As 2016 comes to a close, we look back at a mixed bag of boxing with ESPN’s Dan Rafael labeling the year as ‘forgettable’ due to ducking, cherry picking and inactivity from some elite fighters.
And you can see his viewpoint, with one of the most anticipated and lucrative match-ups between GGG and Canelo failing to materialise, when Canelo Alvarez – boxing’s current, active pay-per-view superstar and lineal Middleweight champion – relinquished his WBC belt and cowered back to 154 pounds to fight unheralded WBO title holder Liam Smith in a one-sided fight.
As fans, we relish the opportunity to witness match-ups with no clear and decisive favorite, where expert and fan opinion are divided on the outcome. Instead of getting GGG Vs Canelo, fans got GGG Vs Brook and Canelo Vs Khan. Although Khan and Brook are legitimate welterweights in their own right, their respective “dare to be great” only stalled the real fights fans wanted to see. GGG Vs Canelo and Brook Vs Khan/Garcia/Thurman.
Who can forget the long list of failed drug tests, including Francisco Vargas, Tyson Fury, Lucas Browne twice, Bermane Stiverne, and now Alexander Povetkin failing for the second time in six months, which cost fans not only an intriguing bout with Bermane Stiverne, but a scheduled showdown with Deontay Wilder in Moscow Russia on May 21, in what would have been Wilder’s toughest test in his career to date. Astonishingly, despite the WBC revoking their sanctioning of the fight, Povetkin was still permitted to fight over the weekend after Stiverne was replaced by Johann Duhaupas just hours before the scheduled fight, which resulted in a brutal sixth round knockout victory for Povetkin.
The heavyweight division saw the demise of Tyson Fury as he tested positive for cocaine, was diagnosed with clinical depression and subsequently relinquished his belts he relieved from long-standing champion Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. Fury’s victory reinvigorated a very dry weight division and promised a big 2016. What resulted was inactivity, postponements and eventually a sad – albeit a temporary departure from boxing for the brash Briton.
Although controversy is entertainment in its own right, the fans failed to see Fury defend his title against Wladimir Klitschko, a possible all England unification with rising star Anthony Joshua and a possible unification with long time rival Deontay Wilder.
Luis Ortiz, who announced himself as a serious contender in 2015 when he stopped the respected Bryant Jennings, had a disappointing 2016 when he parted ways with Golden Boy Promotions to sign with Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn but failed to capture the public’s imagination with two less than stellar performances against Malik Scott and the domestic level Dave Allen. Ortiz is not to blame for his lack of real opponents, as he currently does not generate the income related to the risk involved in fighting him.
Another disappointment was the constant barrage of Mayweather V McGregor will they won’t they will they will they won’t they headlines and click bait. Instead of giving fans the fights that matter, fans were bombarded with this fantasy matchup that in reality bears no importance on nothing more than the respective fighter’s pockets.
Now, more than ever, the public are at the mercy of the business side of boxing, being deprived of fights that do not ‘make sense’ for fighters to make. Namely Billy Joe Saunders, who lifted the WBO Middleweight belt from Andy Lee in 2015, but had a highly disappointing 2016 turning down fights with GGG, Willie Monroe Jr., Gabriel Rosado and Curtis Stevens. After a canceled fight with Max Bursak, Saunders opted to face virtually unknown Artur Akakov and received a much-needed wake up call as he labored to a hard fought Unanimous Decision.
Danny Garcia, who in his first fight since winning a vacant title against the faded Robert Guerrero took on a fighter so below his level, that the WBC did not even sanction it as a title fight. By all means, have a tune up fight, it does not need to be an opponent in the same stratosphere of a Keith Thurman, but at least get in the ring with a top 15 opponent. Although this can be somewhat forgiven as he has agreed to take on WBA titleholder Keith Thurman in 2017 in a fight that will give the winner bragging rights as the fighter to beat in the division.
Nicholas Walters’ lack of heart in quitting against Vasyl Lomachenko also left a sour taste in the mouths of boxing fans, where many felt they did not get their money’s worth and Walters failed to earn all of his paycheck by not seeing the fight through to it’s finale.
The saddest and most memorable event of 2016 was the passing of the legend, the Greatest – Muhammad Ali. So much can be said about this that to do him proper justice, would require a totally separate piece. The world lost a legend and his impact on the sport will endure forever.
Despite this long list of disappointments, we should recognize the few and far between gems we got to witness.
Carl Frampton moved up to featherweight to challenge WBA featherweight and three-division champion Leo Santa Cruz. There were many question marks around Carl Frampton who although beat Scott Quigg decisively, failed to put on a performance worthy of capturing the attention of the US boxing fans as he did not show the work rate needed to beat a high volume puncher like Santa Cruz. With Frampton’s small frame, there was also the question of whether he would be suited to featherweight.
What resulted was an action packed war, where both fighters were wobbled at points and neither backed down. Frampton surprised everyone with his punch volume and wobbled Santa Cruz in the second round and controlled the early rounds but Santa Cruz showed heart and came back in the middle to late rounds, managing to wobble Frampton in the sixth. Both fighters teed off at each other in the final two rounds demonstrating incredible determination. Frampton prevailed with a hard fought 12 round majority win and in announced himself to American audiences immediately raising talk of a rematch.
It is always a treat when two rivals – in their prime – put it all on the line to step in the ring and fight each other. And this is exactly what happened when WBA Welterweight titleholder Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman took on former IBF titleholder Shawn Porter.
Both fighters let their hands go early as Porter used his weight to smother Thurman and keep him on the back foot. After landing a big right in the third round, Thurman wobbled Porter in the fourth. Both fighters showed that they had tremendous chins and resolve.
Porter kept coming forward and pressuring Thurman who did well on the back foot. Porter managed to land a sickening shot to the body in round 8, which sent Thurman retreating momentarily.
The pace was relentless until the final bell. In the end, all three judges separated them by only two points. The fight lived up to the hype as both fighters showed heart, aggression, endurance and determination and went to war with each other in a very entertaining fight – another fight of the year candidate. In the post-fight press conference Thurman so eloquently stated “I’ve got an 0 I’m not afraid to let it go” – a mantra that all fighters should adhere to.
Just weeks before Thurman Vs Porter, fans were treated to a slugfest as WBC super featherweight champion Francisco Vargas went to war with fellow Mexican Orlando Salido. In true Mexican spirit, both fighters relentless brawled with each other, throwing caution to the wind in a back and forth war and throwing a total of 2123 punches between them (according to Compubox) – an average of 176 punches thrown per round, showcasing one of the great attributes of the lower weight classes – work rate.
Both fighters landed clean punches to the head and body and it is mystifying that neither fighter went down – a testament to Mexican grit.
Going into the fight, boxing circles expected a fight of the year candidate – given that Salido always comes to fight and Vargas was involved in the 2015 fight of the year – and that is exactly what we got. In a very close fight, the bout was ruled a majority draw and Vargas retained his title.
One of the biggest sweet treats boxing fans can ask for is when two undefeated pound-for-pound fighters set their sights on each other. Put simply, it does not happen often enough. And although we were deprived of GGG Vs Canelo, what made up for it was Andre Ward stepping up to the Light Heavyweight Division and after three fights getting acclimated to the weight and taking on one of the most feared fighters in the world today – Sergey ‘Krusher Kovalev”
After being denied a winner takes all unification with WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, fans got to see something even better. In Andre Ward’s toughest test, he faced not only a devastating puncher in Kovalev, but also a boxer with a very good degree of skills.
Ward was going into the fight with a much better resume, beating highly respected fighters such as Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, Chad Dawson and Mikkel Kessler compared to Kovalev, whose biggest wins include Jean Pascal and a faded but durable Bernard Hopkins. Despite Ward’s better resume, there were still many question marks over him as he had been riddled with injuries and contractual disputes that kept him inactive the last few years. Was he ready for Kovalev? Was the weight an issue? Having won so many of his fights with relative ease, how would Ward do when the chips are down?
Although it was not the fan friendly war like some of the aforementioned fights, fans got to see a showcase of skill and will as the “Krusher” took control of the early rounds sending Ward crashing to his hands and knees in the second round with a right. Ward got straight up and put on a brave smile, but looked in trouble. Ward weathered the storm and took control of the second half of the fight as Kovalev slowly faded. Although many felt Kovalev had done enough to win with the knockdown, the judges edged Ward the winner unanimously with a razor-thin score of 114-113 declaring Ward the unified Light Heavyweight champion.
In a fight that would arguably grant the winner a claim to number one spot in the pound for pound list. The result raised more questions than it answered as both fighters fought to a controversial decision in a competitive fight. The controversy surrounding the fight and it’s competitiveness ensured a high interest in a rematch in hopes to crown a more decisive winner.
In September, pound for pound fighter Roman Gonzalez captured a world title in his fourth weight class when he outpointed WBC champion Carlos Cuadras in a crowd-pleasing slugfest with scores of 117-111, 116-112 and 115-113, surpassing his idol and countrymen Alexis Arguello by becoming the first Nicaraguan to do so. Although many people claim “Chocolatito” to be the number one pound for pound fighter in the world, the fight was by no means one-sided as some even feel as though the Nicaraguan was lucky to have his hand raised.
Two-time Olympic Gold Medallist Vasyl Lomachenko became the fastest boxer in history to win world titles in two weight classes with only seven fights by knocking out Roman Martinez in the fifth round with a vicious left uppercut-right hook combination to capture the WBO Super Featherweight title. Martinez had no answer for Lomachenko who showed incredible movement, combinations, and angles.
Having not fought in 15 months since losing his belt to Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares resurrected his career to claim his fourth world title by outboxing Jesus Cuellar to capture the WBA Regular featherweight title by a split decision under the tutelage of new trainer Robert Garcia.
2016 also saw the stacked Cruiserweight division heat up – a weight division notoriously succumbing to the shadows of the glamor heavyweight division.
Oleksandr Usyk set a division record by winning a world title in only ten fights when he dominated Krzysztof Glowacki over 12 rounds to capture the WBO belt. Tony Bellew turned in a real life Rocky performance when he survived an early knockdown to stop Ilunga Makabu in three rounds for the vacant WBC belt in his hometown. And Murat Gassiev captured the IBF crown by outpointing Denis Lebedev, dropping his countryman in the fifth round en route to a split decision victory.
What happens in the present is always a prelude to what will happen in the future and we already have a lot to look forward to in 2017.
The Super Middleweight division will unify the WBC and IBF belts as the top two of the division James Degale and Badou Jack lock horns on January 14.
Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz will give us a sequel on January 28.
Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia will unify the WBA and WBC Welterweight belts on March 4.
Staying on course to reduce the number of champions in every weight division, GGG and Daniel Jacobs will meet on March 18 in what some say is GGG’s toughest fight to date.
Although the rejuvenated heavyweight division stalled in 2016 with the inactivity of the two top of the division Tyson Fury and Wladimir Klitschko, fans are going into 2017 with optimism, as IBF titleholder Anthony Joshua will face Klitschko for his IBF title and Fury’s vacated WBA title on April 29.
Oscar De La Hoya promised us on ESPN that we will see GGG and Canelo in September, and hopefully, he delivers on that promise.
Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev are likely to partake in their contractually obligated rematch, although Ward appears to be playing hardball as he dropped a hint of retiring and talking rematch only ‘if the money is right’.
It also looks like we will be getting Gonzalez Vs Cuadras 2.
And continuing the trend of mismatches Tony Bellew (Bellend) will step up to heavyweight to take on bitter rival David Haye. Even though Haye should have taken the WBO title shot against newly crowned Joseph Parker if his so called comeback is to be taken seriously – the build-up to this fight is possible to outdo Chisora Vs Whyte in terms of popcorn entertainment.
2017 has not even started yet, but let us hope it builds on its current momentum.