The Year Boxing Bounces Back

2007: The Year Boxing Bounces Back

There is a common misconception in the sports world that while pugilism, glorified by mixed martial arts organizations, is on the rise, boxing has seen better days and is very much on the decline in terms of popularity. Rumors of this sport’s demise, however, have been greatly exaggerated. Boxing hasn’t been as strong as it is right now, a little more than midway through 2007, in over a decade.

The number one reason sports writers are pronouncing boxing dead is the pitiful nature of its historically proudest division, that of the heavyweights. So disturbing is the situation that no one outside of the sport could be expected to name the current heavyweight champion let alone the other three. In reality, though, the division hasn’t been anything spectacular since the mid 1990s when a class chock full of elite champions and worthy contenders populated the scene. When Lennox Lewis ascended the throne and dominated the division just before and into the millennium, the focus shifted toward other divisions, namely those with names like Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. After destroying Mike Tyson in a fight that was the highest grossing in boxing history up until this year, there was nothing left for Lewis to do to capture public interest, and he retired quite justifiably early in 2004. Unfortunately for the sport, the heavyweight division died with his retirement and hasn’t recuperated since.

Boxing had been feeling the effects of that blow for about three years, and, in that time, mixed martial arts started gaining more popularity than ever before. Without recognizable heavyweights, especially a dominant one, knocking out respectable competition on a regular basis, fight fans lost interest and turned their attention to cages where real fights, they believed, were taking place more often and with more determination on the part of the combatants. Aside from a few all out wars like those between Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao and Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, both within two months of each other in 2005, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in boxing to garner the interest of fans that wanted downright blood and guts action.

Either because the sport is too difficult to master or because the competition is immense, no one dominates in the ultimate fighting world the way they oftentimes do in boxing. Fans demand solid matchups where the winner, regardless of the skill level of the fighters, is essentially a tossup. Boxing has recognized these demands and, at long last, has decided to supply them. By making big, desirable fights in quick and painless fashion, boxing seems to be saying that the buck stops here.

Perhaps threatened by the increasing popularity of mixed martial arts, boxing’s top names have come out, both gloves swinging. The first half of 2007 alone seems to dwarf recent years in terms of significant or thrilling bouts. Already, we have witnessed the highest grossing boxing event in the sport’s history in the super fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. While the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight may not have been the most explosive fight in years, it was fought on the biggest of stages and with the highest level of skill.

Mayweather is, without question, the best fighter in the world today and quite possibly one of the greatest of all time. In nearly 40 fights, he has come close to defeat on only one occasion, that being against Jose Luis Castillo in their first go around in 2002, a fight in which Mayweather competed essentially with only one hand as a left shoulder injury plagued him throughout the night. The “Pretty Boy” is very much a boxing virtuoso that, although widely despised for his arrogance and defensive minded approach, will be cherished once he officially retires. One need look no further than Pernell Whitaker, whose style was twice as agonizing as that of Mayweather and brought him a pitiful number of knockouts. The fact that a man of Mayweather’s skill level is still competing and coming off his biggest win to date will make this year one to remember.

Before the De La Hoya-Mayweather super fight, there were plenty of other mouthwatering fights serving as appetizers before the main course, including Juan Manuel Marquez defeating Marco Antonio Barrera in a thrilling slugfest and Juan Diaz unifying his WBA lightweight title with the WBO version held by Acelino Freitas, both fights that produced more action than the big show but failed to receive an acceptable amount of publicity. Diego Corrales put on another brave performance and all out war in falling to Joshua Clottey, before meeting his untimely death a month later. One of boxing’s all time greatest warriors, his loss hurts the sport, but Corrales, God willing, has earned the right to rest in peace. His many contributions to boxing will always be remembered as helping to put boxing in the place that it is right now. Corrales always sought the biggest fights he could get, acknowledging that he would have to “go through hell” to win many of them, especially his epic war with Jose Luis Castillo, which currently stands as almost a shoe-in for the greatest fight of all time. No other sport can deliver the kind of intensity and desire those men brought into the ring that night in 2005.

Speaking of Castillo, he also has finally earned the right to rest, although he has been forced into that position more than anything by wear and tear and a malicious body puncher by the name of Ricky Hatton, who finally looks to have rediscovered the substance that allowed him to defeat Kostya Tszyu two years ago. A knockout over Castillo, who had never been down in his career, made Hatton an immediate star, so big, in fact, that he has landed a super fight of his own against Mayweather in December, a battle between two undefeated fighters in the prime of their careers. Fights like Mayweather-Hatton are what boxing is all about. No longer will we have to worry about viewing that as a dream fight or wondering what could have been. Before the end of the year, we’ll see it firsthand.

July 14 will go down as one of the biggest nights of boxing in years as four significant bouts featuring name fighters took place, all of them delivering solid action. You know it’s a momentous occasion when the return of Roy Jones Jr. is overshadowed by three welterweight fights, one of which saw the Last Action Hero himself, Arturo Gatti, go down swinging for the last time against Alfonso Gomez. Like Corrales, Gatti sought out the biggest fights he could get throughout his career, completely aware that he was in for many a tough bout in doing so. Where one star fell, another was born in Paul Williams, who outhustled Antonio Margarito with an uncomparable workrate, throwing over 100 punches a round, to end the reign of terror of the self-proclaimed “most feared man in boxing.”

Joining Gatti in retirement was Morales, who lost a close, grueling decision to lightweight champion David Diaz in an attempt to become the first Mexican to win a title in four divisions. The loss of Morales, one of Mexico’s greatest and one of the sport’s true gladiators, is another big blow to boxing, but Morales opened the doors for a lot of other warriors in defeat. His epic losses to Pacquiao and even Diaz have put those men in the position to pursue explosive fights against other opponents.

Bernard Hopkins, on the other hand, came out of retirement to take on a man considered to be among the two or three best fighters in the world, Winky Wright. While not a dream fight by any stretch of the imagination, fans long debated who would prevail should their styles ever clash. This year, we got our answer. With expectations as low as you can go in boxing, Hopkins and Wright managed to put on a decent show with Hopkins coming out victorious over his smaller opponent. The win was another notch in the already astounding resume of Hopkins, which grows more impressive with each win and sets him up for assured Hall of Fame status as well as that of an all time great. On the other end of the spectrum, the loss for Wright didn’t hurt his career very much if at all; after all, he was the one moving up in weight to make the fight when some felt he was out of his league competing against the natural middleweights. Although it wasn’t terribly entertaining, it was an important fight for boxing and a good opportunity for both men.

In a fight that was expected to entertain and delivered as promised, undefeated Puerto Rican slugger Miguel Cotto stopped Zab Judah in Madison Square Garden. The raucous New York crowd confirmed that boxing is anything but dead as the fans came out in massive numbers to support their native heroes. There was plenty of good two way action from both big punchers until Cotto eventually overwhelmed Judah with his crowd pleasing style that has made him into a star; in fact, many believe Cotto has already fought his way out from under the shadow of his compatriot predecessor Felix Trinidad.

Cotto-Judah would have been a strong contender for fight of the year had Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez not gone to war with one another over the junior featherweight championship and subsequently decided to do it again. There isn’t a die hard fight fan on the planet that could watch this pair of fights and not anticipate the third encounter that is sure to come in 2008 now that the fighters have split a pair of wins. In March, Marquez climbed off the canvas to damage the nose of Vazquez enough to make his opponent concede. In August, Vazquez bounced back, looking to take care of unfinished business. After a hellacious round three that has to be seen to be believed, Vazquez knocked Marquez down again and made sure to finish him off this time in an explosive bout that takes the cake as the best of the first two-thirds of an already unforgettable year.

The final third of the year could prove to be the best of all.

While none of the matches are expected to surpass the summer bouts in terms of action, they are certainly more significant.

Jermain Taylor, coming off an atrociously boring affair against Cory Spinks, has a refreshingly entertaining bout lined up as he prepares to defend the middleweight crown against number one ranked challenger Kelly Pavlik. Pavlik, like Taylor, is undefeated and has proven to be an explosive fighter thus far, knocking out his top competition, including Edison Miranda in a chaotic slugfest on the undercard of Taylor-Spinks. This challenger may be just what Taylor needs to bring out his aggression and prove himself as a dominant champion. After that, there’s even more good news. If Pavlik wins, a rematch would take place at the super middleweight limit. If Taylor is successful in defending his title, however, another super fight could be in the works against the winner of another super fight between the top two super middleweights taking place this year.

Barrera, another Mexican living legend, is following in the footsteps of his nemesis Morales and retiring this year but not before he attempts to avenge the most devastating defeat of his career. After losing to Marquez, Barrera has finally agreed to take the rematch with Pacquiao that his fans have demanded for four years. While most see this fight as Barrera cashing out, the “Baby Faced Assassin” has been in this position before, namely against Morales in their third fight, in which Barrera pulled out one of his best performances in winning a majority decision. Pacquiao, for his part, always brings excitement whether he’s fighting a Mexican legend or an undefeated unknown. This being his last time in the ring, Barrera will come to fight, and, as long as he lasts, there should be fireworks. If victorious, Pacquiao sets himself up for a rematch of what ended up as runner-up to fight of the year in 2004 against Marquez. The first fight was a sea saw contest that ended in a bloody draw, leaving fans around the world entertained but lacking closure. Considering the current trend, they’ll make the rematch a reality if they want to keep up with the pace set by their fellow competitors.

Another super fight that should be more competitive pits the recognized super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe against the opponent virtually everyone has been demanding to see him take on, WBC and WBA titleholder Mikkel Kessler, in a unification bout for division supremacy. While few in the United States have heard of either of these champions, both men are undefeated and set to stage one of the biggest fights in European boxing history. They collide late in the year with the winner looking at an opportunity to face Hopkins or Taylor.

A week after Calzaghe and Kessler tango in Great Britain, Cotto looks to follow up on his career best win by taking on his greatest challenger yet in Shane Mosley, a man best remembered for twice besting De La Hoya in big boxing attractions. Like all Cotto fights, this one should be all action, and the reward couldn’t be bigger for the winner. If Cotto wins, he will, in all likelihood, be meeting Oscar De La Hoya next May unless of course Hatton is able to conquer Mayweather, in which case Hatton would probably find himself across the ring from the Golden Boy. If Mosley wins, he is expected to continue to pursue a fight with Mayweather in a rivalry that has long been building after Mosley turned Mayweather down back as a lightweight and then again a year ago but has since changed his mind. Pitting the incredible handspeed of the fights together could make for a terrific fight worthy of the megafight billing it will receive.

As boxing fans, we are fortunate that Mayweather has agreed to return and compete against Hatton this winter in the biggest fight matching two undefeated pound-for-pound competitors since Roy Jones Jr. challenged James Toney for the super middleweight crown and the recognition as boxing’s best back in 1994. The megafight between Jones and Toney fell far short of expectations but remains a historically significant affair that highlighted Jones as the best in the world at that time and used today to support the notion that he is one of the best to ever lace up the gloves. After the biggest win of his career against De La Hoya, five division champion Mayweather has agreed to do it at least one more time for us to finish off this terrific year.

The fights previously mentioned here only include what boxing fans would call super fights; that is, fights of great historical significance, those with household name fighters or those all but guaranteeing competition at the highest level. There are plenty of other quality fights on the way between guys few outside of boxing would know about that would qualify as super fights should the competitors develop their names a little more; for example, Joan Guzman and Humberto Soto will duke it out this November to determine a future contender for Pacquiao or Marquez. Guzman is an undefeated boxer-puncher, and Soto has proven himself an effective slugger in racking up an impressive streak of wins. The contrast in styles combined with their hunger for success makes this bout a big attraction for anybody in the know. Unfortunately, uninformed, casual fans will likely miss out.

Undefeated WBA and WBO Lightweight Champion Juan Diaz attempts to unify his title with the IBF version held by Julio Diaz this year in a fight Julio has been pursuing for some time. Juan is a non-stop puncher with a super high workrate, which makes this unification bout a must-see affair. Whoever wins may be seen next, attempting to unify with the WBC Champion, who also happens to be named Diaz, this one being David Diaz, who topped Morales recently. The fact that three fighters with the same last name hold titles in the same division appears confusing but also guarantees marketable fights with sustained action. Throw in the fact that the legitimate champion is Joel Casamayor, and you have no reason to take your eyes off the lightweights.

This weekend features a “Boxing World Cup” between Mexico and the Philippines. As was the case when Mexico defeated Thailand in 2005, each nation has chosen six representatives to compete against those of the other to determine which country currently boasts the best fighters. For starters, Filipino Gerry Peñalosa takes on Mexican Jhonny Gonzalez. Both men have been involved in at least one eye catching battle over the last year. To top things off, Mexico’s junior featherweight champion Daniel Ponce de Leon takes on undefeated Puerto Rican slugger Rey Bautista. Ponce de Leon and Gonzalez are returning team captains for Mexico who scored big wins for their country in the last world cup. Should the series end in a draw, it has recently been announced that the bout between Pacquiao and Barrera would serve as a tiebreaker. This is a great idea for boxing that will evoke great feelings of nationalism in fans, all but forcing them to tune in and root for their compatriots against the best fighters from a rival nation.

Obviously, the sport is doing more than fine without the giant shoulders of heayweights to stand on. With most, if not all of the big fights mentioned here guaranteed to produce not just excitement but action on a high level of skill, this is the time for boxing to take back what it has started to lose in recent years. These megabouts include most of the best fighters in the world, virtually everyone comprising the esteemed pound for pound list. The technical beauty of these matchups is the same thing that might make mixed martial arts fans look the other way. There will be no one-punch knockouts or awkward submissions. Aside from Hatton’s demolition of Castillo, which was exciting while it lasted, all of the major bouts that have taken place thus far in 2007 have lasted at least six rounds, almost all of them much more than that, leaving no fan unsatisfied by the final bell whenever it has come.

Boxing fans will be rewarded this year as they are able to see firsthand the cream of the crop, some of the best fighters in the world having to dig deep and, hopefully, rely on heart in addition to their skills in order to overcome some of the biggest challenges of their careers. Involved in these must-see bouts are nine undefeated fighters, six of whom are pitted against one another, meaning at least three of them will have to bring everything to the table in order to keep their treasured perfect records while three others will suffer inevitable defeats barring draws. The stakes don’t get any higher than that. Fortunately for us, all we have to do is tune in and enjoy watching whatever outcomes unfold. Indeed, the big fights are happening right here right now. This is not the time to be looking the other way.

Now if we could only put an end to irresponsible judging.

One day at a time, fight fans. Like any other sport, boxing has its share of problems, but fortunately for us, matchmaking is not among them at this moment.

Right now, let’s just sit back and enjoy one fight at a time.

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A quick rundown of the non-heavyweight fights you shouldn’t miss this year:

August 11 – Daniel Ponce de Leon vs. Rey Bautista; Jhonny Gonzalez vs. Gerry Peñalosa

September 29 – Jermain Taylor vs. Kelly Pavlik

October 6 – Manny Pacquiao vs. Marco Antonio Barrera II

October 13 – Juan Diaz vs. Julio Diaz

November 3 – Joe Calzaghe vs. Mikkel Kessler

November 10 – Miguel Cotto vs. Shane Mosley

November 17 – Joan Guzman vs. Humberto Soto

December 8 – Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Ricky Hatton

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