It was the best of years, it was the worst of years, it was a year of triumph it was a year of ignominy. Boxing these days evinces delight and despair in equal measure. What gives rise to this inevitable mixed crop has nothing to do with random chance and everything to do with the inherent nature of the sport. The lack of strong central authority to compel pugilists to face the best available opposition is, for the most part, lacking. This vacuum is also in evidence when drug cheats are belatedly and irregularly exposed. Even the rules of the game are at times so nebulous that determining the victor at the end of 12 rounds is a matter of controversy. It is therefore a matter of course that ducking, cheating and injustices remain part and parcel of the sport. And 2016 has presented plenty of examples of all these trends. Yet despite that there has not been a shortage of remarkable fights and laudable examples being set by many fighters. So let’s look at some highlights from the past year.
It's no secret that for a while now the centre of gravity in boxing has been shifting from West to East. America has not won an Olympic gold since Athens 2004 and the country with the richest roster of current champions is the UK. An equally conspicuous trend is the rise of the former soviet-union countries, who, combined, also have an impressive array of champions (6). At the vanguard of these conquering coldwar warriors are Gennady Golovkin, who though not quite yet a household name, has sold out Madison Square Garden on several occasions and has Air Jordan as his sponsor, and Sergey Kovalev, who, though having lost his title recently to Andre Ward, is still included among the best pound for pound fighters in the sport. These two are joined by the dazzlingly precocious Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk of Ukraine, who after outstanding amateur careers are already making waves in the professional ranks. Several of these fighters featured in my fights of the year, so let’s now take a look at the 3 bouts.
Gennady Golovkin vs. Kell Brook
This may at first seem a peculiar choice for a fight of the year candidate, since the announcement of the fight met with derision and disbelief. But thanks to indefatigable and sophistic marketing by Matchroom Boxing and Sky Sports, the contest came to be regarded as intriguing and compelling. It was something akin to the willful suspense of disbelief. Not every skeptic was convinced (myself included) but regardless of initial preconceptions, what threatened to be farce metamorphosed into a mini-epic.
Some have called it the Hagler Hearns of this generation, and whilst that is far from an impeccable analogy, the fight was absolutely electric. Both boxers were immediately on the offensive. Brook was hurt early on and held on grimly after Golovkin maneuvered him onto the ropes and let rip with alternating blows to head and body, culminating in left hook to the head. The writing looked to be on the wall.
But, whether it was lenience on the part of Golovkin or grit and resilience on the part of Brook, the latter came back later in the round with some solid clean work of his own, lifting the crowd. The 2nd round saw a completed reversal of fortunes, Brook was hitting Golovkin almost at will, at one point lifting him clean off his feet with a right uppercut. The crowd was in ecstasy and buoyed their man on.
Yet Golovkin did not buckle. Every overhand right, every cute counter left hook from Brook was met with a nod of the head and a beckoning hand. Though round 2 was a clear round to the Sheffield man the seeds of his own destruction were sewn in that round, when a jolting jab of Golovkin produced a sizeable swelling under his eye. Golovkin started round 3 with intimidating intensity, swarming Brook, walking through counters to land his power left hook.
It was clear at this point that Brook could not stop the forward momentum of his adversary and hadn’t the swiftness of foot to buy himself breathing room. He was scoring but absorbing damage in the process as the relentless Golovkin followed him like a shadow. There was no escape. And by the time the fifth round came Brook was visibly wilting and losing his balance. Golovkin overwhelmed him to the extent that his corner threw in the towel. The crowd was bemused and irate. They could not see what the corner could, which was that Brook was seriously injured. Dominic Ingle’s decision was vindicated beyond all doubt when analyses later confirmed that Brook had a suffered a broken eye socket.
Though the result was predictable to all but the most naïve of fans, the manner of its conclusion was not. For a limited time both men traded punches on an equal footing. It was thrilling. From an almost alchemic process, a mismatch was became a credible fight of the year candidate.
Glowacki vs Usyk
Towards the end of the year another amateur standout from the former soviet union produced one of the year’s best performances. Oleksandr Usyk agreed to challenge undefeated Cruiserweight champion Krsystof Glowacki in Gdansk Poland. His goal was to break the record set by a man synonymous with this weight division, Evander Holyfield, when he captured the cruiserweight title in his 12th fight as a professional against Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986. Taking on an undefeated champion in their home country in your 10th professional fight takes some chutzpah. Many thought that Usyk’s vaulting ambition would overreach itself.
What in fact transpired was a masterclass from beginning to end. Usyk with balletic grace, sense of distance and vigilant defence won nearly every round against a frustrated bemused champion. It was a virtuoso performance from the Olympic gold medalist and world amateur champion. His jab was ever present. He doubled it, tripled it, hooked of it. He maintained distance and yet when in range he never neglected to maintain his high guard or lean back to block or evade the attempted counter back hands from Glowacki. Even those which were aimed at the body he caught on his shrewdly tucked elbows.
A commentator has plenty to remark upon in watching this Ukrainian as there are so many intricacies to his game but one particular trick of his was scintillating. Sometimes as he came in closing the distance and his adversary crouched and put up his guard, he would sidestep to his left, around the static figure of his opponent and throw a right hook to the head. The Pole did eventually learn to cope with this but not without taking some hard clean blows in the process.
The Ukrainian sustained this intelligent aggression and Glowacki was outgunned and outthought. The final two rounds provided some heightened drama when Usyk landed a five punch combination to the head of champion, making it ricochet like a speedball. But Glowacki has a well earned reputation for toughness. And in the final round, with the Usyk up on all score cards Glowacki appeared to have scored a knock down, though it was ruled a slip. Whatever it was that caused Usyk to touch the canvas was academic, as both men continued to fight hard to the final bell, with Usyk taking the victory by unanimous decision. Usyk looked like he could have gone 15 rounds. This was a memorable performance, and we will no doubt be hearing plenty more from this Ukrainian.
Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward
And in the final bout featuring a former soviet fighter, Sergey Kovalev v Andre Ward produced one of the major talking points of 2016. On paper the match up offered an enthralling prospect. It could not have been framed more perfectly to provide the catharsis that boxing needed after the mayweather pacquiao fiasco. These were two undefeated fighters, who’d risen to prominence the hard way and who were willing to face each other at the peak of their powers. In some ways it was a fight for the soul of boxing, a fight to prove whether America could resist the rise of former soviet nations. West vs East, old school slick American boxing vs robust technical power of the soviet mold.
The fight started promisingly. Kovalev was on the front foot , stalking Ward, landing his jab and at one point wobbling him in an exchange of jabs which demonstrated emphatically where the superior power lay.
In the 2nd round Kovalev continued to find the target and again, in the midst of an exchange outwitted and outpowered the Californian landing a right hand to the cheek as Ward was attempting a counter right hand of his own. Ward visited the canvas for only the second time in his career. It looked like the end was approaching. Kovalev moved in landing a one two, forcing Ward onto the ropes, and even as he tried to escape to the sides, the Russian was able to hit him while he himself was moving. It is one of the attributes of his unorthodox style that he can generate power seemingly without setting his feet.
It looked like the fight would not go the distance. Yet Ward regrouped and seemed to have neutralized the Russian in the 3rd round. For whatever reason, Kovalev was not able to repeat what he had done to the former gold medalist in the first couple of rounds. Ward had learned to stay out of range and out of the path of the Russian’s right hand. He was circling away from the potent right and making him reach with the jab. Not much was coming by way of counter from the American, bar the very occasional counter jab which snapped Kovalev's head back, though it did not appear to cause him too much discomfort. Ward was managing to get inside Kovalev’s jab but as he attempted to go to work with his customary up close mauling, he was getting tied up and himself neutralized.
Neither man was really able to do much significant to the other one and rounds were becoming difficult to score. When the scores were added up at the end, victory was given to Ward by the narrowest of margins on all 3 cards. 114-113 and a new light heavy weight champion was crowned. The crowd and ringside journalists were equally unanimous, only in the opposite verdict.
Since then the result has been debated ad infinitum. Opinions widely vary and most believe that Kovalev won. Sometimes these opinions do appear to be impressionistic and fail to take into account the nature of the round by round scoring system. According to some, the fighter who scored a knock down whilst not at any point in the fight getting hurt himself should be awarded victory. Furthermore that old maxim about having to take a belt from the champion may seem morally compelling, but again, it has no place when it comes to scoring.
That said, Ward did very little and Kovalev himself wasn’t able to do what he usually does to other fighters and what he did to Ward in the opening rounds. What in fact happened was that both fighters neutralized one another. Ward fought a negative fight but by the same token his elusiveness showed up some gaps in Kovalev’s offence. I personally scored it for Kovalev but neither man won it outright. This is why the rematch must happen.
The fight did not live up to the billing, but the very fact it took place when it did was a triumph in itself. That may sound like a cop out but in an era where champions assiduously avoid facing their closest competition and cherry pick their way to titles, it is refreshing that two men of honour were willing to put their reputations on the line. Boxing needed that and no suspect decision should detract from that.