Glimmers Of Excellence: Boxing Rebounds In 2022

2022 was an interesting year for boxing. While it appeared that the fight game recovered somewhat from the COVID-induced downturn of 2020 and 2021, it’s also clear that the long-term decline of the sport as a whole continues unabated, as amateur systems see fewer young fighters, and the competitors at the highest levels compete with decreasing frequency. Despite the encroaching malaise, there were of course some bright spots, glimmers of excellence amidst the gloom, and now is the time to look back to where boxing shined its brightest as we offer our year-end awards for 2022.

Upset of the Year Nominations:
Mark Magsayo MD12 Gary Russell Jr
Dmitry Bivol UD12 Canelo Alvarez
Hector Garcia UD12 Chris Colbert
Jai Opetaia UD12 Mairis Briedis
Luis Lopez SD12 Josh Warrington

Winner: Jai Opetaia

Mairis Briedis was the cruiserweight champion of the world, having defeated many top names at the weight over the past few years, including Yuniel Dorticos, Krzysztof Glowacki, and Marco Huck, and having given current heavyweight titleholder and pound-for-pound contender Oleksandr Usyk his toughest fight. So it was a surprise to many, but especially to Briedis, when a routine defense against Australian fringe contender Jai Opetaia turned Briedis into an ex-champion.

Opetaia had cleaned out the Australian cruiserweight ranks, but had never stepped up beyond the domestic level. Despite his lack of world-class experience, the Sydney native demonstrated confidence as he outboxed the champ from the start, banking early rounds with good movement, a sharp right jab, and a sneaky left cross. Briedis remained competitive, but was unable to break through with any sort of significant offense until late in the 10th. In the eleventh, Briedis was able to break the challenger’s jaw, and Opetaia was forced to survive the final two rounds. But the Aussie did more than merely survive, he banked enough rounds to earn a unanimous decision, and capture the IBF and Ring cruiserweight titles, shaking up the division, and our Upset of the Year for 2022.

Knockout of the Year Nominations:
Christian Mbilli KO5 Nadjib Mohammedi
Leigh Wood KO12 Michael Conlan
Caleb Plant KO9 Anthony Dirrell
Joe Cordina KO2 Kenichi Ogawa
Luis Ortiz TKO6 Charles Martin

Winner: Caleb Plant 

Caleb Plant was in Brooklyn in October, facing his first opponent since being stopped by Canelo Alvarez nearly a year earlier. For eight rounds, he was marginally outworking Anthony Dirrell, but not overwhelming anyone with his performance. Then late in the ninth, Plant lunged forward with a left hook to the body, and then followed up with a hellacious left to the jaw as Dirrell dropped his right arm. Dirrell’s knees immediately buckled, and he collapsed to the canvas, completely insensate and referee Harvey Dock waived the bout off without delay. The visceral impact of Plant’s knockout blow was then punctuated by his rather unsportsmanlike “gravedigger” pantomime as Dirrell sprawled on the canvas. This drew an immediate rebuke from Dock, as well as a decent amount of online criticism, but the impact – literal and figurative – was undiminished by the antics.

The criteria for KO of the year is inherently subjective, and people have different opinions as to what matters most. For some, the best knockout of the year should be delivered by a highly-ranked fighter, preferably against another highly ranked fighter. For others, overcoming long odds, or engaging in a bout of major significance adds to the value of the knockout. We agree that all of these criteria matter. But in the end, what we love most is a violent, sudden conclusion. A good knockout from a good fighter in an important bout is the starting point. But what separates the great knockout from the good, is that visceral, explosive element that creates the most satisfying finishing blows.

With that in mind, we at The Fight City appreciate the knockout that punctuated the fantastic bout between Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan, and were impressed with the abruptness of Christian Mbilil’s counter left hook to fell Nadjib Mohammedi. Joe Cordina’s right cross obliterated Kenichi Ogawa in impressive fashion, and Luis Ortiz scored a sloppy, but entertaining knockout over Charles Martin. But for our money, Caleb Plant’s brutal and immediate sledgehammer left hand provided everything one could want in a Knockout of the Year.

Performance of the Year Nominations:
Dmitry Bivol UD12 Canelo Alvarez
Oleksandr Usyk SD12 Anthony Joshua
Shakur Stevenson W12 Oscar Valdez
Leigh Wood KO12 Michael Conlan
Jesse Rodriguez TKO8 Srisaket Sor Rungvisai

Winner: Shakur Stevenson UD12 Oscar Valdez 

Oscar Valdez was a skilled and accomplished two division world champion, then holding the WBC super featherweight title, and had recently scored a spectacular upset knockout over Miguel Berchelt, and had also claimed several other solid scalps. He had pulled himself off the canvas to win multiple bouts, showing grit and perseverance.

So it was truly impressive to see Shakur Stevenson utterly dominate Valdez en route to unifying two super featherweight belts on April 30. Over the course of twelve one-sided rounds, Stevenson consistently kept Valdez on the wrong end of his lightning quick southpaw jab. As the bout wore on, Stevenson was able to time Valdez and land rapid-fire combinations that the shorter man had no answer for. Valdez simply could never find the punch he needed to get back into the contest as Stevenson was just too quick, too long, and too adept at nullifying Valdez’s attempted pressure.

The judges’ scorecards reflected the lopsided nature of the contest, with Stevenson winning by seven rounds on one card, and by nine on the others. To top off what was already an excellent evening for Stevenson, he interrupted the post-fight interview to drop to one knee and propose to his girlfriend. Shakur Stevenson’s textbook boxing lesson against a formidable titleholder is enough to earn him our selection for Performance of the Year. And it doesn’t hurt that she said yes.

Fight of the Year Nominations:
Leigh Wood KO12 Michael Conlan
Katie Taylor SD10 Amanda Serrano
Sebastian Fundora TKO8 Erickson Lubin
Jermell Charlo TKO10 Brian Castano
Sivenathi Nontshinga UD12 Hector Flores

Winner: Leigh Wood KO12 Michael Conlan 

Wood vs Conlan

Fights-of-the-year usually require high stakes, competitive performances, energetic crowds, and exciting action. Oh, and comeback knockouts help, too. On March 12, WBA featherweight champion Leigh Wood successfully defended his title in arguably the most exciting possible fashion. Then-undefeated Irishman Michael Conlan had parlayed an impressive amateur career into a quick rise to featherweight title contention and Conlan began the fight demonstrating that his vast potential was something tangible, as he opened with a hard knockdown at the end of the first round. From then, he proceeded to set a mean pace, landing his quick left with ease, generally bossing the champ in the early going.

But Leigh Wood had previously displayed his mettle when he won the title with a late stoppage of Can Xu eight months prior, and he would not allow his hard-won belt to be captured so easily. He gritted his teeth and managed to fire back, setting off blistering two-way exchanges that tested the heart of the challenger. But even as Wood was able to keep the fight competitive, there was little doubt that Conlan’s faster hands and solid skills were bringing him closer and closer to a championship.

Late in the 11th, during sustained back-and-forth action, the champion dug deep into the reservoir, and clubbed the younger man to the canvas. Conlan survived the round, but it appeared that the tide had turned. He had given Leigh Wood everything he had, and it was almost enough. And then, midway through the 12th, “almost” became the key phrase, as Wood summoned everything he had left, battering his exhausted foe through the ropes and out of the ring to end it, the referee awarding a well-deserved, come-from-behind victory to the defending champion in a thrilling war.

Fighter of the Year Nominations:
Dmitry Bivol
Kenshiro Teraji
Jesse Rodriguez
Naoya Inoue
Oleksandr Usyk
Devin Haney

Winner: Jesse Rodriguez 

In an era where elite boxers rarely step into the ring more than twice a year, it’s genuinely impressive to see a world-class fighter take on three opponents, particularly three legitimate contenders, two of them former world champions. Starting in February, the man known as “Bam” jumped up two weight classes with just a week’s notice to face former super flyweight champion Carlos Cuadras for the vacant belt. Rodriguez dropped him and won a clear decision, completely shrugging off the late notice and weight change. Four months later, the new champ outclassed and stopped another former champion; Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Finally, in September, Jesse outpointed a very tough and game Israel Gonzalez to notch the second defense of his belt.

With both quality and quantity, Jesse Rodriguez accomplishments in 2022 earn him our nod for Fighter of the Year. Moving up in weight, capturing a world title, defeating three world-class opponents, and finding himself the recipient of pound-for-pound discussions all add up to a year worth praising. And we got a feeling “Bam” is just getting started.

–Hunter Breckenridge 

Become a patron at Patreon!