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British Boxing 2022 Year in Review

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For British boxing, it was a good year.

Here I select four categories: the British Fighter of the Year, fairly self-explanatory; the British Fight of the Year, that is the best fight contested by two men from the United Kingdom; the British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, that is, the British fighter who breaks into the divisional top-ten for their division, often unexpectedly; and finally the British Prospect of the Year, that is the fighter who has boxed fewer than ten professional contests at the end of 2022 who I think will be worth watching in 2023.

Remembering the last time British boxing didn’t have a great year is becoming more and more difficult.

British Fighter of the Year: Joe Joyce

Tyson Fury, Sunny Edwards, Leigh Wood, and John Ryder might all be seriously considered for the British fighter of 2022 but in the end, Joe Joyce was the name I returned to. His April destruction of Christian Hammer had an almost routine feel to it, a step down after his 2021 ruination of Carlos Takam and Daniel Dubois – but in September, Joyce turned in a performance of genuine pre-eminence, bettering Anthony Joshua by becoming the first man to stop the New Zealander Joseph Parker. It took eleven rounds, but despite Parker’s excellent chin and competent boxing, there was an air of inevitability about this stoppage early and that is what “The Juggernaut” really had to prove: that he could bring the same ceaseless pressure against quality opposition that he could against fellow prospects and slipped contenders. The answer was a resounding “yes.”

See Parker attempt to bomb his apparently slower opponent early in the first. Joyce’s frame is immutable, he holds steady, his massive arms are set in place as Parker punches on and around them. Joyce can ride punches, not the same as defensive soundness in a sport that is scored by judges, but something more fundamental, an ability to avoid the worst attentions of an opponent he wants to punch at him – if Joyce can make opponents routinely exchange, he would expect to win.

And, of course, when someone get through, that chin, a mandible unshaken by the 250lb Parker landing a flush straight-right at the end of round three that Joyce didn’t really seem to notice. Joyce is huge at 6’6 and 270lbs, has an elite engine, astonishing for his weight and range, hits with power, has serviceable footwork that leaves him routinely in a position to punch, which makes his pressure style so allowable at the highest level. Tyson Fury greeted both Oleksandr Usyk and Joe Joyce at ringside after his most recent victory and it was Joyce who caught the eye of Fury’s father, John, who predicted that Fury would lose “at 98%, he’d need to be 100% for that fight” while Usyk would be too small. I agree. Suddenly, Joyce seems the most dangerous man in the heavyweight division.

A final thought: it’s completely unproven at this point and will never be settled completely but it is possible that in Joyce and Deontay Wilder the heavyweight division has the greatest chin and punch in all of history. How tragic it would be if the two never met – but don’t be surprised if they do not.  Wilder is no coward, but Joyce is rapidly becoming the problem the division does not need.

British Fight of the Year: Leigh Wood vs Michael Conlan

Usually, identifying the British Fight of the Year is a glorious charge down this year’s memory lane but for 2022, this was not a requirement. The British Fight of the Year is also the fight of the year anywhere, Leigh Wood’s astonishing twelfth round knockout of Michael Conlan is a lock.

Conlan, out of Belfast, was a storied amateur, and were it not for Katie Taylor, he would have likely been the definitive Irish amateur of the modern era. He turned pro with much fanfare after expressing doubts about the amateur code in which he had become a world champion, and sure enough was fast-tracked to a minor alphabet strap in just fifteen fights.

Wood meanwhile, was in a strange twilight zone between never-would and sort-of-has, returning from a loss of his European featherweight title to surprise in picking up his own minor strap against Can Xu in the summer of 2021. Xu was a prohibitive favourite but was out-boxed for stretches and behind after twelve rounds when Wood stopped him – Conlan, then, was warned.

He posted a warning of his own on the bell of the first round, dropping his man with a winging left-hand creating absolute bedlam at the Nottingham Arena, but Wood seemed clear-eyed despite the close attentions of referee Steve Gray. Wood needed that clarity because the beating he absorbed in the second was substantial. He was battered, moved, and his legs seemed about to leave him. He survived and he chose a range just outside Conlan’s jab and he held it, moving competently, controlling his opponent’s offence, but all while losing rounds. He swallowed slingshot lefts from Conlan all night and somehow boxed his way back into the contest. His watch word was professionalism – Wood was a better professional. He never went away – he stayed in the fight and kept the fight in Conlan’s face. It is worth noting, also, that even in the second round when Conlan thrashed him, Wood insisted on continuing to target the body.

Wood won the tenth; in the eleventh he was hurt to the body by sickening punches but continued to try to position his left foot inside Conlan’s southpaw right and with forty-five seconds remaining the Northern Irishman took his dominance as a signal to make war. This was a mistake. Seconds from the bell, Conan found himself on the ground looking up, immediately insisting he had slipped, but only after having been driven back by that never-erring two-handed attack of Wood.

The roof nearly lifted at the beginning of the twelfth. Let it drown out the “boxing is dead” doomsayers. Wood went one better in the final round, knocking Conlan unconscious and out of the ring.

“I can’t really remember [the knockdown],” Conlan said after the fight. “I’ve got to watch it back. Hopefully it was a good fight for tv.”

It was the best fight fought in Britain since the first Chris Eubank-Nigel Benn contest from 1990.

British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: Liam Davies

At the beginning of 2021, Liam Davies was a six-round preliminary fighter, blowing out professional losers in what barely passed for a workout. By the end of the year he was fighting over ten rounds and had selected his alphabet on-ramp – now, as 2022 comes to a close, he is the British and European 122lb champion and ranks the tenth best fighter of his weight class in the world according to TBRB. Marc Leach was a significant favourite over Davies when they met this summer over twelve, a first for our British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, but he looked huge in the ring, dwarfing Leach and apparently stepping into the ring closer to the lightweight limit of 135lbs. Davies looked for the one-two from the first and flashed Leach after mere seconds to take a lead he never surrendered. All three judges made him the winner. Davies boxed through some serious blood after a cut caused by a clash of heads, and although there was a move in some quarters to diminish the significance of this result after what was seen as an unrepeatable lightning start, Davies dispelled these notions by getting back in the ring just a few months later against Ionut Baluta.

Baluta is a well -known name on these shores for his performances against Michael Conlan (a narrow decision loss) and Brad Foster (who he beat over ten in May). It is fair to say that Baluta represents the style that most troubles Davies, a swarming, aggressive, brawling attack that introduces chaos and uncertainty against a fighter who wants to control distance. The result was a lo-fi classic of hard exchanges and urgent tactical tussles but Davies, despite ceding the territory often, won exchanges with speed, quality and composure, to take a clear decision and become perhaps the world’s most unlikely ranked fighter. He currently has nothing slated, but 2023 will be a huge year for him one way or the other.

British Prospect of the Year: Ben Whittaker

There is a fascinating rematch in Ben Whittaker’s future.

Now 2-0 as a professional light-heavyweight, it was in the 2021 Olympic finals of the same weight-class that the twenty-five-year-old ran up against the legendary Cuban amateur Arlen Lopez. Lopez, already an Olympic and World champion, added a second Olympic title and both men turned professional, perhaps to contest the big prizes in the paid code at some point in the future.

That Olympic final exposed Whittaker’s two great weaknesses. Accurate, quick of foot and hand, tall for the weight-class at 6’3”, he was criticised during his amateur career for a low workrate, preferring to admire his work or await a countering opportunity when his natural distance gives him a chance at a lead-jab. If he slips behind, as he did against Lopez, Whittaker has a dearth of power that may prohibit any come-from-behind dramatics, whatever the ruleset.

That’s plenty for his training team to be going on with, but the training team is headed by the man who turned Tyson Fury from a slickster seeking a decision to a monolith who dominates opponents with meaty punches, SugarHill Steward.  “I don’t need a yes man,” Whittaker commented on Steward’s appointment.  “He’s a teacher of the sport.”

“I like what Ben wanted,” is Steward’s own comment.  “He wanted the hard road.  He wants to be taught; he wants to learn…I believe this man is going to be a superstar.”

For now, Lopez will have to wait, and has his own progress to worry about, his professional record also just 2-0.  If both he and Whittaker keep winning though, these two may meet as superstars somewhere around 2025.

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Alexis Rocha KOs Brave but Overmatched George Ashie on DAZN.

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Golden Boy Promotions’ potted their first offering of 2023 at the recently opened YouTube Theater, a 6,000-seat venue situated inside the stadium built to house LA’s two NFL franchises. The main event was a scheduled 12-round welterweight match between Alexis Rocha, a southpaw from nearby Santa Ana and George Ashie, a 38-year-old Ghanaian making his U.S. debut. Ashie was a late substitute for Anthony Young who reportedly suffered a nose injury in training. The match and supporting bouts were live-streamed on DAZN.

Ashie, who was fighting above his normal weight class and carried a career-high 146 pounds, was brave but out-gunned. Rocha knocked him down in the third frame with a right hook and hurt him several more times as the fight progressed although Ashie never stopped trying. In round six, an accidental clash of heads left Rocha with a nasty cut on his left eyebrow. He fought with more urgency after this incident and knocked Ashie out cold in the next round. The official time was 2:08 of round seven.

It was the fifth straight win for Rocha who improved his ledger to 22-1 (14 KOs). After the bout, he expressed an interest in fighting Terence Crawford. Ashie fell to 33-6-1 (25).

Other Bouts of Note

Floyd “Austin Kid” Schofield, a precocious 20-year-old lightweight, had Albert Mercado on the canvas in the second round but was unable to put him away despite hurting him multiple times and went 10 rounds for the first time in his young career.

Schofield, the 2022 TSS Prospect of the Year, improved to 13-0 (11), winning 100-89 on all three cards. Mercado, a 35-year-old Connecticut-born Puerto Rican, declined to 17-5-1 but retained his distinction of having never stopped.

Super middleweight Bektemir Melikuziev, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist for Uzbekistan who lives and trains in Indio, California, overpowered San Diego’s Ulises Sierra who was on the deck twice from body punches before the fight was waived off at the 2:59 mark of round three. It was the fourth straight victory for Melikuziev (11-1, 9 KOs) after suffering a stunning one-punch knockout at the hands of seemingly shopworn Gabriel Rosado with whom he is pursuing a rematch. Sierra was 17-2-2 heading in with eight of his wins coming in Mexico.

In a match framed as a WBO minimumweight title eliminator, Oscar Collazo (6-0, 4 KOs) scored an impressive fifth-round stoppage of Yudel Reyes. Collazo knocked Reyes down twice in the fifth round, the second with a vicious right hand that put Reyes down so hard that the referee didn’t bother to count. The official time was 2:59 of round five.

In theory, Collazo’s next fight will come against the Filipino Melvin Jerusalem who won the title earlier this month with a second-round stoppage of Masataka Taniguchi in Osaka. Reyes, a 26-year-old Mexican making his U.S. debut, declined to 15-2.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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Artur Beterbiev TKOs Anthony Yarde in a London Firefight

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The presumption, echoed by ESPN boxing commentator Bernardo Osuna, was that tonight’s bout at Wembley Arena in London between Artur Beterbiev and Anthony Yarde would be explosive and entertaining for as long as it lasted. That proved to be true and when the smoke cleared, Beterbiev, the rugged Montreal-based Russian had retained his three light heavyweight title belts and had added another knockout to his ledger, his nineteenth as a pro in as many opportunities.

Both men landed hard shots during the fight and both were marked up at the finish. Yarde had a cut under his right eye and Beterbiev had a cut on his left eyelid.

A chopping right hand from Beterbiev late in the first minute of the eighth round marked the beginning of the end for Yarde, the muscular 31-year-old Londoner who entered the contest sporting a record of 23-2 with 22 knockouts. The punch sent him reeling backward toward his corner where he landed on his knees. He beat the count, but turned toward his corner rather than referee Steve Gray.

Gray let the bout continue, but Beterbiev pressed his advantage and after a few more unanswered punches Yarde’s trainer Tunde Ajayi stepped up on the ring apron and summoned Gray to stop it. The official time was 2:01 of round eight.

Beterbiev hasn’t lost since losing a decision to amateur nemesis Oleksandr Usyk in the quarter finals of the 2012 London Olympics. At age 38, he shows no signs of slowing down.

In his post-fight interview, the self-effacing Russian said, “I hope some day I will be a good boxer,” and acknowledged that he would welcome a unification fight with fellow Russian Dmitry Bivol, the WBA title-holder.

WBA Title Fight

In a bout that was in theory the co-feature but went off during the earlier portion of the ESPN+ livestream, Artem Dalakian (21-0, 15 KOs) retained his WBA world flyweight title with a unanimous and somewhat controversial 12-round unanimous decision over Costa Rica’s David Jimenez (12-1). The judges had it 116-112 and 115-113 twice.

An Azerbaijan-born Ukrainian, Dalakian was making the sixth defense of the title he won in 2018 with a 12-round decision over Brian Viloria in Los Angeles in his lone previous appearance at a venue in the English-speaking world. His five title defenses were in Kiev. Jimenez was coming off a 12-round majority decision over Ricardo Sandoval in what ranked as one of the bigger upsets of 2021.

A Split for the Itauma Brothers

Promoter Frank Warren’s newest signee, 18-year-old heavyweight Moses Itauma, made a big splash in his pro debut, blasting out Czechoslovakia’s Marcel Bode (2-2) in 23 seconds. Moses and his older brother Karol Itauma are sons of a British citizen of Nigerian ancestry and a Slovakian mother.

In a shocking upset, Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna, a 36-year-old Argentine who had lost six of his previous eight fights, forged a fifth-round stoppage of well-touted Karol Itauma who was 9-0 (7 KOs) as a pro coming in. Itauma ate numerous straight right hands before a straight right hand knocked him down for the count. The official time was 1:04 of round five. Maderna improved to 29-10 (11).

Also

The Frankham cousins, super welterweight Joshua and super featherweight Charles, improved their ledgers to 7-0 with 6-round shutouts over their respective opponents. The cousins are grandsons of John “Gypsy Johnny” Frankham, a former British light heavyweight champion.

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Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury on Feb. 26 in a Potential Pay-Per-View Blockbuster

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It’s now official. The twice-postponed “grudge match” between Jake Paul and Tommy Fury will come to fruition on Sunday, Feb. 26, at Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. An 8-rounder contested at a catch-weight of 185 pounds, the match and several supporting bouts will air in the U.S. on ESPN+ PPV at a cost of $49.99.

The hook for this promotion – a come-hither that will be hammered home incessantly in the coming weeks – is that Jake Paul will finally touch gloves with a legitimate professional boxer. Paul’s previous opponents were a fellow YouTube influencer (AnEsonGib), a retired NBA player (Nate Robinson), and three former MMA champions: Ben Askren, Tyron Woodley, and Anderson Silva. He fought Woodley twice.

Tommy Fury, the half-brother of reigning WBC world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, made his pro debut in December of 2018 in a four-round bout in his hometown of Manchester. He was two fights into his pro career when he became a contestant on the TV reality show “Love Island.” An enormously popular show in Great Britain, especially among the coveted 18-34 demographic, “Love Island” was in its fifth season.

Fury was paired with supermodel Molly-Mae Hague with whom he finished second. They developed a great chemistry, on and off the set, became engaged, and purportedly welcomed a baby girl this week.

What about Tommy Fury the boxer? How legitimate is he?

Fury’s record currently stands at 8-0 (4 KOs). His first opponent was a professional loser from Latvia whose current ledger reads 10-113-3. His next six opponents were a combined 4-73-2. Finally, in his last fight, which occurred in April of last year, he met an opponent with a good record, Poland’s Daniel Bocianski, who was 10-1. But look closer and one discovers that all but one of Bocianski’s 10 triumphs came against opponents with losing records. The exception was a 6-round decision over a fellow Pole whose record currently stands at 18-16-1 and who has been stopped 13 times.

Fury bloodied Bocianski and won a wide 6-round decision, but his performance was underwhelming. “Fury had the Hollywood teeth, tan, and diamante-colored shorts,” wrote Chasinga Malata of the London Sun, “leaving only his performance without sheen and sparkle.”

There is nothing in Tommy Fury’s background, aside from his biological pedigree, to suggest that he has the tools to become a world-class boxer. If he were a member of the Three Stooges, he would be Shemp.

Jake Paul, by contrast, may actually be legit. Those in the know that have watched him train have come away impressed. It says here that Paul isn’t moving up in class on Feb. 26; it’s the other way around.

In the co-feature, Ilunga Makabu (29-2, 25 KOs) will make the third defense of his WBC world cruiserweight title against Badou Jack (27-3-3, 16 KOs). A Congolese-South African, Makabu is the older brother of heavyweight contender Martin Bakole. Jack, four years older than Makabu at age 39, formerly held world titles at 168 and 175 pounds.

Although Badou Jack was born in Sweden and keeps a home in Las Vegas where he has long been affiliated with the Mayweather Boxing Club, he will have the home field advantage in Saudi Arabia where he has cultivated a loyal following. A devout Muslim, Jack will be making his fourth straight start in the Persian Gulf Region. In his last outing, he outpointed Richard “Popeye” Rivera at Jeddah, winning a 10-round split decision.

Badou Jack

Badou Jack

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