It’s once again the time of year when we dish out awards to the sport’s high achievers. Over the coming weeks we shall look over the best and worst of 2018: the winners, the losers, the knockout artist’s, and the perennial clowns who just can’t help themselves when it comes to dropping continual gaffes.
For Fighter of the Year, there can only be one winner: Oleksandr Usyk. It’s been argued in some quarters that other pugilists are worthy of the award. However, those putting names forward like Deontay Wilder are surely either trolling or looking to be contrarian; nobody can come close to matching the consistency of Usyk’s achievements over the calendar year.
The Ukraine boxer got his year off to the perfectly positive start with a WBSS semi-final success over unbeaten Latvian Mairis Briedis. Usyk showed no fear travelling to Briedis’ back yard to forge a way into the innovative tournament final. One of the most positive aspects of Usyk’s attitude is his low maintenance approach. His team agrees on the money, the venue, the location, and he just turns up and fights. No apparent roadblocks, diva demands or posturing – this is indeed a fighting man.
In July he ventured over to (quite literally) enemy territory to box in neighbouring Russia against Murat Gassiev to decide who would be crowned as the inaugural WBSS cruiserweight king. Usyk put on a pure boxing clinic as hard-punching Gassiev was made to look clueless and one-dimensional for 12 rounds. It was a phenomenal achievement to not only win the competition exclusively on the road but to make a 26-0 world champion appear so inadequate.
Not content with that display, Usyk travelled to Manchester in early November to mop up the last stain on his cruiserweight copybook – Tony Bellew. Having tapped into the emotions of British sports fans Bellew’s reputation was enjoying somewhat of a revival. His two wins over David Haye had pushed him into the consciousness of a wider audience, and his seemingly straight-talking approach resonated with a new demographic of sports fan. In the ring, he was no slouch either. Deciding not to enter the WBSS was unfortunate but understandable given the lucrative pay-per-view offerings promoter Eddie Hearn had afforded the Liverpudlian.
Despite a strong start -where he had a reasonable amount of success- Bellew began to tire as his bout with Usyk progressed. His hands were dangling dangerously low, offering the visitor an opportunity to land his heavy left cross. Not wishing to pass up such a chance, Usyk brutally KO’d Bellew in one of the knockouts of the year. It rubber-stamped a highly productive, award-winning 2018.
As for the rest of the pack, it’s unlikely that any other Fighter of the Year contenders would have exerted as little energy as Naoya Inoue did in 2018. The heavy-handed Japanese “Monster” disposed of Jamie McDonnell and later Juan Carlos Payano in what barely amounted to a round’s worth of toil in his two fights combined. Weight-drained former champ McDonnell was battered from pillar to post in May, while an ordinarily solid Payano was removed from his senses in October. Inoue is talented, and hits hard but needs to step up a level in 2019. A fight with Thailand’s Srisaket Sor Rungvisai would be an enticing prospect.
Other fighters more than deserving of a mention include Maurice Hooker and Masayuki Ito. Two quality wins, both on the road, capped a highly credible year for Texan Hooker. Posting a smooth, back-foot master class over Terry Flanagan in June bagged “Mighty Mo” the (vacant) WBO super-lightweight crown. A more aggressive, but no less impressive, stoppage of unbeaten Alex Saucedo in November marked a successful calendar year for Maurice.
Japan’s Ito, meanwhile, started his 2018 with a WBO super-featherweight title win over touted Puerto Rican Christopher Diaz. Like the previously mentioned Saucedo, Diaz was an undefeated Top Rank prospect who had been fed a mediocre diet of opponents. Experienced Ito had a loss on his slate but proved too rugged for Diaz, winning handily over 12 rounds. Masayuki followed that up with a late December defence against Russian Evgeny Chuprakov. Following a theme, despite being 20-0 Chuprakov was grossly untested and Ito stopped him in the seventh round.