2023: A Very Good Year

The year just ended was, in many, if not most, respects, a very good year for professional prizefighting. We saw more high-stakes match-ups, more great fights, and more outstanding performances than anyone really has a right to expect from 21st century boxing. There’s always room for improvement, always disappointments, and always match-ups that failed to materialize, but the bottom line is boxing came through in 2023 in a way we haven’t seen for quite some time. All we can do is hope the positive trends continue in 2024. In the meantime, here’s our take on the year just finished and the fights and fighters that deserve our plaudits. Check it out:

Upset of the Year Nominations:
Liam Smith TKO4 Chris Eubank Jr.
Zhilei Zhang TKO6 Joe Joyce
Rafael Espinoza MD12 Robeisy Ramirez
Tyson Fury SD10 Francis Ngannou
Chantelle Cameron MD10 Katie Taylor
Joseph Parker UD12 Deontay Wilder

Winner: Rafael Espinoza 

Espinoza takes the fight to Ramirez.

Robeisy Ramirez was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, the last man on the planet to beat Shakur Stevenson, and a world champion coming off big wins over Abraham Nova and Isaac Dogboe. Word was he was also a top candidate for a possible high-stakes showdown against one of the hottest talents in the game, Naoya Inoue. “Whoever they put in front of me,” said Ramirez after defeating Dogboe last April, “I want all the great fights.” By contrast, Rafael Espinoza, while being undefeated, had yet to face a ranked contender. Safe to say, absolutely no one foresaw a twelve round scorcher, one of the best fights of recent years, and a close decision going to the unknown Mexican. But that’s exactly what happened. It’s back to the drawing board for Ramirez, while Espinoza enjoys his new-found status as one of the top men in the featherweight division.

Round of the Year Nominations: 
Luis Nery KO11 Azat Hovhannisyan, Round 11
Jaime Munguia UD12 Sergiy Derevyanchenko, Round 5
Leigh Wood TKO7 Josh Warrington, Round 7
O’Shaquie Foster TKO12 Eduardo Hernandez, Round 11
Jesse Rodriguez TKO9 Sunny Edwards, Round 6
Joe Cordina SD12 Shavkatdzh Rakhimov, Round 2
Artur Beterbiev TKO8 Anthony Yarde, Round 7

Winner: O’Shaquie Foster TKO12 Eduardo Hernandez, Round 11
We saw some scintillating three minute episodes of action this past year, but none could top Foster and Hernandez’s masterpiece of dramatic carnage as the defending champ unleashed a vicious attack and appeared on the cusp of stopping a dazed and bloodied Hernandez, only to suddenly find himself on the ropes as the gutsy Mexican somehow reversed the momentum. Both men were seriously hurt, but both never stopped throwing and landing huge shots, and when the bell finally rang, DAZN commentator Gabe Rosado shouted, “That’s Round of the Year, baby!” We concur.

Knockout of the Year Nominations: 
Naoya Inoue TKO8 Stephen Fulton
Brian Mendoza KO7 Sebastian Fundora
Zhilei Zhang KO3 Joe Joyce
Anthony Joshua KO7 Robert Helenius
Junto Nakatani KO12 Andrew Moloney
Leigh Wood TKO7 Josh Warrington

Winner: Junto Nakatani KO12 Andrew Moloney
In his second ring appearance outside of his native Japan, Junto Nakatani won his second world title with an unforgettable, one-shot demolition of Andrew Moloney that was immediately hailed as a top candidate for Knockout of the Year. Moloney showed his toughness throughout the one-sided battle but Nakatani was clearly not content to cruise to a points victory. Instead the heavy-handed southpaw cemented his status as a must-watch talent with a vicious knockout, his perfectly timed overhand left loudly detonating on Moloney’s jaw and instantly rendering him helpless. “They need medical attention in there right away!” shouted ESPN announcer Joe Tessitore. “That was as brutal of a single punch as you will ever see!” Sounds like the Knockout of the Year to us.

Performance of the Year Nominations: 
Rafael Espinoza MD12 Robeisy Ramirez
Leigh Wood UD12 Mauricio Lara
Terence Crawford TKO9 Errol Spence
Naoya Inoue TKO8 Stephen Fulton
Jesse Rodriguez TKO9 Sunny Edwards
Devin Haney UD12 Regis Prograis
Amanda Serrano UD12 Danila Ramos
Teofimo Lopez UD12 Josh Taylor

Winner: Terence Crawford TKO9 Errol Spence
For years, Errol Spence and Terence Crawford were clearly the two best welterweights in the game, but for various reasons the match-up everyone wanted to see just couldn’t be made. And then, finally, on July 29th at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Terence Crawford gave fight fans a truly magnificent performance against his top divisional rival. The bout began as a highly competitive affair before Crawford landed a flush right hand to score a knockdown at the end of round two. From that moment on, it was clear Crawford was putting in a very special performance; the timing and accuracy on display were simply superb. “Terence Crawford’s a really good counter puncher, [but] this is on another level tonight,” noted commentator Al Bernstein. Another knockdown followed in round seven and in the ninth the one-sided beat-down was halted by the referee. Spence was undefeated, coming off an impressive win over Yordenis Ugas, and universally regarded as a fixture on the pound-for-pound rankings. With these facts in mind, the manner in which Crawford dominated him was extraordinary and is clearly the Performance of the Year.

Crawford vs Spence
Crawford’s performance was a thing of beauty.

Fight of the Year Nominations:
Jesse Rodriguez TKO9 Sunny Edwards
Rafael Espinoza MD12 Robeisy Ramirez
Joe Cordina SD12 Shavkatdzh Rakhimov
Jaime Munguia UD12 Sergiy Derevyanchenko
Luis Nery KO11 Azat Hovhannisyan
Christian M’billi UD12 Carlos Góngora
Leigh Wood TKO7 Josh Warrington
O’Shaquie Foster TKO12 Eduardo Hernandez
Devin Haney UD12 Vasyl Lomachenko

Winner: Rafael Espinoza MD12 Robeisy Ramirez
As you can see there were no shortage of candidates for 2023’s best fight, and deciding on a winner was not without its challenges. But in the end, the intense, back-and-forth action throughout, and the high drama of a final round, fight-deciding knockdown, make Rafael Espinoza’s upset decision victory over Robeisy Ramirez our choice for 2023’s Fight of the Year. The contest was an absorbing three part drama, with the early rounds belonging to the unheralded Espinoza as he fearlessly came forward and let his hands go, repeatedly beating Ramirez to the punch and putting him on the defensive. All were taken aback and wondering when Ramirez would assert himself and put the upstart challenger in his place. The answer to that question was round five, when Espinoza hit the canvas courtesy of a right hook from the Cuban and was fortunate to survive the round. The momentum had clearly shifted as now it was Ramirez seizing the initiative and out-working the plucky underdog, but, amazingly, Espinoza came back in rounds ten and eleven to set up a do-or-die final round. The drama reached a fever pitch when Espinoza got revenge for his fifth round fall, unleashing a non-stop two-fisted attack that sent Robeisy to the canvas and decided the outcome, Espinoza winning by majority decision. What a fight! We just have one question: when’s the rematch?

Fighter of the Year Nominations:
Naoya Inoue
Devin Haney
Terence Crawford
David Benavidez
Jesse Rodriguez

Winners: Terence Crawford & Naoya Inoue 
The Fight City has never had co-winners for Fighter of the Year, but there’s a first time for everything, and it is not an unprecedented event. Perhaps the most memorable such occurrence happened in 1981 when both Salvador Sanchez and Sugar Ray Leonard received Fighter of the Year honors from The Ring. The logic was hard to deny and few were arguing; both fighters had a strong case to be regarded as the best in the game at the time, and both had scored huge wins that year. Sanchez handed dominant super bantamweight champ Wilfredo Gomez his first pro loss, while Leonard, in one of the biggest fights of the decade, stopped Thomas Hearns in the 14th round to claim undisputed supremacy of the welterweight division.

The situation at the end of 2023 is strikingly similar. Both Terence Crawford and Naoya Inoue are near the very top of everyone’s pound-for-pound rankings, and both recorded highly significant victories. Like Leonard before him, Crawford secured the undisputed championship at 147 pounds by defeating a rival who also sported a world title belt and was regarded as one of the top fighters in the world, pound-for-pound. Meanwhile, Inoue moved up in weight yet again to add more belts to his collection of world championships, stopping undefeated Stephen Fulton by eighth round TKO. In both cases, the winning fighters were thought to be facing daunting challenges, and in both cases they executed their game plans with flawless precision to win with relative ease. And in both cases, the victories are truly historic. This is without a doubt the biggest win of Crawford’s career, while Inoue now boasts world titles in four different weight divisions.

weekend that was recap boxing
2023’s Fighters of the Year

Both fighters have their respective fan bases insisting that their idol deserves, exclusively, the Fighter of the Year laurel, but we fail to see much point in arguing against either champion. Instead, to us it makes more sense for fight fans to pause and truly appreciate how lucky we are to have two such exceptional athletes performing in our sport at the highest level. Naoya Inoue and Terence Crawford both scored breakthrough wins in 2023 that guarantee their names will be in the Hall of Fame, and can be mentioned alongside those of past all-time greats. And so both deserve to be hailed as 2023’s Fighters of the Year. Case closed.

Past TFC Fighters of the Year:
2022: Jesse Rodriguez
2021: Oleksandr Usyk
2020: Teofimo Lopez
2019: Naoya Inoue
2018: Oleksandr Usyk
2017: Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
2016: Joe Smith Jr.
2015: Roman Gonzalez
2014: Naoya Inoue

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