Last year was a challenging twelve months to be a fight fan. In 2016, Muhammad Ali heard the final ten count while former Atlantic City boxing icon Donald Trump won the American Presidency. From my press row seat at ringside, I wrote boxing’s obituary. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Maybe I tossed all that dirt on boxing’s grave a little too soon.
Thankfully, rumors of our sport’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The Sweet Science is alive and well again in 2017. In the ring, we have a brand new World Heavyweight Champion in young Anthony Joshua. We have the one fight we most want to see on tap, Gennady Golovkin vs. Canelo Alvarez for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world. And we now have a clear P4P #1 in Andre “SOG” Ward.
Bob Arum may be 80-something but he’s now promoting Top Rank, and its top draw Manny Pacquiao, with an eye to TR’s future on ESPN rather than PPV. That also now includes Arum’s top younger stars Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko. For Al Haymon’s familiar PBC platform, Uncle Bob’s bold move represents a renewed interest in cable TV competition.
Fans win that fight.
As a boxing writer, things haven’t been this good in fistiana since the banner year of 2013. Yes indeed, boxing made a hell of a comeback in the first half of 2017. One I certainly didn’t see coming. Here then is a look back at the best and most influential from the past six months:
Anthony Joshua TKO 11 Wladimir Klitschko: When was the last time you saw a good world heavyweight title fight? How about a great one? It’s been a while. More than a decade by my estimation. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 2003 for the last truly great heavyweight title fight and that one in Los Angeles ended like this one at Wembley Stadium; with an underdog Klitschko brother battered into entertaining defeat at the hands of an imposing Englishman.
After Lennox Lewis stopped Vitali Klitschko in six on cuts in 2003, LL retired. The ensuing KlitschBro Era was long and tall but by no means fun to watch. An entire generation of U.S. fight fans swore off the heavyweight division and heavyweight boxing in general. We like AJ already.
On April 29 before 90,000 at Wembley, the 27-year-old Joshua, a mere 18-0, won an instantly memorable world heavyweight title fight by technical knockout in the championship rounds, defeating a future first ballot hall-of-famer in a hammer throwing contest, but only after getting up off the deck in the sixth round from a bone-rattling knockdown to nail the point home on HBO.
Talk about a legendary night.
Joshua and Klitschko reminded us of what we all know but what many of us have forgotten in the past twenty years or so: as the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing.
It’s still true that there’s nothing in the world better than a heavyweight title fight done right. Now all roads in heavyweight boxing lead to the United Kingdom through World Champion Anthony Joshua.
Next Best: Errol Spence Jr. TKO 11 Kell Brook, May 27, Bramall Lane, Sheffield, U.K. on SHO. What a performance by the untested American Spence to rip the IBF welterweight title from Kell Brook in the Brit’s backyard. When it was over, Brook had another fractured orbital bone while Spence drew accolades for forcing a defending champion into capitulation. In the wake of jihadist terror, Spence exploded onto the scene like Hopkins against Trinidad in 2001.
Andre Ward: The undefeated ‘Son of God’ is back on top and resurrected again. After crushing Sergey Kovalev in their June light heavyweight championship rematch in Vegas, there can be no doubt about who the best, most accomplished boxer in the world is today.
It’s not Vasyl Lomachenko or Triple G.
It’s not Chocolatito or Canelo Alvarez
It’s Andre Ward.
Just a few years ago, Ward took a couple years off and boxing went on without him. Krusher Kovalev emerged as an elite star during that time. In successful comeback bouts against Paul Smith, Sullivan Barrera, and Alexander Brandt, rare were glimpses of S.O.G.’s greatness.
Ward’s first fight with Kovalev in November of 2016 didn’t go according to coach Virgil Hunter’s plan. Ward was dropped early only to get up, fight back—then hear that he didn’t really win.
Regardless of what those American judges saw, Ward looked beatable and distinctly human in victory. Last month in Vegas, Andre The Giant looked otherworldly in dismantling the fearsome Krusher with lead right hands, left hooks, and debilitating body work.
Ward showed the kind of craft and determination last seen back in 1980 when the great American Olympian Sugar Ray Leonard overcame Roberto Duran’s hate filled rage, forcing the Panamanian vulgarian to quit their rematch amidst infamous excuses.
Next Best: Anthony Joshua. It’s just a matter of time until AJ is recognized for what he is: The second coming of Lennox Lewis. The NEXT BIG THING. The Fighter of the Year. After picking up a vacant heavyweight title belt last year and defending it twice by knockout, the Pride of Watford became World Heavyweight Champion last April in just his nineteenth bout; stopping 41 year-old former champ Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley to claim what the man-who-beat-the-man,
Tyson Fury, vacated: the one and only heavyweight championship of the one and only known world.
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai MD 12 Roman Gonzalez: How shocking was this controversial result? The 46-0 Gonzalez was considered by experts to have been the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. His 42-4-1 opponent was an unknown super-fly Thai with a funny name and a headstrong style. Nobody outside of Sisaket, Thailand was predicting an upset.
When the pair collided on the HBO PPV undercard of Golovkin-Jacobs on March 18, boxing had its biggest upset in years while many fans and media decried the majority decision as unjust. To my eyes, it looked like Rungvisai did enough to earn a very close win, knocking ‘Chocolatito’ down in the first before warring on even terms through twelve bloody rounds. Maybe female judge Waleska Roldan saw through the gore most clearly, rendering a 113-113 draw?
Gonzalez and Rungvisai will do it again on the same September 9 HBO ‘Boxing After Dark’ card in Carson, California that features Juan Francisco Estrada vs. Carlos Cuadras and Naoya Inoue vs. Antonio Nieves in a B.A.D. super flyweight championship triple-header co-promoted by K2.
Next Biggest Upset: Tony Bellew TKO 11 David Haye on March 4 at the O2 in London. While I publically picked Bomber Bellew to upset The Hayemaker at heavyweight, hardly anyone else did. The consensus was Haye by massacre whenever and however he liked. Instead, the enigmatic Haye injured his achilles tendon early in the bout and Bellew took full advantage, nearly bombing Haye out of the ring before trainer Shane McGuigan threw in the white towel.
With Bellew’s fellow CREED co-star Andre Ward looking to jaw at cruiserweight and beyond, Danny Stuntman Wheeler may now get Pretty Ricky Conlan in the ring after all.
(Editor’s Note: This TSS mid-year awards list was written and compiled before heavy underdog Jeff Horn upset Manny Pacquiao on July 2 in Australia. It consists only of boxing related events from Jan 1 to June 30, 2017. Horn may have pulled the upset of the 2017, but not its first half. )
Raymundo Beltran KO 2 Jonathan Maicelo: On the Terence Crawford-Felix Diaz HBO PPV undercard at Madison Square Garden on May 20, perennial contender Sugar Ray Beltran whipped underdog Jonathan Maicelo off to never-never land with a sweet left hook in the second round of a scheduled twelve-round lightweight eliminator. Maicelo, a headhunter with his head in this one, was out before his own head hit the canvas.
Beltran was visibly concerned for his downed opponent during the compassionate post-fight Q&A with Max Kellerman. The sensational knockout win should help keep the bona fide Beltran from being deported back to Mexico.
Next Best: Luis Collazo KO 5 Sammy Vasquez. If you like boxing, you have to appreciate Luis Collazo. A 17-year veteran of countless ring wars, Collazo did a number on “The Who Can Mexican” Sammy Vasquez last February in Mississippi. In the sixth round, Collazo’s experience collided with the inexperience of Vazquez and the end result was a beautiful knockout on PBC. A very educated combination from Collazo put Vasquez down and out for the full ten count.
David Benavidez: The 20 year-old super middleweight “Red Flag” from Phoenix, Arizona is 18-0 with 17 knockouts. In 2016, Benavidez impressed many on FS1 with an emphatic TKO of durable New England “Bully” Kevin Cobbs. This past May, Benavidez took an important step up against capable former world title challenger Rogelio “Porky” Medina.
Benavidez brutalized the Mexican with sizzling combination punching—punctuated in the eighth round by a fight ending flurry you had to see to believe. All that PBC exposure should help to ensure that when Benavides steps up again, plenty of eyeballs will be watching him do it.
Oleksandr Gvozdyk: The Ukrainian “Nail” is a 30 year-old light heavyweight with a record of 13-0 and 11 knockouts. He’s already a legitimate top ten fighter at 175 pounds. A decorated amateur boxer, Gvozdyk won a bronze medal in 2012 at the London Summer Olympics.
After running through fringe contenders Nadjib Mohammedi, Tommy Karpency, and Isaac Chilemba in 2016, Gvozdyk ran through another one last April in Maryland, pummeling Yunieski Gonzalez in three to keep his NABF title. Please Mr. Nail, defend against Artur Beterbiev next.
BEST THREE MINUTES
Badou Jack vs. James DeGale (Round 12): In boxing, a great round can break out at any time but when that great round breaks out in the twelfth and final round of a very close world title unifier, it tends to stand out even more; like the culmination of a well told story.
For eleven rounds, James DeGale and Badou Jack slugged it out in Brooklyn for the WBC and IBF super middleweight straps on Showtime. Deadlocked in combat with little to differentiate between these two willing warriors, Jack and DeGale answered the bell for the final round.
With his face falling off, DeGale motored around the ring as Jack stalked to rip the British fighter with his power punches. A sweeping right hook from Jack put DeGale on the canvas for the first time in his career and it looked like ‘Chunky’ might not make it to the finish line. With Jack pressing for a much needed knockout, DeGale bravely stood his ground.
At the bell, both super middleweight champions were trading leather in the middle of the ring. Despite a majority draw result that drew the verbal ire of Jack’s toothy TMT promoter Floyd Mayweather Jr., Jack and DeGale distinguished themselves, particularly in the final frame.
The Sport of Boxing: It might seem a little hokey to belabor the point but after suffering through boxing’s frustrating nadir in 2016, the most impressive comeback I’ve seen this year has been made not by a comebacking boxer but by boxing itself. It fits like a familiar glove. Just consider all the great fights and sensational performances we’ve enjoyed already in 2017. The red-hot British fight scene reminds this writer of boxing’s glorious 80s while a new wave of young American prizefighters are willing to fight the best. It’s all we ever really wanted to see.
Looking ahead to 17’s second half:
Mikey Garcia’s road to superstardom continues at the expense of Adrien Broner on July 29 on Showtime. Boxing wins big when the classy Mikey rids us of that problem once and for all. Roman Gonzalez rematches his conqueror Rungvisai on HBO September 9. Was their first fight a fluke? Boxing should reveal the truth. Canelo and Triple G finally get it on September 16 for the undisputed world middleweight championship. It gets no bigger or more serious.
And if you’re into that kind of thing, “Money” May cashes out cage fighter Conor McGregor August 26 on TMT PPV, the same night old foe Miguel Cotto fights Yoshihiro Kamegai on regular “free” HBO. Boxing really is a lot like the weather in New England.
If you don’t like it, just wait…
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel