Winner: Oleksandr Usyk
While all of our nominees had outstanding years and deserve consideration for top honors, the fact remains there was little doubt in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve that Oleksandr Usyk was about to receive our Fighter of the Year award. 2018 was an outstanding year for boxing in several respects, and one of those is that it marked, in most emphatic fashion, the arrival of a new dominant champion, a fighter who not only unified his division — a rare feat in itself — but who also offered superlative performances in the process, all of them against worthy foes. No other fighter this past year notched such huge wins and did so with such flair and skill. In the Ukraine they call Usyk “The Cat” and indeed, 2018 proved to be The Year Of The Cat.
Usyk’s first major feat was to defeat fellow cruiserweight titlist Mairis Briedis in a high stakes showdown staged in the Latvian’s home city of Riga. It was an intense battle from first bell to last, the fighters demonstrating impressive stamina, conditioning and durability. Both mixed up their punches well to both body and head and for long stretches neither had a decided edge, but it was Usyk who took control in the latter stages. As our writer stated at the time: “Props to Usyk, who has faced three world champions on their home turf and emerged victorious in all three matches. One gets the feeling that the former Olympic gold medalist may be on the cusp of a truly historic run.”
Next was the final match in the World Boxing Super Series tournament, a confrontation with Murat Gassiev, and in the Russian’s home city. Usyk turned in the performance of the year as he comprehensively outboxed “Iron” to win almost every round, turning an expected toss-up fight into a one-sided blowout. Immediately following the match attention turned to a possible showdown with former cruiserweight titlist Tony Bellew who was coming off two huge victories over heavyweight David Haye. In his final showing of the year, Usyk delivered a picturesque knockout of the former champion in eight rounds in a win that appears to pave the way for a campaign at heavyweight for the Ukrainian phenom.
Stepping up to the kingdom of the giants, if done tactfully, could make the already scintillating heavyweight picture that much more interesting, especially if the top behemoths are willing to risk their position against a boxer as savvy and talented as Usyk. Thus, we await eagerly the next step in the career of “The Cat,” a boxer on the verge of mainstream stardom, a fighter who, in the span of a single year, has cemented himself as one of the best pugilists on the planet and is now our Fighter Of The Year.
— Neil Crane
Past Fighter Of The Year Winners:
2013: Adonis Stevenson
2014: Naoya Inoue
2015: Roman Gonzalez
2016: Joe Smith Jr.
2017: Srisaket Rungvisai