Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The 2018 Saturday Night Boxing Awards

For many reasons 2018 may be remembered more for what happened out of the ring than inside the squared circle. The year's biggest boxing story was the influx of new capital into the sport, with DAZN and Fox making aggregate investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years. In addition, ESPN and Showtime increased their financial commitment to boxing. But not all of 2018's boxing business stories were about the sport's expansion. After 45 years, HBO, the gold standard in American boxing broadcasting, left the sport. Although HBO's final years represented the afterglow of a long-burning flame, the network and its contribution to the sport will be missed. 

And it wouldn't be boxing without big fights not being made. Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder seemingly circled each other the entire year, but were unable to finalize a deal despite months of negotiations. There's also a minor tragedy brewing at welterweight and lightweight, where two of the best fights that could be made in the sport (Spence-Crawford and Lomachenko-Garcia) won't be happening any time soon because of promotional roadblocks.

However, there was lots of good stuff in the ring during 2018, with a number of wonderful heavyweight fights, a new undisputed cruiserweight champ, a 12th round for the ages, the successful first season of the World Boxing Super Series, and fantastic displays of skill, power and athleticism. 

Without further ado, here are the eighth annual Saturday Night Boxing Awards. Similar to past years, awards have been given for Fighter, Fight, Knockout, Round, Upset, Trainer, Promoter, Network and Referee of the Year. 

Fighter of the Year: Oleksandr Usyk

Oleksandr Usyk Sends Tony Bellew to the Canvas
Photo Courtesy of Simon Stacpoole

The World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) cruiserweight tournament presented a fantastic opportunity for the winner. The four major title belts were in play for the competition and the victor would walk away with all of them, becoming the undisputed cruiserweight champ. And Oleksandr Usyk didn't just win the tournament; he dominated Murat Gassiev in the finals. Furthermore, he then defended his titles against former cruiserweight champion Tony Bellew, winning with an impressive eighth-round knockout. 

Usyk faced an array of styles in 2018, from Mairis Briedis's technical craftsmanship to Gassiev's direct power punching to Bellew's cagey countering. And although Briedis was competitive against Usyk and Bellew won a number of the early rounds, there was little doubt that Usyk was the deserved victor in all three matches. In addition, Usyk fought each of his 2018 bouts on the road, picking up victories in Latvia, Russia and England. Usyk had an exemplary year and is the deserving Saturday Night Boxing Fighter of 2018. 

Previous SNB Fighters of the Year:
2017: Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
2016: Carl Frampton
2015: Floyd Mayweather
2014: Naoya Inoue
2013: Adonis Stevenson
2012: Nonito Donaire
2011: Andre Ward


Fight of the Year: Dereck Chisora-Carlos Takam:

Chisora Lands the Finishing Blow on Takam
Photo Courtesy of Lawrence Lustig

This heavyweight fight was vicious inside combat from the moment the opening bell sounded. Much of the action in the bout took place along the ropes. Takam was on the front foot unloading with power shots while Chisora, seemingly trapped, countered with exquisite skill. During these exchanges Takam certainly landed his fair share of big shots, but Chisora also parried or rode with many of them. He also countered with menacing blows, often hooks to the body or short uppercuts. The action was breathtaking and the fight was a genuine war of attrition for the two former title challengers. In the eighth round Chisora unleashed a cracking overhand right, and Takam was done. It was a spectacular shot and a career-best win for Chisora. 

Although there were a number of excellent fights throughout 2018, Chisora-Takam was the one where I was constantly out of my seat jumping up and down like a madman. Both fighters took an ungodly number of big shots, but they also mixed in clever bits of skill, especially with how Chisora fought off the ropes and how Takam used his punch variety and spacing so he wouldn't smother his work. It was exemplary inside fighting, but it was much more than that. It was thrilling from start to finish. There were no rounds off; there weren't breathers, just two proud veterans pounding each other in closer quarters, seeing who would give first.    

Previous SNB Fights of the Year:
2017: Joshua-Klitschko
2016: Vargas-Salido
2015: Miura-Vargas
2014: Coyle-Brizuela
2013: Bradley-Provodnikov
2012: Pacquiao-Marquez IV
2011: Rios-Acosta


Knockout of the Year: Naoya Inoue KO 1 Juan Carlos Payano

Inoue Celebrates after Dropping Payano
Photo Courtesy of the World Boxing Super Series

In just under a minute, Naoya Inoue demonstrated why he is one of the most destructive forces in boxing. Inoue feinted and circled his lead left hand to find an advantageous angle; once found, he ended Juan Carlos Payano's night with his first two landed punches. Despite Payano's reputation as a crafty defensive boxer, Inoue connected with the perfect one-two. He blinded Payano, a southpaw, with a stinging jab and then unleashed a ferocious right hand. Payano went down, and stayed down. And then stayed down some more. 

Inoue, the 2014 SNB Fighter of the Year, certainly is an offensive dynamo, but the fight-ending sequence against Payano illustrated that he is far more than just a sheer power puncher. Finding the perfect angle for his combination, Inoue was playing high-stakes chess. He was plotting a number of moves ahead of his opponent. As soon as he saw his opening, he went for the kill with two shots. Inoue's mixture of power, athleticism and a high ring IQ is a rare combination in the sport; there's a big reason why he's been skyrocketing pound-for-pound lists over the last few years. He's one of the elites. 

Previous SNB Knockouts of the Year:
2017: Zolani Tete KO 1 Siboniso Gonya
2016: Hassan N'Dam KO 1 Alfonso Blanco
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: Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury Round 12

Wilder Moving to a Neutral Corner after Dropping Fury
Photo Courtesy of Esther Lin/Showtime

Perhaps 2018's defining moment in the ring occurred in the final round of the heavyweight title fight between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. Fury had seemingly established a commanding lead in the bout despite suffering a ninth-round knockdown. Although he had been second best throughout most of the match, Wilder never stopped trying to win. And in the beginning of the 12th round, Wilder landed the emphatic shots that he had been searching for all fight: a crushing straight right and a follow up left hook. Fury hit the canvas hard and everyone watching assumed that the fight was over. 

But boxing has earned its reputation as the "Theater of the Unexpected." Miraculously, Fury rose to his feet and beat the count. Following referee Jack Reiss's instructions, Fury convinced Reiss that he was ready to continue. And somehow, after absorbing two cracking shots from perhaps the biggest puncher in the sport, Fury proceeded to win the rest of the round. In an almost unbelievable display, Fury attacked Wilder and imprinted a final stamp on the memorable heavyweight battle. Unfortunately a poor scorecard somewhat marred the final result; the fight wound up being a split draw. However, no boxing fan will forget Wilder's devastating combination and Fury's heroic effort in the final moments of the match. 

Previous SNB Rounds of the Year:
2017: Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko Round 5
2016: Edwin Rodriguez-Thomas Williams Jr. Round 2
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: Rob Brant UD Ryota Murata

Ryota Murata and Rob Brant at their Weigh-in
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams/Top Rank

In 2017 Rob Brant made a calculated gamble to join the super middleweight World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) tournament. Brant had previously been a middleweight and had also lacked world-class experience to that point in his career. Facing Juergen Braehmer in the WBSS, Brant was summarily outclassed, losing a wide unanimous decision. After the defeat Brant decided to move back to middleweight and won a stay-busy fight against unheralded Colby Courter. Somehow, that led to an opportunity to fight secondary beltholder Ryota Murata. Brant was a sizable underdog coming into the bout, as much as 8-1. Yet no one told Brant or his trainer, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, that he was supposed to lose to Murata, who was widely reported to be in the running for a fight with Gennady Golovkin should he beat Brant. 

Muhammad and Brant executed a perfect game plan against Murata. Featuring constant volume and movement, Brant threw upwards of 90 punches a round throughout the fight and gave Murata few chances to plant his feet and land his best right hand. By the end of the fight, Brant had illustrated that he was a world-class middleweight. His performance also exposed Murata as a one-dimensional fighter; Murata seemed to lack ideas when an opponent wasn't sitting right in front of him. It was a tremendous display from Brant, who would wind up signing a co-promotional deal with Top Rank after his impressive display against Murata.   

Previous SNB Upsets of the Year:
2017: Caleb Truax MD James DeGale
2016: Joe Smith Jr. KO 1 Andrzej Fonfara
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: Anatoly Lomachenko

Lomachenko worked with two of the five best fighters in boxing in 2018. First, his son, Vasiliy, had a big year, moving to lightweight to challenge titlist Jorge Linares. Although Vasiliy suffered the first knockdown of his professional career in the bout, he would win the fight in the 10th round with a fantastic left hook to the liver. Later on the year Lomachenko would unify lightweight titles, scoring two knockdowns and beating Jose Pedraza by a comfortable unanimous decision. 

In addition, Anatoly Lomachenko helped train Oleksandr Usyk for his WBSS championship match against Murat Gassiev. There, Usyk turned in the defining performance of his career. Featuring a blistering jab and almost constant movement, Usyk rendered Gassiev useless. Usyk pitched a virtual shutout in the fight and established himself as one of the best fighters in the sport. It's clear from observing Vasiliy and Usyk, that Anatoly's emphasis on movement, angles and volume has helped shape two of the best fighters in the sport. Both boxers have exceptional footwork, high Ring IQs and endurance. It was a pleasure to watch Anatoly's boxing philosophies in action during 2018. 

Previous SNB Trainers of the Year:
2017: Derrick James
2016: Shane McGuigan
2015: Peter Fury
2014: Freddie Roach
2013: Kenny Porter
2012: Robert McCracken
2011: Robert Garcia


Promoter of the Year: Premier Boxing Champions

I don't want to get into an argument regarding legalistic definitions. I'm not accusing Al Haymon of violating the Ali Act by acting as promoter and manager for his fighters. But I also know what my eyes tell me. The PBC (the entity as a whole, not a specific individual) operates as a promotional entity. The organization spends millions on advertising, has exclusive deals with networks, employs PR firms, negotiates directly for fighters’ purses and programs their boxers on television. Essentially, the PBC acts like promoters. I'm not here to address any moral or legal implications in this space; I'm here to say that the PBC had an excellent year in 2018.

Featuring memorable fights such as Wilder-Ortiz, Wilder-Fury, Lara-Hurd, Garcia-Porter, Stevenson-Jack, Garcia-Lipinets, Russell-Diaz and many others, the PBC had an exceptional year. No, not every main event was a success, but the PBC exhibited a consistency in 2018 that had been lacking in their previous years. For the much-criticized organization, it was a job well done.  

Previous SNB Promoters of the Year:
2017: K2 Promotions
2016: Matchroom Sport
2015: Golden Boy Promotions
2014: Matchroom Sport
2013: (tie) Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank Promotions
2012: Golden Boy Promotions
2011: Top Rank Promotions


Network of the Year: Showtime

Every single fight listed above in the Promoter of the Year Award was televised by Showtime. As Showtime's longtime rival HBO left boxing and new entities (ESPN and DAZN) were still getting their bearings, Showtime found itself in the sweet spot in 2018. Credit must be given to Stephen Espinoza and his team for exhibiting quality control over their broadcasts. Insisting on high-level matches, Espinoza worked with the PBC to produce a memorable year of boxing. The playing field will almost certainly look different in 2019, but Showtime has been the class of the boxing scene over the last two years. 

Previous SNB Networks of the Year:
2017: Showtime
2016: Sky Sports
2015: No award given
2014: ESPN
2013: Showtime
2012: BoxNation


Referee of the Year: Jack Reiss

Jack Reiss Administers the Count for Tyson Fury
Photo Courtesy of Esther Lin/Showtime

When Tyson Fury hit the canvas after that hellacious combo in the 12th round, it is my opinion that many referees (if not most) would have stopped the fight at that very instant. Instead, ref Jack Reiss patiently administered the count. By the count of five, Fury was lucid; by nine, he was up on his feet. Reiss then gave Fury a series of commands. And when Fury responded convincingly, Reiss allowed the fight to continue. 

What followed was the stuff of lore. Despite being a second away from getting knocked out, Fury came back to win the rest of the round. Although the match was ruled a draw (most thought that Fury had done enough to win), that the fight even went to the cards had much to do with Reiss's professionalism. Instead of panicking or taking the easy way out, Reiss opened himself up to criticism by letting the bout continue. Ultimately, it was the right decision, and helped to provide boxing with one of its indelible moments of the year. I had an opportunity to interview Reiss after Wilder-Fury. You can read more about the fight from his perspective here. Reiss's performance was a credit to his profession.  

Previous SNB Referees of the Year:
2017: David Fields
2016: Raul Caiz Sr.
2015: David Fields
2014: Steve Smoger
2013: Tony Weeks
2012: Eddie Claudio

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
Email: saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com.
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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