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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.