I have a growing disdain for “Best of” lists. I understand the importance, especially in topical media coverage of the arts, which boxing is most closely associated with. Since, as an observer or curator, you look at set fights as standalone pieces and can visit them for as long as you derive pleasure. Sure, it’s important and can help people catch up on what they missed, but it still doesn’t stop me from being indifferent to whole thing and not really getting excited to rank people for fictitious awards.
Awards, to my comprehension on this Saturday morning, the day after Christmas, the day after someone lit my dumpster on fire in a jarring visual I thought only existed in a B-level mystery films (yes, that did happen), is to shine light on those who aren’t always given the platform to be celebrated, but by definition, it’s just one writer’s opinion.
This was never more telling than that time in high school when I tried to listen to a random A Tribe Called Quest album that nearly got me beat up at a basketball practice. Sure, it was good. In fact it was the Best Rap Album of the Year according to some magazine, but it wasn’t good enough to turn off “The War Report” by Capone N Noregea in the gym that day. My point? These lists ignore the context, psychology and impact of [insert awardee] on those watching.
Back to boxing. More often than not, the logical, reasonable choice for awarding boxing superlatives tend to get scoffed at. People who watch every match tend to pick fights that only a select few have seen, and had very little impact on the culture of boxing as a whole. Adversely, you can also get into pointless debates or arguments over a fictitious award that is more problematic than it’s worth, like the concept of a pound-for-pound fighter, a black hole for lunacy.
I don’t want to go on YouTube to watch a choppy video that I’m told is good. I more than likely will watch it eventually, but the thought that I pay $70 or so extra dollars a month for networks that consistently don’t show the best fights is frustrating. It’s also frustrating because it seems some just flat out don’t want to give love to fights a lot of people have seen simply because a lot of people have seen them. For every Denis Lebedev vs Guillermo Jones fight that exists on the internet (a gem of a fight, by the way) there also exists a glorified sparring match that might get a bit more praise just because it’s obscure. The “Best of” list seems to be more like an intelligence test. “Look how good I am at navigating the internet to find these obscure fights!” It’s a weird version of “look at my well researched opinion and respect it,” a phrase often mocked by my co-host on The Boxing Shop podcast, “Real” Ray Sanchez.
I can only speak to the life I have lived and the fights I have seen. I watch nearly all of them, and have been blessed to make friends across the country and even now in Europe, all because of the sweet science. If I don’t know the fight, it’s probably because it’s less mainstream and less accessible. I’ll talk about the ones most of us know without having to go six pages deep on Google.
Fighter of the Year
For the past ten years, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have been the best fighters in the world with one exception: 2011, the year Andre Ward won the Super Six tournament. And this year, Mayweather defeated Pacquiao. Shouldn’t this make him the Fighter of the Year? Sure. But if we truly awarded the Fighter of the Year to best fighter of the year, it would become as mundane as watching “Modern Family” win yet another Emmy. So it seems like human nature that voters get bored voting on the same person year after year. Having said that, isn’t it kind of sketchy that we can’t even define “Fighter of the Year” clearly?
Mayweather is the default pick to win Fighter of the Year 2015 since he dominated his biggest foe, Pacquiao. He also fought a decent, but not noteworthy foe in Andre Berto later in the year. If we truly want to honor the award, giving it to the guys who we feel outshone his peers, Mayweather would win by default. But his mega-fight was not as much a mega-fight as it seemed. The general public narrative was that people from the dominant culture at large wanted to see Floyd publicly humiliated for his spousal abuse allegations and for making a lot of money. When he easily defeated Pacquiao, we all had to deal with the fact that despite his personal shortcomings, Mayweather is just really good at boxing, and probably the best ever.
If Floyd is not fighter of the year, then the award is simply a tool for making stars, not unlike how Terrance Crawford won last year. They were less announcing the Fighter of the Year, and more announcing a new, exciting presence in the boxing world. The problem is the other names on this list (Tyson Fury, James DeGale and Badou Jack) are not sexy and carry a lot of baggage.
None of these three were born in the U.S., a trend that will further continue in years to come, but deeper than that, none of these fighters seemed to be guys who anyone thought would be in contention for Fighter of the Year. So in order to vote for one of these guys, you have to 1) have been all in on them all year or 2) admit you were wrong, something we all hate doing.
Let’s start with Fury, who is unapologetically homophobic and sexist. Using a Christian religious justification, he has compared homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia. In the same breath, he will say he loves everyone, which makes him, at best, confusing and hypocritical.
Fury, a pudgy heavyweight who moves like an athletic town drunk, showers your face with grazes before loading up on a hard shot that would leave Mayweather motionless. Borrowing from the Charles Barkley book of “I don’t give a fuck,” Fury greets any criticism of all of his hatespeak by saying he is a role model. A simple thing to do, but also lacks the perspective that just like Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility,” something Fury just wants to avoid.
Fury scares me since he resonates with the Donald Trump-type, the people in America who think political correctness is ruining the country, that being honest about things justifies generalizing and stereotyping. “It’s just his opinion,” said a person on Twitter when I went on a rant about Fury’s contention that women belong in the kitchen. Fury is the new breed of society, the ones who were raised on reality television and find cockiness and cruelty funny since they have never been victims of it. They think it’s just all fun and games, and that Fury is a funny guy with a right to express his “opinions.”
Fury fought twice this year, first dispensing Christian Hammer, a guy I’ve never heard of and I don’t think I even saw the fight. He also beat Wladimir Klitschko, a man who had been unbeaten for a decade or so. It was impressive, but it was about as dull and anti-climactic as that impressive feat could possibly be. Nothing really stands out about this guy’s fighting. Even with one of the most impressive victories of the past six years, it felt more like an indictment of the heavyweight division than a celebration of Tyson Fury.
Badou Jack would be who I would probably vote for if I had a vote. Jack was humiliated after being knocked out by Derek Edwards, a journeyman super middleweight. Jack rebounded to defeat WBC super-middleweight champion, Anthony Dirrell, at the time a top five talent, but since has been mocked for losing that fight. Jack ended the year with a win over another largely unknown commodity in George Groves coming in once again as the underdog in both fights and winning each handily.
At the same time, Jack is so boring and devoid of personality, you wonder if he even would get excited about being Fighter of the Year. At the post-fight press conference after the Jack-Groves bout, I asked him if he felt he was in the running for the award. Jack equivocated dully, basically saying “I am not sure if I am the fighter of the year,” which had everyone puzzled. In a year in which Mayweather Promotions jumped out of the shadows and became a legit competitor in the field of promotion, Jack seemed content to be a background player for the Mayweather brand rather than make a strong case for himself.
I could write about James DeGale, but why bother? He won’t win the award due to inactivity. DeGale is the type of guy who has a lot of skill, but sometimes doesn’t use it. Ironically, he endears himself by seeming like he’s in a lot of close fights, but the truth is, these fights are way closer than they need to be. DeGale’s other distinguishing characteristic is his hybrid body of muscle and fat. It meshes well with his nickname “Chunky,” one given for his admiration of candy.
The award simply comes down to, is a year-end award meant to award the best fighter of the year (which is Floyd Mayweather) or should we give a leg up to someone less dominant?
Fight of the Year
I know this is a big question, but how do we judge what is a good fight? Is a good fight one with low skill and high action (which seems to be the case,) or can a fight with a high level of skill and moderate action still be a contender for Fight of the Year? As I weed through the lists being submitted for this coming media week, I can’t help but think about how much of a snob I have become, although “snob” isn’t the right word.
I am losing my love for just talking strictly about specific fights. I am more interested in the people, the relationships, the gyms, the training, the people who love the fighters, the moments leading up to the fight, the aftermath, the fight within all the beautiful context of the two fighters. Like Tribe vs. Capone, what is “good” has everything to do with the circumstances of the individuals consuming the product. Boxing is no different.
You often see bouts with low skill and a lot of heart being labeled “instant classics,” whereas a highly entertaining bout between Gary Russell Jr. and Vasyl Lomachenko is labeled a snooze fest since neither fighter was willing to forfeit his safety to create excitement for those in attendance at the StubHub Center last summer. In 2015, Tomoki Kameda vs. Jamie McDonnell was entertaining for boxing scholars, but lacked the drama of a true Fight of the Year contender whereas Nathan Cleverly-Andrzej Fonfara lacked a fundamental focus on “hit and don’t get hit,” boxing, but wowed in terms of brutal violence crowd admiration.
While I agree the Fight of the Year can’t be judged on skill alone, it seems to me it doesn’t also have to be based solely on shock and awe. The consensus pick for Fight of the Year this year seems to be a cruiserweight clash between Marco Huck and Krzysztof Glowacki. The bout was brutal enough to inspire awe, skillful enough to not be a street fight, and dramatic enough that both men hit the canvas.
To me, a self-admitted boxing snob, the most enjoyable fights tend to be ones in which two fighters expose one another’s flaws. In the end, the one with more heart wins. It is a simple narrative, and in boxing, simplicity is underrated.
One quick, interesting observation: the world’s best fighters tend to never be in Fight of the Year contention. In many ways, being in a Fight of the Year is almost the kiss of death, because almost by definition, one fighter has a glaring flaw that the more skilled, poised fighter exploits. In short, Fight of the Year is one of the weirdest awards since for those who don’t watch boxing regularly. It is so easy to look up a good fight like Jorge Linares vs. Kevin Mitchell and enjoy it, but it also highlights that both fighters have limited careers because of their flaws.
Prospect of the Year
The most confusing award is Prospect of the Year. This is a vague term that often is summarized as “someone who hasn’t fought for a title.” I have seen incredibly disparate “types” win this award, from 10-0 fighters all the way to guys ranked in the top ten. The sad fact of the boxing media is that most writers don’t attend local shows, and often spend much of the undercard at the bar rather than in the arena. Those who are supposed to be the most qualified often are the most jaded. The fighters that are being pushed by promotions often win this award.
This award is the easiest one to fall on your face. Just this year, I was the foolhearted soul that ranked Amir Imam over Erickson-Lubin, Errol Spence Jr. and I mistakenly ranked Julian Williams dead last. Imam would lose soundly later this year and well, everyone on Twitter reminded me how dumb I am.
From 130 lb-er Andy Vences of San Jose to the lightning fast Sammy Vasquez to the promise of young Erickson-Lubin, the award serves its purpose as a promotional tool. A “this is who you should look for” type thing. Fair warning, the award is open to interpretation. Some see it as a year away from a world title and some view it as very green fighters establishing themselves on the forefront of television. Prospect of the Year is a stylistic guessing game, more useful if consumed as a buffet full of young talent by anyone who wants to find a new fighter.
Upset of the Year
Finally, I want to ramble about the most interesting award, Upset of the Year, which seems to be renamed this year as Comeback of the Year. The idea of this award is not unlike “Most Improved Player” in the NBA, it is a notion of “well, you use to be not good, but now you are, or better than we thought.” It is as backhanded a compliment as possible, but often engages the most dynamic and rich stories, since a talented fighter with a life full of hardships is often nominated for this award.
The award is filled with lovable losers who might just as easily have found themselves at the town’s local watering hole rather than the gym. They’re a “Good Will Hunting” type of character who by destiny or a second chance, redeemed themselves.
This is the only award in which one person stands out to me: Aron Martinez. Most media outlets don’t even spell his name right. Up until 2015, Martinez was a journeyman type fighter engaging in dogs of war type of battles for modest pay. Martinez was most known as the man who turned his back to Josesito Lopez in a fight. Josesito Lopez was no world beater, and Martinez didn’t just lose. He turned his back and quit. So when he faced Robert Guerrero this year (after Guerrero valiantly rallied back against Keith Thurman late in the fight,) it was thought of as a way for Guerrero to get a win on a network, NBC. Think Creed vs. Balboa.
What NBC got was a back-and-forth battle where Guerrero was knocked down authoritatively. He picked himself up from the canvas to come back and win a fight Martinez dominated and some, though not a lot, thought Martinez won (think Creed vs. Balboa). In Martinez’ next fight, one where he was a 19-1 underdog, he outpointed Devon Alexander, a fighter who had been rumored to fight Mayweather not that long ago. In 2015, Martinez went from a farce to an interesting gatekeeper who could conceivably make a run for a world title.
In the end, I get these lists and the point, but I think the “pick just one winner” mentality limits the sport of boxing. In the NBA, NFL and MLB you get a good sample size of players play and for the most part, most teams play each other or enough styles of play that someone stands out. We can compile data and compare quantitative rankings. Boxing is instead like a good book, movie or piece of art. It’s subjective, and there are generally so few bouts for a fighter in a given year, it’s even MORE qualitative in nature.
Add to that that it is often politics between networks, promoters and distribution of fights that play a key role in how we consume a fight, often before we even watch it. Obviously, a pay-per-view fight will seem much more noteworthy than a fight you can see on obscure livestreams that more than half of those reading this probably don’t even know exist. But if you dig into the stories behind the fighters and the fights, if you spread out any fighter’s narrative over time, there is so much more to love about the sport. But by definition, if we’re wrapping up the 2015 year in fighting, we have only 2015 to consider.
Some years feel like the calm before the storm. This year felt that way. Nothing jumped out to me as The Best, although I am encouraged about the future. But that’s just one writer’s opinion.