A Salute To 2021: Our (Belated) Year-End Awards

Due to circumstances beyond our control — including factors related to the ongoing pandemic and various difficulties, both personal and professional — we have strayed from our customary practice and are now woefully late to bestow our year end awards. We apologize to our faithful readers. But better late than never, right?

And so, to compensate to some small degree, we feature here our official selections with a fervent determination to emphasize the positive, to offer up the most enthusiastic approval, our honors reserved for those accomplishments and those fighters to which we can extend the most sincere of celebrations. No half-hearted plaudits, no shoulder-shrugging compromises. The awards here belong to those whose endeavours in the past year cannot be hounded by any doubts, reservations, or the clinging bad odour of past disgrace.

Usyk: enthusiastic approval.

As a result, our final selections diverge slightly from the orthodox thinking on the year just ended. But what could be more boring or pointless than to follow the crowd? And also, note the title: it is not “The Year In Review” or “Looking Back On 2021.” It is a salute we make here, or a series of them, earnest plaudits of congratulation for the very highest accomplishments in professional prizefighting in 2021. Accompanied by some pointed comments, required as they are, to bolster our (at least, to some) unorthodox judgments. So without further ado, our awards:

Upset Of The Year Nominations:
Kiko Martinez KO6 Kid Galahad
Mauricio Lara TKO9 Josh Warrington
Sandor Martin W10 Mikey Garcia
George Kambosos W12 Teofimo Lopez
Leigh Wood TKO 12 Xu Can

Winner: George Kambosos 

Kambosos shocks Teofimo.

In terms of betting odds, there may be bigger upsets here than “Ferocious” Kambosos’ decision victory over “The Takeover,” but no other unexpected victory has had greater impact. With his convincing win over Vasiliy Lomachenko last year, Teofimo Lopez, our Fighter Of The Year for 2020, was already ranked on many pound-for-pound lists and poised to become a new star of the sport. His mandatory title defense against the unheralded Australian was viewed by most as an annoying stepping-stone to bigger and better things, one made even more annoying by messy and protracted contractual negotiations. What a shock then to see Kambosos rise to the occasion and prove he belongs at the top of a stacked lightweight division. His convincing win threw everyone’s expectations into disarray, creating new possibilities for future match-ups, while forcing all to re-think their rankings at 135 pounds.

Knockout Of The Year Nominations: 
Tyson Fury KO11 Deontay Wilder III
Kiko Martinez KO6 Kid Galahad
Oscar Valdez KO10 Miguel Berchelt
Conor Benn KO4 Chris Algieri
Ryan Garcia TKO7 Luke Campbell

Winner: Kiko Martinez 

Kiko puts the Kid to sleep.

Again, we seek to celebrate excellence here with no compromises, thus what may seem like the obvious choice here cannot be our choice. Oscar Valdez’s frightening, one-shot demolition of the battle-tested Miguel Berchelt has been acclaimed by many as the KO of 2021, but how do we square this with the fact Valdez has since failed a test for performance enhancing drugs? Tyson Fury’s knockout of Deontay Wilder, clearly the most consequential stoppage win in the division since Anthony Joshua bested Wladimir Klitschko, might be the second choice, but Fury already owns a TKO win over Wilder, and “The Gypsy King” too has once found himself on the wrong side of a drug test. No, it just feels right to bestow our Knockout Of The Year award on the unheralded Kiko Martinez, who resurrected his seemingly moribund career by blasting one Abdul Bari Awad, aka Kid Galahad, with a perfectly-timed right hand clout to the chops. Say what you will about Awad, the man had never been stopped and earlier in the year had annexed a world title, while Martinez had not won a major fight since 2014. A single devastating punch has radically changed the fortunes of both men and we are more than satisfied to salute it as the blow that authored the biggest knockout of 2021.

Round Of The Year Nominations:
Tyson Fury KO11 Deontay Wilder (Round 4)
Oleksandr Usyk vs Anthony Joshua (Round 12)
Juan Francisco Estrada W12 Roman Gonzalez (Round 12)
Kiko Martinez TKO6 Kid Galahad (Round 5)
Gervonta Davis TKO11 Mario Barrios (Round 8)
Stephen Fulton W12 Brandon Figueroa (Round 10)
George Kambosos vs Teofimo Lopez (Round 1)

Winner: Estrada vs Gonzalez, Round 12 

Estrada vs Gonzalez
At long last, El Gallo and Chocolatito go to war again.

In truth, there are several rounds in this absolute scorcher between two Hall of Fame champions for which one could state a case, but part of what makes Estrada vs Gonzalez II such a special fight is how its final round provided a stirring climax to an intensifying, back-and-forth crescendo, two great champions battling toe-to-toe, throwing and catching huge shots, as the crowd stood and cheered. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Performance Of The Year Nominations:
Terence Crawford TKO10 Shawn Porter
Roman Gonzalez L12 Juan Francisco Estrada
Juan Francisco Estrada W12 Roman Gonzalez
George Kambosos W12 Teofimo Lopez
Oleksandr Usyk W12 Anthony Joshua
Nonito Donaire KO4 Nordine Oubaali
Oscar Valdez KO10 Miguel Berchelt
Shakur Stevenson TKO10 Jamel Herring

Winner: Oleksandr Usyk  

Usyk vs Joshua

All of our nominees impressed in various ways, but against Anthony Joshua, Usyk checks all the boxes: heart, guts, skill, tactics, defense, intelligence and fortitude. Despite a significant size and weight disadvantage, “The Cat” out-boxed and out-fought his opponent, winning in a manner foreseen by precious few. What most regarded as Joshua’s fight to lose proved instead to be an extraordinary exhibition from one of the finest boxers in the world, pound-for-pound, as Usyk neutralized Joshua’s offense and controlled the proceedings, almost from start to finish. In the end, it wasn’t even close.

Fight Of The Year Nominees:
Tyson Fury KO11 Deontay Wilder
Juan Francisco Estrada W12 Roman Gonzalez
Stephen Fulton W12 Brandon Figueroa
George Kambosos W12 Teofimo Lopez
Josh Taylor W12 Jose Ramirez

Winner: Juan Francisco Estrada W12 Roman Gonzalez

Estrada vs Gonzalez

Again, we want to salute the very best of 2021, and when it comes to the Fight Of The Year, the overdue “El Gallo” vs “Chocolatito” rematch is the obvious choice. Or so we think. Admittedly, the vast majority of pundits and publications have hailed the third meeting of Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury as the no-brainer pick for this accolade, but we beg to differ. For us, Estrada vs Gonzalez is, clearly, the more competitive and exciting battle, the long-awaited rematch an intense and crisply fought affair from start to finish, with several rounds contested so fiercely that one can make a case for either warrior.

Fury vs Wilder
Wilder vs Fury III: Anticlimactic?

Indeed, despite those who view the outcome as an injustice and claim the match should have been a clear-cut win for “Chocolatito,” to our eyes this was a nail-biter, an edge-of-your seat, roller coaster of a fight, in doubt right up to the scorecards being read. While action and fireworks are of course essential, drama and suspense are necessary as well, and, by contrast, Deontay Wilder was clearly a fading fighter long before the sudden end in round eleven. Indeed, Deontay looked so ragged that the ringside doctor felt compelled to visit him more than once, while he failed to secure a majority vote from the judges for any of the of the last six rounds of the bout. And we won’t get into how there were stretches of Fury vs Wilder when clinches were far more numerous than clean punches.

Estrada and Gonzalez: competitive in any era.

Finally, there is the factor of class, as in the pedigree, skill and relative standing of the pugilists involved. Say what you like about the merits of Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder as boxers, it is the conviction in this corner that both Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada are, by comparison, in a different league when it comes to both skill and level of competition. Fury and Wilder will likely find themselves in the Hall of Fame one day, but be that as it may, even devoted fans of “The Gypsy King” and “The Bronze Bomber” would have to admit that neither has been as severely tested as Estrada and Gonzalez, who are, without a trace of hyperbole, extraordinary pugilists, latter-day greats, boxers who could hold their own with the best of any era in their weight class.

And so Estrada vs Gonzalez II has to be The Fight Of The Year, for the privilege of seeing two such maestros bring out the best in each other for twelve action-packed rounds. Not convinced? Watch any round of Estrada vs Gonzalez and immediately switch over to one of the more sedate rounds of Fury vs Wilder, and we’re pretty sure you’ll see the merit of our argument in crystal clear terms.

Fighter Of The Year Nominees:
Josh Taylor
Stephen Fulton Jr.
Oleksandr Usyk
Canelo Alvarez
Nonito Donaire

Winner: Oleksandr Usyk 

Ever been at a concert and found yourself drawn into giving the performers a standing ovation, when in fact you had been counting the minutes until you could head for the exit? It’s an uncomfortable situation: how can you stay seated when everyone else is standing up and clapping and cheering like they just witnessed the greatest show since Barnum and Bailey?

Well, think of The Fight City as that surly-looking fellow who refuses to get on his feet while all around him are on theirs. Because we cannot, and we will not, follow suit with most everyone else and declare Saul “Canelo” Alvarez 2021’s Fighter of the Year. Yes, we acknowledge we are going out on a lonely limb here, but, to repeat ourselves, we seek to enthusiastically salute and celebrate great achievements, not applaud half-heartedly while nudging the person next to us to start moving to the aisle.

So we won’t spend too much time detailing why we feel Canelo is something less than deserving. After all, our own Ralph Semien does a bang-up job right here of expressing our overall sentiments regarding the illustrious, if highly calculating, belt-collector who has recently demonstrated some highly entertaining trash-talking talent. And besides, we believe our highly astute readers are able to guess that said sentiments have something to do with a positive test for clebuterol in 2018, and a conspicuous reluctance to fight this guy you might remember, kicked Canelo’s ass at least once, goes by the name of Gennady Golovkin.

Canelo vs Saunders
Canelo humbles Saunders: no threat.

Look, we admire Canelo’s skill and talent, but when it comes to Fighter Of The Year for 2021, it has to be quality over quantity. And say what you want, but absolutely no one with any insight into the brutal sport of pugilism, and we mean no one, regarded Billy Joe Saunders, or Avni Yildirim, or Caleb Plant, as any kind of serious threat to the red-headed Mexican. Hell, our money would probably be on Canelo if he fought all three on the same night.

Meanwhile, Anthony Joshua remains a truly formidable fighter. Yes, he suffered an unexpected setback against Andy Ruiz Jr., but the fact remains he’s beaten more quality heavyweight contenders than any other active fighter and, prior to battling Usyk, would have been the betting favourite against anyone in the division besides Tyson Fury. The bookies had much respect for Usyk’s skills, but that didn’t deter them from establishing Joshua as a solid 2-to-1 favourite, with 3-to-1 odds not that hard to find. Prior to the match, no one questioned that Joshua was second only to Fury among the big men, and the vast majority of pundits believed Usyk was biting off more than he could chew in just his third heavyweight outing. How wrong they were. Instead, “The Cat” turned in the performance of the year against a dangerous opponent, securing for himself his second divisional world title belt and perhaps the single best win in the sport for 2021.

A Hall of Fame victory.

Look at it this way: Oleksandr Usyk, like Canelo, is on track to potentially establish himself as an all-time great. And should he do so, his comprehensive victory over Anthony Joshua will constitute a cornerstone in any monument to his legacy, a red-letter entry in his Hall of Fame credentials. But try as you might, it is impossible to say the same for Canelo’s beat-downs of Saunders, Yildirim and Plant. The bottom line is this: legit triumphs like Usyk’s victory over Anthony Joshua don’t happen very often in 21st century boxing. So it makes perfect sense, at least to us, that it only takes one to make you Fighter Of The Year.         — Neil Crane