Why boxing is going to be different, and better, in 2021

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What boxing needs in 2021 (1:28)

Mark Kriegel goes in depth on what the sport of boxing needs in 2021 in order to have a successful year. (1:28)

When Teofimo Lopez stepped into the ring to face Vasiliy Lomachenko in a lightweight title unification fight, the stakes seemed simple enough.

If Lopez upset one of the sport's top pound-for-pound fighters, he would immediately position himself as one of the best in the 135-pound division, and one of boxing's biggest attractions. When Lopez won via unanimous decision, it caused a ripple effect that could alter the future of boxing.

Instead of protecting his undefeated record, a marketing chip coveted by many fighters in recent years, the 23-year-old Lopez opted for a serious challenge in Lomachenko. He showed that taking the risk was the right move, and now other young lightweights, such as Ryan Garcia (22), Devin Haney (22) and Gervonta Davis (26), seem to have a similar mindset.

Lopez (16-0, 12 KOs) and his peers could be at the forefront of a trend that would be great for the sport -- fighters eager to face top opposition earlier in their careers, records and politics be damned.

"These young [fighters], they all want to jump into big fights early in their career," Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn said in December. "No 'marinating.' And that's great for boxing." Hearn's comments came in an interview with DAZN during its broadcast of the Canelo Alvarez-Callum Smith super middleweight title fight on Dec. 19. Lopez was ringside, shouting at Hearn to put a purse bid on a future bout with Haney (25-0, 15 KOs).

"Teofimo wants the smoke," said a smiling Hearn.

That's been apparent since Lopez started his ascent. Lopez and his father, Teofimo Sr., branded their campaign "The Takeover" as they chased the top spot in the division. He had been fast tracked for stardom by Top Rank Promotions, who placed Lopez in the main event on a primetime ESPN card at Madison Square Garden in his 15th pro fight. On that December night he became a champion with a thrilling knockout win over Richard Commey.

But in agreeing to fight Lomachenko, he opted for the route more often taken by those who fought decades ago, instead of the modern trends of letting big fights simmer for a potentially bigger payday down the road, or waiting for a more opportune time as a rival's skills fade.

Sometimes, that risk backfires.

The value of a potential fight between Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa -- the origin of the now infamous term "marinate" uttered by Bob Arum -- declined after the former was stopped by Orlando Salido in 2011. Then there was the rift between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, a fight that was first floated in 2009 and didn't come to fruition until 2015. No matter the reasons, the fight took several years to make and while it still brought in hundreds of millions of dollars, it occurred well after both were at their peaks.

A modern parallel is the inability to get welterweight champions Terence "Bud" Crawford and Errol Spence Jr. in the ring. Both men are undefeated and consensus top pound-for-pound fighters, but there appears to be no easy path to make that fight happen due to the business of boxing. Whether or not the changes we've seen in the lightweight division could help change the equation at welterweight and elsewhere remains to be seen.

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Revisit the best of boxing in 2020

From Tyson Fury's TKO of Deontay Wilder for the heavyweight title to Teofimo Lopez's upset defeat of Vasiliy Lomachenko, take a look back at the best boxing moments of 2020.

For now, the lightweights and their collective mentalities are going to drive the conversation. In the build-up to the Lomachenko bout, Lopez referenced current champions like Alvarez and heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua as examples of guys who have suffered losses and still been able to be among the sport's most lucrative attractions. He also cited some of the sport's legends in previous decades, including Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran and "Sugar" Ray Leonard, who fought other top fighters to become best.

And he said he's not alone in that mentality.

"I have a list that I could give off of that I grew up with in the amateurs," Lopez said after beating Lomachenko. "The fact is this is the new generation. We're bringing back what the old school was -- fight the best -- and we push on it.

"I'm not here to pick and choose who I want to fight because I want to defend my title and keep that '0'. No."

That same sentiment was shared by Garcia after his stunning knockout win over former title challenger Luke Campbell. Garcia, who's also a social media superstar, passed the biggest test of his young career in that victory on Jan. 2 -- one that showed he is keeping pace with Lopez and Davis, who had an impressive knockout win over Leo Santa Cruz in October.

But even as these talented and hungry lightweights seek the biggest fights available, there are still some roadblocks -- namely competition for who gets to fight each other first. Even amid the post-fight euphoria, with Haney, the WBC titlist to whom Garcia is now a mandatory challenger, Garcia said he wanted "Tank" Davis next.

"I really want to be a man of my word," Garcia said in his post-fight interview on DAZN. "I really want to fight Tank. I know people are worried about it [happening], but I'm ready for it."

Shawn Porter, a former champion and current welterweight contender, said he believes Lopez is ushering in an era where top fighters are less concerned with undefeated records, a trend that he agrees is good for boxing. And those who steer the financial aspect of the sport are also falling in line.

Boxing saw a glimpse of fighters taking on that risk and reaping the financial benefits in 2018, when heavyweights Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury put their undefeated records in a title fight. The two met for a rematch at the beginning of 2020 despite being promoted by rival companies. After Fury won the rematch, the conversation immediately turned to the potential of another heavyweight superfight -- a true unification bout for all of the belts against unified titleholder Joshua.

And although we'll have to see how 2021 shakes out, the trend of fighters accepting more risks for greater rewards seems to be gaining momentum.

"The promoters are now getting to a point where they're going to give those prospects the big names and let whatever happens, happens," Porter told ESPN in November.

Davis and Garcia could be the latest to cross the sport's political aisle and make a fight that people desperately want to see. During the Spence-Danny Garcia telecast, Porter called out Crawford for a future welterweight bout.

For years, boxing fans have clamored for young, exciting fighters to face each other during their primes, and there's hope that such a trend could spread well beyond one division. In a best-case scenario, 2021 could include fights like Crawford-Spence or Canelo-Charlo. What we know for sure is that with the rise of Lopez and the other budding lightweights at the end of 2020, this year could spark one of boxing's best eras in recent decades.

"If you want to come at me, you better be ready," Lopez told DAZN in December. "And that's all I gotta say for everybody coming 2021. I'm coming out there to take your head off."