Ernesto “Tito” Mercado has taken an unconventional path toward building his 13-0 record.

Mercado works without a major promoter, which has cost the 22-year-old knockout artist the type of exposure prospects typically receive during the developmental phase of their careers. The junior welterweight has instead performed off TV, on cards promoted by the company owned by his father and trainer, Neto, at LumColor Phoenix Center, a small venue in Ontario, California.

That hasn’t prevented the Pomona, California resident from emerging as one of the sport’s top up-and-comers. Mercado,’s “Prospect of the Year” for 2023, fought five times last year and handled his steps up in competition magnificently.

The aggressive yet poised boxer-puncher began 2023 with a seventh-round knockout of Ecuador’s Jose Angulo (16-7, 9 KOs) on February 4 at LumColor Phoenix Center. He returned to that venue 10 weeks later and knocked out Hank Lundy (31-14-1, 14 KOs), an aged former contender from Philadelphia, in the first round April 15.

Mercado traveled to Managua, Nicaragua for his next fight July 8 – a 10-round, unanimous-decision victory over experienced South African Xolisani Ndongeni (31-3, 18 KOs).

Ndongeni, who also lost on points to unbeaten WBC super lightweight champ Devin Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) during Haney’s ascent to stardom, is the only opponent to take Mercado the distance. Mercado dominated the action, though, and won 99-91 on all three scorecards.

After returning to Ontario for another first-round knockout of Paraguay’s Carlos Portillo (23-5, 17 KOs) on August 26, Mercado delivered his most impressive performance of an active, productive year for a fan-friendly fighter who is on the verge of becoming a legitimate 140-pound contender. Mercado needed less than two rounds to drop and knock out Namibian veteran Jeremia Nakathila on November 11.

Lightweight contender Raymond Muratalla (19-0, 16 KOs) previously stopped Nakathila (23-4, 19 KOs) in the second round May 20 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, but Mercado’s destructive victory proved that he is ready to fight 140-pound contenders in 2024. Full of confidence, Mercado, who has knocked out 12 of his 13 professional opponents, believes he has set himself apart from other prospects.

“A lot of these guys are willing to win fights comfortably, but I want to go above and beyond and do more,” Mercado told in November. “If I had to compare my boxing and mentality in the ring, I kind of have the mindset of [the late] Edwin Valero a little bit, that wants to kill you in the ring and knock your head off. I’m old school. A lot of fighters just want to look pretty in the ring right now.”

RUNNERS-UP (listed alphabetically)

Adam Azim (10-0, 7 KOs)

A 21-year-old junior welterweight from England, this ambitious Brit is already on the cusp of legitimizing himself as a 140-pound contender. The tall, rangy Azim, a boxer-puncher who relies on his speed and sound technique, will defend his lightly regarded EBU title against Denmark’s Enock Poulsen (14-0, 5 KOs) on February 3 at OVO Arena Wembley in London.

Andy Cruz (2-0, 1 KO)

At 28, this Cuban-born Olympic gold medalist is older than any other prospect considered for this year’s award. After going the 10-round distance with durable Mexican Juan Carlos Burgos (35-8-3, 21 KOs) in his pro debut July 15 in Detroit, the strong, skilled Cruz tore through Mexican veteran Jovanni Straffon (26-6-1, 19 KOs) on December 9 in San Francisco. That third-round knockout demonstrated why matchmakers for Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing will continue to be aggressive while seeking opponents for Cruz in 2024.

Abdullah Mason (11-0, 9 KOs)

This 19-year-old lightweight from Cleveland has displayed poise beyond his years since he made his pro debut in November 2021. Mason has shown intelligence and technical skill to complement his hand speed, power and athleticism. Matchmakers for Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc. figure to step up this southpaw’s opposition as Mason moves into eight-rounders in 2024.

Floyd Schofield (16-0, 12 KOs)

A calm, calculated combination puncher, the 21-year-old Schofield has shown power in both hands and a willingness to invest in body punching during his ascent toward becoming a lightweight contender. The ambitious Austin, Texas native went 4-0 fighting on Golden Boy Promotions cards in 2023 and wants to test himself against legitimate 135-pound contenders this year.

Emiliano Vargas (8-0, 7 KOs)

Promoter Top Rank kept the youngest of former junior middleweight champ Fernando Vargas’ three fighting sons very active in 2023. The 19-year-old Vargas went 6-0, including five knockouts, last year and continually displayed the speed and power that have convinced his handlers that he will become a lightweight world champion. Like Mason, Las Vegas’ Vargas figures to face more imposing opponents in 2024, particularly once Top Rank starts scheduling him in eight-round bouts.

Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.