Although boxing in 2014 may have lacked the firepower of previous years, there were certainly many worthy performances. My awards for this year lean internationally (2014 was a relatively weak campaign on the American boxing scene). This year, I've handed out hardware to fighters and entities from Japan, Argentina, Ireland, the U.K. and the U.S. So let's commence with the celebratory aspects of the year that just passed. Without further ado, here are the 2014 Saturday Night Boxing Awards:
Fighter of the Year: Naoya Inoue
Fighter of the Year: Naoya Inoue
One of the most rewarding aspects of following boxing is how the sport never fails to introduce new stars, often ones whose rapid ascension is unanticipated. A year ago, Naoya Inoue was a 20-year-old hotshot junior flyweight prospect from Japan who had only participated in five professional fights. Yes, much was expected from him but very few could have predicted the success or impact that he had on boxing this year.
Inoue started off his 2014 campaign by defeating the top junior flyweight in the division, Mexico's Adrian Hernandez, stopping him in the sixth round. After a marking-time defense against Thailand's Samartlek Kokietgym (scoring two knockdowns before getting an 11th-round stoppage), Inoue stunned the boxing community by moving up two divisions to take on the number-one junior bantamweight in the world, Argentina's Omar Narvaez. Inoue made quick work of Narvaez, dropping him four times in two rounds, earning a second-round KO victory. It was a marvelous display of virtuosity.
Although there were a number of other fighters who had impressive years in 2014, Inoue wins Fighter of the Year based on the quality of his opponents and his dominance in those outings.
Previous SNB Fighters of the Year:
2013: Adonis Stevenson
2012: Nonito Donaire
2011: Andre Ward
Fight of the Year: Coyle-Brizuela
Before I wax on about this crazy affair, maybe it's best that you refamiliarize yourself with it. The link is below:
Tommy Coyle entered 2014 as a middling British lightweight prospect who had lost to gatekeepers Derry Matthews and Gary Sykes (that fight was part of the Prizefighter series and only consisted of three rounds). Argentina's Daniel Brizuela had amassed a number of wins in his home country but had lost his only prior fight abroad. His record indicated a lack of power (only 8 knockouts in 27 fights). The bout took place in Coyle's hometown of Hull.
This fight was riveting: eight knockdowns, three point deductions and a half-dozen or so serious swings in momentum. Prior to the 11th round, Sky Sports' Nick Halling said, "Is there one more big twist in this one?" Of course, there were still four more knockdowns to follow.
The early rounds, while engrossing, were nothing out-of-the-ordinary. Brizuela landed a right hand after a double jab in the second that dropped Coyle, who wasn't necessarily hurt by the shot. In the early portions of the fight, Brizuela used upper body movement and shoulder feints to land a variety of shots to the head and body. He was very cagey. Coyle struggled to put punches together but he did land some hard single right hands. Overall, the opening frames were close.
In the sixth round, Brizuela connected with a pulverizing left hook to the body that sent Coyle to the canvas. Coyle was in obvious pain but he somehow made it to his feet. Still reeling from the shot, he parked himself on the ropes and ate tons of leather, throwing the random left hook so that ref Steve Gray wouldn't feel inclined to stop the fight. Seconds later, Brizuela returned to the body with a left hook and Coyle met the canvas for the second time in the round. Again, Coyle beat the count, which seemed to demoralize Brizuela, who may have temporarily punched himself out going for the KO. Despite being knocked down twice in the round, Coyle seized momentum. He rallied to close out the round and had a solid seventh.
In the eighth, Coyle landed a huge right hand that staggered Brizuela and was able to score his first knockdown with some follow up shots. Aggressively going after Brizuela after the knockdown, Coyle strayed low and was deducted a point (he had been warned previously), which gave Brizuela time to survive. In the ninth, Brizuela fought with more energy. Gray took a B.S. point from him for a low blow but he followed up after the point deduction with a savage attack to Coyle's body.
Entering the 11th, the fight was still on the table. As riveting as the match had been, the fight was about to enter truly special territory. Brizuela landed yet another hard body shot that sent Coyle down. However, after rising, Coyle immediately returned the favor, dropping Brizuela with the first shot that he threw, a bracing right hand. Brizuela was hurt badly by the punch and was soon sent down again from another right hand. As Brizuela attempted to survive, Gray deducted a second point from Coyle for hitting on the break (another B.S. point deduction) and the bell sounded. It was absolutely wild action.
As the fighters made their way out for the 12th, the crowd stood and cheered; they knew that they were witnessing an absolutely epic battle. Shortly into the final round, Coyle landed yet another huge right hand and Brizuela hit the canvas. He pounded the ground and rose by the count of six. Gray took a long look at Brizuela's eyes and stopped the contest, giving Coyle a TKO win.
Having rewatched the ending of the fight, I'll give Gray the benefit of the doubt on the stoppage. Although Brizuela was aware of his surroundings, he seemed to have a blank look in his eyes; the referee was well within his right to end the contest at that point. Even though the fight's conclusion had some mild controversy, very few will remember the details of the stoppage. But what won't be forgotten will be their brutal, relentless war, where both fighters exhibited the guts and courage that exemplify the best aspects of the sport.
Previous SNB Fights of the Year:
2012: Pacquiao-Marquez IV
Knockout of the Year: Andy Lee KO 5 John Jackson
After suffering a knockout loss to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in 2012, Andy Lee, with new trainer Adam Booth, patiently worked his way back to more significant fights. His next four opponents were pedestrian. He beat them all but his performances weren't particularly sharp. However, given a chance to appear on an HBO pay per view undercard, Lee made the curious decision to drop down to 154 lbs. to face John Jackson, a hard puncher from the U.S. Virgin Islands who was also the son of legendary heavy-hitter Julian Jackson.
Jackson got off to a great start in the fight by scoring a knockdown in the first round. He caught Lee with a huge right hook from the southpaw stance – Jackson switched up throughout the fight but is naturally an orthodox fighter. The early rounds of the match mostly favored Jackson, who landed the cleaner, harder punches. However, Lee used the fight's early frames to measure his opponent and set traps. He noticed that Jackson liked to lunge in with his right hand, which made him vulnerable to counter shots. Lee saw that opportunity and looked to counter Jackson's tendency with his right hook. Throughout the first rounds of the fight, he tried to draw the right hand from Jackson so that he could counter with the hook.
In the fifth, Lee's strategy hit pay dirt. Forward the clip below to 19:15 to start the final exchange.
After landing a right hand, Jackson trapped Lee along the ropes. Lee was able to neutralize the follow up shots and punched his way out. However, Jackson was in hot pursuit. Jackson loaded up with a big right hand but Lee got there first with a right hook. Down Jackson went. And he stayed down. And he stayed down. And he stayed down.
Although Jackson may have gotten the better of Lee on the scorecards prior to the fifth, the fight played out exactly how Lee had hoped. His final right hook was set up throughout the earlier portions of the fight and it was a sensational knockout. He would go on to use that punch to win a middleweight title later on in the year.
Previous SNB Knockouts of the Year:
2013: Stephen Smith KO 5 Gary Buckland
2012: Juan Manuel Marquez KO 6 Manny Pacquiao
2011: Takashi Uchiyama TKO 11 Jorge Solis
Round of the Year: Thomas Williams Jr. - Cornelius White Round 1
Now this one was a shootout. Take a look:
The action went as follows: knockdown by Williams, knockdown by White, knockdown by Williams and then Williams jumping on White, forcing the ref to stop the fight. Instead of going on and on about this scintillating round, I'd rather have you hear it from Williams directly. I interviewed him for this article and his words about the fight are below:
"I was expecting for it to be a tough fight. All the people who had stopped him, like Donovan George and Sergey Kovalev, were big punchers. He had beaten the guy who Adonis Stevenson just fought, Dmitry Sukhotsky, for an IBF international belt. So I was expecting a tough fight. We worked hard for that fight.
"I hit him with the [first] left hand and he went down. I said to myself, 'Man, I can step to this guy.' But I went in overanxiously...and he used his veteran experience, stepped back, let me walk to him and he threw a punch; actually, he caught me between punches. The punch wasn't really something that hurt me. It caught me more off guard than anything. When he hit me I said, 'Aw man, I'm down,' and that changed my whole outlook on the fight. Now I'm walking to this guy and getting him out of here.
"We have this technique in the gym where we fight three-minute rounds and then for 30 seconds I will stand up and do windmills. And when the 30 seconds are over, I get back to fighting. When you're doing windmills things are going to be off. Things are shifting. My balance isn't good. And I really think that played a part [in the White fight] because when I got up, it was nothing like the windmill, which was way worse than that [the knockdown]. When I got up, I was still pretty good; but the windmill was tough.
"If you look [after getting up from the knockdown], I threw a short hook before the left hand. I actually got that from Rico Ramos. Ramos fought the night before. I saw the fight and Ramos, who is a southpaw like me, caught him with a right hook. And my trainer told me all you have to do is catch him with the left hand and it clicked in my mind – throw the left hand behind the hook. I actually was just going to throw the hook. And he walked right in to it. It bothered him. He got the stinky-leg.
"When I hit him with that, he was still coming forward. I had just gotten dropped before that, so I didn't know how hurt my legs were. I was just stepping back, stepping back, stepping back. I threw the hook like he did it to me when he put me down."
"It's so crazy. People won't believe this. My trainer kept saying hit him on the side of the head or on his temple. He said if you hit him on the temple, it's going to throw everything off... And when I threw it, and after the fight ended, I told my coach, 'You were right.'
"I was trying to end it. It was kill or be killed. Once he put me down for the first time, in front of my mom and my fiancé...it was kill or be killed. I know that they were hysterical. They told me after the fight that they were jumping up and down. I think my mom was jumping up in the stands after I went down and fell. That was the first time they had seen something like that.
"I didn't think it would be over so fast. When we got back to the dressing room after the fight, I had my team in there. They were jumping up and down and so happy. I was sitting down on the chair saying, like, 'Man, it's over so quick.' It seemed like an out-of body experience. I walked out for the fight and by the time I could really think about it I was back in the dressing room.
"After the fight, we went to Longhorn. And they had ESPN's top-10 plays on and I made number-six. That's the night that Carmelo [Anthony] had 51 points for New York. Carmelo was number-one. And I'm in the restaurant and people are seeing me and they're coming up to me asking for autographs. That was something I had never felt before. I was walking through the airport and people were recognizing me. That was just a different type of feeling for me."
Previous SNB Rounds of the Year:
2013: Tim Bradley-Ruslan Provodnikov Round 12
2012: Sergio Martinez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Round 12
2011: Hernan Marquez-Luis Concepcion I Round 1
Upset of the Year: (tie) James De la Rosa UD Alfredo Angulo and Tommy Karpency SD Chad Dawson
The winners of these bouts were "opponents" and certainly weren't supposed to be victorious. Alfredo Angulo had looked utterly lifeless in his previous fight against Saul Alvarez and Chad Dawson was working his way back from his knockout loss to Adonis Stevenson. They both were trying to get back to the upper reaches of the sport. De la Rosa had two losses to fringe prospects (Marcus Willis and Allen Conyers) and Karpency had a recent knockout loss to Andrzej Fonfara and a shutout defeat against Nathan Cleverly.
Nevertheless, both underdogs took it to their opponents in the early rounds, besting them with punch volume and perhaps most importantly, effort. De La Rosa even scored a knockdown in the second round. Dawson didn't open the fight with enough urgency and Angulo appeared as if he was stuck in quicksand. Eventually, Dawson forged a late rally in the second half while Angulo had his own moments towards the end of the fight; however, both fell short.
Shockingly, but more importantly, justly, Karpency won a decision in Dawson's backyard of Connecticut. And although Angulo-De La Rosa was never really that close, boxing fans certainly have seen worse robberies than Angulo getting the decision. However, on these two evenings, boxing judges reminded those in the sport that some practitioners are more than capable of rendering fair verdicts, even against heavily-favored fighters.
Previous SNB Upset of the Year:
2013: Jhonny Gonzalez KO 1 Abner Mares
2012: Sonny Boy Jaro TKO 6 Pongsaklek Wonjongkam
Trainer of the Year: Freddie Roach
After a down year in 2012 and a middling campaign in 2013, Freddie Roach came roaring back in 2014. Manny Pacquiao reestablished his dominance by defeating Tim Bradley in a rematch of a prior dubious loss and dropping Chris Algieri six times to win a wide decision. On another pivotal front, Miguel Cotto scored three first-round knockouts and battered Sergio Martinez throughout their fight to earn a stoppage victory. Roach's only significant blemish of the season was a disputed split decision loss by Ruslan Provodnikov against Algieri. For the record, I had Provodnikov winning that fight comfortably.
And it wasn't just that Roach was victorious in his biggest matches of the year; he was instrumental in his fighters' success. His plan for Cotto was immediately to attack Martinez, who was coming off of knee and hand surgery in addition to a lengthy period of inactivity. Roach didn't want Martinez to gradually warm up and get comfortable in the fight. The idea was for Cotto to force Martinez into duress from the opening bell, testing Martinez's recovery from his injuries. By the end of the first round, Martinez was limping around on one leg; Cotto executed Roach's plan flawlessly.
In the Bradley rematch, Roach impressed upon Pacquiao to stay aggressive. Noticing that Bradley was loading up on big shots, he wanted Pacquiao to outwork Bradley in the second half. Pacquiao's high activity level in the final rounds of the fight was the key to his victory. Altogether, 2014 was a fantastic campaign for Roach as he helped two fighters regain their elite statuses in the ring.
Previous SNB Trainers of the Year:
2013: Kenny Porter
2012: Robert McCracken
2011: Robert Garcia
Promoter of the Year: Matchroom Sport
Well, someone had to win this award. As Golden Boy spent most of the year in self-immolation mode and none of Top Rank's big fights really caught fire, the promoter of the year surely didn't belong in the U.S. Eddie Hearn and his folks at Matchroom put on easily the grandest boxing event of the year, with 80,000 filling up Wembley Stadium in London for the Froch-Groves rematch. It was a spectacular main event and featured an unforgettable Froch knockout. Hearn dreamed big with the venue for the fight and delivered in every conceivable way.
Matchroom also had a lot of success earlier in the year with some smaller fights. Hearn was the promoter for Coyle-Brizuela, the 2014 Saturday Night Boxing Fight of the Year mentioned earlier in the article, and put on two great fights between Gavin Rees and Gary Buckland. The Anthony Crolla-John Murray scrap was also memorable. In addition, Matchroom triumphed in 2014 with Kell Brook, who went to the U.S. and relieved Shawn Porter of his welterweight title.
Hearn also has been building prospect and Olympic hero Anthony Joshua into a true heavyweight spectacle. By keeping Joshua active and gradually increasing his competition, Hearn is helping to create a bona fide superstar if Joshua can do his part.
Not all was perfect for Hearn and Matchroom. The last half of the year featured too many mismatches. Scott Quigg has yet to step up and the Cleverly-Bellew II undercard, which was a pay per view in the U.K., was completely rancid. Hearn has talked about increasing the number of pay per views in Britain. If he follows through on this, he's going to have to provide more value for fight fans than he did in his last attempt.
Although there were some blemishes in 2014, Matchroom did a fantastic job in continuing to stoke the formidable fire that is the British fight scene. Hearn plans to start promoting in the U.S. and his ambition and impressive stable of fighters could mean big things for the sport in the next few years.
Previous SNB Promoters of the Year:
2013: (tie) Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank Promotions
2012: Golden Boy Promotions
2011: Top Rank Promotions
Network of the Year: ESPN
Similar to Promoter of the Year award, there was no slam dunk candidate in 2014 for the boxing network of the year. Sky Sports started off with an excellent boxing program in the first half of the year but the quality of its offerings showed a significant decline as the year progressed. HBO and Showtime didn't do much to distinguish themselves during the campaign. As something of a default, I will give ESPN the award.
2014 was Brian Kweder's first full year at the helm as ESPN's head of boxing programming. He showed a willingness to innovate and an opportunistic streak that helped expand the network's offerings. He greenlit the successful Boxcino tournaments that created a significant amount of buzz in the first part of the year (the tournament will return in 2015). The slate for Friday Night Fights in 2014 was also relatively strong.
Stepping outside of ESPN's traditional Friday night window, Kweder was successful in bringing several higher-profile fights to the network, including the heavyweight title bout between Bermane Stiverne and Chris Arreola and a middleweight clash that featured Curtis Stevens against Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam. On the negative side of the ledger, a fighter like Jermain Taylor, who had suffered a brain bleed in the past and had recently been accused of shooting his cousin, was not the sort of fighter that ESPN should have gotten into bed with. It was unfortunate that ESPN reached into its pockets to show his fight against Sam Soliman.
ESPN's boxing coverage also distinguished itself in a number of other ways in 2014. The network streamed several international fights via its ESPN3 platform. In addition, the espn.com boxing website has continued to expand its offerings. Boxing editor Brian Campbell has made a nice addition to the site with the Making the Rounds feature and the website has beefed up its presence for the larger American fights. Boxing on espn.com is no longer just the Dan Rafael show. The additional voices on the site have helped to enrich the network's coverage of the sport.
Although I still wish that Teddy Atlas would spend more time calling the action of the fights instead of fixating on an arcane topic or preparing his next rant, the quality of the Friday Night Fights broadcast has continued to improve. Todd Grisham has made a solid transition to blow-by-blow announcer and his enthusiasm is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Joe Tessitore, who in recent years often seemed uninterested in the fights in front of him (perhaps he had been burned out by one-too-many nights at the Chumash Casino). Adding the fans' scoring of the rounds via Facebook has also been a nice touch. It works as a natural corrective to Atlas' sometimes myopic focus during fights.
ESPN had a very successful foundational year in 2014. Hopefully, its desire to expand its boxing programming and its urge to connect with boxing fans in new ways lead to even bigger things in 2015.
Previous SNB Networks of the Year:
Referee of the Year: Steve Smoger
Steve Smoger has built his legacy in the sport by letting the boxers themselves determine the outcome of a fight. Throughout his career, he has repeatedly demonstrated his acute talent of knowing when to stop a fight and when to let the action continue.
In 2014, two fights in particular highlighted Smoger's skill in this area. April's heavyweight clash between Steve Cunningham and Amir Mansour was Smoger at his best. Cunningham went down twice from big shots in the fifth round. Smoger, who prides himself on studying fighters' tendencies and patterns, knew that Cunningham had demonstrated significant recuperative powers throughout his career. Although Cunningham was in pretty bad shape after the second knockdown, Smoger gave him a long look (perhaps a little too long) and let the fight continue. Cunningham went on to score a knockdown of his own in the 10th round and wound up winning a highly entertaining fight. With many refs, Cunningham never would have seen the sixth round.
In July, undefeated prospect Mark Davis was taking on Michael Farenas. As the fight progressed, Farenas nailed Davis repeatedly with big left hands. Davis never went down but he was taking real punishment. His body language was also bad. Smoger wound up stopping the fight in the eighth round. Davis remained on his feet the whole night but it was the right call.
Smoger demonstrated in these two bouts that he has a very strong understanding of the fighters in the ring. His decisions of when and when not to halt action were spot-on. In one case, Smoger's judgment enabled a fighter to rally for a big win. In the second, he helped a boxer see another day, saving him from a weak corner. This is what a referee should be doing – make it about the fighters whenever possible and protect them when no one else will.
Previous SNB Referees of the Year: