5. Juan Manuel Lopez v. Rogers Mtagwa
October 10, 2009 - New York, New York
When this fight was signed, we groaned. Everyone groaned. Mtagwa had proven himself tough, durable and exciting with his 2008 breakthrough fight against Tomas Villa, a Fight of the Year contender, but against Lopez? Totally overmatching Mtagwa. He was better than his record, sure, but against LOPEZ??
Top Rank had to be kidding us. Lopez himself was publicly unhappy with the fight, feeling it wasn't good enough.
Dear Rogers Mtagwa,
On behalf of everyone, we apologize.
Bad Left Hook
Two straight years now, Rogers Mtagwa has come up with a Fight of the Year contender, the first time against Villa (a similarly B-or-C-level fighter) and now against A-level Lopez, an unbeaten titlist he took to the absolute limit. Lopez had never been tested, really, and this time out, he was. Mtagwa showed early he had no fear of Lopez, a powerful puncher with good boxing skills.
Lopez, to his credit, returned the fury, tagging Mtagwa with vicious shots that would have knocked a lesser fighter down or even out. Both of them took clean, hard punches the entire fight, with both men in trouble at various points. It was Lopez's skill and speed that wound up winning him the fight, but make no mistake. He barely survived this one, and it caused a lot of folks to re-examine their thoughts on where he was at in his career.
For me, it made me do two things. First off, I actually came out thinking more of Lopez, who showed he can take a shot and win a gritty, down-and-dirty war of a fight. All we knew before this one was he was skilled and strong; now we knew he was a fighter with some toughness, too. And I also went ahead and declared Mtagwa not just "better than his record," but dramatically so, and someone whose record should probably just be ignored. Forget those losses. This guy can war.
4. Ulises Solis v. Brian Viloria
April 19, 2009 - Quezon City, Philippines
For a long, long time, Ulises Solis was seen by many as the guy that just might be able to beat Ivan Calderon, the unbeaten ruler of the two lightest weight divisions in boxing. Mexican Solis (whose brother Jorge previously appeared on the list) had become dominant at 108 pounds, and his fight in the Philippines on Top Rank PPV against Brian Viloria would surely be a win. A pretty good win, but a win.
Viloria, after all, had just never shown the "it" required to come through in these fights. He'd had his chances. Yes, he previously held the WBC title with a couple of good wins, but then some spark or something left him. "Hawaiian Punch" didn't seem quite so imposing anymore. He wasn't hitting as hard, didn't seem as mentally "there" in his big fights against Omar Nino and Edgar Sosa. He was by no means a bad fighter; more a dreadfully frustrating guy, a fighter you knew was better than he was performing a lot of the time.
All that was laid to rest with the best performance of Viloria's career on April 19. While this one lost our Fight of the Month poll to the far more widely-seen and hyped Froch-Taylor, I think there's almost no comparison when trying to determine which is the better fight. Solis-Viloria had better sustained action, a better crowd and better ebb and flow.
Viloria came out hot, beating up on Solis early. He opened up cuts over both of Solis' eyes, and the Solis corner did a great job keeping them under control. In the middle rounds, it looked as though we might get the usual Viloria script, as Solis started taking control of the action, fighting in the middle of the ring and making his stand.
Viloria's corner jumped all over him, urging him to turn up the heat again and not let another major fight slip away. And he dug down deep and found the heart to do just that. Everything Solis brought to him, Viloria dished out that and more in return. Eventually, the punishment piled up, and Viloria knocked out Solis in the 11th round to win the IBF junior flyweight title in a wonderful fight that still hasn't gotten its due.
3. Ricardo Cordoba v. Bernard Dunne
March 21, 2009 - Dublin, Ireland
If Ireland's Bernard Dunne was going to overcome the more skilled and more experienced Ricardo Cordoba in Dublin, it was going to have to be a war. Frankly, Dunne probably didn't deserve the title shot, and I don't mean that to be disrespectful. Bernard Dunne became one of my favorite fighters this year, in part because of the overwhelmingly passionate connection he has with the fans in his country. When he won this fight and the WBA title from Cordoba, his fans gave him one of the most enormous ovations you'll ever hear. And when he lost the belt later in the year, they gave him another one.
Dunne is also one of those guys who reminds me of the movie Rudy, and specifically, a line that Movie Ara Parseghian had about Movie Rudy. When I think of guys like, say, Audley Harrison, I see wasted talent, and it reminds me of that line: "If you had a tenth of the heart of Ruettiger you could've been All-American!"
Dunne is all heart. He's not a special talent in the way so many fighters are. He's a warrior, a proud and gutsy guy who fights until he can fight no more. Against Cordoba, he put on what may wind up being by far the best performance of his career. Both men bled, both took hard shots, and in the end, it was Dunne who outlasted the defending titlist, winning the belt in Dublin after an epic war that felt like it could have ended on countless occasions.
2. Paul Williams v. Sergio Martinez
December 5, 2009 - Atlantic City, New Jersey
When Kelly Pavlik canceled his fight with Paul Williams for the second time, we got Sergio Martinez as a replacement. On paper, it would be a tactical, lefty-versus-lefty affair, probably not very explosive, but a good substitute fight for sure.
It took less than a round for this to turn into a stunningly savage bout. Williams clipped Martinez for a knockdown in the opening round, but just before the end of the frame, Martinez drilled Williams and put him on the canvas. Williams was hurt.
And Williams seemed to fight much of the rest of the bout hurt, too. By the end of it (a decision win for Tall Paul), he seemed to be going purely on instinct. Martinez was able to neutralize Williams with a right hook early that landed at will, and later a straight left hand that kept getting through. But Williams was there, and at some points, he dominated the fight, making exceptional mid-fight changes in his gameplan and going toe-to-toe with Martinez.
It was a fight we just didn't expect to see, and a reminder that a great, great fight can happen when nobody sees one coming. Both of them upped their stock greatly with this outstanding brawl, a must-see fight that turned very good boxers into pure warriors, at least for one night.
1. Juan Manuel Marquez v. Juan Diaz
February 28, 2009 - Houston, Texas
When Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Juan Diaz in the ninth round of this all-time classic, I had a feeling right then on February 28 that this fight would not be topped.
There were some good attempts. Dunne and Cordoba a month later; Williams and Martinez at the end of the year; three great fights in October. But I go back to this fight, and nothing is better. Non-stop action on both sides. It was obvious early that there was something in the air in Houston, that Diaz had come to beat a hero, and that Marquez wasn't quite ready to go down.
Diaz's attack was as focused and sharp as ever. He beat Marquez back, pinning him on the ropes, where he'd unload. But a savvy fight watcher could see Marquez scoring points, too, as he counter-punched with precision and force. Though Diaz was winning the fight early, it was clear Marquez would not simply be laying down.
Whoever was losing this one was going out on their shield.
Diaz was busted open in the fight, and a cut had plagued him badly in his lone career loss to Nate Campbell. He hadn't dealt with it well and his corner dealt with it even worse. This time, they did better by him, but Diaz was still jumpy about it. This time, though, it wasn't fear of the cut or the blood or of losing. It was fear, I think, of the fight being taken from him because of the cut.
So Diaz went out and tried to finish Marquez. What happened was the old master taught another class for the kiddies watching at home -- how to finish an aggressive, wounded opponent. Marquez decked Diaz in the ninth. Diaz came back, but the tide had totally turned, and he was on his last legs. Marquez stormed again, flooring Diaz at center ring on a beautiful punch, and the referee rightly called it off. One of the best fights of the entire decade, and the best of 2009.
Lopez-Mtagwa: Flickr, via The Rumble
Solis-Viloria: AP / Aaron Favila
Marquez-Diaz: Marlene Marquez / Pound4Pound.com