Friday, January 29, 2021

Ra'eese Aleem: Q&A

There's a stubborn streak that runs through Ra'eese Aleem. It's what makes a frustrated fighter from a small town in Michigan leave behind his family and boxing support system to head to Las Vegas, a city where he knew no one and didn't even have a single connection. 

Enduring multiple layoffs of more than 18 months in his career, Aleem refused to let inactivity be an excuse; he continued to train without anything on the horizon, just a belief that things were going to break his way. And when they didn't, he followed his own path, making his own luck. Throughout his career he had been rejected by big promoters and shut out of opportunities given to many fighters of lesser stature, but he always believed that he would become a world champion. 

Despite a city full of boxing trainers, Aleem insisted on training himself for almost a year and a half when first arriving in Vegas. Now a junior featherweight contender, Aleem (18-0, 12 KOs) has retained his stubborn side. Even with a settled team around him now, Aleem still calls many of his own shots when it comes to training and fight preparation.

Ra'eese Aleem (left) lands a left hook on Vic Pasillas
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Often working out up to three times a day, Aleem's competitiveness is foundational to his story. He earned a black belt in karate by the time he was 14. He next transitioned to boxing and quickly took to the sport. By 17 he was already competing in National Golden Gloves tournaments. 

Last Saturday Aleem had the breakout performance of his career. Facing a fellow unbeaten fighter in Vic Pasillas in a Showtime co-feature, Aleem scored four knockdowns and won by an 11th round TKO. Aleem displayed a combination of ferocity, punching power and versatility that made for exciting television. Surely, main event slots and a title opportunity will now be coming his way in the near future. After spending years in the boxing wilderness, he has finally arrived. 

This week I spoke with Aleem and got to know more about his backstory, the genesis of his fighting style and perhaps a little bit of what makes him tick. Aleem knows that he's on the precipice of achieving great things in the sport. At 30, an age where many 122-lb. fighters have already begun to decline, Aleem believes that he's hitting his peak. 

He wants it all. He can feel it. And he knows that he has gotten this far not by necessarily listening to others, but by marching to the beat of his own drum. Call it stubbornness. Call it self-belief. Call it perseverance. But call it as it is: Ra'eese Aleem has made his own way to the big time. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ra'eese, congratulations on your victory and an excellent performance.

Thank you very much.

I wanted to begin with how you started out in boxing.  I know that before boxing you were involved in karate. How did you find your way to boxing initially?

I got my black belt in karate. After that, it came down to what are we going to do next. My dad wound up taking me to the boxing gym one day. I must have been 14. I was naturally kind of good because I already knew how to fight. And I stuck with it. 

In what ways has karate helped you with boxing? 

Probably my footwork, being good on my feet. Being able to go in-and-out. Step-and-pivot. Or switch to the southpaw position naturally without getting caught, or without making it look like I’m actually switching. That, and also being humble, both inside and outside the ring – not taking anybody for granted. 

You seem to have significant power in your left hand. Are you a converted southpaw who fights in the orthodox stance? 

I’m naturally left-handed, but I’ve always been an orthodox fighter. I’m more fluid in the orthodox stance, but I’m definitely stronger as a southpaw.

One aspect of your style that I think differentiates you from many fighters is your ability to switch from orthodox to southpaw in the middle of a combination. You did this very well against Pasillas. Have you always had this ability or is it something you've developed over time?

It’s always come natural to me, but it is something I continue to work on. It could be in the gym, during sparring. Maybe I see the angle and I create it. I just do it. 

How would you describe your amateur background? 

I went to the Golden Gloves five or six times. I made it to the national semifinals two years in a row. I lost by split decisions. I fought some good guys as an amateur: Kevin Rivers, Shemuel Pagan. I fought Ernie Garza, Ronny Rios, Erick De Leon. I fought a tough guy out of Philly, Damon Allen. Some good guys. 

What was the process like for you turning pro? 

My original boxing coach, Terry Markowski, who is still a part of Team Aleem, said to me one day, you have x number of fights, it’s time to go pro. And I said OK. It was like that.

Turning pro, being a successful professional fighter, winning a world title, that has always been my goal. It was never going to the Olympics and going for the gold medal. That wasn’t the goal of mine. Mine was to turn pro and win a world title. When Terry said it was time, it was time.

When you started as a pro, you fought off the radar in many small towns and cities in the Midwest that aren't known for being boxing hotbeds. What was the Midwest boxing circuit like? 

Sometimes you have to fight in a hole-in-the-wall. And there’s not a lot of fans. But just because you start there, doesn’t mean you have to finish there. You just have to pay your dues. It sucks, actually. My fourth fight I was on a card that was on HBO. It was the first fight of the night. It wasn't on TV or anything, but still.

And then going from that to fighting in Green Bay or Dodge’s kind of like, “damn.” But it’s part of the game if you want to eventually get to that bigger platform. You have to earn it. And eventually I did. 

One of four knockdowns for Aleem against Pasillas
Photo Courtesy of Amanda Westcott

You had a couple of long layoffs in your career. What were those times in your life like? What did you do to keep yourself engaged in boxing when you couldn't get fights?

It was hard because I was still in the gym training. I was also working at a grocery store called Meijer's and they allowed me to get the time off I needed for sparring. But eventually I just couldn’t get fights. I was 4-0. I fought on an Adrien Broner undercard in Cincinnati. I beat an undefeated fighter [DeVonte Allen] and after that, nobody would fight me. I signed with Cameron Dunkin thinking that I would be all set, that I’d just have to train to get ready for a fight. But I went from having a few fights and then, boom! Everything went stagnant. 

Because of that, I said to myself if I was going to continue to box, I had to do something different. I was tired of listening to trainers, coaches, managers and promoters. I decided to do what Ra’eese Aleem wanted to do. I was still working. I was saving up money. I made a plan. And eventually I made it happen.

Hoping to kickstart your career, you left Muskegon for Las Vegas. Did you know anyone in Vegas? Did you have any boxing contacts there? 

I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t know anybody. No family. No friends. No support system. I just went for me. 

Once I got here, now I’m like, what do I do? I have to find a gym. I google the closest boxing gyms near me. I find Barry's Boxing Gym. So, I go there. Now I have to find a coach. It was a little bit of a process. 

Augie Sanchez was there. We started to work together, but he worked with the USA team, and I wasn’t really feeling that because I needed someone who could be focused on me. 

So I just decided to train myself. I was grinding and training myself for a while, almost a year and a half. And then I had an opportunity to fight an undefeated fighter. I dominated that fight [his first bout with Marcus Bates] and that started the domino effect where I am today.

How did you link up with your current trainer, Bobby McCoy? 

He’s actually from Barry's Boxing Gym, the first boxing gym I went to. That's where we met. For some reason, the coaches there didn’t want me and him to hit the mitts or anything like that at first. I’m not sure why. But eventually we hit the mitts and we became cool. You know, he’s not 20 years older than me. We’re around the same age. We’re kind of just boys. We hung out a little bit. But I was still doing my thing.  

After I won my fight [the first Bates fight], I wound up being trained by Bones Adams. Bones trained me for a little bit, but we decided to go our separate ways. Then I was thinking about some things and I decided to hit up Bobby. If I ever needed someone to work my corner if Bones couldn’t make it, or if something was going on, Bobby would be there. If I needed someone to hit the mitts, I would hit the mitts with Bobby. That’s how we really started to work with each other. Then we had a conversation. We talked business. And then we were like, let’s make it happen. 

How did you wind up being promoted by Marshall Kauffman and King's Promotions? 

We were trying to fight undefeated fighters, guys with winning records, and even good guys that had losing records. We were just trying to get a fight. And nobody would want to fight me. We were in talks with Top Rank. We were in talks with Golden Boy. Victory Boxing in Florida. Roy Jones Boxing. But it seemed like everyone was kind of dragging their feet. 

Marshall, he does a lot of shows. He’s very active. Terry Markowski talked with him. We had an opportunity to fight an undefeated fighter, Marcus Bates, and that was Marshall’s fighter. 

This is the kind of fighter that I am. I’m coming off an almost two-year layoff, move to a new city and train myself for a year and a half. I have an opportunity to fight an active, undefeated fighter with seven or eight knockouts in his nine wins, and I jump at the opportunity.

And that's how we got hooked up with Marshall. And I’m very grateful for Marshall for giving me the opportunity to make that fight and to sign me and to believe in me. 

In your opinion, why weren't some of the big promoters interested in signing you? 

I think it’s because I’m from a small town. I’m from a town that nobody’s heard of in Michigan. Yeah, maybe he’s 10-0 but he’s never fought anybody. Maybe he’s fought all bums. 

But had I been born in Vegas or born in New York or Florida or Cali, it would be completely different. Nobody could convince me otherwise. It’s just because I’m from Muskegon, Michigan. They had never produced a world champion.

Aleem victorious over Pasillas
Photo courtesy of Amanda Westcott

Growing up, who were some fighters that influenced you? 

I liked Mike Tyson. I liked how ferocious he was inside the ring and outside the ring. Whether he was talking shit or knocking somebody out, I always liked that about him. 

How much tape do you study on an opponent? How much did you study Pasillas before your fight last Saturday? 

If there’s tape, I try to watch. I want to get an idea of what he has. For Pasillas, I watched his last fight. That’s the only fight that I saw. First, I watched the highlights and then I saw the full fight, but I only watched it once all the way through. The difference between the last guy Pasillas fought [Ranfis Encarnacion] and me is that I'm a completely different animal. The guy he fought last was a tree. No foot movement. No head movement. Nothing. Yeah, he was undefeated, but he wasn't anything like me. Vic Pasillas is an outstanding fighter and made that guy look like a bum. I wanted to make sure I brought my A-game against Pasillas. And I did.

You work out sometimes three times a day. At 30 years old, an age that isn't young for your weight class, how do you draw the line between staying fresh versus burning yourself out?

It’s really just listening to your body. Training for Pasillas, there was a day where we were supposed to spar 10 rounds. But I listened to my body. I know how hard I work. And instead of ten rounds, I said we’re going to go five, and then we’re also going to do this and that. You have to be able to adapt and adjust. I know what it takes to perform at an elite level. I know the type of shape I have to get my body in. I have to be able to listen to my body. 

I’ve listened to coaches before. “You should do this. You should do that.” And I’ve done it. And I’ve had injuries, or something doesn’t go the way it should. So, I don’t listen to anybody else anymore. I do what Ra’eese Aleem wants to do. If I want to do three-a-days, I’m going to do three-a-days. And I’m going to listen to my body and I’m going to act accordingly.

I know that you're an avid practitioner of yoga. How has yoga helped you in your boxing career? 

I think it’s helped tremendously. You know all the things that fighters may be scared to do for whatever reason or they refuse to do; those are the things that I want to do. Working those little muscles, you know, muscles you don’t usually work. Controlling your breathing. It’s all good stuff. It’s nothing but beneficial. I feel like it helps me. And I display that in my performances.

You had a commanding performance against Pasillas and made a big statement in the junior featherweight division. What's next for you in the boxing ring? 

It should be a world title fight. Anything other than a world title fight I’m going to be livid. I’m going to mad, disappointed, whatever the word is, I will be that. I’m ready for the opportunity. I won a world title eliminator last fight. After this fight, I’m now in the mandatory position. You know, these fighters can’t duck and dodge me forever. I’m ready to fight any current world champion. I want to fight for the world title in let’s say May/June. Win it, and then defend it before the end of the year. That's what I want to achieve.

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. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

This week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast featured our 2020 Awards. Brandon and I highlighted the good and the bad from the year. We brought out our crystal balls to make predictions for boxing in 2021. We also recapped the Ryan Garcia-Luke Campbell fight. There was a lot to like about Garcia's performance, but several important questions still remain.  To listen to the podcast, click on the links below: 

Also, find us on Spotify: Punch 2 the Face Radio: Award and 2021 Preview Show. 

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. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Opinions and Observations: Garcia-Campbell

Let's talk about deception and power. In the second round of Saturday's fight with Ryan Garcia, Luke Campbell landed a couple of solid straight lefts to the body. Later in the round as Luke cocked his left, Garcia immediately brought his hands down to anticipate the body blow. Instead, Luke followed through with a sharp, rear left hook to Garcia's head. The shot caught Garcia by surprise and sent him to the canvas. 

In an almost mirror image scenario later in the fight, Ryan Garcia moved in to throw a left hook in the seventh round. Earlier in the match, at the end of the fifth, he had cracked Campbell with a powerful left hook to the head to finish off a combination. At this moment in the seventh, Garcia fixed his eyes directly at Campbell's head. Campbell instinctively lifted his arms to protect himself from the shot upstairs, but Garcia delivered the punch instead to Luke's liver. Campbell absorbed the shot and then took a step back. He dropped to the canvas on one and then two knees. He was in agonizing pain; he couldn't beat the count. 

Garcia (left) landing a hook on Campbell
Photo courtesy of Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos

So, was Garcia-Campbell just about punching power – that Garcia had more, and that was that? Not quite. Campbell's knockdown of Garcia was the first time that Ryan had been dropped in his professional career. Now Campbell isn't the world's biggest puncher, but he is a solid hitter. However, Garcia recovered from the blow fairly well and by the end of the next round he was solidly in control of the action. In a positive sign for the development of his career, Garcia didn't panic upon hitting the canvas. He didn't junk his game plan or make repeated mistakes while under duress. And notably, he didn't get hit by that same Campbell deceptive left hook throughout the rest of the fight. Yes, he got caught early in the fight, but he made sure he didn't fall for the same trap twice; he made adjustments. Campbell did get through with a number of solid connects in the fifth and seventh rounds, but he wasn't able to land anything with the same type of menace in which he did in the second. 

As for Campbell, it would have been nice to see him fight with more urgency after scoring the knockdown. Of course Garcia possessed a lot of power and one needed to be wary of that factor; however, Campbell may have let Garcia off the hook to a degree. Campbell at the very least should have pressed Garcia to begin the third, but he was content to lay back and pick his shots cautiously. 

Similar to previous defeats against Linares and Lomachenko, Campbell certainly didn't embarrass himself in the ring. He competed. But he didn't execute a winning game plan against Garcia. With the exception of the knockdown round in the second, it was tough to pick another round in the fight where it was obvious that he dominated the action. He possesses numerous skills in the ring, but consistently asserting himself against higher-level competition isn't one of them. Campbell can be a little too passive. He's competent and well-schooled, but he has lacked that extra bit of menace needed to thwart the best in the division. 

As for Garcia, he now has a number of potential mouth-watering fights available to him at 135 lbs. between other young guns such as Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney. And although his stoppage of Campbell was impressive, there are areas that he will need to improve to beat the best fighters in the division (which also include Teofimo Lopez and Vasiliy Lomachenko). But let's take a moment to delve into what should and shouldn't be fixed as he continues his development. 

One aspect that critics of Garcia harp on is his flat-footedness. Garcia stands upright with a wide stance. It's a stance that many pure punchers use (Tommy Hearns is a textbook example). Because Garcia possesses a significant amount of range and his power can explode from distance, he's not one that needs to maneuver his body to create angles to land his best punches (although he did just this in his knockout of Campbell). To me his lack of mobility isn't necessarily a flaw, just an aspect of his style. I think making Garcia a far more mobile fighter is akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. He is a menace BECAUSE he can land big shots from range. That's an attribute that separates him from many top lightweights. Changing his offensive setup and his preferred method of attack would be completely wrong in my opinion. 

Garcia after his knockout victory
Photo courtesy of Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos

But he has serious defensive issues that must be addressed. The most vital one to me is how he throws his right hand. Often you will see his body move forward before his right hand does. Although he possesses fantastic hand speed, in those brief moments where his hand is behind his body, he can be countered with a quick left hand; his whole right side is unprotected. Campbell noticed that flaw and tried to exploit it, but wasn't able to land the home run counter in that tight space and timeframe. But it's certainly possible for skilled southpaws such as Davis and Lomachenko to connect when seeing that opening. 

Furthermore, Garcia throws everything with such force that he will always leave himself open for quick counters. Now his balance is always good and he's not often out of position, but his shots are long and quick counterpunchers will have opportunities against him. Again, it's not that Garcia needs to change himself as a fighter, but perhaps it will help him to vary the pace and force of his shots a bit to make it harder to be timed. Nobody wants to see Garcia afraid to throw his power shots, but not everything needs to be unfurled with knockout intentions. In fact, by changing the force of his punches, he might even find more success. 

But let's be fair here as well. Almost all 22-year-olds have areas where they can improve – even Davis and Haney. Good-looking, knockout artists don't grow on trees in the sport and Garcia, win or lose, is going to create memorable nights of boxing. There's certainly no guarantee that he will emerge as the best of the young fighters in his peer group, but there's also no reason why he has to be. He goes for it; he wants knockouts; he wants to entertain. He can be a big part of growing U.S. boxing. If he doesn't win all of his fights, that's OK; almost all fighters take losses. At this early age he has a desire to fight the best and stop opponents in style. Let's hope he continues in this vein. Many fighters at his age look the part, that proving themselves against top fighters takes precedence over other factors. But sometimes when money and distractions get in the way, that tune can change abruptly. 

For now, let's hope that Garcia continues to learn from trainer Eddy Reynoso and stablemate Saul Alvarez. He has the right pieces in place and the potential opponents on the horizon to make a real name for himself in the sport. The progress he needs to make to get to the elite level is real, but even if he remains "just" a telegenic and flawed knockout artist, that's perfectly acceptable as well. The sport needs those who can deliver entertainment. Those fighters keep the industry humming.   

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. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

The 2020 Saturday Night Boxing Awards

For many reasons 2020 will be a year long remembered. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, major boxing events shut down for almost a quarter of the year. However, the sport returned from its hiatus with a strong showing. As 2020 has come to an end, there was more than enough great boxing, even in this truncated year in the sport, to hand out the hardware. 

Here are the 2020 Saturday Night Boxing Awards (the tenth annual edition), with accolades given for Fighter, Fight, Knockout, Round, Upset, Trainer, Promoter, Network and Referee. 

Fighter of the Year: Teofimo Lopez

For a number of years the moniker "The Takeover" has been used by Teofimo Lopez's team and supporters when referring to his quest to become a top fighter. In 2020, that hope became a reality as he outboxed Vasiliy Lomachenko, one of the best talents in the sport. In the past, Lopez had displayed exceptional power and quick reflexes, but his performance against Lomachenko was something even greater. 

Lopez, who can be overly-emotional in the ring, fought with poise, focus and expert technical ability as he continued to put rounds in the bank in the first half of their fight. Realizing that Lomachenko's two main strengths were his ability to create angles and his daredevil forays into close range, Lopez stopped both. When Lomachenko tried to get to the outside to land odd-angled shots, Lopez turned with him and often met him with left hooks to keep Lomachenko at bay. When Lomachenko would dart inside, Lopez countered with quick rights and uppercuts to the body. Not only was Lomachenko ineffectual in the first half of their bout, but he barely let his hands go.  

Teofimo Lopez with a boatload of belts
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams

Lomachenko did have success in the second half of the fight. His psychological pressure and willingness to take risks resulted in Lopez fading in a number of rounds in the back half of the bout. However, Lopez left no doubt on the proceedings in the final round as he pasted Lomachenko with right uppercuts throughout the three minutes. And make no mistake; Lomachenko was significantly shaken up from Lopez's power shots. 

Ultimately, Lopez won by a wide unanimous decision, but it was not just about the upset victory which earned him the Saturday Night Boxing Fighter of the Year; it was the comprehensiveness of his performance. He demonstrated than he is much more than an explosive power puncher. Displaying excellent Ring IQ, athleticism, punch variety and technique, he established himself as one of the best fighters in the sport.  

Previous SNB Fighters of the Year:
2019: Saul Alvarez
2018: Oleksandr Usyk
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: Jose Zepeda-Ivan Baranchyk 

This matchup of top-ten junior welterweights was highly anticipated by the boxing cognoscenti, but few could have predicted the madness that would ensue. In five rounds the fight contained eight, yes, eight knockdowns, with each boxer hitting the canvas four times. And there was perhaps even a ninth knockdown that wasn't called by referee Kenny Bayless.  

The hard-charging Baranchyk started the fight like a house on fire, flooring Zepeda twice in the first round. Now neither of these shots landed 100% cleanly and arguments can be made that both hit Zepeda on the back of the head (which technically is illegal), but Baranchyk's counters were so fast that where they landed was almost imperceptible to the naked eye in real time. This was a new wrinkle in Baranchyk's game. Where in the past he had always had tremendous power, now he was focusing on speedy counters instead of big, telegraphed shots. It's not that Zepeda was badly hurt by these blows, but he couldn't defend them.  

In the second round, Zepeda worked his way back into the fight, displaying a blistering left hand, and more importantly the educated footwork to create space to deliver the shots. In fact, his footwork was so tidy that he landed a left uppercut from behind Baranchyk that wound up dropping him. Bayless didn't count the knockdown in that there was a previous right hook that clearly landed behind the head. Moments later Zepeda landed a chopping left counter that dropped Baranchyk officially for a knockdown. And unlike Zepeda in the first round, Baranchyk was seriously hurt. Zepeda sensed his opponent's distress. He rushed in as Baranchyk was against the ropes, but was met by a fierce Baranchyk counter right hand. Zepeda hit the canvas for the third time in the bout. This time there was no debate on whether it was a clean shot; it landed flush.  

As the fight progressed, Baranchyk continued to display menacing moments, but Zepeda was the one who was slowly gaining control of the action. A masterful series of left hands dropped Baranchyk in the third round and a couple of right hands followed by a left hook led to a knockdown in the fourth. Zepeda, a southpaw, threw all sorts of left hands throughout the fight – crosses, hooks, uppercuts. Baranchyk had difficulty in figuring out the trajectory and angle of many of these shots.  

In the fifth (more on this round later in the article), both fighters again exchanged knockdowns, but it was Zepeda's right hook/straight left combo that ended matters. In an all-out war, Zepeda was the last man standing. Zepeda-Baranchyk was an unforgettable night of boxing and one of the best fights of the past ten years. It's richly deserving of Fight of the Year.  

Previous SNB Fights of the Year:
2019: Inoue-Donaire
2018: Chisora-Takam
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 (tie) Alexander Povetkin KO 5 Dillian Whyte, Gervonta Davis KO 6 Leo Santa Cruz 

Both of these bouts featured majestic, fight-ending left uppercuts. Povetkin's was part of a masterful intellectualized fight sequence while Davis' was an example of instinctive improvisational brilliance. Both were exceptional shots and can be used as textbook cases to teach aspects of the sport.  

By the end of the fourth round of his fight, Povetkin was in a lot of trouble. Dropped twice in the round, he looked only one of two shots away from being knocked out. But he opened the fifth with a bit of daring. Visualizing a sequence of punches before it even started, Povetkin executed a fight-ending knockout with mastery. He applied pressure on Whyte, which forced Whyte, who likes space to land his punches, toward the ropes. Povetkin then threw an ineffectual jab to which Whyte countered with a lazy right hand. But even before Whyte threw the right, Povetkin was starting to duck to his left. After Whyte missed with his right, Povetkin maneuvered himself into a position where Whyte was completely unguarded against the ropes. Povetkin then followed with a left uppercut straight up the middle. In an instant Whyte collapsed and landed under the ropes. He never saw the shot coming. It was a brilliantly conceived and executed fight sequence by Povetkin. 

Gervonta Davis throwing an uppercut
Photo Courtesy of Esther Lin/Showtime

Gervonta Davis and Leo Santa Cruz were waging a fierce battle over the first five-and-half rounds of their fight. Santa Cruz was flashing volume and clever shots from the outside while Davis was connecting with thudding power punches from close range. As the sixth round progressed, Santa Cruz had a lot of success with landing straight right hands off the ropes. However, he started to go to this well too often. Toward the end of the round he landed two straight rights, and then he threw a third. Davis evaded the shot and ducked down to his left. He cocked his left hand and followed through with an absolutely pulverizing uppercut. The shot was devastating and Santa Cruz remained motionless on the canvas for several seconds before coming to his senses. Davis' knockout was a wonderful display of making technical changes mid-round and mid-fight.  

Previous SNB Knockouts of the Year:
2019: Nonito Donaire KO 6 Stephon Young
2018: Naoya Inoue KO 1 Juan Carlos Payano
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: Jose Zepeda-Ivan Baranchyk, Round 5 

In truth, the second round of the fight may have even been better than the concluding round, but the final minute of the fifth encapsulated the nature of this battle perfectly. Despite being knocked down in the third and fourth rounds, Baranchyk continued to come forward and throw blistering power shots. With 39 seconds left in the round he landed an overhand right with such force that Zepeda needed the ropes to hold him up. Baranchyk continued with follow up shots but referee Kenny Bayless correctly ruled that the right hand had caused a knockdown, which was the fourth one Baranchyk scored in the fight. 

As he had previously in the fight, Zepeda gathered himself after the knockdown and went back to work. Just 23 seconds later he connected with a right hook/straight left combination and...well, I'll let ESPN's Bernardo Osuna, who was doing play-by-play, take it from here: "Big left hand! He bends the leg! And this fight is done! What a knockout from Jose Zepeda!"  

This round demonstrated the almost insane recuperative powers of both fighters. In addition, these two warriors never stopped trying to impose themselves on the other, even if they had to eat big shots and couldn't fully trust their chin or legs. Neither would be denied. In the end, that final combination from Zepeda concluded matters, but both had to survive hell for five punishing rounds.  

Previous SNB Rounds of the Year:
2019: Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Round 3
2018: Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury Round 12
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: Robert Helenius TKO 4 Adam Kownacki 

Entering 2020, undefeated Adam Kownacki was on the verge of receiving a heavyweight title shot. He had been in contention for a fight with Anthony Joshua in 2019 and there were rumors of him fighting Deontay Wilder some time in 2020. However, he had to beat Robert Helenius to keep momentum going in his career. Helenius, already 35, was a decent heavyweight prospect eight or nine years ago, but injuries and some ineffectual performances had dulled whatever star he once had. In his last major fight, he had been knocked out by Gerald Washington. So, on the surface, this matchup appeared to be nothing more than a marking time fight for Kownacki, who was perceived to be a couple of levels above Helenius at this point in their respective careers. 

The fight started out according to plan for Kownacki, who was fighting in front of his boisterous hometown support at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Featuring jabs to the body and hard right hands to the body and head, Kownacki imposed himself on the action in the early going. By the end of the first round, there was already redness on Helenius' nose. With the exception of a brief foray from Helenius midway through the second round, Kownacki continued to get the better of the fight, banging away with power shots.  

Throughout the first three rounds, Kownacki was clearly having his way, but Helenius executed a series of crafty maneuvers that would later pay off. At times he countered effectively off the ropes as Kownacki lunged in. He turned southpaw at the end of the third and hurt Kownacki with straight lefts. He would pot-shot as Kownacki rushed in to close the distance. Kownacki was winning, but he was making a lot of mistakes, which Helenius quickly identified. 

The fight turned for good in the fourth. After Kownacki lunged in, Helenius landed a blistering right hand with his back to the ropes. He connected with a number of solid follow up shots in the exchange and Kownacki stumbled to the canvas. Referee David Fields (who is usually excellent) did not award Helenius the knockdown, but it was clear that Kownacki wasn't on solid footing as the action resumed. Despite Fields disallowing the knockdown, Helenius knew what he saw: his opponent was hurt. He dropped Kownacki with the next right hand he threw. Kownacki beat the count, but there was a lot of the round still to go. Helenius charged forward and expertly placed right and left hooks around Kownacki's gloves, with each power shot taking more out of the contender. After a barrage of debilitating shots, Fields stopped the fight. In a few short moments Helenius went from supposed cannon fodder to notching the most impressive win of his career.    

Previous SNB Upsets of the Year:
2019: Andy Ruiz TKO 7 Anthony Joshua
2018: Rob Brant UD Ryota Murata
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: Teofimo Lopez Sr.  

Teofimo Lopez Sr. had his son prepared for whatever Vasiliy Lomachenko was going to bring to their fight. They were ready for Loma stepping to the outside, for his forays into the pocket, for his circling. And for every move by Loma in the first seven rounds of the fight, Lopez had an almost perfect response or countermeasure.   

Even more than technical proficiency, Lopez Sr. instilled in his son the method of how they were going to win the fight: focus, patience, opportunism and moderation. Perhaps the most impressive part of Lopez's victory was his poise in the ring. His mistakes were few. He was content to land single shots instead of take unnecessary risks opening up. He knew when to go to the body and why a left hook would work in a given circumstance.  

But maybe the most important lesson that Lopez conveyed to his son for the fight was not to be greedy. Don't force things. Land your punch and move on. The knockout won't be the key to winning the fight. And that his son, a knockout artist, did buy into the plan of patience and moderation speaks wonders of Senior's ability to formulate a strategy and convince his pupil to believe in it. Teofimo Lopez Sr. helped author the biggest win of 2020. It was an upset performance, yet, in the ring, it was his 23-year-old who was the more prepared in the ring, and able to execute on the grand stage.

Previous SNB Trainers of the Year:
2019: Eddy Reynoso
2018: Anatoly Lomachenko
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: Top Rank   

Top Rank had many of the best and/or biggest fights of 2020, including Wilder-Fury 2, Moloney-Franco 1, Zepeda-Baranchyk and Lomachenko-Lopez (for a number of these fights they acted as co-promoters with other organizations).  And although Top Rank certainly deserves credit for their slate of fights during the year, it's what they did during the pandemic that cements their role as Promoter of the Year.  

Fury celebrating after his victory over Wilder
Photo Courtesy of Mikey Williams

As every major network and promoter decided to sit out a large portion of the year during the pandemic, Top Rank took it upon themselves to be leaders in the industry. Not only were they the first major promoter back after the pandemic started, but they worked with the Nevada Athletic Commission to come up with protocols for how the sport could proceed safely given the myriad challenges associated with COVID-19. These subsequent protocols were made available to other networks and organizations to help them restart their own boxing programs. Top Rank wound up returning in June, months before many of their competitors did.  

Throughout much of June and July Top Rank programmed two live fight cards a week. By the end it became almost comical with how many main events had been cancelled due to COVID or injury, but it was truly amazing, given the circumstances, how many competitive fights were broadcasted during those initial "Fight Bubble" telecasts. Furthermore, Top Rank opened up their fight cards to dozens of unsigned fighters, a number of whom proved to be quite talented.  

Bob Arum, Brad Jacobs (who was point man in establishing the COVID protocols), Brad Goodman (their matchmaker), and the whole Top Rank team deserve credit for working to bring boxing back after the hiatus, and filling the schedule with a number of memorable fights. The company believed that the show must go on, and they were leaders when the sport needed someone to fill the leadership void. Kudos to them for a great year.  

Previous SNB Promoters of the Year:
2019: Matchroom Sport
2018: Premier Boxing Champions
2017: K2 Promotions
2016: Matchroom Sport
2015: Golden Boy Promotions
2014: Matchroom Sport
2013: (tie) Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank 
2012: Golden Boy Promotions
2011: Top Rank 

Network of the Year: ESPN 

During the pandemic ESPN turned to boxing and Top Rank to help fill the void in its programming schedule. Throughout most of June and July, the network featured at least two live fight cards a week. And throughout the rest of the year, boxing was a regular presence on the network. But more than that, they had several excellent fights (listed in the Promoter of the Year Award section). ESPN also worked with Top Rank to program a number of themed nights of classic boxing, including several fights with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao that were welcome additions to the televised classic fights canon.  

On the telecast side, ESPN has finally gotten its act together. Pairing down its main broadcast team to Joe Tessitore, Andre Ward and Tim Bradley, the trio has gelled and improved as a unit. Bradley mixes in funny and profound thoughts on the sport. Ward supplies the right amount of cold water on the proceedings with his demanding sense of excellence. And when Tessitore calls the action straight, he can be incisive. The network has also found useful roles for Bernardo Osuna (who is also excellent whenever he does play-by-play) and Mark Kriegel. There was no close second to ESPN in 2020. The other major boxing networks had poor years overall (in fairness the pandemic had much to do with this).   

Previous SNB Networks of the Year:
2019: DAZN
2018: Showtime
2017: Showtime
2016: Sky Sports
2015: No award given
2014: ESPN
2013: Showtime
2012: BoxNation

Referee of the Year: Michiaki Someya 

This award was won on the last day of the year, with Michiaki Someya's perfect stoppage and flawless technique during the Kazuto Ioka-Kosei Tanaka fight on Dec. 31st. In an interview I conducted with Hall of Fame referee Steve Smoger a few years ago, he talked about the concept of a tight perimeter. Meaning, for certain fights, or at certain portions or moments of a bout, a referee needed to be much closer to the action. Two scenarios in particular where this applied were matches that included a lot of fouling and bouts where one fighter had already taken a substantial amount of damage.  

Kosei Tanaka, a three-division champion who was moving up to fight for a title at 115 lbs., had already been knocked down twice heading in to the eighth round. However, he kept pressing forward and was landing his fair share of power shots. Suddenly, Ioka, the defending 115-lb. champ, connected with a vicious right hand/left hook combination; Tanaka was immediately out on his feet. Not only did Someya wave off the fight before Tanaka hit the canvas, but Tanaka never did hit the canvas a third time; Someya was there to prop him up and prohibit him from taking a dangerous fall. Someya then patiently walked Tanaka back to his corner where he would receive proper medical attention from the ringside medical staff.  

Someya's sound judgement coupled with his immediate actions may have helped Tanaka avoid serious harm. On this day, Someya helped protect a fighter and performed his duties in an exemplary and exceptional manner. He is a deserved winner of the Referee of the Year.  

Previous SNB Referees of the Year:
2019: No award given
2018: Jack Reiss
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. 
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