The year that was and the year I hope will be
Even the most ardent boxing fan has to admit that 2014 was not an exceptional year, although there certainly were some memorable highlights and even a couple of events which may be considered of historical significance. The beginning of the New Year brings fresh hope, even for our beleaguered Australian friends who endured a horrendous 2014 in which it seemed like all their champions and prospects suffered serious setbacks. With those thoughts in mind I put my boxing brain in rewind attempting to pick out the significant players of 2014 as well as what I hope comes to fruition this year. In terms of looking back, I chose the top five boxers of 2014, the five best fights and the five people who made significant contributions to the sport outside the ring. These categories will be followed by a quick look ahead, where I list five things our sport will benefit from in the next 12 months.
The top boxers of 2014 – This is the most difficult choice for “Fighter of the Year” in decades and when asked for input by The Ring magazine, I suggested they choose co-Fighters of the Year as was the case in 1934, 1972 and 1981. No boxer in 2014 had two great wins while quite a few scored one sensational victory and otherwise backed it up with solid but not exceptional success. Then you have Terence Crawford, who did not have a sensational win over a Hall of Fame-caliber foe like Sergey Kovalev or Naoya Inoue did but thoroughly cleaned out his division and earned a Ring Championship in the process. It comes down a matter of opinion or taste, which, in boxing-judging terms, is the equivalent of the treated “ring generalship” excuse.
1. Sergey Kovalev – Like many, I thought the Russian crusher (or, more aptly, “Krusher”) defeating Bernard Hopkins was not out of the realm of possibility. However, Kovalev’s total dominance in every aspect of the fight was unexpected. Forget the power advantage, which we knew Kovalev had, he was the superior boxer at every turn, using his reach and sense of distance to simultaneously befuddle and manhandle Hopkins. His utter dominance was punctuated by a 12th round assault for which there was no need since Kovalev could have coasted to a win in the championship rounds. Kovalev’s wins over undefeated Blake Caparello and Cedric Agnew were equally one-sided but unless those two rebound to become champions, they will not be put in the Kovalev time capsule.
2. Naoya Inoue – If this Japanese prodigy were an American featherweight or heavier fighting on HBO, artists would rap about his exploits and statues would be erected in his honor outside stadiums. In only eight fights, Inoue has won two world titles (defeating one excellent and one very good titleholder) and should be nearing pound-for-pound consideration. Did I mention he is only 21 and sports an 88% kayo ratio? Given that talent, I expected Inoue to defeat the vastly undervalued Omar Narvaez but never in the compelling fashion he did knocking the Argentine great down four times and stopping his 12-year continuous title reign (in two divisions) in two rounds. Bested Mexican world champion Adrian Hernandez in just as striking a fashion and had a keep-busy win over average Samartlek Kokietgym. This kid looks special and fans should check out his fights on YouTube since HBO only airs fights below bantamweight if there is a potential of 1.3 billion Chinese viewers.
3. Nicholas Walters – In terms of dispatching name opponents in rather scary fashion, Walters rises to the top of this list. The Jamaican axman knocked out former pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire and wildman Vic Darchinyan before the seventh rounds, though I did deduct some style points since Walters’ two opponents were either fighting above their best weight or past their primes. Still, both knockouts were impressive all the same and Walters earned a return engagement on HBO against someone like Abner Mares or Jhonny Gonzalez to prove 2014 was just the beginning of his rise.
4. Roman Gonzalez – To my eyes, Gonzalez is the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing. Unless Godzilla is able to make the flyweight limit and fight on his home turf of Japan, no one is beating the near flawless “Chocolatito.” In 2014, kept busy with four stoppage victories, all on the road and none going to the championship rounds, while winning a world title in his third weight class. Has racked 41 wins to start his career and in 2015, may finally get that career-defining win, which has eluded Gonzalez to date as have American TV appearances. The 27-year-old Nicaraguan is a fighter in his physical and mental prime, who sports the best combination of power and skills at this weight since Hall-of-Famer Pascual Perez back in the 1950’s and ’60s.
5. Terence Crawford – Many fans’ choice for “Fighter of the Year” and I can see the argument but have to disagree since he did not defeat a real world-beater, in my opinion. Lets face it; Ricky Burns looked shot two fights before losing to Crawford and Yuriorkis Gamboa is a blown up featherweight coming off a 12-month layoff. The Gamboa fight, in which Crawford looked vulnerable in spots, was no gimme either. It is a testament to the lack of quality at lightweight (the worst I have seen it in my 30-plus years as a observer) that Raymundo Beltran competed for a world title. If a European not fighting on American TV had defeated that list of boxers would he be considered the best of 2014? Now, I love that Crawford traveled to Scotland to win his title, something too few Americans are asked to do, much less accomplish. So for that and completely cleaning out his division, I think Crawford deserves to be rated among the five best boxers of 2015 – just not the best.
Just missing the cut was Amnat Ruenroeng; the former Thai Olympian scored a huge upset, defeating Kazuto Ioka by split decision in Japan. However, he struggled to a split decision win over McWilliams Arroyo and, at age 35, this may be the best we see of him and, as such, should be recognized.
The 5 Best Fights of 2014 – There were plenty of great fights in 2015 but unfortunately, few featured top stars. Many of the highly-hyped fights, such as Miguel Cotto-Sergio Martinez, Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Marcos Maidana II or Sergey Kovalev-Bernard Hopkins, were too one-sided for consideration. Bloody drama or sudden shifts in momentum are what make fights great, not merely names, and those are to be found in my five favorite fights of 2014.
1. Francisco Rodriguez W 12 Katsunari Takayama – Verbal descriptions do not give this fight justice; it has to be viewed for full enjoyment if your heart can keep pace with the frenetic action in the ring. Unlike many unification fights, the two boxers lived up to their claims of being “champion” but the vast majority missed this fight because it took place at strawweight. After the opening couple rounds (there was only one knockdown in the third round), fans watching had one combined thought: “There is no way they can keep up this pace!” Yet they did and delivered punches in bunches of all types and from every angle. The volume of punches was immense, but not without forethought by both men who looked unable to disengage one another for fear of being overwhelmed if they stopped throwing punches. It is a cliche but no one lost in this fight and when the scorecards were read, anyone without a rooting interest was hoping for a draw.
2. Orlando Salido KO 11 Terdsak Kokietgym – What Rodriguez-Takayama had in pace, Salido-Kokietgym delivered in knockdowns…seven in total! Those knockdowns accounted for the frequent changes in momentum and dramatic shifts in fortune. Still, this was no toughman contest, as both boxers used various methods to sustain themselves, rally and, in the end, survive the other as Salido eventually did. Salido was down in rounds one, two and five but he repaid his foe, dropping Kokietgym in the first, fourth, seventh and a final coup de grace in the 11th so emphatic, there was no need for a count. Ask me tomorrow and I may list this as the best fight of 2015; the choice is that close.
3. Lucas Matthysse KO 11 John Molina – The best big network fight of the year, in which the star of the show had to get off the canvas twice to re-stake his claim as one of the most feared men in boxing. Molina was the underdog but stood tall and hooked with the hooker to great success early…then Matthysse’s superior boxing instincts and pedigree took over, steamrolling a naturally smaller foe. Molina was too stubborn and did not try to box his way to a decision after initial success in the first five rounds. On the other hand, Matthysse did not allow Molina a reprieve, cutting off the ring and forcing a slowing Molina to engage him. After scoring two knockdowns of his own, it was only a matter of time before Matthysse caught up with the tiring challenger and referee Pat Russell wisely stopped the action after the third scored knockdown. In the final analysis, the bloodied Matthysse was a battleship that reeled in and destroyed a cruiser.
4. Terence Crawford TKO 9 Yuriorkis Gamboa – I know many fans do not like Max Kellerman’s analysis but Kellerman makes one great point about Crawford when he says he wants to “hurt you back when he gets hurt,” fighting his way out of trouble instead of holding or running. This fight featured more drama than sustained action and ultimately the one-sided ending took the edge off despite the intensity of the rounds in which Gamboa showed those fantastic flashes of brilliance he only produces in spurts. This fight came down to Crawford having more tools to employ, though his ability to absorb punishment is what allowed him to use his hard-earned skills. Gamboa continues to frustrate, fighting above his best weight and relying on slowing reflexes and athletic gifts instead of a solid game plan. That becomes evident when things go wrong, which they did for Gamboa after the fifth round when Crawford cracked his code and after which Gamboa had no counter answer.
5. Rodrigo Guerrero TKO 7 Daniel Rosas – The first round was a set up for the rest of this see-saw affair, with Guerrero hurt and staggered before the 30-second mark but returning fire to put Rosas down and on shaky legs before the one-minute mark. A cut over Rosas’ eye stopped his comeback momentum in the fourth round and the storyline was Rosas continued battle from the brink to try and reverse the momentum. Every time it looked like Rosas had taken control, a big punch or cut would force him to dig deeper and show even more resilience. Rosas fought bravely to keep his undefeated record but could not stop Guerrero from gradually building on that early success, overwhelming Rosas and forcing a well-timed stoppage. Despite Guerrero’s nickname being “Gatito” – or “Little Cat” in English – that old dog taught young pup Rosas a hard lesson.
Honorable mentions to: Steve Cunningham vs. Amir Mansour, Marvin Sonsona vs. Akifumi Shimoda, Randy Caballero vs. Kohei Oba, Juan Carlos Reveco vs. Felix Alvarado and Kiko Martinez vs. Hozumi Hasegawa.
Boxing’s Person of the Year – It is both good and bad that boxing makes as many headlines outside the ring as it does inside the ropes. So it is good to recognize what some boxing people bring to the table outside the ring given the Machiavellian aspects of our sport when it comes to TV dates, boxer contracts, sanctioning body rankings and title shots.
1. Oscar De La Hoya – I have never been a fan of De La Hoya, viewing him as a marketing product and media manipulator in the way he became the most transcendent and popular boxer without ever being the best boxer of his era. However, give credit where it is due; De La Hoya swallowed his pride and was the bigger person when he broke the boxing “Cold War” between Top Rank Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions. A big risk because in order to achieve this, he had to acrimoniously separate himself from CEO Richard Schaefer, who many saw as the brains behind the rise of De La Hoya’s promotional firm.
2. Kathy Duva – In a sport dominated by men, Kathy guided Sergey Kovalev from virtual unknown to pound-for-pound heights and, just as importantly, HBO paydays. She fights heavyweights like Golden Boy and Top Rank every day, deftly using the Kovalev card to help other boxers in her stable. The reward for this hard work was being stabbed in the back by NBC Sports who gave dates previously reserved for Main Events to managerial mogul Al Haymon. Her fight never gets easier; does it?
3. Kellie Maloney – When news broke that former British boxing manager and promoter Frank Maloney had undergone gender reassignment procedures (sex change operation in layman’s terms), many thought it was a Twitter or social media-generated hoax! Nope, and because of her “all-in” personality in the past, as a man, I always admired Maloney, never more so then when I heard the news. Kelly Maloney is more proof that boxing may be the most socially progressive sport in the world (last year, while in line for a world title shot, an active athlete, Orlando Cruz came out to reveal he was gay) despite our rough outlaw image.
4. Teddy Atlas – Yes, at times, Atlas can be pompous and grating to listen to when he goes on an on-air tirade but his heart is in the right place and he continues to scream for changes that are, for the most part, good for boxing. I don’t agree with some of his stances (his promotion of the well-meaning Transnational Boxing Rankings, for instance) but conversation is never a bad thing and Atlas gets tongues wagging. Not to mention the continued work Atlas does with The Atlas Foundation, that gives thousands of dollars directly to individuals in need of help, suffering through physical, mental or economic hardships.
5. Terence Crawford – I note Crawford not for what he did inside the ring but for showing American boxing institutions that boxing is a viable force outside of the casino environment. Also, that American fighters have the ability to use their passports to win a title overseas. Crawford (who may have taken pay cuts for home field advantage) is proof that you can make money off a boxer from a small media market if he has the skills or personality to capture imaginations. Sure, it is a harder and prolonged trip for a promoter, who likes the easy payday site fees provide, but in the long run, may build lasting relationships between the sport and cities across America.
What I am looking forward to in 2015
1. A challenge to Al Haymon’s control – Remember when HBO seemingly created stars out of champions? Few knew about Manny Pacquiao before he beat Lehlohonolo Ledwaba and HBO brought in flashy talent like Naseem Hamed from overseas as well. HBO and Showtime must do that again to circumvent the Al Haymon Juggernaut, which cannot live long without their financial aid. I hope they start showing top-notch talent like Roman Gonzalez, Naoya Inoue, Kell Brook, Javier Fortuna and Nicholas Walters. Or build up younger guys from Europe with star potential like James DeGale, Carl Frampton, Kid Galahad or even limited-but-cocksure Tyson Fury, as was done recently with Gennady Golovkin, Lucas Matthysse and Sergey Kovalev. 2014 was hardly a year to brag about with the “help” of Al Haymon, so freeze him and his boxers out (as much as current contracts allow) if they do not face credible foes. With any luck, they will be the ones HBO and Showtime create in 2015.
2. The Floyd Mayweather Jr. versus Manny Pacquiao discussion ends – Either they fight or they don’t; the subject is worn out with most boxing junkies but retains some fascination and relevance in the world of “casual sport fans.” This is the year it stops, one way or another. Last year proved both men have run out of marketable foes in terms of generating media or fan approval and we all know each man only has one viable challenger in reagrd to legacy. Age was part of the calculation in the passing of Bernard Hopkins from boxing relevancy in 2014; I hope the combination of age and frustration factor does the same for Mayweather-Pacquiao in 2015.
3. The continued evolution of Japanese boxing – Over the last four years, Japan has successfully pushed talented young boxers like Naoya Inoue and Kazuto Ioka into world title shots or put them in bouts in which they looked overmatched judging purely by numbers. Inoue and Ioka became two-division champions in 10 fights or less! Kosei Tanaka looks on a similar path and now Japan has a potential force at middleweight with Olympic gold medalist Ryota Murata climbing the ranks swiftly and possibly making waves in America this year. It makes me wonder why Americans like three-time Olympic Games participant Rau’shee Warren are not pushed faster and harder?
4. Clearing the muddle at junior featherweight – If I could organize a round-robin tournament between the four champions of any weight class, it would be at 122 pounds featuring Guillermo Rigondeaux, Carl Frampton, Leo Santa Cruz and Scott Quigg. There is the natural rivalry between Frampton and Quigg while the clash of styles between Rigondeaux and Santa Cruz is seismic. Rigondeaux would be the betting favorite but Frampton’s pace and volume could be a challenge to Rigondeaux’s measured approach. The variety of styles and confident boxers make for good action fight and sell-able storylines.
5. The dawn of a new heavyweight era – Hey, everybody; heavyweight boxing is back in America. The Europeans are likely to maintain their stranglehold on the division in 2015 but we get to see some action on American shores as Wladimir Klitschko fights next in New York City while Bermane Stiverne faces Deontay Wilder. The winner becomes a quality challenger for Klitschko. There has not been much drama in the division but a changing of the guard is near as Klitschko takes his Hall of Fame lap and if you take him out of the equation, the rest of the division is even in terms of talent and flaws. It becomes an intriguing realm featuring plenty of styles, nationalities and personalities that could reignite interest in a moribund division.