Amir KhanYou say you want to see Floyd Mayweather Jr. take on a freakishly fast foreign fighter who trains under Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Boxing Club? No, not Money vs. Manny, but the next best thing; Mayweather vs. Khan just might happen in 2012. King Khan became a star on his side of the Atlantic when he won Olympic silver in 2004 at the age of 17, only to run chin-first into a speed bump in his 19th pro fight, a humiliating first-round KO loss to unknown Breidis Prescott in September 2008. So Khan hooked up with Roach, tightened his D and ran off eight straight wins, fighting mostly in the U.K. and off U.S. fight fans' radar. Khan's record of 26-1 (18 KOs), however, includes victories over Marco Antonio Barrera, Paulie Malignaggi and Zab Judah. Now, the WBA/IBF junior welterweight titlist is ready to invade the get-rich-quick welterweight class. Khan has the charisma, the talent, the trainer and now, thanks to HBO, the exposure in America. Does he have the chin? If he fights Mayweather, we'll find out.[+] EnlargeAlberto E. Rodriguez/Getty ImagesAGE: 25 | HOMETOWN: Bolton, England
FAME CLAIM: WBA/IBF junior welterweight champion
Saul AlvarezThere's a new sheriff of Redhead County, and his fan base blows Carrot Top's away. When Alvarez fought Ryan Rhodes in June, an estimated 36 million Mexican households tuned in. Alvarez's previous fight, against Matthew Hatton, ranks among the top three most-watched HBO Boxing After Dark broadcasts of the last three years, and the Mexican broadcast was the highest-rated boxing program on Televisa in three years. Plus, Alvarez is pulling in more than 10,000 fans at live arenas every time out on both sides of the border. What's going on here? Maybe it's the red hair and dimples, which are eliciting more high-pitched squeals than any boxer since Oscar de la Hoya. And Alvarez -- whose nickname is Canelo, referring to his mane -- can fight a little bit too. The 21-year-old WBC super welterweight belt holder boasts a 38-0-1 record with 28 KOs, the highlight coming via a one-punch snore shot of former welterweight champ Carlos Baldomir. Fight fans are seeing red, and they're loving every second of it.[+] EnlargeMark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesAGE: 21 | HOMETOWN: Jalisco, Mexico
FAME CLAIM: WBC super welterweight champion
Gary Russell Jr.Taking a page out of the George Foreman playbook, Russell's father had six sons and named them all Gary. But there's only one Gary Russell staking a claim as the best American-born boxing prospect. With his tremendous hand speed, Russell draws comparisons to Roy Jones Jr. in his prime. The 23-year-old featherweight is an unproven commodity, with no victims of great renown on his 18-0 (10 KOs) dossier. But his raw talent is staggering, and HBO has taken note. It gave the southpaw speed demon the rare privilege of an eight-rounder on the network this past September, in which he scored a unanimous decision over Leonilo Miranda. Russell's amateur career ended in disaster when he outgrew the bantamweight class between the 2008 Olympic trials and the Beijing Games. But that won't be his last shot at bringing home a shiny piece of gold.[+] EnlargeJustin Dernier/Icon SMIAGE: 23 | HOMETOWN: Capitol Heights, Md.
FAME CLAIM: 18-0 (10 KOs) as a featherweightIn 2008, dos Santos was a big underdog in his UFC debut when he dropped perennial contender Fabricio Werdum with a powerful fully torqued uppercut that went viral the next day. The Brazil native, who at age 10 peddled ice cream on the streets to help his family survive, had officially arrived. Since then the 6'4" heavyweight has built a casualty list that reads like a who's-who of UFC: Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Gabriel Gonzaga, Roy Nelson, Shane Carwin. With an overall record of 14-1 (eight of those fights in the UFC), dos Santos has the heaviest hands and best boxing skills in the division. If an opponent succeeds in dragging him to the canvas -- something Carwin knows firsthand is nearly impossible -- dos Santos also knows a thing or two about human origami. He's a brown belt in jiu-jitsu under the Nogueira brothers and has three submissions in his young career. Boasting explosiveness on his feet and technique on the ground, dos Santos will be a star in the UFC for years to come.[+] EnlargeJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAGE: 27 | HOMETOWN: Santa Catarina, Brazil
FAME CLAIM: Owns a brown belt in jiu-jitsu and is currently the UFC heavyweight champion.Thanks to an upper body usually seen only in comic books, Davis can wear pink trunks without anybody saying a word. "Mr. Wonderful" gets his nickname from a pet cat he had at Penn State, where he went 116-20 as a wrestler and won the 197-pound national championship in 2008. That pedigree has helped Davis become a force in the UFC's light heavyweight division. The 6'2" specimen has racked up a 5-0 record (9-0 overall), including victories over upstart Alexander Gustafsson and Pride legend Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Davis submitted UFC stalwart Tim Boetsch with a modified kimura -- modified because he needed only one arm to do it. Commentator Joe Rogan called the move the "Mr. Wonderful," while fans have dubbed it the "Philmura." Not only is the 27-year-old Davis a wild card to challenge for the UFC's 205-pound belt in 2012, but some see him as the only real threat to titleholder Jon Jones.[+] EnlargeJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesShould he defeat Lyoto Machida at UFC 163, Phil Davis believes "fans are going to be begging for me to fight for a title."
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Every year since 1998, ESPN The Magazine has recognized an elite group of emerging athletes to watch in the year ahead -- athletes we call NEXT. They are competitors not only on the cusp of stardom, but on the verge of transcending their sports. NEXT is what happens when the hype is real.