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The 12 Fights of Christmas: Artur Beterbiev v Dmitry Bivol

To celebrate another thrilling year in the ring, we count down half a dozen of the most memorable bouts of the past 12 months as well as six dream fights to look forward to in the New Year.

2024 - Dream fights to look forward to:
Fight 1: Artur Beterbiev v Dmitry Bivol
Fight 2: Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk
Fight 3: Terence Crawford v Tim Tszyu
Fight 4: Anthony Joshua v Deontay Wilder
Fight 5: Canelo Alvarez v David Benavidez
Fight 6: Naoya Inoue v Luis Nery

2023 - Fights of the Year:
Fight 7: Leigh Wood v Josh Warrington
Fight 8: Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov v Joe Cordina
Fight 9: Emanuel Navarrete v Liam Wilson
Fight 10: Artur Beterbiev v Anthony Yarde
Fight 11: Sergiy Derevyanchenko v Jaime Munguia
Fight 12: Luis Nery v Azat Hovannisyan

Fight 1: Artur Beterbiev v Dmitry Bivol

Artur Beterbiev v Dmitry Bivol
Potential undisputed light heavyweight clash in 2024

In recent years the light heavyweight division has been dominated by two men. 

Artur Beterbiev and Dmitrii Bivol have separated themselves from a pack of contenders who were good but not good enough. With the four world titles available shared between them (Beterbiev with three, Bivol with one) they now have nowhere else to go but fight one another.

This is now not a wish for 2024 it is a must and is close to becoming a reality. Last night Bivol came off the shelf of inactivity to outclass Britain’s Lyndon Arthur and retain the WBA title with a shut-out victory. 

The Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia staged the bout, in amongst the ‘Day of Reckoning’ undercard, and the same city is rumoured to host the WBC, IBF and WBO champion Beterbiev against Bivol for all the marbles next year. 

The undisputed light heavyweight world title showdown fits the fight profile of what boxing dealmaker Turki Alalshikh is looking for in his role of turning Saudi Arabia into the world’s leading fight capital.

However, there is a 6ft 3ins Liverpudlian who is planning to wreck everything. On 13th January former super-middleweight champ Callum Smith continues his run at his new weight class by facing Artur Beterbiev in Quebec City. The rearranged bout, moved because of a jaw injury suffered by the Russian, is the last which stands in the way of the undisputed bout taking place.

Beterbiev v Bivol is a clash of styles which features one man who is destructive, devastating, and ruthless, and another who represents the sweet science in balletic fashion. 

Nineteen men have tried to sustain the punishment which Beterbiev dishes out and every single one has not only failed but none have managed to go the distance. It is a frightening statistic which boosts the fearsome reputation of the 38-year-old with every win.

In his last outing Beterbiev’s championship reign was under threat from British enigma Anthony Yarde. Their clash back in January became a Fight of the Year contender thanks to the slugfest which broke out after the early rounds. 

Yarde’s hand speed, reflexes, and power troubled Beterbiev but the champion’s work-rate, durability and thunderous power proved too much for the Brit. 

Beterbiev showed again that his own abilities are not purely power-based. Subtle movements and educated pressure had Yarde cornered at times and with nowhere to go. And in the eighth round Yarde’s trainer Tunde Ajayi stepped on the ring apron to tell referee Steve Gray enough was enough. 

However, one notable observation from the main event at the Wembley Arena was that Beterbiev is beginning to slow and becoming easier and easier to hit which should be music to the ears of Bivol.

The 33-year-old is the maestro of the light heavyweight class. Great balance, footwork, hand speed, combinations and defence are just some of the attributes which have set Bivol apart from his peers so far. 

His defining moment came in May 2022 when Canelo Alvarez stepped up in weight looking to become a two-time light heavyweight champion. The Mexican, too great himself for his own rivals at 168lbs, was dominated by a masterful Bivol who was rarely troubled by Canelo en route to a points win.

What we are left with is two fighters who need each other and have no alternative but to face one another. They have already demonstrated they are the two best at 175lbs and two of the best fighters in the world period. But one must elevate themselves above the other and in doing so become not only the undisputed champion but go down as one of the greatest light heavyweights of all-time.

Bivol has yet to face an unstoppable force like Beterbiev who likewise is still to encounter an immovable object like Bivol. They both have the skillsets to unsettle the other and their greatest qualities are good enough to damage the other in different ways. 

It is a fight where the argument for Beterbiev to win is as strong as the argument for Bivol. In summary, it is as good as boxing gets.

Fight 2: Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk

Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk
Saturday 17th February

It has been almost 24 years since there was last an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

That man was Lennox Lewis, who held that status for just five months before boxing politics saw him stripped of his WBA belt.

It was a sign of things to come.

In the intervening period; promotional contracts, network exclusivity, contacted rematches and mandatory defences have prevented all the straps being unified once more.

The fortunes of the sport as a whole are intertwined with to those of the glamour division. When the titles are fractured, it is harder for the general public to identify the who truly is the baddest man on the planet.

The likes of John Ruiz, Siarhei Liakhovich, Nikolai Valuev, Bermane Stiverne and Charles Martin have all been titlists at one stage. None of them were ever the man in the land of giants.

Even when the landscape was simpler, unexpected hurdles arose. At one stage, all major straps were held by either Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko, but a promise made to their mother meant they never determined who was the better sibling in the ring.

At last, a new king will be crowned.

On Saturday 17th February, Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk will battle it out with the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles at stake.

It is the biggest fight that could be made today.

It has been a long road for Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs) to reach this point. The Englishman is a flawed genius. His 15-year career has filled with some memorable highlights: outboxing Wladimir Klitschko to become a unified champion, somehow making it back to his feet after a heavy knockdown in his first encounter with Deontay Wilder, reinventing himself as a puncher in the rematch and engaging in a Fight of the Year contender with ‘The Bronze Bomber’ in their final meeting.

‘The Gypsy King’s’ ability to enthrall is matched by only by his tendency to infuriate: a failed test for a performance-enhancing drug, ballooning in weight, a 31-month absence from the ring and most recently, turning in a lacklustre showing against Francis Ngannou.

Fury is an enigma: a 6ft 9ins man who can be a slick, switch-hitter or a seek-and-destroy pressure fighter; a boxer who looks like the best heavyweight in the world when focused, but appears beatable when disinterested.

These contradictions are what make the 35-year-old so fascinating: you never know you are going to get.

Usyk (24-0, 14 KOs) is the polar opposite: a known quantity.

Both amateur and pro, the Ukrainian has been consistently excellent.

Knowing what to expect from the Simferopol boxer is one thing, being able to overcome it, is another matter.

The southpaw’s footwork, use of angles, feints and lead-hand work posed a conundrum no one at cruiserweight was able to solve. Usyk defeated the leading lights of the division to win the World Boxing Super Series tournament, becoming undisputed 200lbs champion in the process.

As he moved up to heavyweight, many observers questioned whether the London 2012 Olympic gold medallist would have the physical attributes required to compete with the modern giants.

The early indications were far from encouraging. Dereck Chisora gave Usyk a harder than expected bout with his relentless pressure. ‘Del Boy’ is a good fighter, but one that comes up short against the best. The Ukrainian did enough to win, but the performance hardly put the division on notice.

Two wins over Anthony Joshua silenced the critics. AJ participated in a chess match with a grandmaster and came up short in their first meeting. In the rematch, the Englishman was better, but it still wasn't enough. 

Forget the prestige of the status that will be bestowed on the winner, even without titles on the line, this is a fascinating fight.

Both men are used to having the edge in hand speed, possessing superior footwork to their rival and having the greater ring IQ. For one of them, that will not be the case this time, but who will that be?

The winner will be acknowledged as the greatest big man of their generation and will etch their name into the history books alongside the likes of Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis.

Immortality awaits.

This is a rare moment. Savour it. 

Fight 3: Terence Crawford v Tim Tszyu

Terence Crawford v Tim Tszyu
Potential 

One of the highlights of 2023 was the leap to boxing superstardom by Terence Crawford. 

Back in July, he and Errol Spence Jr transported us back to eras of super-fights where fighters placed their names into boxing folklore. Spence v Crawford, albeit a few years late, was special but not for the reasons we hoped. 

The two best welterweights put it all on the line - but what played out was one of the finest virtuoso performances this century. 

Crawford was everything Spence wasn’t and dissected his world-class opponent over nine rounds dropping ‘The Truth’ three times. Crawford was crowned undisputed welterweight champion and the best fighter in the world. 

This year, Australian star Tim Tszyu should have had his defining career moment against king of the super-welterweights Jermell Charlo. But injuries to the American delayed their fight, and the small matter of Canelo Alvarez dangling a super-middleweight carrot in front of the 33-year-old ensured Tszyu would be left wondering. 

Charlo replaced his twin brother Jermall and jumped two divisions to challenge the Mexican. Daring to be great is the phrase normally used for such an attempt. 

Charlo’s performance during his 12-round points defeat was a far cry from the verbal machismo during fight week. And to rub salt to his wounds, Charlo had also lost his WBO 154lbs title for failure to face his mandatory challenger Tszyu. 

Tszyu’s pride was dented, though. He didn’t want to become a champion without a punch being thrown. His year had been built on activity, improvement and challenging himself against opponents that would expose Tszyu if he was not as good as we thought. 

Punching through the efforts of Tony Harrison and Carlos Ocampo in ninth round stoppage and first-round knockout wins were strengthening Tszyu. In October, however, Brian Mendoza travelled Down Under looking to take a throne that wasn’t warm yet. 

Mendoza had momentum having upset contenders in former unified champion Jeison Rosario and flattening the 6ft 5ins frame of rising star Sebastian Fundora. Tszyu was simply better than Mendoza in every department over the 12-round duration and showed why he was a worthy holder of the WBO belt. 

In 2024 ,the possibility of Crawford facing Tszyu isn’t far-fetched and is a fascinating contest to consider. 

Crawford first has a rematch clause to fulfil against Spence, which may take place at super-welterweight. Should ‘Bud’ be too good once again then the options at his new weight class would steer towards Charlo or Tszyu. 

The former has already formed a trash-talking rivalry with Crawford and the WBO would welcome their welterweight champ to super-welter with open arms. Crawford-Tszyu may look like a tough sell particularly with the rumours of Canelo-Crawford rising above lukewarm. 

However, Crawford v Tszyu is a far more logical contest and one where a pack leader would be taking on a hungry young lion who has emerged from the large shadow of his father. 

Crawford’s violent wizardry against Tszyu’s relentless pressure backed up by heavy handed accurate punching would be a fight where eyes refuse to blink. 

Crawford’s exquisite counter punching and subtle momentum shifts would be under-threat by someone not dead at the weight and someone who is fresh and not battled scarred after ring exploits and two car crashes like Spence. 

The hurdle is Crawford’s wish for marquee fights which the rematch with Spence qualifies as, in name only. And the challenge of moving from welterweight to take on another modern-day legend in Canelo may be too financially lucrative and legacy enhancing to turn down. 

It’s on Tszyu to do something about this however... stir the pot somewhat by calling Crawford out, questioning him, casting doubts over him and mocking the very thought of a Canelo bout!

Crawford-Tszyu or Tszyu-Crawford may be more inclined for the hardcore boxing fan rather than the mainstream toe-dippers, but the credibility of the fight cannot be questioned. 

Get out your megaphone, stand on your soapbox and get your tweets ready. 

What do we want? Crawford-Tszyu! When do we want it? In 2024!
 

Fight 4: Anthony Joshua v Deontay Wilder

Anthony Joshua v Deontay Wilder
Potential heavyweight showdown in 2024

A fight eight years in the making. 

After false dawns, offers, rejections and accusations of each man avoiding the other, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder are finally poised to meet in 2024.

Of course, this is boxing; a sport with its own ecosystem, in which nothing is ever straight forward. With a deal ostensibly agreed in principle, a date and venue secured, the highly anticipated bout should be a certainty to take place next year. Instead, there is one final hurdle to clear.

Both men fight this Saturday on the ‘Day of Reckoning’ card, live from Saudi Arabia. Presumably, this is intended as an amuse-bouche ahead of a fistic feast.

Again, this is boxing, so it is not that simple.

Wilder (43-2-1, 42 KOs) has been matched with former WBO champion, Joseph Parker. While the New Zealander has traditionally come up short in his biggest fights, if “The Bronze Bomber” were to be successful it would be the third best win on his record, after a brace of victories over Luis Ortiz.

Parker can box and punch; the upset is not beyond the realms of possibility.

Joshua (26-3, 23 KOs) has an equally tricky assignment, taking on Otto Wallin. The Swede is a once-beaten, 6’ 4ins southpaw, who gave Tyson Fury a tough fight, in 2020.

Wallin also holds good wins over fringe contenders such as Dominic Breazeale and Murat Gassiev. 

Both men should prevail, but the event is a wholly unnecessary risk.

If the vision of Turki Alalshikh - the mastermind behind this weekend’s bill - is to build excitement ahead of an eventual meeting between the big men, then the event is superfluous. 

For half a decade, the clash between the two former Olympic medallists was the biggest fight that could be made in the sport. The general public - on both sides of the Atlantic - were emotionally invested.

That was when, between them they held all four world titles and a fight would have crowned an undisputed heavyweight king. With their respective conquerors, Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, now set to face off for that title, the bout no longer carries the same prestige. However, a battle of flawed, power-punching behemoths will always be captivating.

In his trilogy with the ‘Gypsy King’, Wilder exited with two defeats and a draw to his name, but with his reputation enhanced. 

Prior to facing Fury, there had been considerable criticism of the level of opposition Wilder had fought, understandably so.

Despite being a 40-fight veteran and a world champion for almost four years, questions still remained. 

After the three-bout series, we had answers.

In their first encounter, the Englishman was comprehensively outboxing the Beijing 2008 Olympic bronze medallist, but Wilder never lost hope of finding the punch that would bring matters to a close.

In the final round, the American, and everyone else, thought he had found it. A right hand-left hook combination sent the challenger clattering to the canvas. Somehow, Fury made it to his feet and survived to hear the final bell.

After suffering a one-sided beatdown in the rematch, ‘The Bronze Bomber’ displayed great mental fortitude to regroup to play his part in an epic heavyweight war in their most recent meeting.

Much is said of Wilder’s flaws, but his strengths, namely power and athleticism, negate his weaknesses, for the most part.

The adjective “unskilled” is often lobbied at the Alabama puncher, but a fighter as technically inept as his detractors would have you believe the former WBC champion is, would not be able to land that devastating right hand with such frequency.

Every fighter the 38-year-old has faced has been stopped or dropped. Fury, who could be the best heavyweight of this generation, was floored four times by the American.

Like Wilder, Joshua has more than his fair share of detractors.

AJ lost his WBA, WBO and IBF straps to Oleksandr Usyk, in 2021. The Watford fighter engaged in a chess match with the grandmaster and came up short.

Since then, the London 2012 Olympic gold medallist has suffered an identity crisis; caught somewhere between the seek-and-destroy style that brought so much success, and the pure boxer he envisages himself as.

The origins of the shift in mentality can be traced back to Joshua’s 2017 Fight of the Year contender with Wladimir Klitschko. Both men were hurt and had to pick themselves off the floor, before the Englishman uncorked a vicious uppercut to claim victory.

In that bout, Joshua discovered he was fallible. A more conservative approach followed.

A shock knockout loss to Andy Ruiz two years later removed the last vestiges of the AJ of old.

A rotating cast of trainers has not helped Joshua’s attempts at reinvention. On Saturday, Ben Davison will be the man in the corner, the 34-year-old’s fourth different coach in the five fights. However, Davison may be a shrewd appointment. Davison played a pivotal role in reinvigorating Tyson Fury and has led Leigh Wood to glory.

In spite of his struggles, Joshua retains the ability to outbox and knockout the vast majority of current heavyweights.

A fight between Wilder and Joshua may have exceeded its best before date, but it remains an intriguing prospect. A battle between vulnerable bangers is often thrilling. 

This one could be explosive.
 

Fight 5: Canelo Alvarez v David Benavidez

Canelo Alvarez v David Benavidez
Potential undisputed super-middleweight title fight in 2024

There are some parts of the world where winning isn’t enough.

For the New Zealand rugby union and Brazilian football teams, it is not acceptable to win by a single try or one goal. Their fans and media are paying close attention to how they perform and will let them know exactly what they think of them if their standards and expectations are not met.

Boxing, meanwhile, is a way of life in Mexico. Many children are pointed in the direction of a gym during their early years and, in some cases, learn to fight before they can read or write. 

Over the years, their dedication and love for the sport has reaped its rewards transforming themselves into world champions and fighters who have gone down in history for their greatness, but also their courage and triumph over adversity.

At 33 years old and having fought 64 times, Canelo Alvarez will unlikely be contemplating retirement but the conversation is not far away.

Winning world titles in four weight classes and becoming the undisputed super-middleweight champion are accolades that in the UK, for example, would bestow them with sporting immortality and see them become a regular face in TV advertisements.

Canelo’s career is littered with A-list names such as Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, Amir Khan and a supporting cast of opponents such as Daniel Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev, Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders, Caleb Plant and Jermell Charlo. 

Defeats to Floyd Mayweather and Dmitry Bivol were not unexpected because they, just like his first two fights against Gennadiy Golovkin, were the only occasions where Canelo moved away from facing fighters past their sell-by-dates or “world champions”, who were simply not good enough.

Canelo

A fight against David Benavidez in 2024 is not only a risk, but a chance for the multi-millionaire to remind people that his career has not largely been based on picking opponents where the possibility of losing is slim. Facing Benavidez is exactly the type of fireworks that Canelo needs.

Those unfamiliar with Benavidez, who is of Mexican heritage but was born in Arizona, should get familiar because the unbeaten 6ft 2ins, 27-year-old “Monster” has become the biggest danger to Canelo since his rivalry with Golovkin began over six years ago.

It has taken longer than expected for Benavidez to emerge from the wilderness he found himself in despite becoming WBC world champion at 168lbs in 2017 against the overmatched Ronald Gavril. 

For the next four years his run of victories came against individuals where punters would have had more chance of winning the Grand National than winning money on J’Leon Love, Anthony Dirrell, Roamer Angulo, Ronald Ellis, or Kyrone Davis beating Benavidez.

The May 2022 battering of David Lemieux was a showcase for the viciousness Benavidez possesses these days. 

His opponent arguably should not have been in the same ring, but nonetheless the beating dished out gave social media users something to shout about. The name of David Benavidez was all of a sudden being talked about as a threat to the ginger-headed king at 168lbs.

His record still lacked substance, however, and wins where he could be legitimately taken seriously. And in 2023 Benavidez has notched up two; against Caleb Plant and Demetrius Andrade. Victories that will have boxing fans and the Mexican people questioning Canelo’s heart if he chooses not to face the super-middleweight force of nature.

Canelo may have slowed but his defence, body punching, upper body movement and overall ring craft are of a level which Benavidez has yet to encounter. 

Plant boxed and moved Benavidez for six rounds but then came under the type of heavy fire in the next six sessions which turned their fight into a one-sided beating. Andrade, a slickster by nature, was too small for Benavidez and sustained a worse thumping and retired halfway through their 12-round contest.

Benavidez stalks, choosing to walk you down and trap you while carrying the demeanour that would scare children to sleep. He is now the bogeyman of the super-middleweight division and, potentially, Canelo’s worst nightmare. 

It's because of this and the fact that Benavidez is the only legitimate challenge left at super-middleweight which makes this one of the fights to make for 2024.

Two Mexican gunslingers. The ageing legend against the confident and dangerous pretender who has come into town looking to run the other out and make it his own. 

It has all the ingredients for a blockbuster event and the type of battle which will be talked about for years to come. 
 

Fight 6: Naoya Inoue v Luis Nery

Naoya Inoue v Luis Nery
Potential undisputed super-bantamweight title fight in 2024

Prospective opponents of Naoya Inoue tend to be respectful. No wonder. Across four weight classes, ‘The Monster’ has wreaked havoc with a blend of speed, power and precision.

Inoue (25-0, 22 KOs) typically inflicts his violent destruction with a degree of emotional detachment, reminiscent of a contract killer in a mob movie. 

What would the Japanese fighter be capable of if he truly wanted a challenger to suffer?

Luis Nery may find out.

The Mexican is the mandatory challenger for the WBC super-bantamweight belt, currently in the possession of Inoue. He earned that status by halting Azat Hovhannisyan in the 11th round of one of the best fights of 2023.

Immediately after engaging in bout filled with beautiful brutality against the Armenian, Nery (35-1, 27 KOs) told the assembled media that he had his sights set on the four-weight world champion.

Rather than showing reverence for the former undisputed bantamweight champion, ‘Pantera’ was dismissive of Inoue: “He’s not a monster,” Nery said. “He’s a little monster. I’m the real monster of 122.”

Talking trash about Inoue is not the done thing. Nery does not care. 

Of course, words alone won’t elicit an emotional response from Inoue. However, they will add fuel to the fire.

The Mexican has become a pantomime villain to boxing fans after a number of infractions. In Japan, the dislike runs deeper; he is reviled.

In 2018, ‘Pantera’ captured the WBC 118lbs title by stopping Shinsuke Yamanaka, in the fourth round, in Kyoto. It brought to an end five-and-a-half-year reign of the Japanese fighter, during which he made 12 successful defences. 

Afterwards, Nery tested positive for the prohibited substance Clenbuterol. The Mexico-based sanctioning body ruled that the violation was the result of contamination and ordered a rematch between the pair.

For their second bout, the Tijuana fighter, flouted a different rule; weighing in three pounds over the divisional limit. This time, Nery halted his opponent in the second frame. A second consecutive defeat sent Yamanaka into retirement.

Subsequently, The Japanese Boxing Commission issued a ban to the southpaw.

Nery has never shown contrition for his actions. In fact, he appears to revel in his role as the bad guy; always primed with an insult and a menacing stare. While Inoue is expressionless when delivering hurtful shots, the Mexican will grin, visibly enjoying dishing out punishment.

Naoya Inoue

‘Pantera’ went on to become a two-weight world champion in 2020, but lost the belt in his first defence in a unification, against Brandon Figueroa. 

The bout was a Fight of the Year contender as both men stood in range and traded power punches. It was fought at a frenetic pace, one which would have been unsustainable over the 12-round distance. Ultimately, Nery folded first when he was floored by a body shot in the seventh round.

It was the type of attritional battle only a select handful of fighters partake in. Nery has been involved in two in less than 24 months.

The explosive southpaw has no interest in boxing and moving. He is looking for a knockout and is willing to absorb any amount of damage necessary to do so. Despite the gruelling nature of his war with Hovhannisyan, Nery was dancing during the minute respite between rounds. The man must be a masochist.

It is the style of Nery which makes the prospect of a bout with Inoue so tantalising. In 20 world title fights, spanning from light-flyweight to super-bantamweight, only two opponents have heard the final bell against ‘The Monster.’

When Inoue lands his first punch, most fighters simply go into survival mode. It Is rarely effective. Much is said of the vaunted punch power of the Japanese phenom, but his speed and accuracy are every bit as impressive, and damaging.

The only fighter capable of withstanding the offensive arsenal of the 30-year-old, to come back with big shots of his own was Nonito Donaire. The four-weight world champion was in the twilight of his career when they met in 2019, but rolled back the years. The bout was a classic as Inoue was truly extended for the first time.

Nery has shown a remarkable chin to date. He has never been to the canvas from a head shot, despite taking plenty clean shots. However, Inoue is a puncher like no other.

If, and it’s a big if, ‘Pantera’ is able to absorb the punishment dealt by ‘The Monter’ fans could be in store for a violent treat. One thing is for certain, Nery will stand his ground, even if that culminates in him being knocked out cold.

The good news is that we may not have to wait long to find out. If Inoue successfully unifies all four belts at 122lbs when he takes on Marlon Tapales, on Boxing Day, then it appears likely the two men will meet in the first half of next year.

Inoue has previously stated he is willing to remain at super-bantamweight to face the Mexican, in a bid to avenge his compatriot.

Recently, Fernando Beltran (Nery’s promoter) stated his belief that the bout will take place in May.

There may be fights involving bigger names in 2024, but there will be few better.
 

Fight 7: Leigh Wood v Josh Warrington

Leigh Wood v Josh Warrington
WBA featherweight title fight
Sheffield Arena, Sheffield
Saturday October 7, 2023

Leigh Wood v Josh Warrington

Qualifying as a Fight of the Year contender doesn’t necessarily come down to unrelenting hellacious action.

Sometimes it can be as simple as a shift in momentum which suddenly ends the fight. An example of that in 2023 was when Leigh Wood defended his WBA featherweight title for the final time against Josh Warrington.

The Sheffield Arena was the venue for Nottingham’s Wood and Warrington from Leeds. There was no rivalry between the fighters to fill the column inches, that would come later, but the football fan support for each would make for the type of atmosphere you would hear at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground or Leeds United’s Elland Road.

Prior to the fight the consensus appeared to be that Wood’s jab and heavy hands would be enough to extinguish the flame of a typically fiery Warrington that perhaps had seen better days. What played out gave boxing fans one of the best finishes of 2023 and one of the most controversial moments of the year.

In the first 10 seconds Warrington let his hands go, clearly demonstrating a plan to attack, attack, attack and unsettle Wood as much as possible. A left hook from Warrington exposed Wood’s leaky defence early on but the champion was no stranger to taking the best an opponent could offer before turning a fight on its head.

Wood let his hands go in the second session with moderate success but would have to work the body of Warrington who typically kept a high guard. In the third Warrington backed Wood up onto the ropes and unloaded with shots that would impress judges and his raucous support but not necessarily do the damage they suggested. 

However, Warrington’s track record proves he can throw hell for leather over 12 rounds. But at 33 years of age and a 14-year career, which had been a long and demanding road, could he still do it against a champion who doesn’t know when he is beaten?

Leigh Wood

Warrington was in charge of the contest by round four and continued to out-muscle Wood by pushing him back and hit anything that was in range. During his upturn in form since beating Reece Mould to become British champion in 2021, Wood fought back from the brink of defeat against Michael Conlan to win and avenged a shattering loss to Mexican puncher Mauricio Lara. With Warrington dominating and looking stronger, Wood was showing signs of decline after a demanding two years.

At the end of the third Warrington walked back to his corner with the wide smile of a man who was having fun but knew he was winning. The Leeds ace was turning back the clock and making a mockery of pre-fight predictions. Wood was flat, ragged, and becoming easier to hit but his whiskers were serving him well.

By round seven Warrington was ahead and on course to become a three-time featherweight champion. Had he possessed the punch power of his opponent then it could have been over beforehand.

The challenger poured forward at every opportunity with a disregard for Wood’s notorious heavy hands which got him out of jail against Conlan. A twist emerged in the seventh, however, when referee Michael Alexander deducted a point from Warrington for punches to the back of the head. Wood was now looking at a 10-8 round in his favour which would have brought him closer to Warrington on the scorecards.

Wood found some distance and targeted the body but ate some jabs for his troubles with 100 seconds left in the round. A couple of left hooks bounced off Warrington as the seconds ticked down to what would be a dramatic conclusion. 

After being separated by Alexander during a clinch, there was space for Wood to operate and a right hook caught Warrington off guard, followed by a burst of six whipping shots to the face of the challenger that sent him flat on his back just as the bell rang to end the round. 

Warrington walked back to his corner on unsteady legs all the while Alexander was counting to eight directly behind him. And just as Warrington turned to face the referee the man in the middle waved the contest off.

Wood, cut over the right eye, climbed on to the ropes and beat his chest in defiance after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat once again. 

Warrington’s corner were furious with Alexander, believing their man could have continued, especially with the 60 seconds he would have had to sit down on his stool before the beginning of round eight. 

Fight 8: Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov v Joe Cordina

Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov v Joe Cordina
IBF super-featherweight title fight
Cardiff International Arena, Cardiff
Saturday April 22, 2023

Joe Cordina was nearing his sixth birthday when Joe Calzaghe won his first world title against Chris Eubank in Sheffield.

Two Joes, two Welshmen. Calzaghe passed a significant test with flying colours against Eubank and carved out a career which has placed him in the pantheon of British boxing greats and regarded by many as the greatest super-middleweight of all-time.

Back in April this year Joe Cordina, now 33, faced his own litmus test against typist’s nightmare Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov.

This IBF super-featherweight title bout was set up after the Tajikistani halted a career-best effort from Manchester’s Zelfa Barett in November 2022. Rakihmov’s ninth-round stoppage win earned him the vacant strap which had been in the hands of Cordina five months earlier. That summer evening in Cardiff the city’s boxing hero wiped out Kenichi Ogawa with a howitzer right-hand which laid out the Japanese fighter. 

However, Cordina’s reign was shortened when he was unable to defend his belt against mandatory challenger Rakhimov forcing him to vacate his belt. Hard-man Rakhimov then travelled to the Welsh capital to defend his shiny new title against Cordina. But Rakhimov was not only facing the former 2016 Olympian but several thousand Welsh supporters who brought out their renowned vocal chords to match the fistic fury which played out in the ring.

Up until this point Cordina had everything more or less his own way in his previous 16 contests. Overmatched opponents and a domestic scene he quickly outclassed pointed Cordina to the nearest exit of his own early education and into the far less unforgiving class at world level.

Having flattened Ogawa this second opportunity was a point to prove for Cordina. One where grit, determination and a good chin would be called upon just as much as his classy skillset. All of which would be witnessed by Calzaghe watching on at ringside.

Cordina demonstrated his superior movement in the opening round which were assisted by some typically classy shots. Rakihmov’s gameplan was to stalk, trap and land against the Welsh Wizard. A flurry of uppercuts from Cordina in the final 20 seconds were eye-catching but didn’t deter the champion who caught the challenger with body shots and a couple of hooks to get the last word. After three minutes you could see that Cordina would have his work cut out for him.

Tactics were slowly walking towards an open window when Cordina chose to stand in the pocket. A sight for welcoming eyes in Rakihmov’s case who threw leather at every possibility. Cordina would have to catch the shots on his high guard sacrificing his mid-section and using his hand speed to rattle Rakhimov. 

Combinations were unloading from both, but the upper hand was with Cordina who was catching his man flush. And as round two enter its final 60 seconds Cordina’s work forced Rakhimov’s hands to drop paving the way for a left-hook to finish off a combination which put the champion down. This was the same round and the same venue where Cordina finished Ogawa but Rakhimov’s chin and will kept him on his feet but more importantly he continued to throw and stayed in the fight.

Rakhimov shook off the disappointment of round two and went hunting in the third. The pace of the fight rarely let up and both men continued to throw combinations frequently which was needed because a lesser work-rate for either could have spelled curtains.

The first nine minutes set the tone for a fight which was risk and reward for the two combatants. And in the fifth Rakhimov changed the mood when a lead right hand caught Cordina flush forcing him to hold on. After a break the champion moved forward sensing an opportunity and sunk some well-placed body shots much to the concern of Cordina’s fans. 

Their man was in the toughest spot of his career. With Rakhimov needing a breather Cordina was able to turn his opponent and land some successful shots of his own. Spurred own by his home support the local lad survived his first mini crisis.

Cut over the left eye Rakhimov the away fighter continued to chase after Cordina. The pace was unrelenting, the 60-second breather in between rounds was not enough. As soon as they sat down, they were back up again. Cordina was winning but at what cost against a man who never stopped throwing punches.

This was fast and furious, but Rakhimov’s left eye was getting worse and Cordina’s right-hand was locked on pinging his man with instinctive shots which drew roars of support inside the venue.

The bull was weary and needing to dig deep. The matador had found another gear and was proving too quick and too sharp late on. Rakhimov would not yield though. He met attacks with assaults of his own but the quality and greater punch variety lay with Cordina who finished the fight just as well as he started it. An eruption of noise inside the Cardiff Arena greeted the fighters as the final bell sounded. 

Cordina purposely chose to beat Rakhimov at his own game but did so with greater ringcraft and accuracy. Once again, he was the IBF super-featherweight champion but that night a small piece of him was left behind inside a venue which is becoming his second home.
 

Fight 9: Emanuel Navarrete v Liam Wilson

Emanuel Navarrete v Liam Wilson 
WBC World Super Featherweight title fight
T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Thursday November 16, 2023

When determining Fight of the Year contenders, bouts involving Mexican boxers invariably feature prominently.

It is hardly surprising, the nation has historically produced aggressive, come-forward fighters whose main intention is to inflict as much damage as possible. Defence is an afterthought. 

Naturally, it is a combination which results in fan-friendly firefights. While style undeniably plays a part in the number of Mexican fighters producing classic battles, mentality plays as big a, if not bigger, role.

So much of the national indemnity of the country is tied up in the concept of machismo. That ethos is instilled in fighters from a young age. It shows. When hurt, bloodied and bruised, Mexicans tend to push through the pain barrier. If they get knocked down, they usually get back up. Quitting is a cardinal sin.

Stylistically, Emanuel Navarrete is not a conventional Mexican. In fact, ‘Vaquero’ is just downright unconventional.

While Navarrete (38-1-1, 31 KOs) is not always on the front foot, he does apply his own brand of pressure; his lead hand is in perpetual motion, jabbing, prodding or feinting. At times, the languid 28-year-old can look uncoordinated as he throws from too far out and misses wildly. However, he is also capable of landing sneaky punches from unorthodox angles.

It isn’t always pretty, but it is effective.

Navarrete’s unique brand of fighting had earned him world titles at super-bantamweight and featherweight and in February, he sought to become a three-weight world champion as he challenged for the vacant WBO super-featherweight strap.

Initially, ‘Vaquero’ been slated to face Oscar Valdez, in an all-Mexican battle. Unfortunately, Valdez had to withdraw from the bout due to injury.

Liam Wilson (13-2, 7 KOs) was the man who received the assignment. The Australian was rated as the No.3 contender by the sanctioning body, but his lofty ranking appeared to be as a result of the political nature of the sport, rather than his accomplishments in the ring.

The Queensland native sported an 11-1 record and had not faced anyone of note. Just 19 months earlier, the 27-year-old suffered a shock defeat to, the unheralded, Joe Noynay, being floored four times in the process.

Few observers expect Wilson to pose much of a threat and the bookmakers agreed, pricing the Aussie as 6/1 underdog. 

However, Wilson was not there to make up the numbers. He left his home eight weeks ahead of the bout and made the 8,000-mile trip to the U.S. to give himself the best chance of springing the upset.

Wilson felt the former world champion was overlooking him and used that notion as added motivation.

The Australian knew the deck was stacked against him. He was not supposed to win, but he had no intention of following the script.

The plot took an unexpected twist the day before the fight. Wilson weighed-in at a little over 126lbs, comfortably within the 130lbs divisional limit. As a professional, he had never tipped the scales at less than 129lbs. 

Wilson felt there was foul play afoot: “I think [Navarrete] has come in overweight and they tampered with the scales to make it seem like he made it,” he told Fox Sport Australia at the time.

Boxing

Questions remained as to how Navarrete would cope at super-featherweight. In lighter weight classes, the Mexican was the naturally bigger man and had physical advantages over his opponents. Would his power have the same effect? Would his chin hold out?

For the first three rounds, it appeared that ‘Vaquero’ had transitioned seamlessly to another division as Wilson struggled to figure out his awkward opponent.

Then, everything changed. In the fourth round, a left hook hurt the former champion. Wilson knew that was his opportunity and landed a barrage of punches which sent Navarrete to the canvas.

It was the first time as a professional that ‘Vaquero’ had suffered a knockdown, but you would not know it by his response. Navarrete was hurt, badly hurt. After making it to his feet on unsteady legs, he stood in the corner, using the ropes as support. There was 40 seconds remaining in the round. It is a long time to survive when your senses have been scrambled. 

Navarrete needed to stall, to buy himself more time. Like a wily old campaigner, he spat out his mouth piece to earn a few seconds respite. Afterwards, he took several attempts to clumsily reinstate the mouth guard. Another precious momentary reprieve. It was enough. Navarrete heard the bell to signify the end of the round.

Two frames later, he was again in trouble and it appeared that Wilson was on the verge of a monumental upset.

Despite being on the edge of disaster, Navarrete demonstrated great powers of recovery. In the following frame, he found his flow, unleashing hard hooks to head and body. The Australian battled back, but the momentum had swung in the Mexican’s favour.

In the eighth, the fight hung in the balance and wild shootout ensued with both men looking for a fight-ending punch, neither found it.

At the start of the next round, a huge right hand sent Wilson crashing to the floor. Navarrete smelled blood. The Mexican was relentless as he unleashed an onslaught, obliging the referee to stop the fight.

Afterwards, Navarrete knew what allowed him to come out on top in a gruelling war:

“I’m made of strength, power and heart,” he said. “That Mexican spirit that never lets me down.”
 

Fight 10: Artur Beterbiev v Anthony Yarde

Artur Beterbiev v Anthony Yarde
IBF, WBC and WBO Light-heavyweight title fight
Wembley Arena, London (UK)
Saturday January 28, 2023

Give Artur Beterbiev an inch and he’ll take a yard.

And on a winter’s night in London the imperious light-heavyweight champion did that by taking the scalp of Anthony Yarde in a hard-hitting contest where the Briton was given little hope. 

Months earlier Yarde, who was WBO mandatory challenger, poured some fuel onto a flameless rivalry by declaring Beterbiev as “slow”. The verbal barb was fired after the Russian chewed up Joe Smith Jr in two rounds. Speaking to the media afterwards Beterbiev was informed of Yarde’s comment. “I’m slow?” The champion said with a frown creeping over his face. “Okay,” he finished. 

The 2008 Olympian and 2009 World Amateur Champion left Madison Square Garden with his titles in tow and an insult at the forefront of his mind - one that has poked Beterbiev and made him angry. And one thing you don't do is to make Artur Beterbiev angry.

As the fight neared, Yarde and trainer Tunde Ajayi, with the addition of former European super-middleweight champion James Cook to the corner, were as confident as ever. A mindset that is joined by the chants of “Lions in the camp” to amp up their belief no matter who they face.

Prior to facing Beterbiev, the little-known Stefani Koykov was matched against Yarde in November 2022. 

Just over two rounds was all that was needed for the Londoner to dispatch of his opponent. Far from ideal preparation for a fight of the magnitude of Beterbiev, or so you would have thought!

Peculiar preparation is something that Yarde and Ajayi have always dealt in. Face little known Europeans or South Americans then jump up several tiers in class to fight Sergey Kovalev (in 2019) or Beterbiev at the beginning of 2023. The champion, meanwhile, only had those few minutes in the ring with Joe Smith, but his unbeaten record also showed the names of Marcus Browne and Oleksandr Gvozdyk. Eighteen fights, 18 wins and 18 KOs. Gulp.

Despite the gulf in opposition quality there was still a belief that the speed, reflexes and power of Yarde could put dents in an ageing Beterbiev. One week earlier the man whose beard says, “I chop logs in the morning” but his eyes whisper, “I fight bears at lunch” had celebrated his 38th birthday. Surely, this monstrous force at 175lbs would age overnight one day?

As both men walked to the ring mobile phones lit up the Wembley Arena with a typically British support for Yarde, which he hadn’t been used to. 

Britain has welcomed greats like Terence Crawford, Wladimir Klitschko, Gervonta Davis, Gennadiy Golovkin and Vasyl Lomachenko to our shores and the fans know when a real one is in town. Even Jake Paul plonked himself down ringside reminding himself never to make fun of someone like Beterbiev.

From the outset both fighters demonstrated the tactics they wished to deploy in the ring. Yarde looked to catch Beterbiev with a left hook as his opponent stepped into the danger zone. Beterbiev employed risk versus reward knowing that if he could trap his challenger in the corner, he could unleash hell.

Yarde began the opener with the success he hoped for. The left hook coming around the guard was too quick for the Russian to avoid. However, Beterbiev connected with his own left which put Yarde on the ropes. The Englishman was trying to be clever, but Betebiev turned up the heat with a right to the body and head. The first three minutes were over. “Beautiful,” Yarde’s trainer Ajayi told him in the corner.

The ageing skin of Beterbiev has been no stranger to cuts and bruises, and, by round two, a marking had appeared under his left eye. Yarde was making his point with his punches. Midway through the second the first serious trade-off began when Beterbiev got what we wanted and trapped the Londoner in the corner. he unleashed hell, and unloaded heavily, but Yarde met fire with fire and landed a lightning uppercut of his own as he sought solace in the middle of the ring.  

It was fitting that the movie Creed III was being advertised on the Toblerones placed around the ring because the thudding noise of the shots landed belonged in a Rocky movie.

Beterbiev and Yarde were now warmed up. They had felt each other’s power. In the third Yarde was put off balance after absorbing a crunching body shot, but then came the first worrying moment when his legs stiffened after being thumped by a left hook.

Each man had moments to bring belief to their corners that this would be their night. Beterbiev picked up where he left off with an early combination in the fourth. Yarde recovered, the crowd cheered, and a left hook forced Beterbiev back. The Brit was hanging tough.

As the round ended a lump was forming under Yarde’s right eye. Damage done. The fifth session was when this fight turned from absorbing to thrilling. 

Body shots kept the Russian at bay, but the crowd were off their seats when Yarde exploded into life landing a booming right hand. This was his moment, but the greats do something better than the good... they capitalise on split second mistakes. 

Yarde saw glory and launched an uppercut, which missed. In the blink of an eye he was turned and backed into a corner. Over-confidence was brutalised as a hail of punches came his way, but the challenger got the last word with a desperate right hand which landed. As the round ended Yarde stood, posed, defiant in the face of a storm. Straight out the Chris Eubank playbook.

Beterbiev was now cut just under the eyebrow. Yarde had recovered and calmed the storm in the sixth. He launched body attacks in the seventh. The violence of round five had given him an inner steel and the left hook began to clip Beterbiev, who targeted Yarde’s mid-section, but his head was being snapped back by jolting shots. 

Yarde had momentum - the crowd behind him - and the chance to create a monumental moment in British boxing!

But the lack of experience at the top level, the lack of fighting top opposition and taking punishment before finding a way to win was always a worry. Punches take their toll and if you’re used to getting everything your own way you will come unstuck, especially when the man in front of you is recognised as one the most ruthless finishers in boxing.

Just as the seventh round was drawing to a close the dents that Beterbiev was making began to take their toll. Yarde looked tired, his mouth agape and he was, for the first time, fighting on pure instinct. But... he was still in there. This was now a slugfest and Beterbiev had picked up the familiar scent of prey weakening.

Punches early on in the eighth were used to keep champion and challenger honest. It was a quiet period but a hunter like Beterbiev thrives in such moments. Then he pounced, out of nowhere turning over a straight right which caused Yarde to stumble to his own right. 

Yarde’s head now became a nail, and Beterbiev hammered it seconds later forcing the first knockdown of the fight. Yarde had to summon spirit and courage from the depths of despair. Beterbiev wasted no time after the count landing an overhand right. By this time Tunde Ajayi was on the ring apron catching the attention of man in the middle, Steve Gray, who stepped in to save Yarde from further punishment. 

Ajayi had seen what Beterbiev does when he smells victory and in doing so saved his man for another day.

It was a valiant effort from Yarde, who went toe-to-toe with one of the toughest hombres in the hardest sport of them all. But who knows what he could have achieved with greater tests already behind him... H

Hindsight aside, Yarde had made his mark and Beterbiev left the capital knowing he had been in a fight.
 

Fight 11: Sergiy Derevyanchenko v Jaime Munguia

Sergiy Derevyanchenko v Jaime Munguia
Super-middleweight bout
Ontario, California (USA)
Saturday June 10, 2023

Jaime Munguia always appeared destined to be involved in a Fight of the Year contender.

The Mexican’s blend of aggression, work rate and power, combined with a flagrant disregard for defence was almost certain to result in a war of attrition, at some stage.

Only two factors could have prohibited the 27-year-old from engaging in a gruelling battle. The first was durability. To participate in the most memorable bouts, a boxer must be able to absorb a great deal of damage, either by possessing a granite chin, or by being fragile but brave. The man from Tijuana had yet to face a crisis, it was impossible to know how he would respond.

The second was the right rival. In 41 fights, Munguia had not found the opponent who could withstand his punishing punches sufficiently to come back firing with a ferocious offence of their own.

Munguia (42-0, 33 KOs) rose to prominence in 2018 when he captured the WBO super-welterweight title by halting Sadam Ali, in the fourth round. Five successful defences followed, with only Dennis Hogan providing a stern test, but the Australia-based Irishman simply did not hit hard enough to cause the dramatic shifts in momentum that a true classic fight must have.

A move to middleweight saw the Mexican lightly-matched. All bar one foe failed to hear the final bell during Munguia’s spell in the 160lbs division.

In June, Munguia finally found his perfect dance partner: Sergiy Derevyanchenko. 

The Ukrainian is the great nearly-man of his generation. Derevyanchenko (14-5, 10 KOs) has received three middleweight world title shots and came agonisingly close to victory in two of them. 

In the four-belt era, there is often a path of least resistance available, but ‘The Technician’ either never found it, or refused to take it.

In his first tilt at world honours, Derevyanchenko faced his gym-mate, Daniel Jacobs. His coach, Andre Rozier, was in the opposite corner for the bout, opting to work with the American. Despite being on the floor in the opening three minutes, the 2007 Amateur World Championships bronze medallist fought back valiantly. Many observers felt he had done enough, the judges disagreed, handing Jacobs victory by the slimmest of margins.

A year later, Derevyanchenko had a second opportunity, this time taking on the fearsome Gennadiy Golovkin. Again, the Ukrainian was on the canvas in the first round. Once more, he had an abundance of success as the bout progressed and plenty were of the opinion that he had won the fight. However, history repeated itself and ‘GGG’ was victorious on the scorecards.

The odds were stacked against Derevyanchenko. At 37-years-old, he appeared to be in decline. Having previously produced performances which could, and perhaps should, have resulted in him becoming a world champion, he was defeated with relative ease by Jermall Charlo, in 2020, with the WBC strap at stake.

In the intervening years, he had only fought twice, with one of those being a loss to Carlos Adames.

Despite just 18 bouts as a professional, Derevyanchenko had a long and storied career in the unpaid ranks which saw him compete in 410 contests. It appeared to have taken a toll on his body.

To make matters worse, the fight against Munguia was made at 168lbs, a division the Ukrainian had never fought at. The extra weight was always likely to better suit the younger, naturally bigger man.

Although Munguia possessed every advantage, Derevyanchenko rolled back the years. 

Historically, slow starts have ultimately cost the Ukrainian in his biggest fights. This time, he did not make that mistake. There was no feeling out process, from the opening round, both men traded hard shots, but it was Derevyanchenko who had the better of the exchanges.

Munguia was hurt early, and often, but he refused to fold. The Tijuana native successfully passed the chin check.

The footwork of ‘The Technician’ caused the former super-welterweight world champion a myriad of problems. Derevyanchenko was able to close the distance, find the angle for his punches and then move out of range.

Munguia had his moments in every round. While not as technically proficient as his foe, his size and power posed a constant threat. 

The action was unrelenting. The exchanges were punishing. Derevyanchenko fought like a man acutely aware that this may be his final big opportunity. Munguia did what he always does; he marched forward and unloaded whenever he got the chance. The result was captivating.

Entering the 12th round, Derevyanchenko simply had to win the remaining three minutes to have his hand raised. Perhaps Munguia felt he was behind or just sensed that his opponent was, at last, fading as he poured on the pressure. The onslaught yielded a result as a left hook floored ‘The Technician.’ With almost two minutes remaining in the stanza, Derevyanchenko summoned every ounce of fortitude within him to defy the odds and hear the bell which signified the end of an epic battle.

That final dramatic swing in momentum brought the fight to a thrilling conclusion. Munguia had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, prevailing by a single point on two scorecards. 

Munguia had his war. It is unlikely to be his last.
 

Fight 12: Luis Nery v Azat Hovannisyan 

Luis Nery v Azat Hovannisyan
WBC Super-bantamweight title eliminator
Ponoma, California (USA)
Saturday February 18, 2023

A truly great fight requires only two things: unrelenting action and dramatic swings of momentum.

The attritional battle between Luis Nery and Azat Hovannisyan had both.

Nery (35-1, 27 KOs) is a skilled southpaw who could box and move, but opts to stand and trade far more frequently that he needs to. A fan-friendly style combined with a willingness to face dangerous opponents should have made the Mexican a favourite amongst observers, but controversies outside of the ring and a history of failing to make weight have cast ‘Pantera’ as a pantomime villain. 

It is a role the 29-year-old appears to relish. Nery never displays contrition for his indiscretions, instead utilising most interviews to talk trash about whoever he has his sights set on. His cold, menacing stare suits the persona.

In many ways, Hovannisyan (21-4, 17 KOs) is the antithesis of his foe. While Nery is reviled, the Armenian is revered as a cult hero. ‘Crazy-A’ had a long and successful amateur career, whereas the Mexican had just nine bouts in the unpaid ranks. Hovannisyan lost his professional debut and had to work his way up through the club boxing scene of California. His only world title shot ended in valiant defeat as he came up short against Rey Vargas, while challenging for the WBC 122lbs belt.

In contrast, Nery won 31 consecutive fights, picking up straps at bantamweight and super-bantamweight, with his sole loss coming in a unification against Brandon Figueroa.

The only aspect which unites both men is their shared love of fighting. Nery’s offence may be flashier and more explosive compared to the more unconventional and workmanlike arsenal of ‘Crazy-A’, but ultimately, the end result is the same: they are aiming to inflict damage.

The winner would earn a shot at the WBC 122lbs title. 

Due to the aggressive styles of the combatants and with so much at stake, many supporters anticipated a potential Fight of the Year contender. Often such predictions do not come to fruition, but on this occasion, Nery and Hovannisyan exceeded expectations.

The opening three minutes were tentative; both men postured, prodded and poked in an attempt to illicit a response from the other, but in the main, neither man was willing to show their hand.

In the second round, the fight truly caught fire. After an unusually reserved start from ‘Crazy A’, he began finding a home for the straight right hand, a punch which Hovannisyan’s trainer, Julian Chua, had stated beforehand that he felt Nery was vulnerable to.

Once the Armenian had some success, he was like a bloodhound transfixed on a scent, marching forward and letting his hands go. Nery was happy to welcome the onslaught, countering with hard left hands.

What ensued as the bout progressed was an unyielding exchange of punches. Both men were hurt numerous times, each seemed to be on the verge of being floored, but somehow, they stayed on their feet.

Nery and Hovannisyan must be masochists. Despite the gruelling nature of the fight, each appeared to actively enjoy every moment of it. Although he was cut and bruised, the Armenian smiled on more than one occasions and repeatedly beckoned his rival on, while ‘Pantera’ spent the minute respite between rounds dancing.

Perhaps, Nery was leading at the halfway stage, although it is hard to say with any certainty as it was the type of battle where the only thought on your mind at the end of each stanza was: “Wow,” rather than any notion of who may have edged the frame.

As the bout continued, momentum swung once more. The body work of ‘Crazy A’ was paying dividends and Nery was visibly distressed. Hovannisyan appeared to be the fresher of the two and he fought the burn of lactic acid to keep throwing punches in high volume. 

The Mexican could no longer match the output of the man in front of him and resorted to attempting single, hard shots. It seemed to be a futile tactic. Nery had been unable to fold Hovannisyan when he had been fresher, when the punches had been more explosive, it appeared unlikely that they would have the desired affect as ‘Pantera’ battled exhaustion.

However, in the 10th, Nery introduced a twist to the plot. It looked like Hovannisyan was on the verge of breaking the will of the former champion, when the Mexican finally found the punch he had been searching for. A hard left hand sent the Armenian to the canvas. 

Hovannisyan beat the count, of course he did. It was his chance to secure a second world title tilt, he was not going to allow the opportunity to escape his grasp without a fight. As the bout restarted, Nery was rejuvenated and unleashed a barrage of punches, forcing his rival to tuck up and retreat to the ropes. Referee Ray Carmona hovered, ready to halt the fight if one more clean shot landed. Then, relief. The bell rang to end the frame.

As the action restarted, Nery continued where he left off throwing in combination. Somehow, Hovannisyan absorbed the blows, the grin still present, and when the exertion took its toll on ‘Pantera’, the Armenian launched his own offensive surge. Was Hovannisyan on the cusp of a stunning comeback? No. As ‘Crazy A’ ploughed forward, a left hand caused him to take a step backwards. Ray Carmona had seen enough and with that, brought the instant classic to its conclusion.

If there was a better fight this year, I am yet to see it.
 

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