‘Fighting Words’ — Is Fighter of the Year Down to Four? More? Or Just Two?
This tends to be the time of year when we can narrow down the final candidates for Fighter of the Year, even if there are still two months left of action to go.
Most fighters are done for the year and won’t return to the ring until 2022. The rest of the action has been scheduled — and we can look at the calendar to see what outcomes would result in certain names being added or removed from the list.
That list, at first glance, must include these three names to start:
The winner of the upcoming match between Canelo Alvarez and Caleb Plant.
It’s possible that the Fighter of the Year for 2021 will either be one of the two heavyweight champions, or one of the two men who’s vying to become the undisputed super middleweight champion.
There are a handful of other probables and possibles. We’ll get to them later in this article.
Fleshing out the rest of the list, the best potential candidates, is a bit more difficult this year than in the pre-pandemic times.
Too many boxers have only fought once in 2021. For a handful, that one victory is notable and commendable — but there is nothing else on their ledgers for the year to take them above and beyond the other nominees.
That contrasts with many of the past Fighter of the Year award winners. Here are the Ring and the Boxing Writers Association of America winners from the decade pre-pandemic:
2010 — Sergio Martinez (UD12 Kelly Pavlik, KO2 Paul Williams)
2011 — Andre Ward (UD12 Arthur Abraham, UD12 Carl Froch)
2012 — Juan Manuel Marquez (UD 12 Serheii Fedchenko and what really made this year, his KO6 of Manny Pacquiao)
2013 — Adonis Stevenson (KO6 Darnell Boone, KO1 Chad Dawson, TKO7 Tavoris Cloud, TKO6 Tony Bellew)
2014 — Sergey Kovalev (KO7 Cedric Agnew, TKO2 Blake Caparello, but the award truly came from his UD12 of Bernard Hopkins)
2015 — Tyson Fury (TKO8 Christian Hammer and the real standout win, UD12 Wladimir Klitschko)
2016 — Carl Frampton (SD12 Scott Quigg, MD12 Leo Santa Cruz)
2017 — Vasiliy Lomachenko (TKO9 Jason Sosa, TKO7 Miguel Marriaga, TKO6 Guillermo Rigondeaux)
2018 — Oleksandr Usyk (MD12 Mairis Briedis, UD12 Murat Gassiev, TKO8 Tony Bellew)
2019 — Canelo Alvarez (UD12 Daniel Jacobs, KO11 Sergey Kovalev)
2010 — Martinez
2011 — Ward
2012 — Nonito Donaire (SD12 Wilfredo Vazquez, UD12 Jeffrey Mathebula, TKO9 Toshiaki Nishioka, KO3 Jorge Arce)
2013 — Floyd Mayweather (UD12 Robert Guerrero, MD12 Canelo Alvarez)
2014 — Terence Crawford (UD12 Ricky Burns, TKO9 Yuriorkis Gamboa, UD12 Ray Beltran)
2015 — Floyd Mayweather (on the strength of UD12 Manny Pacquiao, not his retirement bout UD12 of Andre Berto)
2016 — Frampton
2017 — Lomachenko
2018 — Usyk
2019 — Alvarez
There will be accolades and caveats for each and all of the 2021 candidates.
Fury and Usyk each will end this year with a sole appearance. Those sole victories were standout performances.
Fury triumphed in a candidate for another award — Fight of the Year — capping his trilogy with Deontay Wilder by scoring an 11th-round knockout. He retained his lineal championship and bolstered his claim of being the best heavyweight in the world.
This wasn’t the first time Fury knocked out Wilder. He’d done so more conclusively in their one-sided second fight, back in February 2020, when Fury dropped Wilder twice and stopped him in seven.
Fury floored Wilder three times in this third fight. He also had to get off the canvas himself, downed and downed again in Round 4. The competitive nature of October 9 in Las Vegas actually elevates Fury’s candidacy. This was a better version of Deontay Wilder. And Fury remained victorious.
Two weeks before that, Usyk captured three heavyweight titles with an impressive unanimous decision win over Anthony Joshua. Usyk’s skillful boxing confounded Joshua. It also set up the power shots that made Joshua even more reticent to open up too much or too often. As has become Usyk’s trademark, he went into hostile territory unruffled and remained undefeated.
Cynics will say that Joshua’s limitations were exposed both when he was stunningly stopped by Andy Ruiz back in 2019, as well as afterward. Joshua had been boxing differently, more tentatively, ever since then.
However, Joshua was considered one of the three best big men around. Usyk’s accomplishment — what he did, and how he did it — justifies his inclusion on this list.
There may be some who may feel that neither Fury nor Usyk can measure up to what the winner of the November 6 pay-per-view will have done.
If Canelo wins, he will have gone 3-0 in 2021, with two of those victories coming against the two other super middleweight titleholders, giving him all four belts and the throne at 168.
Some fans and writers may frame their argument in a way that adds 2020 into the equation. After all, Canelo unseated Callum Smith for two title belts last December. After an easy win in a stay-busy bout against Avni Yildirim this past February, Canelo dispatched Billy Joe Saunders for title number three in May. Plant would finish things off at four. All of that would have happened in less than a year.
But it is only what happened in 2021 that matters for the award. And what Canelo would have done this year is still pretty darn good. He’d have defeated two titleholders who’d never been defeated before in Saunders and Plant. Neither was overly proven at 168. But no one else at super middleweight is doing what Canelo would have done.
If Plant wins, meanwhile, he will have unified all four world titles in one night and knocked off one of the best boxers, pound-for-pound, over the past several years. He would vault to the forefront of the sport — that beloved cliche of being the man by beating the man.
But what about the other candidates?
First and foremost, we need to look to junior welterweight. After all, the winner of Canelo-Plant won’t be the only undisputed champion crowned in 2021.
Josh Taylor accomplished that in May, when he scored a close but clear win over Jose Ramirez. Each man came in with two world titles in his collection. For Taylor, that was the result of competing in and winning the World Boxing Super Series tournament in 2018 and 2019. Ramirez, meanwhile, hadn’t entered the tournament but had become one of the two best 140-pounders through his own run.
The win over Ramirez will be Taylor’s only appearance this year. A fight against mandatory challenger Jack Catterall, originally set for December, has been rescheduled to February.
The winner of the November 27 unification bout between junior featherweight titleholders Brandon Figueroa and Stephen Fulton will have put forth a solid 2021.
Figueroa had a secondary WBA belt going into his match with WBC titlist Luis Nery; Figueroa knocked Nery out in seven rounds. Fulton unseated previously undefeated Angelo Leo for the WBO belt in January. This is a good fight between two young, unbeaten titleholders.
Down at 115, a cleaner result in the rematch between Juan Francisco Estrada and Roman Gonzalez this past March could’ve put the winner forward into this conversation. Estrada got the win on the scorecards, battling it out with a clearly revitalized version of “Chocolatito.” There were plenty who thought that Gonzalez actually deserved the victory. Had he gotten the nod instead, he would’ve taken out an excellent 115-pound champ. Alas…
Now we get into the dark horse candidates, who aren’t candidates just yet. That will depend on what happens in their upcoming fights — if they can score upset victories.
Terence Crawford vs. Shawn Porter takes place on November 20.
Teofimo Lopez vs. George Kambosos has been rescheduled for November 27.
Artur Beterbiev vs. Marcus Browne is set for December 17.
Only one fighter from each match could be a nominee: Porter, Kambosos and Browne.
It’s weird how that sometimes works. Crawford beating Porter would be the welterweight titleholder beating a very good former titleholder. The same could be said for Beterbiev triumphing over Browne. And Lopez defeating Kambosos would be him disposing of a mandatory obligation.
Porter beating Crawford, though, would make him the first person to defeat Crawford, another longtime denizen of pound-for-pound lists.
Kambosos upsetting Lopez would earn him three of the four major world titles at lightweight and make him the new Ring champion.
And Browne would have given Beterbiev his first blemish and picked up a pair of world titles in the process against the No. 1 guy at 175.
Oh, and there’s one more name who won’t win Fighter of the Year if he triumphs on November 13 — but whose 2021 would deserve applause nonetheless.
Gabriel Rosado, a gritty but lower-tier fighter who’d lost to several first- and second-tier guys at 154 and 160 over the years, dropped jaws in June with his third-round KO of unbeaten super middleweight prospect Bektemir Melikuziev. Rosado’s next fight will be at middleweight against another undefeated fighter, former junior middleweight titleholder Jaime Munguia. If Rosado pulls off another upset, then he will be the surprise story of the year.
This will otherwise be the year of, well, whoever ends up getting the nod.
But this will still go down as a very good year for everyone named: Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk, the winner of Canelo Alvarez vs. Caleb Plant, Josh Taylor, the winner of Brandon Figueroa vs. Stephen Fulton, and any of the aforementioned underdogs should they pull off upsets.
And that is a lesson we can take from this exercise. Naming the person we think was the top fighter of 2021 doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of the rest.
The 10 Count
1 – Judges need to be scrutinized even when fights don’t end in controversy.
In this case, there need to be questions asked — and answers provided — about one of the judges in this past Saturday’s title fight between junior lightweight Jamel Herring and the man who dethroned him, Shakur Stevenson.
(See my full article about Stevenson’s win over Herring here.)
There shouldn’t have been anything controversial about Herring vs. Stevenson. The fight ended via technical knockout in the 10th round. The referee did step in even though Herring wasn’t in imminent danger, but the defending titleholder was clearly losing a mismatch, had suffered a cut over his eye, most likely (and indeed) needed a knockout to win, and had absolutely no chance of scoring it. He wasn’t doing much of anything on offense in Round 10. Nor was Herring offended that the fight ended when and how it did.
Shortly afterward, we learned (via Top Rank publicist Evan Korn) that two of the three judges had Stevenson pitching a shutout through nine rounds, 90-81. The third judge had it 89-82.
It was reasonable that a judge could’ve found one round to give Herring. The problem was the particular round that this particular judge picked.
It was Round 2 — a round that Stevenson absolutely dominated.
You don’t need CompuBox to tell you that, though the statistics are indeed telling, with Stevenson outlanding Herring, 26-6, in that second stanza. You just needed to watch the round.
2 – The judge in question is Ed Kanner, who isn’t at all inexperienced. He’s been a boxing judge for at least 23 years and at least 640 bouts; the listings on BoxRec aren’t necessarily exhaustive.
Every one of those fights has been in Georgia, which might explain why he’s only worked two title fights — three, if you include the secondary WBA “regular” belt that was on the line when Gervonta Davis fought Yuriorkis Gamboa in 2019.
The other bouts? Herring-Stevenson, obviously, but also Kanner’s first-ever pro fight (per BoxRec), which was Jorge Julio defending his WBO bantamweight title against Adonis Cruz in 1998.
“As a professional boxing judge for more than 20 years, Edward Kanner has judged world title fights and has appeared on ESPN, HBO, and Showtime boxing events numerous times,” reads a bio on the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission website.
So what happened? It’s worth finding out.
It could easily be a mistake, whether one made by Kanner or by another ringside official who was transcribing the scores as they were collected.
It’s not always bias or corruption or even incompetence. Those were among the allegations against Lloyd Scaife after he judged a 2016 fight between heavyweights Luis Ortiz and Tony Thompson. Two judges had Ortiz ahead 50-43 after five rounds. Scaife had it 48-47 for Ortiz.
I visited Scaife in his home about a month later, connected by a mutual friend from the DC area boxing circles.
“I’m thinking I might be feeling a little senility or something coming on,” Scaife told me. “I don’t know what happened. I know what happened. I know I did it. I know my writing. I know that he [Thompson] did not win a round, but yet I had him winning a round.”
Scaife retired from judging after the bout. He passed away last year at the age of 89.
Scaife had made up his mind about retirement well before my visit. I can’t take any credit for a proud man recognizing he needed to step away. But as I’ve said before, in general, boxing writers need to do more to hold officials and athletic commissions accountable.
Kanner’s Round 2 was one bad score in one round in a fight where none of that wound up mattering. But bad judges should be corrected before they actually have an effect on a result. And commissions won’t necessarily do that without public pressure.
3 – Move over, Trinidad Vargas. I’ve got a new favorite name in boxing.
It’s Prince Octopus Dzanie, an undefeated 36-year-old junior featherweight who competed in the 2008 Olympics and is 22-0 (18 knockouts) as a pro. Dzanie is signed with the U.S.-based Salita Promotions but has otherwise only competed in his native Ghana.
(You could say that Prince Octopus… inked with Salita. You might not say that, but I clearly would.)
We’ll ignore (for now) the fact that the IBF somehow has Dzanie ranked at No. 11 at bantamweight even though BoxRec says that he hasn’t fought at that weight since 2017. (OK, OK, I guess I didn’t ignore it.) Then again, this video of Dzanie’s most recent fight has him coming in at just under 118 pounds, so either they’re wrong or BoxRec is wrong.
Either way, I’m hoping that Dzanie throws an eight-shot combo. Though Prince Octopus’ favorite shot is the sucker punch…
I’m just sad that Prince Octopus will never get to meet King Hippo…
4 – I don’t know what’s crazier:
The fact that Don King will apparently be promoting another event in the year of our lord 2021 — and a title fight, at that, between cruiserweight beltholder Ilunga Makabu and longtime contender Thabiso Mchunu — after the travesty that was his previous show earlier this year…
…or the fact that ancient heavyweights James Toney and Jeremy Williams were just days away from having an exhibition match in the year of our lord 2021 (until that fight was canceled).
5 – The news about King and Makabu-Mchunu 2 came via a press release from the promoter last week: “King, who represents Makabu, came to an agreement with Mchunu’s representatives on the 12-round championship fight, to be held in the next two months,” it said.
Makabu signed with King, for some reason, at the end of September 2019. Per BoxRec, neither of the two shows Makabu had King listed as the promoter of record.
Indeed, just three months after signing Makabu, King’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to the World Boxing Council to try to stop a fight between Makabu and Michal Cieslak in January 2020.
The fight, the letter said, was “scheduled to take place … without DKP’s [Don King Productions] knowledge, consent, approval or permission. DKP is Makabu’s exclusive, world-wide promoter for any and all of Makabu’s professional boxing matches throughout the World and no one, other than DKP, is authorized to engage Makabu’s services.”
The fight ended up occurring anyway.
“I am very happy that the fight is going on as ordered by the WBC, and that Don King Promotions has clarified a few misunderstandings with his local promotional partners Tarik Saadi and General Luyoyo,” WBC President Mauricio Sulaiman was quoted as saying.
This would be Makabu’s first and only fight of 2021. Mchunu returned in March after being out of the ring for all of 2020.
Their first fight was a war. Makabu-Mchunu 2 should also be fun. Here’s hoping it actually happens…
6 – …and I’m glad that James Toney vs. Jeremy Williams won’t.
Even though it was promoted as an exhibition, it still seemed irresponsible. The promoter had said that the officials in Aguascalientes, Mexico, would be there to protect the combatants.
“The commission here is very concerned with the safety of all fighters and they are dictating all the necessary precautions, which will be vigorously followed,” said Todd Lewis, vice president of Blue Moon Boxing, in a press release sent last week. “While we love the idea of seeing these two rivals throw down again, we are not in the business of having a retired fighter take a sustained beating on our air.”
But in the same press release that quoted Lewis claiming the match would be done with safety in mind, the company also signed off on the fighters claiming otherwise. Obviously this was intentional, a “Will they or won’t they?” meant to get people curious enough to tune in for what is apparently a free broadcast (a broadcast that will be going on without Toney-Williams).
“There’s no such thing as a boxing exhibition,” Toney was quoted as saying in the press release. “I’m a fighter. I’ll be there to turn the lights out. Evander [Holyfield] thought he was doing an exhibition for fun [against Vitor Belfort in September] and he got embarrassed. I don’t play. I’m going to knock his ass out. Call it whatever you want.”
And here was what Jeremy Williams was quoted as saying: “James Toney is not a true heavyweight and even they can’t take my punches. I’m a smaller guy with fast hands. He won’t be able to use his smaller size to outmaneuver me. And I punch a lot harder than he does! It’s a matter of time before I catch him with something and finish him for good.”
Toney, mind you, is 53 years old and last fought in 2017, long after he last should’ve laced up the gloves. On that night, he knocked out some 24-20-2 dude named Mike Sheppard. Toney’s had eight fights in the last decade.
That’s still more than Williams, a 49-year-old whose only appearance in the past 14 years was in 2013, when he won via disqualification against some 19-31-1 dude named Travis Fulton. Before that, Williams was in the ring in 2007 barely edging the 18-8-1 Gary Gomez. And before that, it was 2004 and Williams was absolutely flattened in two rounds, down for minutes at the hands of a certain power-punching heavyweight who we’re about to get to.
Yes, it’s been almost 17 years since what was basically the end of Jeremy Williams. But sure, let’s put him back in the ring.
The fight was supposed to take place this Friday, October 29. But yesterday, the promoter told World Boxing News that the fight had been canceled. Lewis seemed to cite the Association of Boxing Commissions as the reason — though the ABC has no jurisdiction in Mexico.
7 – If we’re going to lean into the sideshow, we might as well have made a three-person fight featuring James Toney vs. Jeremy Williams… vs. Samuel Peter.
After all, Peter was the one who knocked Williams cold and who beat Toney twice back when that kind of thing still mattered.
(An argument can definitely be made that Toney deserved the first fight, though Peter clearly won the second.)
Peter’s well past his best-by date as well. He’s somehow just 41 years old, though.
8 – We have our first-ever WBC bridgerweight titleholder, and it’s not Bryant Jennings, who refused to get vaccinated and, given that, refused to quarantine under the requirements for unvaccinated people entering Canada, where the bout with Oscar Rivas was to take place.
Rivas triumphed over late replacement Ryan Rozicki. The fight seemed like it was going to end early. Rivas had Rozicki in trouble at the end of Round 1. The fight soon became more competitive, though Rivas pulled away and won a clear decision.
It was a fine scrap in a division no one asked for, and given Rozicki’s lesser size and experience. Rivas came in with a record of 27-1 (19 KOs), competed in the 2008 Olympics and has been a pro for 12 years, with all of his previous fights at heavyweight, almost always at weights higher than this new division’s limit of 224 pounds. Rivas was the WBC’s top-rated bridgerweight.
Rozicki? He was 13-0 and had only been a pro for five years. He’d always been a cruiserweight, and a somewhat undersized one, at that, often coming in comfortably below that division’s 200-pound limit. Rozicki hadn’t been rated in the Top 15 at bridgerweight until Jennings pulled out. Heck, he wasn’t even in the Top 15 at cruiserweight; the WBC had him at No. 18 there as of September.
But by mid-October, Rozicki had been installed at No. 15 at bridgerweight, just enough to qualify him for this fight.
This is still an unnecessary division. I hope that the three other major sanctioning bodies refuse to follow suit. Yet if this ends up giving middling fighters a home — and those middling fighters provide us with entertaining fights — then I’ll just hush up and enjoy.
9 – Mikey Garcia says that he can bounce back from his disappointing decision defeat to Sandor Martin earlier this month.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Garcia said last week in an interview with Elie Seckbach. “People might think a loss is such a big deal and go into depression. I’m not. I’m jumping right back in there. I’m not worried about it. … It’s nothing. It’s part of boxing. That’s it. People take losses in other areas in life. You can’t let a loss keep you down. Gotta get the fuck up. Move on. Leave it behind you. Go forward. You can’t be dwelling on the past. You’ll be all depressed and shit. You got to keep moving forward, move on to what’s next. That’s how I see it. It’s part of the sport. No big deal. It’s not the first time I lost. I lost 12 times as an amateur. Who gives a fuck? Does anybody talk about that? Who cares? Move on.
“It’s potentially more motivating now,” he soon added. “Now I have something to look forward to, to prove, versus me, had I probably [gotten] the win, maybe I’d be so bored of it, I’d probably be thinking, ‘Oh, I’m done, I’m tired, I’m retiring.’ But I actually feel a little more fire now than before.”
10 – We’ll see if this actually ends up lighting a fire under Mikey Garcia, if the disappointment of what happened against Sandor Martin motivates him to do better the next time out.
It’s just hard to imagine that he’ll care that much about losing, since he certainly didn’t seem to care that much about winning…
Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.