TSS Mid-Year Awards – Ask your average boxing fan about the first half of 2016 and he or she will probably complain about the lack of meaningful fights taking place. Fans are not particularly happy with the PBC bait-and-switch or with bouts on PPV that should be on regular cable TV. They’re sick to death of being lured with carrots only to be struck over the head and robbed with the stick.
We’re a masochistic lot, we fight fans. We keep coming back for more abuse.
Joe Sixpack might have a point about boxing being less filling these days than a can of O’Doul’s, but for die-hards and boxing addicts, the last six months have produced some quality entertainment as well as a few new superstars in the making. The Sweet Science takes a look back at the first half of 2016 and names the biggest, best, and most influential.
EVENT: The Death of Muhammad Ali — On June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona, the world lost one of the greatest men to ever walk upon the planet Earth. That’s not hyperbole. Three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was 74 years-old when he passed away after a long battle with Parkinson’s Syndrome, surely exacerbated by the brutality of boxing. No mere fight-related event in my 45 year lifetime comes close to the impact Ali’s death had on the world. Douglas upsetting Tyson in 1990? Big. But not this big. Mayweather vs. Pacquiao? Give me a break. During a time of potent political turmoil in America, Jessie Jackson said it best during Ali’s emotional funeral service on June 10 in Louisville, Kentucky when he rightly observed: “Ali is embarrassing us all into decency today.”
Runner Up: Boxing’s return to prime-time CBS television for Keith Thurman vs. Shawn Porter. No such telecast had aired since 1978 when Muhammad Ali lost the heavyweight title to 6-0-1 Leon Spinks. Thurman beat Porter on points in a splendid fight and the Nielson ratings were a success story that Al Haymon would like to tell again and again.
FIGHT: Orlando Salido D 12 Francisco Vargas — I liked the recent Thurman-Porter scrap as much as the next guy but when you’re talkin’ about a Fight of the (half) Year that could end up as THE Fight of THE Year, you have to look at the violent warfare waged by Salido and Vargas on June 4 at the StubHub in Carson, California. Like Thurman and Porter, Salido and Vargas each claimed to have won their ring war. Unlike Thurman and Porter however, these two warriors were not friends going into battle. Or afterwards. It showed in the quality of their super featherweight championship combat. The draw result was unsatisfying to some but the relentless action inside the squared circle was very fulfilling for fans. Light-heavyweights Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev have big shoes to fill this fall.
Runner Up: Keith Thurman UD 12 Shawn Porter, June 25, at Barclays on PBC. Thurman and Porter put it on the line for not only Thurman’s WBA welterweight championship, but for all fans who believe that good boxing should still be available on “free” TV. There may not be another boxer in the world who is currently fighting for larger television audiences than “One Time” Thurman. Exposure to the masses is the key to economic freedom for any elite fighter like Thurman.
ROUND: Jesse Hart vs. Dashon Johnson (Round 10) — Chances are good you didn’t see this Philly War last March at the 2300 Arena in Philadelphia because it wasn’t aired on HBO, SHO, or PBC but rather GFL.TV, the website for Go Fight Live. Fans at the 2300 and subscribers to GFL got a tenth round treat that seemed to come straight out of a Hollywood boxing movie script. It was very reminiscent of the recent ROCKY spinoff CREED with a young underdog from California nearly stealing victory from the jaws of defeat late in the final frame, only to come up short on the scorecards.
Battling for a pair of regional super middleweight titles, Hart 20-0 (16) was more or less having his way at home with “Flyboy” Johnson 21-19-3 (6) until the extremely dramatic occurred. Showing that no fighter is ever out of a fight until the final bell, Johnson scored a theatrical tenth round knockdown to electrify the 1,500 live fans in attendance. Hart struggled to his feet under the benefit of what some observers might call a“long count” from referee Ernie Sharif but in boxing, controversy is to a fight what salt and pepper are to a steak. Promoter J. Russell Peltz called Hart’s refusal to accept a rematch a “mistake” before explaining that he understands the economics behind the decision.
Runner Up: Pick your favorite round from Salido-Vargas.
UPSET: Joe Smith Jr. TKO 1 Andrzej Fonfara — Not too many people outside of Long Island, New York had much of a clue who Smith Jr. was going into his PBC televised light heavyweight bout against Andrzej Fonfara in Fonfara’s own Chicago backyard. After Smith blasted out the Pole with two knockdowns to make an instant name for himself in the 175 pound division, fans now know who he is – a 22-1 (18) power puncher worth keeping an eye on.
For his effort, Smith is likely to soon receive a title shot against World light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson. That’s really how this beleaguered sport is supposed to work. Knock off the top rated contender on TV and you thus become a contender the old fashioned way. Then you get a shot at the world title. Smith’s upset is all that much more impressive when you consider that his lone loss was a jaw shattering TKO by 4 in 2010 to a local fighter from Lawrence, Massachusetts with a losing record.
Runner Up: The 23 year-old Russian Arif Magomedov 17-1 (10) was a highly rated middleweight contender going into a May 21 bout in Vegas. Opponent Andrew Hernandez 12-4-1 (3) was a 30-year-old journeyman type with two recent knockout losses on his spotty record. Known for pulling off a few minor upsets in recent years, Hernandez pulled off a major one in 2016 against Magomedov, scoring a near-shutout unanimous ten-round decision.
FIGHTER: Anthony Joshua — Nobody has taken better advantage of the now wide-open heavyweight division than the fighter from Watford, England who they call AJ. What a year the 17-0 (17) IBF heavyweight champion is having. In April, Joshua won the vacant title belt with a devastating knockout of undefeated American Charles Martin at the 02 Arena in London. Joshua followed up that wallop with another impressive performance last week to defend his new world title, stopping another undefeated American, Dominic Breazeale, in seven very one-sided rounds.
Joshua looks like a future star and the next great heavyweight champion of the world. If AJ stays busy racking up title defenses by knockout, a Fighter of the Year award is within reach for Joshua before he reaches his twentieth professional bout.
Runner Up: Due to promotional paralysis and a generalized lack of activity, most of the best fighters in the world have fought only once, if at all, in the first half of 2016. New WBO super featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko is no exception but his one victory, a Knockout of the Year candidate over Rocky Martinez at Madison Square Garden on June 11, was special. Lomachenko 6-1 (4) continues to impress nearly everybody in boxing with his visually pleasing blend of speed, power, and sublime skill. We wonder how far he can go in this era of economically correct matchmaking.
KNOCKOUT: Deontay Wilder KO 9 Artur Szpilka — For nearly nine rounds last January at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the defending WBC heavyweight champion looked for one punch and the perfect opening to throw it and land it. When that time came, it was over before Szpilka hit the mat with a thud after taking a well-timed right hand bomb to end his night. Heavyweights hit with power, we all know that, but perhaps none more so than the 36-0 (35) “Bronze Bomber” from Alabama.
After he disposes of Chris Arreola on July 16, it would be great to see Wilder pursue a unification bout with Anthony Joshua. Wilder clearly wants big fights in the heart of boxing excitement. Presently, that’s the U.K. After knocking out Dominic Breazeale at the 02, Joshua spoke of a Wilder unification bout as a distinct possibility. Be it in London, England, Birmingham, Alabama, or Brooklyn, New York, somebody would be getting knocked out.
Runner Up: When Vasyl Lomachenko connected with a left uppercut-right hook finisher to the chin of Rocky Martinez in the fifth round of their super featherweight title bout on June 11, Martinez crashed onto his back, knocked out cold. Only former P4P star Mikey Garcia had previously been able to knock out Rocky. Lomachenko is now adding power punching and killer instinct to his ever-growing collection of fighting tools. Loma does a nifty victory back-flip as well.
COMEBACK: George Groves — Things were looking pretty bleak for Groves at the end of 2015. The Brit had lost to Badou Jack for the WBC 168 pound title and the memories of being knocked out twice by Carl Froch (in 2013 and 2014) had to still be fresh on his mind. Groves started out 2016 anew in January, stopping Andrea Di Luisa in London. Then in April, Groves knocked out undefeated David Brophy at the 02 Arena. Last week, Groves defeated the always tough Englishman Martin Murray by unanimous decision for the WBA International super middleweight title. Groves is making a good comeback, staying busy and gradually increasing his competition. It will be interesting to see if Groves 24-3 (18) can fight himself back into the upper echelons of the super middleweight division.
He’s only 28. Time is still on his side.
Runner Up: British heavyweight David Haye hadn’t fought since 2012. In 2016, the “Hayemaker” made a comeback, knocking out a pair of obscure no-hopers in London to throw his hat back into the heavyweight mix. Haye is 35 years-old now so unlike his countryman George Groves, time is definitely not on his side.
PROSPECT: Lightweight Devin “The Dream” Haney — Just 17 years-old and already 7-0 as a pro with 4 knockouts, Haney hails from San Francisco but now resides in Las Vegas. Too young to compete in the Rio Olympics, this decorated amateur standout is already 5-0 in 2016. Haney didn’t wait for 2020 in Tokyo but under the new AIBA rules allowing for pros in the Olympics, he could conceivably go back to achieve his dream of winning gold. Haney came up as a rookie pro in Tijuana, Mexico like Adonis Creed, but now he’s making noise in places like Sin City, USA. Trained by Floyd Mayweather Sr., Haney was called by one media insider, “As good looking a prospect as I have seen since Floyd Mayweather Jr.”
That’s high praise.
Boxing has recently seen how quickly some prospects become contenders or even champions. Errol Spence Jr. comes to mind. So does 2016 Fighter of the Half Year Anthony Joshua. Just last year Joshua was still competing in 8 rounders. Today, he’s defending a world title in front of thousands on Showtime. Haney is a ways off from making that kind of statement but you will be hearing from him soon.
In boxing, dreams do sometimes become reality.
TSS Mid-Year Awards