor say Pacquiao's name out loud, that would instantly create some buzz for better or worse. Plus, who knows? If Floyd Mayweather decides that he wants to make another few hundred million, maybe he can return for a rematch against "PacMan." Pacquiao has been training in the Philippines, just in case.

Early predictions: Crawford by decision over Pacquiao; Pacquiao by decision over Garcia