Can December Salvage a Bad Year in Boxing and Kindle a Rebound?

CAN DECEMBER SALVAGE A BAD YEAR? — So far, according to websites that track the most popular trends on social and mainstream media outlets, 2016 is a year most boxing fans are probably eager to see in their rear view mirrors. Better yet – the blind spot might be a better place. Though the year started out with some promise, 2016 might end up being a year where the most talked about boxing related topics on sites such as TMZ, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube revolved around either retired fighters, UFC fighters, fights that didn’t happen, and fighters battling depression. Perhaps December can change that.

As it stands, the biggest news of the year will be the sad news of Muhammad Ali’s death. Seemingly every news outlet covered the tragic news and his family graciously allowed the world to mourn with them in what was an appropriate and fitting farewell to the greatest personality the sport has ever seen.

The next most newsworthy boxing topic in the mainstream so far revolved around a fighter who often compared himself to Ali. The topic of “will he come back?” and “50-0” was a very popular one that resurfaced several times throughout the year and kept Floyd Mayweather’s name in the mainstream. There was chatter about a rematch with Manny Pacquiao and a fight with Danny Garcia as well as a visit with President-Elect Trump but the biggest buzz concerning Mayweather Jr. was about him returning to fight someone who isn’t even a boxer.

Conor McGregor is a name most boxing fans probably don’t want to hear but his name was said, heard, and repeated louder and more often than that of any active boxer. And much of that talk had to do with him competing in a boxing match – against Mayweather! What’s more amazing is that 2016 started off for McGregor with a bad loss. In contrast most boxing fans and writers typically write-off a boxer as “exposed” after a loss. Not the MMA fans. While some were glad to see him lose, many eagerly await his subsequent fights – both in the cage and in a boxing ring. While rebounding from his loss, McGregor kept busy challenging Mayweather to fight – on Money’s turf – and recently obtained a boxing license in the United States. Whether or not Mayweather accepts the challenge doesn’t matter. McGregor is big news whether the topic is boxing or MMA and it would not be surprising to see the UFC make a foray into the world of boxing by promoting boxing matches.

Keep in mind, 2016 was also the year that boxers began calling out UFC fighters. Canelo Alvarez invited McGregor to “come over to this side of the world and try boxing.” Paulie Malignaggi threw his hat into the fight-me-McGregor arena a few days ago, and promised to “knock his beard off.” Earlier in the year Amir Khan called out McGregor and asked for two fights – one in the cage, and one in the ring.  Khan also posted a photo on his Instagram of him standing in the middle of a UFC octagon with the caption “training has started” and announced in an interview with the tabloid The Sun that he could “kick quite hard.”

With the UFC’s deep-pocketed lobbyists working Capitol Hill to prevent the Ali Reform Act from extending into MMA, they may have the free reign that boxing promoters had in the 90s and might be able to stage any UFC vs Boxer match themselves.

Another popular topic revolved around a marquee matchup. Unfortunately, it was a fight that didn’t take place. It was the great big side-step of the year that Canelo Alvarez and Golden Boy did when the initials – GGG – were mentioned. Boxing fans smeared Alvarez on social media and even Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. chimed in, tweeting that Canelo was a “cobarde” – a coward. Instead of a mega-fight between the two, Canelo dropped back down to junior middleweight and GGG took on a welterweight.

Another big “news” maker, especially popular with the TMZ crew, was Adrien Broner. Again, it wasn’t for his ring action. There was a stint in jail and a charge of battery against a waitress.  Then there was the suicide scare that lasted about four hours and played out in real time on social media.

“I don’t want to be here no more,” was the ominous message he posted on Instagram at 11:40 AM early in October. “This s–t is too much.”

Two hours later he posted a picture of a black 9mm Glock resting on a car dashboard. He was “doing it” at 3 he wrote. Thankfully, around 4 PM the saga ended when TMZ reported that friends of Broner contacted them and reported that he was “ok.” The NY Post, NY Daily News, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, USA Today, Vibe, International Business Times, TMZ, and even Perez Hilton covered the story along with TMZ. The last time Perez Hilton mentioned boxing on his website was when discussing what Beyonce wore to the Cotto-Alvarez fight in 2015.

Broner wasn’t the only boxer battling demons during the year. Tyson Fury also made crossover headlines throughout the year. Cocaine, rumors of performance enhancing drug usage, depression, cancelled fights, and abdicating his championship kept the heavyweight in the news despite not stepping into the ring. It was a complete turnaround from the previous year. Following a win over long-time champion Wladimir Klitschko, Fury seemingly helped to breathe life into a stagnant division despite a dull, though strategically brilliant, performance. He did the right thing, however, in relinquishing his title while he sorts out his personal affairs. A return to the ring in 2017 is possible though recent pictures of his out-of-shape torso that circulated on the internet hint that he has a daunting task ahead of him.

There is still hope. The next most popular subject was an active boxer who actually made news for his ring exploits. Like Tyson Fury the year before, a British heavyweight has added a much-needed spark to the division. In front of crowds that sold out in hours, the well-spoken Anthony Joshua passed two important tests with flying colors and has placed himself in a favorable position among the division. He’s poised for a possible crossover year in 2017 if he can secure at least one big match against either Klitschko, Fury, or Deontay Wilder. First he must get by the deceptively good Eric Molina on Saturday. If he does, and based on the mainstream media buzz of the past few months, Anthony Joshua just might be the leading candidate for Fighter of the Year.

Other popular topics during the year were the comebacks of Manny Pacquiao and the antics of boxing’s best self-promoter, Shannon Briggs. The disputed Andre Ward-Sergei Kovalev decision was a hot topic as was talk of the future of leading promotional outfit, Premier Boxing Champions. The Vargas-Salido and Thurman-Porter brawls both garnered much needed universal praise in what has so far been a down year.

But boxing may be poised to end the year on a positive note. December sees Terence Crawford, possibly the smoothest boxer in the game, return to action. And next week is mandatory viewing for all boxing fans. Nearly 30 years after he swapped punches and fouls in an Atlantic City ring, it’s time for the swan song of the amazing “I Did It My Way” man who calls himself an Alien – Bernard Hopkins.  His first fight was against a 26-year-old light heavyweight and former NY Golden Gloves champion, Clinton Mitchell. His final fight will be against a27-year-old light heavyweight and former NY Golden Gloves champion, Joe Smith Jr. Hopkins lost to Mitchell that night but his opponent, Joe Smith Jr., didn’t watch that fight. It happened a year before he was born.

In this era of tweets, texts, and snaps, 2016 will probably be remembered most for two things: the retirement of Hopkins and especially, the death of Ali. Perhaps 2016 was doomed to be a down year. Maybe it’s appropriate that the year of Ali’s death be a year void of any celebration. The sport is still mourning — much as it was in 1989 when the other “Greatest Fighter of All Time,” Sugar Ray Robinson, died. That year, like this year, saw the biggest match of the year – Leonard-Hearns – end with an unpopular decision. And the heavyweight champion – Mike Tyson – was drowning in a sludge of personal problems. So much so that Tyson, like Tyson Fury, stepped away from the ring and shut down his year during the summer.

But 1989 also saw the emergence of a muscular heavyweight legend. Evander Holyfield brawled his way to the top of the heavyweight ratings early in the year with a fantastic win over Michael Dokes. He then closed out that year with a brawl over the hard-hitting and undefeated Alex Stewart. Like Joshua, Holyfield too was a decorated Olympian who was promoted by the son of a longtime boxing insider. Perhaps Anthony Joshua turns out to be the Holyfield of this era. And maybe Hopkins can do what another twenty-something-years veteran did in 1989. That was the year Roberto Duran reached into his magic hat and pulled out a win over the younger, bigger, and hungrier Iran Barkley. Or maybe Hopkins goes out like that other golden oldie of the ring – Archie Moore – did in his final “real” fight. Not counting his final official fight, which was against professional wrestler Mike DiBiase, Moore went out with a loss to a fighter who went on to bigger things.

If December plays out as expected, it can serve as a springboard to a better year much like the ending of 1989 did for 1990. If history repeats itself, 2017 will prove to be a rebound year. One thing is certain and that’s that the best fighters are ready. At the very least, they should be plenty rested.

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Editor’s note: Jose Corpas’ second book, a biography of Panama Al Brown, titled “BLACK INK: A Story of Boxing, Betrayal, Homophobia, and the First Latino Champion,” is available now via Amazon and other leading online booksellers.