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The Debate: Who is the 2023 Fighter of the Year?

As another year concludes, The Debate settles who is Fighter of the Year in 2023: Naoya Inoue or Terence Crawford?

It's been another fascinating 12 months of boxing, with a plethora of world-class bouts rounded off with the incredible 'Day of Reckoning' card in Saudi Arabia.

The conversation on who is Fighter of the Year ultimately boils down to two names: Inoue and Crawford.

But which one comes out on top?

John MacDonald and Shaun Brown share their thoughts on who was number one in 2023.

My 2023 Fighter of the Year is... Naoya Inoue

Ostensibly, both Naoya Inoue and Terence Crawford can stake legitimate claims for being crowned the Fighter of the Year. However, only one man’s achievements can withstand some scrutiny.

Let me explain.

In July, the American defeated his compatriot Errol Spence to unify the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF belts at welterweight. Beforehand, they were universally accepted as the best 147lbs fighters on the planet and the bout was perceived to be a pick ‘em.

It wasn’t.

‘Bud’ was brilliant as he dissected his rival, dropping ‘The Truth’ three times en route to a ninth-round stoppage victory. In doing so, Crawford became the first male two-weight undisputed champion, in the four-belt era, having previously held all the straps at light-welterweight.

It was very impressive, but that was the first and last sighting of the 36-year-old in a boxing ring in 2023.

Historically, boxers have topped end-of-year lists on the back of a sole victory, but it is rare. In 2020, Tyson Fury and Teofimo Lopez were the two front-runners, each only fought once, but that was when the world was in the midst of a global pandemic. Marvellous Marvin Hagler was crowned the best fighter of 1985 after serving up one of the all-time great battles with Thomas Hearns. ‘The War’ is still spoken about to this day.

Is vanquishing Errol Spence on a par with prevailing against ‘The Hitman’ in a three-round shootout? For me, no.

‘The Truth’ featured prominently in pound-for-pound lists but was always given too much credit for wins against Kell Brook, lightweight Mikey Garcia and the PBC welterweights.

At his best, Spence was a very good fighter, not a great one.

Furthermore, it could be argued that the version of the Texan that Crawford faced was a diminished fighter.

While the London 2012 Olympian had not amassed much wear and tear in the ring, he endured plenty outside it. Two horror car crashes required Spence to be hospitalised and a detached retina resulted in a bout against Manny Pacquiao falling through. ‘The Truth’ had not fought in 15 months prior to the bout with ‘Bud’.

Spence possessed physical advantages over the rest of the welterweight division as a result of boiling himself down to the 147lbs. His battles with the scales are well documented. Did the weight cut affect his performance? Possibly.

Ultimately, Crawford’s case is contingent on bias; he is a western fighter, boxing in a traditional glamour division.

Crawford v Spence

Naoya Inoue has neither of those advantages.

The Japanese ended 2022 as the undisputed king of the bantamweight division and on Boxing Day of this year, unified all the titles at 122lbs by halting Marlon Tapales in the 10th round.

Victory meant that ‘The Monster’, like Crawford, was a two-weight undisputed champion. While it took Crawford almost six years to achieve the feat, Inoue did it in little over 12 months. Unbelievable.

While the two men the fighter from Yokohama defeated do not have the same name-value as Spence, they are impressive boxers in their own right.

Four days before Crawford and ‘The Truth’ made headlines, Inoue captured the WBO and WBC super-bantamweight straps by stopping Stephen Fulton in eight rounds. It was every bit as impressive a performance as that of the Omaha native.

Naoya Inoue

Fulton had established himself as the best at the weight with wins over Angelo Leo, Brandon Figuero and Daniel Roman. Those three victories are equal to Spence’s greatest trio of successes.

‘The Monster’ added the WBA and IBF belts to his collection with a dominant display against Tapales. The Filipino is a two-weight world champion and entered the bout in the form of his career, having stunned Murodjon Akhmadaliev, in April.

So, ultimately, the choice is between a fighter with a single very good win this year, or one with two.

It is a no-brainer, really.

All hail, ‘The Monster’.             

No - Terence Crawford is the 2023 Fighter of the Year

In recent years the Fighter of the Year hasn’t been an argument: Floyd. Manny. Canelo.

But the landscape has changed with the likes of Oleksandr Usyk and Dmitry Bivol proving that Europe is producing elite fighting athletes.

This year there have been contenders such as David Benavidez and Devin Haney who have experienced career defining years, but the standard of the world’s best is such that even they and their wins don’t come close to the top two picks. Terence Crawford and Naoya Inoue.

The argument for Inoue is a compelling one. A two-time undisputed champion in one year at bantamweight and super-bantamweight. Case closed. You would think so. However, a man from Omaha, Nebraska nicknamed ‘Bud’ wants you to think twice. Just like Inoue he is unbeaten, undefeated, and undisputed: He is Terence Crawford.

But first let’s deal with Inoue. A brutal, ferocious, quick-hitting, fast-moving ‘Monster’ whose abilities and skillset is so far and above his peers, he isn’t just looking down at them from the top of a mountain the bone-breaking puncher is levitating further above because whose to argue that he isn’t superhuman? 

This year he overcame his biggest threat in Stephen Fulton with considerable ease in, arguably, his best performance to date. Then came the stubborn challenge of Marlon Tapales, who went above and beyond to stand with Inoue for 10 rounds before his spirit was broken.

But weren’t these the equivalent of a six-yard tap-in?

The argument for Fulton winning was based on his movement, speed and how he would frustrate Inoue. And only 250/1 Grand National backers would have backed Tapales. Arguments such as “you never know,” “stranger things have happened,” and “all it takes is one punch,” don’t apply to Inoue. But that is because the depth of his competition is comparable to British rivers during a 40-degree freak summer. 

Of course, Inoue was going to beat Fulton despite how hard you convinced yourself. And of course, he’d beat Tapales who hit the jackpot by upsetting Murodjon Akhmadaliev to earn his shot at Inoue. Inoue is a phenomenon, no question, but his standard of competition will only toughen when he moves up even higher in weight against men naturally bigger and stronger than him. 

Terence Crawford is every bit as good as Inoue. The biggest difference is punch power. Inoue is out in front but that doesn’t separate them. Crawford’s ring IQ, switch-hitting, angles, inside fighting, upper-body movement, combination punching and ability to take a good shot make him a phenomenon in his own right. But what makes him Fighter of the Year?

Terence Crawford

On July 29, 2023, Crawford, and the biggest threat he had ever faced Errol Spence Jr took to Las Vegas to finally face one another for the undisputed welterweight title. It is no hyperbole to have compared this to other super-fights such as Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns and Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. 

And it was a super-fight. The two best welters since Floyd and Manny and two fighters who held lofty positions in people’s pound-for-pound top 10’s.

These were elite fighters where the argument for either winning was convincing and, not plucked out of thin air. The front-foot destructive pressure and all-round effective fundamentals had beaten and broken an eye socket of Kell Brook’s, out-fought the underrated bull-like talents of Shawn Porter, outclassed former champ Danny Garcia and fractured the orbital bone of Cuban Yordenis Ugas who ended the career of Manny Pacquiao. 

The two car accidents which Spence had gone through are not forgotten and may have taken something from him but on Spence-Crawford fight week many still believed the Texan to be the bigger man, the stronger man, the more effective and overall would punch Crawford into submission or defeat him on points.

What played out was one of the greatest virtuoso performances ever seen in a super-fight. Crawford took the fight to Spence and had him on the back foot from the get-go. 

Nine rounds flew by as onlookers watched Crawford pick apart ‘The Truth’ by beating him at his own game and by sprinkling some ‘Bud’ in between. This wasn’t just domination, this was Crawford telling us: “how dare you compare us.” The 36-year-old even had time to have an argument with Jermell Charlo in the crowd, who was Team Spence for the night. 

Spence was put down once in the second round and twice in the seventh. It was savage, destructive and a masterclass. And it was Crawford who punched Spence into submission.

This was the moment, just a few days after Inoue’s masterclass against Fulton, where Crawford evolved from a great fighter into a legend. 

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