Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Opinions and Observations: The Frampton and Vargas Cards

Leo Santa Cruz earned a majority decision victory over Carl Frampton on Saturday, a rematch of a thrilling battle that Frampton had won in 2016. But in the interest of depicting last weekend's result with maximum accuracy, perhaps the fight was really won in training camp rather than between the ropes of the MGM Grand Arena.   

Flashing back to after their loss in the first bout, Team Santa Cruz faced several options for the rematch: 

1. The Status Quo 
2. Tweaking 
3. Full-Scale Revamp  

Each strategy had its relative merits. The first fight was certainly close enough that a new set of judges and a venue closer to Santa Cruz's home base might be enough to shade the rematch in his favor. Maybe some small adjustments would help. Perhaps working on punch placement during exchanges and not lunging in with shots out of range would neutralize Frampton's countering. Those adjustments could lead to victory. But a full-scale revamping would be an admission that Santa Cruz couldn't win the rematch with his present form or strategy, which would be quite a statement. 

Instead of choosing options one or two, Jose Santa Cruz opted to blow the whole thing up for the rematch. His son wouldn't be fighting in his preferred style, which centered on aggression and high volume. No, Santa Cruz believed that his fighter could win in a far more radical manner: by outboxing the boxer. On the surface, this approach sounded crazy. Frampton had straighter and sharper punches, better footwork and perhaps even superior power. Santa Cruz winning by boxing would cast aside all notions of conventional wisdom; however, Jose Santa Cruz experienced the first fight and believed that standard thinking wouldn't be enough to beat Frampton.

On Saturday, Leo Santa Cruz performed a variety of techniques that had rarely been associated with him. He landed sharp counters. He controlled distance and range. His jab was a weapon. He fought through large stretches of the fight off his back foot. He disengaged from the pocket after landing brief flurries. He spun and turned his opponent. 

It's not that Santa Cruz had never exhibited any of these qualities before; he certainly boxed well in retreat against Mares, a fight that also showed his improved footwork. He also had very strong moments fighting off the ropes against Kiko Martinez. It wasn't just that Santa Cruz sprung a strategic surprise on Frampton; it was more than that. At points he performed a boxing master class. 

Team Frampton seemed woefully unprepared for Santa Cruz's style change. The Mares fight wasn't so long ago – it was in 2015 – but it seemed as if Frampton's lead trainer, Shane McGuigan, had never seen that performance. Frampton didn't win a round on my card until the fifth. Although he essentially split the final eight rounds with Santa Cruz, Frampton didn't make the necessary adjustment fast enough. Too many rounds had already slipped away. 

Ultimately, the fight had been won in the first four rounds, but to be more precise, the fundamental changes that Team Santa Cruz installed during training camp were the deciding factors. Jose's game plan and Leo's precision and discipline were enough to carry the day. The final scores were 115-113, 115-113 and 114-114. (I had Santa Cruz winning 116-112.)

During the post-fight interview, Santa Cruz apologized to his fans for not providing more action during the fight (it was still an excellent 12 rounds). However, he understood what was necessary for victory. With his dad nodding in the background, Santa Cruz admitted that his jab and discipline were key factors in winning the fight. No, he didn’t prevail via a firefight or a war of attrition. There was no blaze of glory or epic stand. He was just a little smarter and sharper. Although he didn't particularly admire the sexiness of his new style, he certainly admitted its efficacy. 

As for Frampton, he won enough rounds in the back half of the fight to demonstrate that he can remain competitive if there is a rubber match. McGuigan, who had won many awards for Trainer of the Year in 2016 (including the one given by this outlet), certainly had a bad day at the office. His counterpart had more answers. 

After 24 rounds, I'd venture to say that Frampton and Santa Cruz have each won 12 of them. Team Santa Cruz pulled the impressive rabbit out of the hat for the rematch but it remains to be seen if they can transform themselves as radically as they did on Saturday for a third fight. My guess is that by now Frampton has seen what Santa Cruz has to offer. Frampton was the sharper fighter in July while Santa Cruz took that mantle from him on Saturday. My gut tells me that a third fight would come down to punch accuracy more than any other single factor. As to who would win, a coin toss should suffice. 

***

On the Showtime undercard, Mikey Garcia announced his return to top-flight boxing on Saturday with a third-round destruction of lightweight titleholder Dejan Zlaticanin. The thrilling conclusion of the fight illustrated Garcia's manifold talents. With three punches, Garcia transformed a proud champion into roadkill. A right uppercut/left hook combo hurt Zlaticanin, who stumbled toward the ropes with his back turned to Garcia. Quickly, Garcia pivoted his body and followed Zlaticanin toward the ropes. As soon as Zlaticanin spun around to face the center of the ring, Garcia unleashed a pulverizing sidearm right hand. And that was that.

Looking at the final sequence in more detail, Garcia exhibited a number of traits that led to his rousing victory. First, his initial two-punch combination featured pinpoint accuracy and devastating power. Few fighters start combinations with a right uppercut; often they will counter with that punch as just a single shot. But Garcia visualized a series of blows. Immediately after the uppercut, Garcia shot a left hook high on the head. It was perfectly placed and landed in an unprotected area. Zlaticanin was hurt and had lost his equilibrium.

Garcia was now going for the kill but he had to get himself in perfect position to do so. In a split second, he turned his body around and waited to land his final blow. Instead of rushing his work, Garcia remained patient, needing Zlaticanin to turn back around so that he could land a legal final blow. When the opportunity came, Garcia detonated his right hand with an off-angled shot, one that Zlaticanin was unprepared for; the fighter was completely defenseless. Because of Garcia's footwork and poise during this sequence, he earned himself a free, unprotected shot, and Zlaticanin paid the ultimate price. Garcia's final salvo illustrated so many of his skills: power, fluid punching, creativity, accuracy, precise footwork, patience, balance, intelligence and improvisation. 

Prior to a 30-month hiatus that ended last summer, Garcia had been regarded as one of the best boxers in the sport. A well-rounded fighter with a bevy of offensive weapons, Garcia had won titles at 126 and 130 lbs. But after his long layoff, legitimate questions were asked about the potential degradation of his skills, his chin and power at lightweight, and his desire to fight – Garcia in the past had talked about losing his love for the sport.

Needless to say, Garcia provided some rather emphatic answers on Saturday. Even before the knockout, Garcia had dominated the fight with his jab, crisp combos and sharp counters. Through three rounds, he had completely neutralized an aggressive power puncher and at no point did he seem troubled by the champion. 

Although Saturday's performance heralded Garcia's return to the top-rungs of boxing, he'll have to beat some additional tough fighters before he can be regarded as one of the best in the sport. There are several opponents around his weight class that could test him, such as Vasyl Lomachenko, Jorge Linares, Rances Barthelemy or Terence Crawford. Let's hope that Garcia's claims of rededicating himself to boxing are true. If so, he's one of the more dynamic talents in the sport and one who can challenge several of the top talents of our time. 

***

Francisco Vargas' skin betrayed him on Saturday. When his fight against hard-punching Miguel Berchelt was finally stopped in the 11th round, Vargas was a battered man. With cuts over both eyes, a hematoma on his forehead and blood steaking down his face, he was the picture of a defeated fighter. 

However, the final images of the fight don't do justice to Vargas, who had several successful moments in the fight. He hurt Berchelt with body shots and connected with a number of pulsating right hands to the head. Overall, he landed more than 40% of his power punches, a very high percentage. Vargas had spells where he was the better fighter but there just weren’t enough of them. And his defense was as leaky as the gash over his left eye.

Berchelt put forth a power-punching clinic. Throwing five- and six-punch combinations that featured jabs, devastating left and right hooks, uppercuts, straight right hands and a potent mixture of head and body shots, Berchelt was the sharper and more fluid puncher. He unfurled combinations seamlessly, featuring pinpoint accuracy and ferocious intent. His jab was a real weapon and it enabled him to control range for the majority of the fight. Berchelt even bettered Vargas's power punch connect percentage, landing more than 50% in that category.

Toward the conclusion of the fight, when it became apparent that Vargas wouldn't make it to the final bell, Jim Lampley asked if Berchelt himself was more responsible for the victory or were Vargas's past wars against Orlando Salido and Takashi Miura the key factors for his degradation in the ring. Ultimately, that's a false dichotomy. Clearly, Vargas' scar tissue and the ease at which his skin was damaged throughout the fight illustrated how he hadn't fully healed from his previous battles. However, Berchelt kept throwing missiles the whole night. Rudy Hernandez couldn't get Vargas' cuts under control because Berchelt's punching would allow for that. So, it's a little from Column A and a little from Column B. 

Berchelt becomes another key player in one of boxing's best divisions. Fights against Takashi Miura, Orlando Salido or Jason Sosa would be wars. But don't discount Vargas' ability to re-emerge as a top player in the division. Like Salido, Vargas has the types of strengths and vulnerabilities to win or lose to any of the best talents in his division. I'd like to see him take at least nine months off to heal and recharge his batteries. With the proper rest, I'd bet that he has another run in him. And, as for the Miguel Berchelt era, it looks like it's going to be a fantastic ride. 

***

In the opening HBO fight, Takashi Miura detonated one of the most apocalyptic body shots that you'll ever see. In the 10th round of a grueling fight against Miguel Roman, Miura lifted his eyes like he was going to throw a straight left hand. Roman, Respecting Miura's considerable power, raised his hands to protect his head. Without shifting his gaze, Miura instead threw a pulverizing left uppercut to Roman's breadbasket. Roman hit the canvas and everyone thought that the fight was over; and, in a sense it was. 

That Roman somehow got up from the punch speaks to his will and conditioning. However, that one action was essentially all that he had left. He went down again in the 11th from an accumulation of punishment and was dropped in the 12th by a straight left hand, one not nearly as good as the dozens of warheads that Miura had landed earlier in the fight; Roman didn't beat the count. 

Miura-Roman will be remembered as one of 2017's great fights. It was a classic battle between the slugger and the brawler. Miura had moments where he landed punishing left hands and right hooks while Roman battered Miura during the middle rounds on the inside. Thudding shots landed throughout the fight and both absorbed serious punishment. 

On my card, Miura had fallen behind after the seventh round. In the eighth, he started to reassert himself more consistently. Standing his ground, he continued to unleash vicious power shots. Although he was visibly spent from Roman's body assault, Miura doubled down on his power punches. In a determined battle of trench warfare, eventually Roman started to yield. Miura's left uppercut in the 10th will be one of the year's best punches, but he had already softened up his foe. 

Miura remains one of the most exciting fighters in the junior lightweight division. He could stop any fighter in the division with his left hand. However, with the way that he loads up on power shots and his refusal to jab, almost any fighter can get inside on him. He's taken some serious beatings over the last few years and who knows what he'll have left after Saturday's fight. But he's a threat against anyone at 130; the type of threat that I’ll always welcome on my TV screen.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
@snboxing on twitter
SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at: 
saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

It was my pleasure to co-host this week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast with Brandon Stubbs. I'll be co-hosting the podcast on a monthly basis in 2017. Topics this week include the Frampton-Santa Cruz card, the Golden Boy/ESPN deal, HBO's Francisco Vargas card, Angel Garcia, Deontay Wilder and much more. You can listen to the podcast on any of the links below.


Blog Talk Radio link
iTunes link
Stitcher link
PlayerFM link


Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
@snboxing on twitter
SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at: 
saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jack-DeGale: Perseverance and Second Chances

The winner of Saturday's title unification fight between Badou Jack and James DeGale will emerge as the consensus number-one super middleweight in boxing. And although that honor will be fully deserved and disputed only by those who are related to Gilberto Ramirez, it's still nevertheless surprising that Jack and DeGale, after facing significant setbacks in their respective roads to the top, find themselves in this position. 

Less than two years ago, Jack was iced in one round by journeyman Derek Edwards. It was a devastating knockout and further confirmation for many that Jack was less than the considerable Mayweather Promotions' hype. With an earlier draw to gatekeeper Marco Antonio Periban, Jack was now considered by most in the boxing world as nothing more than a pretender. 

However, in another example of boxing being the theater of the unexpected, Jack refused to follow his script. He did something rarely seen in modern boxing after such a comprehensive physical and psychological defeat; he improved. Under trainer Eddie Mustafa Muhammad's tutelage, Jack corrected many of his flaws. His high guard was now a consistent presence and he learned how to initiate offense out of that posture. Gone were the days of winging shots without any concern for what was coming back. Now, Jack was working behind his jab. Instead of being an undisciplined slugger, Jack concentrated on work rate, textbook technique and winning rounds. 

Within 14 months of the Edwards defeat, Jack had successfully won his first title off of Anthony Dirrell, a fighter who had advantages over Jack in power and speed, but lacked Jack's new-found focus and discipline. In a further advance, Jack defeated George Groves later in 2015. Groves had matched super middleweight titan Carl Froch throughout most of their two fights before stoppage losses. And even after earning a surprising knockdown of Groves in the first round, Jack stuck to his game plan and didn't let the unforeseen development derail his overriding strategy (something that might have caused Groves to lose the first Froch fight). 

Jack has now become a difficult fighter to defeat. He gives his opponents very few clean shots at his head. He has a piston-like jab that can often control the ring action and keep opponents on the defensive. Jack has also become a menacing body puncher, launching jabs, left hooks and right hands downstairs with regularity and ferocity. Although he doesn't sell out on head shots like he did as a rising prospect, he still has enough pop to keep foes honest. 

However, Jack does provide opportunities for his opponents. His offense, especially in how he initiates it, can become predictable; he can be timed and countered. In addition, he lacks elite foot and hand speed. Gifted athletes can maneuver him around the ring and beat him to the punch. Perhaps most damningly, Jack doesn't maintain his work rate throughout 12 rounds. It's not that he fades in the second half but he'll give up a round here or there as he takes small breaks and regroups. Notice that in his title shot and two defenses, he's yet to earn a decisive win. Sure, he's beaten good opponents (his "draw" against Bute was really a win) but he lets them stick around and get back into a fight. 

When examining James DeGale in the ring, he emerges with a similar problem. He can dazzle and amaze for portions of a fight – throwing eight- or nine-punch combinations, scoring at will with either hand, out of southpaw or orthodox stances – but he coasts on his leads. At points during bouts, he'll flurry once or twice a round and then shut his offense down, believing (often erroneously) that his work is enough to carry the frame. 

DeGale had both Andre Dirrell and Lucian Bute dead-to-rights early in those contests but he couldn't sustain his energy level for 12 rounds. He wound up winning competitive decisions in those fights but with a different temperament, perhaps he wouldn't have needed to sweat out the judges' scorecards. 

DeGale's lone blemish on his record could be attributed to this frustrating inconsistency. His 2011 fight against fellow prospect George Groves (you'll notice that Jack and DeGale have several common opponents) ended in a razor-thin defeat. In significant portions of the fight, he just didn't move his hands enough. During exchanges, DeGale had the faster hands and better defense but Groves had a more consistent attack. 

Although the Groves loss wasn't the type of devastating knockout that Jack suffered, it was still quite the blow. DeGale was the Olympic gold medalist, the pride of Britain. Groves was supposed to be the lesser talent. Yes, DeGale certainly had a claim to winning the fight but the larger truth had been that too many rounds were close. 

And whichever way that one scored DeGale-Groves, neither fighter won conclusively. However good DeGale thought that he was, the outcome of the Groves fight was certainly a wake-up call that his road to the top would not be a cakewalk. "James DeGale, Olympic Gold Medalist" wasn't enough of a deterrent for able fighters.

But would DeGale learn from his defeat or would he succumb to the type of denial that is so rampant among professional boxers (e.g., with different judges I would have won)?  

Even after the Groves loss, DeGale could be maddening in the ring. He'd carry lesser fighters for several rounds or become overly defensive against opponents who posed little threat. He seemed uncertain at points and his ring identity was always in flux. Was he a mover, a counterpuncher, an aggressive fighter or a boxer-puncher? He had employed these styles and others in his development but often without fluidity or purpose. 

To my eyes, DeGale turned the corner in 2014, when he destroyed Brandon Gonzales in four rounds and defeated Marco Antonio Periban in three. No longer was he plagued by caution. He seemed more comfortable in the pocket and wasn't as afraid to get hit. He sat down on his shots better and learned how to finish off fighters (DeGale could use a refresher course on this last point). 

All of this sets up a mouth-watering main event on Saturday between two excellent but vulnerable fighters. Which boxer will keep his foot on the gas for 12 rounds? Who will take fewer breaks? Will Jack's jab be as effective against a southpaw, and one who doesn't need to be in the pocket to win fights? Can DeGale handle Jack's pressure over the course of a fight? How will he overcome Jack's size and range? 

An interesting aspect of Saturday's fight is the change in Jack's corner. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad has been replaced as lead trainer and Lou Del Valle (who had been assisting Jack and Muhammad in previous fights) will now be at the helm. Perhaps this transition will go smoothly, like when Naazim Richardson took over for his former mentor, Bouie Fisher, in Bernard Hopkins' corner. However, it's also possible that Muhammad's corner work, especially his cogent instructions, will be missed. 

In DeGale's corner is longtime trainer Jim McDonnell. The two of them have been through the wars together. Exhibiting a loyalty often not displayed in the sport, DeGale remained with McDonnell after the Groves loss. Together, trainer and fighter have grown. Although McDonnell can still be flummoxed by DeGale's inconsistency in the ring, he certainly can impart urgency when needed. McDonnell has become solid in crafting game plans and he's quick to note in the corner what's working and what should be de-emphasized.

Ultimately, Jack-DeGale may come down to what the judges like more; Jack's steady work rate or DeGale's flash. And it's certainly possible that Saturday's verdict might be inconclusive. But let's not dwell on the vagaries of scoring for now. Jack-DeGale is an excellent fight between two boxers who dismissed the modern boxing narrative of the loss-as-death sentence. Each has persevered. They have earned their place in the sport with a refreshing approach; they improved and made the most of a second chance. After suffering losses, they put their ego in check and eventually became better fighters. When doubts about them in the boxing world were legion, they ignored the surrounding negativity and believed in themselves even as others were abandoning ship. Each has prospered. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
@snboxing on twitter
SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at: 
saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The 2016 Saturday Night Boxing Awards

After an eventful year of boxing in 2016, it's time to hand out some hardware. The 2016 Saturday Night Boxing Awards recognizes fighter, fight, knockout, round, upset, trainer, promoter, network and referee of the year. I've also listed the previous award winners. There's lots of good stuff to commemorate from the year that passed, so let's get to it!

Fighter of the Year: Carl Frampton

Carl Frampton won two 50/50-type fights in 2016 to clinch the SNB Fighter of the Year. In February, the Belfast, Ireland native won a deserved split decision over rival Scott Quigg at junior featherweight. In July, Frampton moved up to 126 lbs. to defeat Leo Santa Cruz by majority decision and win a title in a second weight class.  

Frampton didn't earn many style points for his performance against Quigg. Boxing very tentatively on the outside throughout the first half of the fight, Frampton successfully neutralized Quigg's offensive output. Although Quigg worked his way into the bout during the second half of the contest, Frampton had his best round in the fight in the 12th, which put a definitive stamp on the victory. Against Santa Cruz, Frampton won the fight in the trenches. His sharper combinations, superior accuracy and purposeful lateral movement were the deciding factors in a riveting bout. The two are scheduled to fight a rematch later in January. 

Frampton beat two world-class opponents in 2016 and although neither fight was a blow-out victory, he did more than enough to earn the two wins. Ultimately, it was a fantastic campaign for The Jackal. 

Previous SNB Fighters of the Year:
2015: Floyd Mayweather
2014: Naoya Inoue
2013: Adonis Stevenson
2012: Nonito Donaire
2011: Andre Ward

_____________

Fight of the Year: Francisco Vargas-Orlando Salido:

Sometimes a fight lives up to the hype. When the 130-lb. showdown was announced between Francisco Vargas and Orlando Salido was announced, fight fans were licking their lips in anticipation of thrilling combat. Vargas, who had participated in the 2015 SNB Fight of the Year against titlist Takashi Miura, had quickly emerged as one of the supreme action fighters in boxing, and Salido had been involved in several of the best bouts in the sport in recent years. June 4th couldn't come fast enough!

In the ring, Vargas-Salido somehow exceeded expectations, featuring 12 rounds of brutal power shots and wild swings of momentum. Both fighters fired vicious body punches throughout the match, often in five-, six- and seven-punch combinations. With harrowing levels of ferocious punching and expert displays of inside fighting, Vargas-Salido was the type of combat rarely seen at boxing's top level. 

Although the fight delivered on the anticipated blood-and-guts, the match featured several unexpected twists and turns. Both fighters tried to beat their opponent with their strengths, as well as those of their foe. Vargas possessed the superior range and boxing skills but delivered fierce inside combinations throughout the match. Salido won many battles in the trenches but also consistently scored with right hooks, overhand rights and left hooks from distance. Both employed a variety of styles in attempts to assert themselves throughout the match. And somehow, neither fighter, despite absorbing scores of hellacious blows, hit the canvas (Salido in particular had been dropped with regularity in recent years). 

In the end, the bout was declared a majority draw and it was a fitting conclusion. Both fighters bent but neither broke. HBO commentator Jim Lampley had perhaps the most apt observation of the fight: "There are many, many professional prizefighters who never want to be in a fight like this, even once in their career." Truer words might not have been spoken all year. What a thrilling fight! 

Previous SNB Fights of the Year:
2015: Miura-Vargas
2014: Coyle-Brizuela
2013: Bradley-Provodnikov
2012: Pacquiao-Marquez IV
2011: Rios-Acosta

___________

Knockout of the Year: Hassan N'Dam KO 1 Alfonso Blanco



Of the six fighters that I've selected as Knockout of the Year winners, Hassan N'Dam is certainly the most surprising. N'Dam, a Cameroon-born, French-based middleweight has been a world-level fighter for a number of years but his power failed to manifest in title efforts against Peter Quillin and David Lemieux. In fact, N'Dam was often regarded as feather-fisted, beating opponents with his volume, footwork and tricky angles instead of brute strength or power. And although N'Dam does have a respectable 57% KO rate, you'd be hard-pressed to find a notable name on his knockout ledger.  

In time, perhaps Alfonso Blanco will be another one of N'Dam's anonymous knockout victims. Previous to this fight, Blanco was a lightly-regarded boxer (originally from Venezuela but now living in California) with a 12-0 record. Somehow, he was elevated by the WBA into fighting for an interim belt. 

N'Dam quickly took care of business. In the fight's opening moments, N'Dam threw a blinding jab and then followed up with a quick overhand right; that's all that was needed as his right hand detonated on Blanco's unprotected chin. Blanco fell face-forward to the canvas and started to convulse. The fight was immediately waved off. N'Dam's right hand was brutal and unexpected. It was the type of shot that builds a fighter's legacy and enthralls boxing fans.

Previous SNB Knockouts of the Year:
2015: Yenifel Vincente KO 3 Juan Dominguez
2014: Andy Lee KO 5 John Jackson
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: Edwin Rodriguez-Thomas Williams, Jr. Round 2

Check out the scintillating round on the link below:


Similar to Vargas-Salido, when the spring fight between Edwin Rodriguez and Thomas Williams, Jr. was announced, hardcore fight fans salivated with thoughts of ferocious combat. Although Rodriguez and Williams may not have been as well known as the likes of Vargas or certainly Salido, both had established their bona fides as fantastic television fighters. Each had been in Fight of the Year-caliber matchups before; Rodriguez won the SNB Round of the Year in 2015 with his war with Michael Seals and Williams earned the same award in 2014 for his shootout against Cornelius White. Both light heavyweights possessed the artillery and vulnerability to make for a spectacular match. 

In the first round, both fighters looked to end it, with Rodriguez throwing huge right hands and Williams countering with right hooks and straight lefts. But the second frame is where the action really started to heat up. Rodriguez started the round with several right hands to the body. Seventy-five seconds into the round, he landed two right hands the hurt Williams and pushed him back to the ropes. After a brief clinch, the fighters separated and Williams landed his own right hook-left hand combination that temporarily turned the tables (more on that combo later). In short order, Rodriguez rebounded and landed several hard right hands to the body and head. By this point, Williams was on shaky legs, pushing out his punches with little authority. The onslaught continued with Rodriguez continuing to press the action with hard right hands.

But after the 10-second clap occurred, Williams uncorked a truly menacing right hook-straight left hand combination that sent Rodriguez to the canvas. Although Rodriguez beat the count, ref Wayne Hedgpeth inspected the fighter and determined that he was in no position to continue. Williams, who might have been just seconds away from being knocked out, was able to reverse his fortunes with two punches. 

Previous SNB Rounds of the Year:
2015: Edwin Rodriguez-Michael Seals Round 1
2014: Thomas Williams Jr.-Cornelius White Round 1
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: Joe Smith, Jr. TKO 1 Andrzej Fonfara

After acquitting himself well in a loss to Adonis Stevenson in 2014, Andrzej Fonfara's career was on an upward trajectory. He scored impressive victories over Doudou Ngumbu and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. and won a Fight of the Year-candidate over Nathan Cleverly. Needing a fight in 2016, little-known Joe Smith, Jr. was brought in to be an opponent. Smith, a construction worker by day, was fighting out of the Long Island club circuit. Although he possessed heavy hands, nothing in his resume suggested that he was ready to face a fighter of Fonfara's caliber – well, that's why they fight the fights!

During the first two minutes of the opening round, Fonfara had a lot of success shooting one-twos behind his high guard. Smith was using his physicality to come forward but most of his work, with the exception of a few left hooks, wasn't landing cleanly. However, as the round progressed, Fonfara made a huge mistake and paid the ultimate price. After landing a combination, Fonfara stood in front of Smith with his hands down. Smith, sensing the opening, uncorked a looping right hand that sent Fonfara to the canvas. Fonfara beat the count but Smith closed the show like a seasoned professional, ripping right hands and left hooks to Fonfara's body and head. The onslaught was too much for Fonfara, who wilted from Smith's power punches. He dropped to the canvas for a second time and referee Hector Afu waved the fight off. 

Smith continued to impress in 2016. Later in the year, he was handpicked to be Bernard Hopkins' farewell opponent. Instead of flowers or an acknowledgment of the legend's greatness, Smith sent the grizzled veteran through the ropes in the eighth round, another stunning knockout display. It was quite a 2016 campaign for Joe Smith Jr., who will no longer be an anonymous club circuit toiler.

Previous SNB Upsets of the Year:
2015: Tyson Fury UD Wladimir Klitschko
2014: (tie) James de la Rosa UD Alfredo Angulo and Tommy Karpency SD Chad Dawson
2013: Jhonny Gonzalez KO 1 Abner Mares
2012: Sonny Boy Jaro TKO 6 Pongsaklek Wongjongkam

__________

Trainer of the Year: Shane McGuigan

Shane McGuigan helped orchestrate two of the best game plans in 2016 to earn the SNB Trainer of the Year. With his lead fighter, Carl Frampton, taking on the two most challenging assignments of his career (Scott Quigg and Leo Santa Cruz), McGuigan provided the direction, guidance and strategy to help secure the victories. 

Facing Quigg, who can be a pulverizing body puncher, McGuigan stressed winning the fight at distance. Frampton constantly circled Quigg throughout the first half of the bout, using his jab, legs and superior boxing skill to frustrate and flummox his opponent. As Quigg started to come on later in the match, McGuigan rallied his charge and emphasized the importance of closing the fight in a definitive fashion. Frampton responded with his best round of the fight, beating Quigg to the punch on the inside and at distance and flashing the multiplicity of skills befitting a top fighter. Frampton's performance in the 12th helped to cement his lead and his victory was well earned. 

Santa Cruz presented a whole host of different challenges for Team Frampton. Santa Cruz was noted for his punishing work rate and constant pressure. For this fight, McGuigan emphasized Frampton's precision and hand speed. The bout featured several thrilling exchanges and more often than not Frampton's surgical strikes were the telling blows. 

McGuigan also had Frampton use his legs and intelligence to win the fight. Wanting quick flurries instead of prolonged exchanges, Frampton struck with fast single shots or two-punch combinations before leaving the pocket. The fighter also stayed away from the ropes for most of the bout, a geography where Santa Cruz liked to trap opponents and unload a succession of punches. Certainly, Frampton got touched up in the fight but his efforts, and those of McGuigan's, were enough to notch the victory.  

In a final note, it should be stated that McGuigan has done some great work in resurrecting George Groves' career. Groves had a decisive victory in 2016 over Martin Murray, a fight that seemed to many as a 50/50 bout on paper. However, Groves looked rejuvenated and used his work rate, physicality, punch variety and athleticism to earn a solid win, putting him back in title contention in the super middleweight division. 

Previous SNB Trainers of the Year:
2015: Peter Fury
2014: Freddie Roach
2013: Kenny Porter
2012: Robert McCracken
2011: Robert Garcia

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Promoter of the Year: Matchroom Sport

Perhaps no one deserves as much credit for England's boxing renaissance as Matchroom Sport's Managing Director Eddie Hearn. With a youthful enthusiasm, a sense of showmanship and a desire to expand Britain's boxing's audience beyond the hardcore faithful, Hearn has become the face of the biggest boxing events in the U.K.

2016 saw the continued rise of heavyweight Anthony Joshua, who has now graduated to become one of the top-five attractions in all of the sport. Matchroom's financial muscle lured Gennady Golovkin to England for a massive fight against Kell Brook. Although Brook, Matchroom's fighter, suffered a defeat, the event was an overwhelming success. Hearn was also instrumental in finalizing Frampton-Quigg, perhaps the most important British fight of 2016. 

In addition to the big events of the year, Matchroom also provided several top fights. Dillian Whyte-Dereck Chisora might have been the best heayvweight fight in a decade. Anthony Crolla-Jorge Linares was a fantastic lightweight battle. Even domestic fights like Buglioni-Burton and Gavin-Eggington produced memorable fireworks. All-in-all, 2016 was a fantastic year for Matchroom Sport. No other promotional entity consistently provided the combination of high-quality events and thrilling action. 

Previous SNB Promoters of the Year:
2015: Golden Boy Promotions
2014: Matchroom Sport
2013: (tie) Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank Promotions
2012: Golden Boy Promotions
2011: Top Rank Promotions

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Network of the Year: Sky Sports

With its exclusive output deal with Matchroom Sports, Sky Sports televised several of the most notable events and high-quality fights of 2016. See the Matchroom Sport section above for those fights but I'd like to add a couple of points about the overall presentation of boxing on Sky Sports, which has made a number of significant improvements over the last few years. 

Perhaps Sky's most notable change with its telecast in 2016 was the replacement of its on-air talent. Gone is the two-man booth of Nick Halling and Jim Watt. Sky has replaced that crew with its own Adam Smith on play-by play, and several notable figures in the boxing world, including Carl Froch, Tony Bellew, David Haye, Paulie Malignaggi, retired middleweight Matthew Macklin and trainer David Coldwell. All have been a vast improvement over the previous announce team. Halling was often unsure of what he was seeing in the ring and although Watt had many fine observations, he resorted to clich├ęs too easily and he certainly could play favorites. 

Unlike the PBC, where seemingly any notable fighter has received an opportunity to commentate, Sky's announcers have all performed exceptionally. Whether it's Froch's understanding of fighter psychology, Bellew's passion, Malignaggi's wit or Macklin's more cerebral observations, Sky's new team provides a more rewarding viewing experience. The team feels more conversant with the fighters and key players in modern boxing, resulting in a more assured broadcast.  

Another positive aspect of Sky's fight presentation is its insistence on showing entire fight cards. The tradition in America is to focus on the top two or three bouts on the card. For pay per views, it usually is four. However, Sky routinely televises its entire cards. Although watching six or seven hours of boxing might not be everyone's cup of tea, that the option is there enhances the experience for hardcore fight fans. In addition, Sky's philosophy provides exposure to emerging prospects and domestic-level fighters. The upshot is that its featured boxers (and often, their opponents) are well known before they emerge at the top of a fight card. 

And yes, it looks as though Sky might be following its American counterparts by expanding its reliance on the pay per view platform. However, this transition is also a further demonstration of its success. Unlike HBO, which designated several fights to pay per view in 2016 because of a lack of resources, Sky has migrated to that forum because the size of its events have grown exponentially; Sky has helped expand the U.K. boxing market to the point where several events necessitate the pay per view platform, and these events have been successful for all parties. 

Still, let's hope that Sky stays judicious with its number of pay per views. It's easy to become greedy in this sport and milk the fans with lesser quality product.  On a final note, the less we see of Johnny Nelson on TV, the better. 

Previous SNB Networks of the Year:
2015: No award given
2014: ESPN
2013: Showtime
2012: BoxNation

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Referee of the Year: Raul Caiz, Sr. 

Sometimes the toughest part of a referee's job is to stay out of the way. Many officials in the sport find anonymity to be very difficult. Instead, they break up opponents needlessly, offer unnecessary warnings and take away questionable points. To be fair, it's not an easy job to successfully police ring action. 

Consider Vargas-Salido. Most of the fight was contested on the inside, where there was a lot of grappling, clinching, and a number of head butts and low blows – some accidental and some...not. Now, many refs would've lost control of the fight's flow, finding reasons to take away points, failing to warn when infractions occurred or obtrusively breaking up the action on the inside.

Raul Caiz Sr., a ref whose work I've not always enjoyed, performed exceptionally during Vargas-Salido. The fight was fierce but it didn't spiral into a dirty free-for-all. When Salido became a little too casual with head butts, a warning was issued. Caiz gave both fighters free reign to work on the inside but the fight didn't devolve into a clinch-fest. When the fighters needed to be separated, he was there. And in a little-noticed decision in the fight, Salido slipped in the 10th round during an exchange. Caiz correctly called it as such. Had he ruled it a knockdown, Vargas would've wound up winning a unanimous decision. Perhaps most importantly, Caiz recognized when the fighters had a free hand to work on the inside and let them ply their trade (very few refs know when to back off during inside fighting). 

Caiz's judgment was a pivotal reason why Vargas-Salido was 2016's Fight of the Year. Despite the grappling and inside fighting, the bout had an incredible flow to it. Caiz's decisions to act assertively when the (in)action dictated and to back off when both fighters were working contributed a large part to why Vargas-Salido became an instant classic.  

Previous SNB Referees of the Year:
2015: David Fields
2014: Steve Smoger
2013: Tony Weeks
2012: Eddie Claudio

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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