The turn of the year will mark a significant personal milestone: 40 years as a boxing fan. Roberto Duran's March 16, 1974 destruction of Esteban DeJesus in the second of their three fights began a lifelong quest to learn boxing's rich history, appreciate its present and look forward to its future.
And what a future boxing has, for 2013 was the sport's greatest year this century and perhaps the best in the last several decades.
You read that right. The athletic endeavor sportswriter Jimmy Cannon called “the red light district of sports” just completed a banner year on several levels, not just in terms of in-ring action but also in areas beyond the ropes that could create a solid, lasting foundation. Sure, several perpetual roadblocks remain – the cold war between Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank, willful mainstream media ignorance and disrespect as well as dozens of “world title” belts with little real meaning – but all things considered boxing is poised to commence a new Golden Age.
How can this be? Let us count the ways:
The Prime Time Nine: This year's Boxing Writers Association of America ballot features no less than nine candidates for Fighter of the Year, all of whom have a legitimate claim to the honor. Never before has a single year produced so many worthy choices.
Timothy Bradley brightened his star considerably with victories over Ruslan Provodnikov and Juan Manuel Marquez, while RING champion Danny Garcia did the same by beating Zab Judah and Lucas Matthysse. The sport's consensus pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. stepped up his game by fighting twice for the first time since 2007 and comprehensively out-classing Robert Guerrero and Saul Alvarez, who boasted a combined record of 73-1-1 (48). At age 36, the man named “Money” lived up to his nickname financially, aesthetically and athletically with performances worthy of his lofty status.
Meanwhile, Mikey Garcia assembled an excellent year by annexing Orlando Salido's belt at 126, impressively stopping Juan Manuel Lopez despite weight issues that cost him his featherweight crown and dethroning 130-pound king Roman Martinez, Puerto Rico's final remaining titlist. Guillermo Rigondeaux catapulted himself into boxing’s elite ranks with a masterful points win over consensus top-three pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire and consolidated that performance with another whitewash against former two-time bantamweight titlist Joseph Agbeko. Ruslan Provodnikov elevated himself from ESPN attraction to premium cable star with a thrilling defeat against Bradley and a transformational title-winning upset TKO over Mike Alvarado before “Mile High Mike’s” fans in Denver.
However, the upper levels of 2013's race belonged to Adonis Stevenson, Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev, who established their stars with accomplishment and activity. Not only did each fight four times – an ambitious schedule for upper-echelon fighters these days – they also scored four knockouts, each in sensational fashion. The cases for all three are compelling:
Stevenson – avenged his lone loss to high-grade gatekeeper Darnell Boone by one-punch KO, captured Chad Dawson's lineal crown with an electrifying single-shot 76-second knockout in upset fashion, showcased previously latent boxing skills in schooling ex-champ Tavoris Cloud and stopping mandatory challenger Tony Bellew. Like Glen Johnson in 2004, Stevenson achieved his defining successes in his mid-30s. Will he duplicate the “Road Warrior’s” success by winning Fighter of the Year?
Kovalev – Steamrolled respected former champ Gabriel Campillo in three rounds, crushed the 21-1 Cornelius White in three rounds, won Nathan Cleverly's WBO title in four rounds before the Welshman's home fans in Cardiff and flattened the well-regarded Ismayl Sillakh in two rounds. The latter victory yielded two important results: (1) he upstaged Stevenson’s KO of Bellew before “Superman’s” home fans and (2) established himself as perhaps the world's best 175-pounder as well as a solid favorite in a potential unification fight. In terms of the Fighter of the Year race, one can argue Kovalev faced better competition than Stevenson and the fact that the “Krusher” won his title on hostile ground against a favored opponent while Stevenson won his before his adopted home fans carries significant weight because of the enhanced degree of difficulty.
Golovkin – Savagely disposed of the rugged Gabriel Rosado, scored potential KOs of the year against Nobuhiro Ishida (head shot) and Matthew Macklin (body shot) and broke down a determined Curtis Stevens before stopping him in round eight. Those performances combined with RING champion Sergio Martinez's shaky off-the-floor win over Martin Murray persuaded many to declare “GGG” the world's best middleweight and a worthy topic of pound-for-pound conversation.
The BWAA voters have a tough decision to make, and the crowded field is just one reason to believe boxing is in a very good place. There are others:
Wars, Wars and More Wars – More than any other year in recent memory, 2013 boasted numerous contenders for Fight of the Year. The more popular candidates include Bradley-Provodnikov, Mike Alvarado-Brandon Rios II, Giovani Segura-Hernan Marquez, Garcia-Matthysse, Marcos Maidana-Adrien Broner and Omar Figueroa-Nihito Arakawa but there were more than a few other worthy options such as Saul Roman's incredible war with Jose Pinzon in March (my choice for Fight of the Year regardless of notoriety), Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler II, the first four rounds of James Kirkland-Glen Tapia (before it got dangerously ugly), Jesus Soto-Karass-Andre Berto, Darren Barker-Daniel Geale, Guillermo Jones-Denis Lebedev, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk-Rakhim Chakhkiev, Erislandy Lara-Alfredo Angulo, Marcos Maidana-Josesito Lopez, Donnie Nietes-Moises Fuentes and the two Artur Szpilka-Mike Mollo fights being just a few.
As far as in-ring action is concerned boxing fans couldn't have wished for much more. The good news is that 2014 may well provide similarly pulse-pounding action, especially if the Top Rank-Golden Boy rift is somehow healed.
Smooth Transitions – Not too long ago boxing was confronted with a chilling question: Will anyone be able to step up once Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao retire? At the time it was a viable query because no one appeared to have the necessary star power to fill that void.
Although Mayweather and Pacquiao aren't yet ready to cede their spots, 2013 proved beyond doubt the sport can rely on a strong bullpen once that time comes. Golovkin appears to be in the best position to seize the spotlight due to his blend of enormous one-punch power and underrated technical skill (as well as HBO's marketing prowess) while Kovalev, Stevenson, Mikey Garcia, Provodnikov, Danny Garcia, Saul Alvarez, Keith Thurman, Evgeny Gradovich, Leo Santa Cruz, Terence Crawford and Deontay Wilder are in position to make their own runs toward potential stardom.
These newly-minted attractions join established stars Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez, Andre Ward, Wladimir Klitschko, Sergio Martinez, Carl Froch, Miguel Cotto, Bradley, Marcos Maidana, Paul Malignaggi, Amir Khan, Abner Mares, Matthysse, Rios, Jhonny Gonzalez, Orlando Salido, Donaire, Vic Darchinyan and many more in boxing's firmament. Then there are the prospects that include Vasyl Lomachenko (the most polished product ever to invade the pro ranks), the Charlo twins (Jermell and Jermall), Jesse Hart, Marcus Browne, Oscar Molina, Errol Spence Jr., Felix Verdejo, Anthony Joshua, Callum Smith, Oscar Valdez, Jose Pedraza, Ivan Redkach, Ryota Murata and Francisco Vargas who are building the foundations for their own runs.
It has been written that there is strength in numbers and that certainly is the case with boxing entering 2014. The robust mixture of prospects, contenders, young veterans and established stars is among the deepest and most varied in years, another certain sign that “The Sweet Science” is poised for a most magnificent stretch.
“The Theater of the Unexpected” – Unpredictability has always been a hallmark of boxing's appeal and 2013 saw more than its share of shocking results. Virtually no one foresaw Gonzalez's one-round blowout over potential pound-for-pounder Mares or Adrien Broner's humbling beat-down at the hands of Maidana. Other jarring results included Tony Thompson's scorching KO of David Price in fight one, Soto-Karass' classic 12th round KO over the comebacking Andre Berto, Stevenson's crushing KO of "Bad Chad" Dawson, Kiko Martinez's stoppage of Jhonatan Romero, Rigondeaux's master class over Donaire, Shawn Porter's points win over Devon Alexander, Garcia's title-retaining decision over power-punching Argentine Matthysse, Terence Crawford's star-making decision over Breidis Prescott as a late sub, Victor Terrazas’ title-winning victory over veteran top-shelf campaigner Cristian Mijares, Takashi Miura’s title-retaining decision over the favored Sergio Thompson before the challenger’s Mexican fans, Felix Sturm’s two-round blowout over Darren Barker, Alex Leapai's points win over Denis Boytsov in Germany and Provodnikov’s 10th-round TKO over Mike Alvarado.
An Expanded Viewing Universe – Ever since NBC, CBS and ABC ended regular boxing broadcasts in the 1980s basic cable, premium cable and pay-per-view have been the primary TV options for U.S. viewers. In recent years, YouTube and other Internet resources have allowed fans to view fights that otherwise would have been out of reach for American fans, whether it be live or same-day coverage.
The success of the cards aired on NBC Sports Network and Showtime Extreme as well as the launching of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 has expanded the available TV avenues for "feeder fights" long provided by ESPN 2, UniMas and the ShoBox series. BeIn Sport (Channels 620 and 426 on DirecTV) has provided same-day coverage of cards emanating from Monaco, South Africa and the Philippines during 2013, giving U.S. fans a chance to familiarize themselves with European and African fighters they otherwise would not have seen.
Additionally, Top Rank's web site offered free streams of pay-per-view undercard fights and from time to time those telecasts were aired on DirecTV's Audience Network on Channel 101. The theory behind this move was simple but sensible: More early exposure equals more name recognition, which, in turn, means higher ratings and profits once they advance up the TV ladder. The promoters win because their fighters receive valuable air time. The networks win because they have a good lead-in for the pay-per-view portion of the evening. And, most importantly, the fans win because they get even more of their fight fix.
Deeper Televised Cards – It was feared that the Golden Boy-Top Rank feud would cripple an already compromised sport but, as is often the case with boxing, the result was the complete opposite of previous conventional wisdom. Instead of adopting a bunker mentality, HBO and Showtime came out slugging with an ever-escalating game of “can you top this?”
The most obvious manifestation is the flood of triple-headers and quadruple-headers that took place during the final quarter of 2013. If one counts the two fights that aired on Showtime Extreme on Dec. 14, the network put forth an unheard-of sextupleheader. The pugilistic parade will continue into the new year as ShoBox will air a four-fight card on January 17 and HBO will present a triple-header three-fight show the following day. While the airing of entire cards is regularly done outside the U.S., it is a relatively new – and most welcome – phenomenon on these shores. Here's hoping this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.
Many pundits, including this one, has wondered when boxing's powers-that-be would finally start to reverse the damage that began in late 1982 when a combination of events (Sugar Ray Leonard's sudden retirement and the aftermaths of Ray Mancini-Deuk Koo Kim, Michael Dokes-Mike Weaver I, Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello I, Larry Holmes-Randall "Tex" Cobb and Howard Cosell's abandonment of professional boxing) that triggered a slow but steady decline in boxing's appeal in American society, especially among the mainstream media. This past year has seen remarkable progress but more can still be done.
If 2014 is to exceed 2013 – a good possibility given the sport's positive momentum – a consistent diet of top-level fights must be made and consummated. Some of them, such as Stevenson-Kovalev, can be arranged within the current political strictures but many other dream matches remain unattainable solely because of them. That is a travesty that should be rectified as soon as possible.
The holiday season just past celebrated the virtues of peace and renewal. From this corner there is no better time than now to apply those ideals into breaking the shackles of ill will between two of boxing's most powerful and influential entities. If that happens – and that's a giant if – then the stage will be set for a majestic and (to boxing's critics) a most improbable renaissance.
For those naysayers that continually declare that “boxing is dead,” the events of 2013 provided a most definitive response. “Boxing is dead?” the sport asks. “Heck, I'm just getting started.”
Photos / Kevork Djansezian-Getty Images (Bradley-Provodnikov), Naoki Fukuda (Floyd Mayweather, Gennady Golovkin), Jeff Bottari-Getty Images (Vasyl Lomachenko)
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.