Boxing is back, and it seems that the wheels are in motion for some of the biggest names in the sport to return to action in the near future.
After months without boxing amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the appetite for big fights and entertaining moments is voracious.
But let’s not forget the incredible moments in boxing that we’ve been privileged to experience in the first half of 2020. From Tyson Fury’s coronation as a heavyweight boxing king to brutal knockouts by Eleider Alvarez and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, among many other moments, boxing fans have had much to enjoy.
ESPN’s nine-person panel combed through the first six months of 2020 to recognize the best of the best in boxing through the end of June. While some of the races were close, there was one virtually unanimous decision right off the top.
The panelists: Timothy Bradley Jr., Steve Kim, Nick Parkinson, Ben Baby, Cameron Wolfe, Kel Dansby, Andres Ferrari, Andrew Feldman and Tim Fiorvanti
Best fighter: Tyson Fury
Tyson Fury puts Deontay Wilder on the mat twice as he wins by TKO in the seventh round to remain undefeated and claim the WBC heavyweight championship.
With a huge swath of the 2020 boxing schedule expunged because of the coronavirus pandemic, the choices for best fighter at midyear were far more limited than usual. But one fighter has clearly planted his flag on top of the boxing mountain: Tyson Fury.
In the sport’s singular signature event of the year, Fury put forth a dominant effort in winning the WBC heavyweight title when he stopped Deontay Wilder in their rematch in seven rounds on Feb. 22.
It was not just the result but also the manner in which Fury did it. Fury told a disbelieving public beforehand that he would march right toward Wilder, widely recognized as the most dangerous puncher in the heavyweight division, and knock him out. Most believed that Fury was engaging in some prefight psychology and promotional bluster. After all, not only did Wilder have one of the highest knockout percentages in heavyweight history (in his previous 43 bouts, he scored 41 stoppages), but also Wilder twice floored Fury in their initial encounter.
However, under the direction of new trainer Javan “Sugar” Hill and the fabled Kronk Style Hill inherited from his uncle, legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, Fury relentlessly moved forward as promised. It wasn’t quite the second-round knockout that he predicted, but for much of the fight, Fury was on his front foot pushing back Wilder and taking away Wilder’s ability to unfurl his lethal right hand. Fury physically dominated every aspect of the fight and used his size to push Wilder around.
Fury scored two knockdowns in the third and fifth rounds, and he was increasingly dominant as the fight played out. Finally, in the seventh round, Wilder’s corner threw in the towel.
This was not just a victory for Fury but also a signature, career-defining performance. On that night, Fury won the WBC title and staked his claim as the best heavyweight in the world. — Steve Kim
Others receiving votes: Clay Collard (3-0 in 2020)
Best fight: Roman Gonzalez vs. Khalid Yafai
Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez sends Kal Yafai to the canvas and wins by ninth round TKO to claim the junior bantamweight title.
Questions about Roman Gonzalez’s form and future hung heavily over him as he climbed through the ropes to face Kal Yafai. Gonzalez answered those questions in emphatic style with a vintage performance — make that a masterclass — that he finished with a perfectly executed knockout to remind us what a special fighter he is.
After two defeats in 2017, “Chocolatito” had lost his status as world champion and as pound-for-pound king. At 32 and after 50 professional fights, there were doubts that he could regain a world title against England’s WBA junior bantamweight champion, Yafai, who was making his sixth defense of that belt in February at The Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas. But four-weight world champion Gonzalez showed that his skills are still razor-sharp, as he became increasingly dominant as the fight went on, repeatedly landing combinations to the head in the seventh and eighth rounds.
This was no close, seesaw fight. It was the chance to see one of the best boxers of this era at the top of his game. Gonzalez’s array of punches and accuracy meant that Yafai — a good world champion — could never get a foothold in the fight. Yafai eventually went down late in the eighth round after a flurry of accurate punches, and he was still under siege as the ninth round got going. Gonzalez landed a left jab before planting a pinpoint short right hand to Yafai’s temple. Yafai fell on to his back, and referee Luis Pabon began to count before waving the fight off 29 seconds into the round.
Yafai, a longtime fan of Chocolatito, might not have appreciated it at the time, as he was laid out on his back, but like the rest of us, he likely later admired how Gonzalez created the opening and delivered the perfectly placed shot. — Nick Parkinson
Others receiving votes: Andrew Moloney vs. Joshua Franco; Fury vs. Wilder II; Adam Lopez vs. Louie Coria; Tevin Farmer vs. Joseph Diaz Jr.; Murodjon Akhmadaliev vs. Daniel Roman
Best KO: Eleider “Storm” Alvarez vs. Michael Seals
Eleider Alvarez drops Michael Seals with a strong punch in the closing seconds of the seventh round, and the referee stops the fight.
When Eleider Alvarez knocked out Michael Seals, we saw the result of Alvarez’s experience. We could see Alvarez just sitting on his back foot, waiting for an opportunity to land that overhand right, and when he did that, he did it at the perfect time.
He dipped his head off the line and out of the way from Seals’ punches, he loaded up with that back foot, and that was it. The punch landed flush to Seals’ chin. Seals’ knees buckled, and he crumpled to the mat and into the ropes. Game over.
Alvarez had the experience to know how dangerous a position midrange is. He knew that Seals had a big right hand and that Seals was getting ready to throw a 1-2 combination, but Seals started it way too late.
Seals got a late start in boxing, and he made a simple but costly mistake by just throwing punches. That’s what guys do a lot of the time when they see that their opponent is in midrange — they feel like they need to throw and be the aggressor. Instead, they could put themselves in a good defensive posture, throw a feint and get ready for offense to come their way so they can set up a counter.
Until the knockout, the rest of the fight was pretty dull. Both guys were respecting each other. But any good fighter is going to look for those openings because those are the moments that decide fights.
Often, the best thrown punch in boxing is the punch that was never thrown. I bet you that right now Seals wishes he could have back that punch that he threw at Alvarez. — Timothy Bradley Jr.
Others receiving votes: Gonzalez vs. Yafai; Sergio Sanchez vs. Alan Pina; Ryan Garcia vs. Francisco Fonseca
Top prospect: Ryan Garcia
We got to see only 80 seconds of Ryan Garcia in action in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic put our lives on hold, but it was enough to confirm what the boxing world already knew: Garcia has the potential to become boxing’s biggest star.
The 21-year-old from Los Angeles has already assembled an impressive record — 17 knockouts in 20 wins — and in February, we got a brief glimpse of his prodigious talent. Garcia took just 80 seconds to demolish Francisco Fonseca with a single left hook knockout at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
The pandemic could delay his transition from lightweight prospect to contender and even world champion to beyond this year, but his trajectory is pointing in that direction. Also, with 6.6 million followers on Instagram, there is no denying Garcia’s star appeal, and his rapid progress has him on the brink of earning a title shot. He’s No. 3 in the WBC, No. 2 with the WBA and No. 2 with the WBO in arguably boxing’s most competitive division.
The future holds huge fights for Garcia against the division’s top fighters — Teofimo Lopez Jr., Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney — but before then, Garcia might face former world champion Jorge Linares in what would be a necessary step up in class. Vasiliy Lomachenko, who holds two of the world title belts and is ESPN’s pound-for-pound No. 1, is the man to beat at lightweight, and perhaps Garcia, with a combination of blurring hand speed and power, is the man to do it in 2021. — Parkinson
Others receiving votes: Jaron Ennis; Bek Melikuziev; Vergil Ortiz
Most memorable moment(s): Everything surrounding Fury-Wilder II
Tyson Fury heads to the ring on a thrown and Deontay Wilder wears a lit-up mask ahead of their much-anticipated rematch. Buy Wilder vs. Fury II on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/wilder-fury-2.
Imagine a boxing industry in which everyone worked in concert with one another, promotional rivalries were put aside for the good of the sport and the best fights in the division were made. That’s exactly what took place in the rematch between Wilder and Fury at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. From the news conferences in the lead-up to the fight through the spectacles of the ring entrances to what happened inside the ring, it seemed as though every moment Fury and Wilder were tied together held some magic.
The divisions within the boxing industry sadly overshadow moments of pure joy that the entire sport can get behind, yet on this rare occasion, all of that was put to the side, and everyone benefited. ESPN and Fox shared the task of marketing this Top Rank-PBC pay-per-view event, and for several weeks, this bout became much more than a boxing match. It became part of mainstream sports and, to a certain degree, pop culture. It was one of those rare nights when boxing took center stage internationally.
Few will forget Fury being carried into the ring on a throne, and Wilder’s elaborate costume became a scapegoat for what happened in the bout. The fight itself was one-sided, but it featured unforgettable moments in abundance, from Fury seemingly licking blood from Wilder midfight to the final moment when Wilder’s corner threw in the towel.
Fights such as Wilder-Fury II don’t come along very often and are particularly missed during a moment such as the one we’re in. But everything that was loved about that night proves how valuable it can be for boxing’s power players to work together and make the fights that will drive the sport forward. — Kim
Others receiving votes: Fury and Joshua announce agreement for two future fights