Fighting: Who is NEXT?
Michael ChandlerIf Eddie Alvarez was MMA's coveted free agent coming out of Bellator, imagine what that means for Michael Chandler's stock. At Bellator 58, Chandler took the promotions' lightweight belt from Alvarez in one of the best fights of 2011, finishing in the fourth round by rear-naked choke. A bedrock All-American wrestler from the University of Missouri, Chandler is a Molotov cocktail in mixed martial arts. The back-and-forth Alvarez fight proved his chin and heart, but his follow-up bout against cage vet Akihiro Gono showed just how explosive he can be (56-second TKO). He's a little raw with his kicks, but that's a small knock on a guy who, according to his head coach, Eric Del Fierro at Alliance MMA, is a sponge. If he walks through a likely title defense early next year against judoka Rick Hawn, Bellator's challenge becomes finding somebody good enough to compete with him. -- Chuck Mindenhall
Alexander GustafssonHow much of a threat is 6-foot-5 Alexander Gustafsson to Jon Jones' light heavyweight belt? Enough of one that the UFC showcased him as a headliner in his native Stockholm, where he won a decision over former top-10 light heavyweight Thiago Silva. That was novel, but the fact that Silva survived all three rounds with "the Mauler" was the real story. Gustafsson (14-1) finishes fights. In seven UFC bouts, he has finished five, three by TKO, two by submission. He has it all: wrestling, jiu-jitsu, smarts and the ability to keep the fight standing, having been taken down only twice in 16 attempts. He's also a world-renowned striker -- which is what makes him particularly dangerous against Jones. "In the 205-pound division, I'd rank him No. 1 in striking," says Eric Del Fierro, Gustafsson's Alliance MMA coach. "Alex poses a different threat [to Jones]. He's a legitimate striker who knows how to use his reach." -- Chuck Mindenhall
Saul "Canelo" AlvarezCinnamon (the English translation of canelo) and Sugar shared the ring this year, and when it was over, one of them was toast. Mexico's Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, whose striking red hair and freckles earned him his off-the-spice-rack nickname, smacked "Sugar" Shane Mosley into retirement on Cinco de Mayo. In terms of convincing the skeptics of Alvarez's boxing ability, the intergenerational mismatch -- Alvarez was 21, Mosley 40 at the time -- accomplished little. But in terms of broadening Alvarez's exposure in the U.S., mastering Mosley was an important step. In Mexico, meanwhile, Canelo needs no marketing help: On Sept. 15, a staggering 70.8 percent of all Mexican TV viewers tuned into boxing -- and the majority chose to watch Alvarez's light workout against undersized Josesito Lopez over the pay-per-view topped by Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. facing Sergio Martinez for the middleweight crown. That's mind-blowing popularity, considering Alvarez (41-0-1, 30 KOs), is still only 22. -- Eric Raskin
Adrien "the Problem" BronerWhen you hear the name Floyd Mayweather, you simultaneously think of an ultra-talented boxer, a condescending jerk, a master salesman and a one-man money machine. Because of that last characterization, there are millions of reasons a young fighter would want to position himself as Mayweather 2.0. It just takes the right combination of skill, personality and comfort with being hated. Well, 23-year-old Adrien Broner has all of those boxes checked. You want physical potential? Broner's record (25-0, 21 KOs) includes early-round victories in four of his last five fights; the fifth was an eight-round TKO. You want a willingness to rub everyone the wrong way? How about the ceremonial pre- and postfight hair brushing, a tasteless fake in-ring marriage proposal and the near cancellation of an entire fight card because Broner failed to make weight (six days before the fight, he tweeted a photo of Twinkies that read "I'm addicted lol"). Broner is known as the Problem. Like Mayweather, he's banking that the public will be paying to see the solution. -- Eric Raskin
David PriceCan heavyweight boxing return to the popularity it enjoyed during the Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson eras? The safest way to answer that is: not with a Klitschko as champion. As good as they are, the K-Bros have somehow sucked the fun out of watching 200-plus-pound men batter each other -- which makes the search for the next great heavyweight more important than ever. Enter Price, a handsome, undefeated, 6-foot-8, 245-pound Brit who combines Klitschko-esque stature with Tyson-esque intentions. Price has racked up 12 knockouts in his first 14 pro fights, including six in the first round, owing largely to a devastating right hand. Most recently, Price annihilated former gold medalist Audley Harrison in 82 seconds, to the delight of a raucous Liverpool crowd. Heavyweights typically peak later than smaller boxers -- the Klitschkos still rule with Wladimir at 36 and Vitali at 41 -- so at 29, Price is just approaching his prime. And we might be approaching the end of our search for a transcendent heavyweight star. -- Eric Raskin
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.