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Year-end awards: Reviewing boxing’s best of 2019

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Mookie Alexander looks at the best of boxing’s 2019 with his year-end awards.

Naoya Inoue v Nonito Donaire - WBSS Bantamweight Final Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images

We may have gone without a true boxing mega-fight last year, but we certainly had a lot of great fights, great fighters, shocking results, and plenty of prospects worth watching in 2020. I know we’re two weeks into the new year and the boxing schedule unofficially kicked off with Friday’s Claressa Shields headlined Showtime tripleheader, but that won’t stop me from unveiling my year-end boxing awards for 2019.

Fighter of the Year: Canelo Alvarez

Love him or hate him, Canelo is a fantastic boxer. Neither one of his fights last year could be considered scintillating, but the quality of his wins puts him at the top. He unified three of the four major middleweight belts with a decision over Daniel Jacobs, then went up to 175 lbs and knocked out Sergey Kovalev to become a world champion in a third weight class.

Is Kovalev what he used to be? Absolutely not. He was still good enough to avenge his loss to Eleider Alvarez and rally from a massive scare to stop Anthony Yarde, so at worst he’s a top-five fighter in his weight class without being the best. That was also undeniably the most vicious KO that Kovalev has ever suffered, and it shows that Alvarez’s power does carry that far up in a division he’d previously never competed in.

Beating a top-tier fighter at 160 lbs and then jumping up to 175 lbs to beat another top-tier (but clearly declining) fighter is enough to take Fighter of the Year honors.

Also in the running in this category were unified bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue (more on him later), unified welterweight Errol Spence, and unified junior welterweight champion Josh Taylor. This was actually a tougher call than expected, as I believe Spence had the next best case behind Canelo based on strength of victory.

Prospect of the Year: Vergil Ortiz Jr (welterweight)

I do not consider anyone who has won a major world title a prospect, so Teofimo Lopez doesn’t actually count and I guess technically speaking neither does Devin Haney. That leaves you the no-brainer answer of Vergil Ortiz Jr, a Golden Boy promoted superstar in the making. At just 21 years old, he’s racked up 15 knockout wins in 15 fights, with his level of competition taking a reasonably solid step-up in just his third year as a pro.

Ortiz was active last year, fighting four times and earning main event status in his last two bouts. He became the first man to knock out Mauricio Herrera back in May, won a very entertaining scrap against former world title challenger Antonio Orozco in August, and wiped out veteran Brad Solomon in December. He has a special sharpness to his punches, wicked body shots, smart shot selection, and devastating power that makes him an instant crowd favorite.

It may not happen in 2020, but Ortiz has to be close to a title shot at this point. Expect him to have increased difficulty in opposition — Thomas Dulorme or Maurice Hooker, for example — on his way to the top. He may be at welterweight at the moment but I wouldn’t rule out a return to 140 lbs, which is a ridiculously loaded weight class in its own right.

Knockout of the Year: Deontay Wilder def. Dominic Breazeale by KO-1

You know a knockout is good when everyone in the camera shot is out of their seat simultaneously. Dominic Breazeale was never really going to have a chance to beat Deontay Wilder, so it was just a matter of how violent the KO would be. It was super violent and it was done inside of a round, which should give Deontay some praise because it took seven rounds for Anthony Joshua to get him out of there.

The sound that Wilder’s right hand makes when it connects on Breazeale is frightening. Breazeale complained about the stoppage while simultaneously failing to realize that he was still down when the referee counted to ten.

Other KO of the Year contenders included Wilder starching Luis Ortiz in their rematch, Teofimo Lopez’s mauling of Diego Magdeleno, Devin Haney’s walloping right hand finish of Antonio Moran, Dereck Chisora’s melting of Artur Szpilka, and Chris Colbert’s faceplanting of Miguel Beltran Jr. I recommend watching this:

Upset of the Year: Andy Ruiz Jr def. Anthony Joshua by TKO-7

There were so many legitimately big boxing upsets in 2019, but the significance of the bout weighs heavily in my book. Two weeks after Wilder nearly sent Breazeale into the afterlife, Anthony Joshua was supposed to wreck short notice replacement Andy Ruiz Jr in his United States debut. Ruiz had never beaten a legitimate top-ten heavyweight and his chubby physique compared with Joshua’s chiseled body made it look like a total mismatch on multiple fronts.

When Joshua knocked Ruiz down with a big left hook in round three, it felt like the end was near. Instead, Ruiz floored Joshua twice in the same batshit insane round, and suddenly the fight had turned in Andy’s favor for good. Two more knockdowns in the seventh round led to a shocking result, giving Ruiz three of the four major heavyweight titles. Joshua lost for the first time in his career and in humiliating fashion, but the December rematch was all Joshua all the way, as he outboxed the Mexican-American to a decision victory. Joshua’s dominance in the second fight only strengthens the argument that the first bout was a massive upset that will not soon be forgotten.

Other upsets under consideration included Pablo Cesar Cano’s KO1 of Jorge Linares, Julian Williams dethroning Jarrett Hurd as unified junior middleweight champion, Jean Pascal handing Marcus Browne his first loss, and Patrick Teixeira taking a vacant junior middleweight title over Carlos Adames in an action-packed war.

Fight of the Year: Naoya Inoue def. Nonito Donaire by UD-12

There was no doubt who won this fight, yet I still have it as my favorite of 2019. In the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight final, Japanese sensation Naoya Inoue was supposed to lay waste to legendary Filipino star Nonito Donaire, who still possessed big power but figured to be offensively overmatched.

Inoue had the speed advantage as expected, but Donaire drew literal first blood by cutting “The Monster” in round two. When Inoue had Donaire badly hurt in the fifth round, you’d have thought this would be the moment when Donaire would wilt and the coronation would be complete. Not only did Donaire rally, he rocked Inoue badly in the ninth and had him in more trouble than we have ever seen. Inoue answered back with a body shot knockdown in the 11th, with Donaire just about jogging his way into touching the canvas. Incredible, Donaire fought back and caught Inoue in a fiery exchange once more, but Inoue dominated the 12th and got his hand raised.

The scorecards of 117-109, 116-111, and 114-113 don’t do justice to how great this fight. Donaire, now in the “grizzled veteran” stage of his career, was valiant in defeat and showed everyone that Inoue is not invincible. It’s good to see even the heavily hyped rising stars go through some adversity, and Inoue got his dose of it. This was a classic and you should watch more than just the highlights, especially with the raucous atmosphere the Japanese fans created at the Saitama Super Arena.

This was the hardest one to pick. Errol Spence vs. Shawn Porter, Danny Roman vs. TJ Doheny, Manny Pacquiao vs. Keith Thurman, Jermell Charlo vs. Tony Harrison II, Gennadiy Golovkin vs. Sergiy Derevyanchenko, and Josh Taylor vs. Regis Prograis all are legitimate FOTY contenders and I won’t have any strong disagreement if you picked one of those. There were so many great fights that Vasiliy Lomachenko vs. Luke Campbell, an objectively high-quality bout, really has no business being a FOTY contender because there were several other better fights.

Round of the Year: Jeff Horn vs. Michael Zerafa II, Round Nine

Okay, the third-round of Joshua vs. Ruiz I is the popular answer but this was a late entrant and my winner. Do not mistake this for “sweet science” or anything meant to be relevant to elite-level boxing, this was just madness. Michael Zerafa had scored an upset TKO over Jeff Horn in an all-Australia dust-up earlier in 2019. These two rematched just before the year ended, and Zerafa was seemingly on his way to another win. Zerafa was battering Horn all over the ring and it looked like Horn was on the precipice of a TKO loss.

A check-up of Horn’s cut provided a brief pause in the action, with the fight allowed to continue. Quite remarkably and with under 40 seconds left in the penultimate round, Horn responded with a right hand from hell that put Zerafa on his ass. A knockdown/pushdown off a right hand that might have been behind the head turned what was surely a 10-8 in Zerafa’s favor to a 10-7 for Horn.

Horn took a majority decision and it was his dramatic ninth that rescued him from a career-damaging defeat. He’ll probably be facing the unbeaten Tim Tszyu later this year. (Yes, he’s the son of Kostya Tszyu. Feel old yet?)

Event of the Year: Jermell Charlo vs. Tony Harrison II (PBC on FOX)

A year after Jermell Charlo suffered a shocking and controversial decision loss to Tony Harrison, the rematch was better than the first bout. In fact, the whole damn card was outstanding in a way that I’d recommend this entire main card (plus some of the prelims) to MMA fans who want to get into boxing.

Charlo was wild and aggressive almost to a fault in the early stages, but he did get an early knockdown to build an early lead on the scorecards. Harrison’s more calm, composed, and technical boxing pocketed him some of the middle rounds, but as has been the case over the years, Tony started to fade in the closing stages. Charlo seized control of the fight for good with a left hook knockdown in the 11th round. An onslaught of shots led to another knockdown, and referee Jack Reiss eventually stopped the bout to give Charlo the WBC 154 lbs title right back.

Also on the main card was a ridiculous heavyweight fight between prospect Efe Ajagba and Iago Kiladze. Ajagba was a rightful enormous favorite and dominating the fight, but a moment of carelessness saw him nearly get that Pat Barry vs. Cheick Kongo treatment.

Ajagba did get up and get the TKO two rounds later but not before one of the craziest sequences you’ll ever see.

The FOX broadcast opened up with US Olympian and prospect Karlos Balderas expected to dispatch Rene Tallez Giron, but instead it was Giron who had unleashed an ass-whooping that sent Balderas to his first ever defeat. It should’ve been over in round three if not for incompetent reffing, then it was over for real in round six for the upset.

Here’s to a tremendous decade of boxing ahead of us, provided the sport doesn’t die like so many have erroneously proclaimed for seemingly an eternity!