By Rory Hickey: 2021 has been an eventful, fruitful year for boxing. I usually hate how the month of December becomes a retrospective of the entire year, like there is some exam on the last twelve months coming. But in this case, remembering all the twists and turns can be difficult in a year with great fights, massive upsets, and lots of intrigue. It can be tough to remember what happened last week, let alone twelve months, 365 days, or eight Kambosos-Lopez date changes ago.
In March, Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada battled in the long-awaited rematch of their first fight in 2012. Somehow in this instance, the sequel exceeded the original. Estrada and Chocolatitio threw punches in bunches. 2,529 punches were thrown by the two men, setting a new super flyweight record, as Estrada won a controversial split decision to even his record against Chocolatito to 1-1. A deciding third bout will likely take place in January.
Speaking of trilogies, in October, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder had the third installment of their contentious rivalry to decide the big dog in the heavyweight division. As many expected, Fury bested Wilder to give their trilogy an ultimate conclusion. Wilder’s performance and persistence in defeat gave his reputation a boost. The lineal heavyweight champion wrapped up his 2021 by serenading legendary promoter Bob Arum with renditions of “Happy Birthday” and “American Pie” in celebration of Arum’s 90th birthday. Fury’s birthday stylings came just before Vasiyil Lomachenko defeated Richard Commey in a battle of former lightweight champions.
In the crowd at Madison Square Garden for Lomachenko’s victory was his friend and fellow Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk. In late September, Usyk stunned Anthony Joshua to take Joshua’s heavyweight championships and upset the lucrative apple cart of Joshua facing Fury in a heavyweight super-fight. Usyk has said he would consider returning to his old weight class of cruiserweight to face boxing’s cash cow, Canelo Álvarez.
2021 was yet another banner year for Canelo. In February, the unremarkable Avni Yildrim won the golden ticket to get a career-high payday and be cannon fodder for Canelo in a “stay busy” fight. The remainder of the year was the conclusion of Canelo’s quest to become the undisputed super middleweight champion. In the traditional Cinco de Mayo weekend bout, Billy Joe Saunders had his undefeated record and right orbital bone smashed to bits by Álvarez. After successfully defending his three belts Canelo had one opponent in mind for his final bout of the year– Caleb Plant and his IBF super middleweight championship. In what was a more competitive bout than most anticipated, Plant held his own before finally succumbing to Canelo in the eleventh round. Having secured his quartet of gold at 168 pounds, Álvarez now has his sights on the cruiserweight division.
Canelo Álvarez is now undisputedly the biggest household name in the sport, as Manny Pacquiao announced his retirement following his loss to Yordenis Ugas. Ugas was across the ring from Pacquiao only because Errol Spence had a retinal tear and needed to withdraw from the fight just seven days before the bell rang. Though calling any boxing retirement permanent is foolish, Pacquiao has other matters to keep him busy, namely campaigning to become president of the Philippines. As for Ugas, he would like to face Spence but will instead fight mandatory challenger Eimantas Stanionis.
Thankfully, Errol Spence will be back in action soon. Ideally, that would be against Terrence Crawford; that fight has been discussed for ages but has yet to materialize. Crawford received a Christmas gift that has been on his list for years, a bout against one of Top Rank’s numerous welterweights in Shawn Porter. Crawford stepped on the gas in the latter stages of the fight to beat Porter, who announced his retirement post-fight.
Before moving up to welterweight, Crawford campaigned at the 140-pound division, where he became the undisputed super lightweight champion. Less than four years after Crawford unified the division, Josh Taylor matched the feat in 2021. Taylor bested Juan Carlos Ramirez in a highly anticipated unification bout at the end of April. Each man walked into Las Vegas with two titles, and Taylor emerged with all four.
We also seemed poised to have a unified champion at the 154-pound division when Jermell Charlo vs. Brian Castano faced each other on July 17th with all four belts on the line. An exciting fight was marred by controversial judging, as the bout ended in a split decision draw. The fate of the junior middleweight division remains in limbo as a Charlo-Castano rematch will likely occur in February.
Moving down a couple of weight classes, the lightweight division crammed nearly a decade’s worth of intrigue into 2021. To close the year, George Kambosos Jr. shocked Teofilmo Lopez in a contender for the fight of the year to win Lopez’s belts and potentially send Lopez up to the 140-pound division. Kambosos flew to Las Vegas the following weekend to watch Devin Haney successfully defend his lightweight belt against JoJo Diaz. Gervonta Davis, who defeated Mario Barrios and Isaac Cruz this year, will hopefully factor into an undisputed champion at 130 pounds. Hovering like a dark cloud above these champions is the previously mentioned Vasiyil Lomachenko, who recently compared himself to Voldemort because no one will say his name. Lomachenko’s shoulder is finally healthy, and he looked as formidable as ever in 2021. Then there is the talented, Instagram-famous Ryan Garcia. He came off the canvas to defeat Luke Campbell for a great win two days into 2021- that turned out to be the high point of the year for Garcia. His fight in the summer was scrapped for Garcia to focus on his mental health. He was then to return to the ring in November, only to suffer a significant hand injury in training to have that bout pushed into 2022.
Shakur Stevenson solidified his standing as one of boxing’s top young fighters in the 130-pound division. In late October, Stevenson knocked out the previously unbeaten Jamal Herring to win the WBO super lightweight championship convincingly. Herring had arguably his most impressive victory earlier in the year, dominantly defending his title against Carl Frampton, sending The Jackal into retirement. One of 2021’s fight of the year contenders took place in the 130-pound division. Oscar Valdez knocked out fellow countryman Miguel Bercheldt in a stunning upset that doubled as a contender for the best knockout of the year.
That was boxing in 2021 in a nutshell. I apologize if I missed a fight or overlooked a storyline. And I do realize there are still two weeks left in the year. Forgive me if Artur Beterbiev and Marcus Browne put on an instant classic. If Logan Paul wins another boxing match against someone who is not a boxer, I still would not have included that.
This past year has been challenging in many ways, but boxing has returned to some semblance of normalcy. The sport will never be perfect- bad judging, dream fights not happening, and frustration with sanctioning bodies will always be a part of boxing. The old trope that boxing is dead will be used by sanctimonious writers and trolls on Twitter until the end of time, regardless of the sport’s continued existence. Boxing has thrived in 2021 going into 2022, spanning from the lower weight classes up to the heavyweight division. Fighters across the globe have found success. All there is left to say is that I cannot wait to see what 2022 has in store.