Leo Santa Cruz (vs Carl Frampton)
Oleksandr Usyk (vs Marco Huck)
Andre Ward (vs Sergey Kovalev)
Errol Spence (vs Kell Brook)
Roman Gonzalez (vs Srisaket Sor Rungvisai 1)
Ryoichi Taguchi (vs Milan Melindo)
Caleb Truax (vs James DeGale)
Anthony Joshua (vs Wladimir Klitschko)
Billy Joe Saunders (vs David Lemieux)
Winner: Roman Gonzalez
The consensus is that 2017 was a great year for boxing, and this is confirmed by the fact that the field of nominees for Performance of the Year is crowded with outstanding entries. Back in April, heavyweight king-in-waiting Anthony Joshua rose up from the canvas to stop Wladimir Klitschko in a momentous encounter. A month later Errol Spence Jr. comprehensively defeated the highly regarded Kell Brook and in June, Andre Ward earned the most significant stoppage of his career in his rematch with Sergey Kovalev. In any other year, any one of those three highly regarded fighters scoring career-best wins in high-stakes battles would’ve easily nabbed the award.
But not in 2017.
This year, the award goes to a fighter who posted a losing performance in an undercard bout against a mandatory challenger. And before you dismiss this as a disservice to the candidates discussed above, allow us to make our case. Our reasoning is simple enough: the performance posted by the fighter in question represents everything we love about boxing in such a crystal-clear fashion that it effectively renders irrelevant the circumstances surrounding the bout itself, as well as the fallout from its dubious outcome.
As far as we’re concerned, no other fighter nominated for Performance of the Year endured and overcame as much adversity, while at the same time giving hell to his opponent and inspiring genuine awe in fight fans, as Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez did through 12 grueling rounds with Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai on March 18, 2017.
In the aftermath of Gonzalez’ dubious loss to his WBC-mandated challenger, we wrote:
Don’t let the official outcome, as off the mark as it was, detract from Gonzalez vs Sor Rungvisai being one hell of a battle, a throwback fight, the kind of contest boxing used to feature consistently in its heyday, with a top contender testing a proven champion’s skill and mettle in every way. Many, if not most, anticipated something very different, the match largely viewed as a tune-up for Gonzalez. Instead boxing’s pound-for-pound king just starred in a bloody, gory Fight of the Year candidate against a tough-as-nails opponent at least one full division above his optimal weight.
… Even leaving the wonky verdict aside, look again at what happened in the ring on Saturday night, and you’ll find that in the lower weight classes, the fact you’ve never heard a fighter’s name, or can’t pronounce it, doesn’t mean he can’t bring it. Look at the effort, endurance, and sheer cojones Sor Rungvisai showed in trading tit-for-tat with arguably the greatest offensive force in boxing today, even dropping him cleanly with a body shot in the first round, and tell me again that this guy didn’t belong in the same ring with Gonzalez.
And look as well at the mix of bravery, composure, and ring IQ Gonzalez displayed in dealing with his bigger opponent, enduring multiple headbutts, with a couple of cuts spouting crimson directly into his eyes. Roman’s fiery determination coupled with his astonishing offensive capabilities kept him in the fight, and made many think him the winner of the contest. You have to go back to the old days of boxing to find elite champions at or near their prime enduring such hardship in a ring. That is not a coincidence: Roman Gonzalez is a champion in the mould of the greats, and in a tough night where several breaks went the wrong way–the headbutts, the decision, the referee and ringside doctor letting the fight go on despite the gruesome cuts–he saw his 0 go. Where’s the shame in that?
No shame whatsoever, indeed. Not when pretty much everyone in the boxing world recognized the judges’ decision to be, at best, a questionable verdict. Myriad writers, reporters, fighters, trainers and even referees all agreed that Sor Rungvisai was awarded a victory that really didn’t belong to him. So much so that, following the backlash that met Sor Rungvisai’s victory, the WBC ordered an immediate rematch to set the record straight. The short of it is that Gonzalez incurred the first official defeat of his career undeservedly.
And yet, it can’t be denied that the war between Gonzalez and Sor Rungvisai—a top candidate for Fight of the Year in its own right—elevated the standing of both the Nicaraguan and the Thai. “Chocolatito” earned plaudits for proving his worth against a bigger, stronger foe, for refusing to take a step back and instead taking the battle to his opponent, outfighting him decisively in the eyes of most. Sor Rungvisai, on the other hand, proved he belonged at the upper echelons of the super flyweight division by standing toe-to-toe with “Chocolatito”, something he corroborated in their rematch, when he viciously knocked out Gonzalez in the fourth round.
But that night in March at New York’s Madison Square Garden, it was Gonzalez who should’ve had his hand raised, not the Thai. Unfortunately, the way things played out, the judges robbed Gonzalez of what should’ve been the most poignant victory in his career; inadvertently, they might have also ignited a narrative that the Gonzalez vs Sor Rungvisai rivalry was dominated by the Thai. However, if you watched their first fight live, you know better.
And for those of you who haven’t watched it, what are you waiting for? At his best, Chocolatito was one of the sweetest, most enthralling offensive fighters of his generation. His first outing against Sor Rungvisai is definite proof of that and the official verdict cannot detract from what he accomplished. Decision or no decision, that night Roman Gonzalez faced down serious physical disadvantages, overcame being knocked down, butted repeatedly, cut, and hammered with heavy shots, to then exhibit astonishing heart, courage and skill. It was a performance that should be long remembered and thus it is our pick for 2017’s Performance of the Year. –Rafael Garcia