Juan Manuel Marquez didn't get the win over Manny Pacquiao, but his ring brilliance shocked the world, and was just one of many standout performances by a top Mexican fighter in 2011. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
2011 has been an interesting year for the sport of boxing. There has been plenty notable: Manny Pacquiao bored and later finally tested again, Floyd Mayweather Jr returning and shaking up the boxing world with controversy both on reality TV and in the ring, Klitschko vs Haye finally happening in July only to be most memorable for "Toegate," the Hall of Fame inductions of Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, and Kostya Tszyu.
Ricky Hatton finally announced an official retirement, which had been overdue but firmly ended the career of one of the last decade's most beloved fighters. David Haye announced a retirement, but no one's really sure just how official that will wind up being.
A great season of ESPN Friday Night Fights saw a ton of quality matchups and upsets galore. Across the pond, British boxing has been on the rise with a wealth of strong young prospects starting to make their marks.
The idea that boxing is "a young man's game" got its fiercest argument ever, when 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins became the oldest champion in boxing history.
Fight of the Year candidates have flown in from all over the world. Fighter of the Year? For the first time in a while, it's a legitimate debate.
But as it stands right now, and there's still a couple of significant fights left to go, I will remember 2011 most as the Year of the Mexican Boxer. It's been one hell of a calendar year for one of the richest boxing cultures in the world.
From young stars like Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr to old warriors like Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez, Mexican boxers have been phenomenally successful in 2011, frequently defying the odds and coming up with performances no one expected. Champions have been crowned up and down the weight classes.
Let's take a look back at some of the year's big achievements by Mexican fighters, and I think you'll see what I mean: It has been a big, big year for Mexican boxing.
Saul "Canelo" Alvarez: Rising Star Turns Cultural Phenom
On March 5, 20-year-old Saul "Canelo" Alvarez claimed his first major title in the sport, knocking off Matthew Hatton to claim the vacant WBC junior middleweight title. And on June 18, Alvarez faced another Brit, as Ryan Rhodes came to Mexico to get his crack at the boy king. Rhodes was expected by many to be a potentially tricky opponent, a slick southpaw with some power who might have enough veteran tricks to fluster Alvarez. Instead, Canelo physically dominated Rhodes, and stopped him in the 12th round. After the fight, Rhodes was almost in awe of Alvarez's ability, saying, "He was bigger, faster, and stronger than I expected. There was nothing else I could do. I couldn't keep him away."
In September, Alvarez headlined at Los Angeles' Staples Center and drew a good, rowdy crowd against Alfonso Gomez, which was shown via satellite on the Mayweather vs Ortiz pay-per-view card. Gomez gave Alvarez a little bit of trouble, but Alvarez stopped him in six.
Next up, Alvarez tries to continue the recent Mexican domination of Puerto Rican fighters when he faces Kermit Cintron on November 26. Alvarez is already a huge star in Mexico, and is on his way there in the States. Now if he can just stay away from those junior flyweights...
Jorge Arce: Against All Odds
One of the most popular Mexican fighters of his generation, "Travieso" Arce was thought to be done. Finished. Kaput. Having been a beloved blood-and-guts warrior as a junior flyweight, flyweight, and super flyweight, Arce figured to be just a big name for young Puerto Rican titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr on May 7, when the two met for Vazquez's 122-pound belt on the Pacquiao vs Mosley show.
But then they stole the show, and did so easily. Hell, if Pacquiao vs Mosley had been a good fight, instead of garbage, they probably couldn't have topped the rise-out-of-your-seat drama and action of Vazquez vs Arce. Facing steeper odds (Vazquez was over a -1000 favorite on the books) than even the unanticipated main event, Arce proved the critics wrong and showed that at 31, and fighting at his highest weight, he had something left in the tank.
In the amazing 12th round, he battered Vazquez around the ring until Wilfredo Sr, Vazquez's father and trainer, threw in the towel. Bloody as always, Arce celebrated what may have been the year's biggest betting upset in boxing.
Julio Cesar Chavez Jr: Legitimizing the Son
For some, it may take a miracle or some incredible upset along the way for Julio Cesar Chavez Jr to be taken seriously, but in the meantime, Freddie Roach and his crew at the Wild Card Gym are trying to make legitimate improvements in the illegitimate superstar's game, and in 2011, it paid off with an alphabet title and a successful first defense.
Chavez, who defeated Billy Lyell in a stay-busy bout on January 29, was able to navigate his way to a world title shot without having to fight a world class fighter, as on June 4, he took on a "champion" of political maneuvers, Germany's Sebastian Zbik, in Los Angeles.
Chavez, as always, drew a big crowd to the fight, but the bigger deal was that for the first time ever, the would-be heir to the Mexican boxing throne was televised by HBO. The network wouldn't regret it, as ratings were strong for the fight, and it also turned out to be a good 12-round scrap, to boot. Chavez had a reputation for being coddled, but not for being boring, and he lost neither with the majority decision win.
A date in September with Ronald Hearns was scrapped for any number of reasons -- he couldn't get a real camp together, he was out of shape, he had a no-contest fight with a ceiling fan -- but Chavez returned on November 19 in Houston and put in maybe his best performance to date, outboxing and outslugging Peter Manfredo Jr en route to a fifth round TKO.
He may not be "there" yet, but he just might be getting closer, and he's one of the biggest stars out there.
Antonio DeMarco: From the Jaws of Defeat
As the HBO team lauded Jorge Linares of Venezuela with praise -- including Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward saying Linares is one of the best fighters he's ever seen -- Antonio DeMarco kept his cool. And on October 15, he stole the show on a widely-ignored pay-per-view offering from HBO, putting in the sort of work and memorable comeback victory that deserved an audience much bigger.
He was outlanded for 10 rounds. Every single one of them. But he opened a bad cut on the nose of Linares, whose boxing skill is unquestioned, and just kept coming.
Before the 11th round, DeMarco was told in his corner he needed the knockout. So he went out and got it. Zeroing in on multiple cuts, DeMarco cracked Linares repeatedly with hard shots, backed him up, and went in for the kill. With Linares reeling, DeMarco kept throwing, and referee Raul Caiz Sr jumped in to stop it, capping an incredible comeback win over a highly-talented opponent.
Once again, will beat skill, and calm under pressure proved an invaluable trait. Antonio DeMarco, whose career has seen him have some rocky outings against seemingly overmatched opponents, arrived on the scene in a big way, and claimed his first major title. And he established himself as a can't-miss fighter who will bring action all the way.
Jhonny Gonzalez: Big in Japan
Though it flew under the radar in the States, Jhonny Gonzalez's trip to Japan in April to face WBC featherweight titlist Hozumi Hasegawa was a big deal. A year earlier, it had been Fernando Montiel going over to meet Hasegawa, then reigning as the world's top bantamweight, and Montiel came back with the belt by stopping Hasegawa in the fourth round.
History repeated itself as Gonzalez went to Kobe (the Montiel fight had been in Tokyo), struggled for three rounds as Montiel had, and then in the fourth, brought the hammer down on Hasegawa and stopped the fight in its tracks. Even the scorecards at time of stoppage were the same in the two fights: Hasegawa led both fights 29-28, 29-28 and 30-27 when he was dispatched by his stronger, harder-punching Mexican foes.
After the trip to Japan, Gonzalez came back and began defending his title against, to be frank, weak challengers.
Hernan "Tyson" Marquez: Little Man Goes Big
In July 2010, Filipino star Nonito Donaire was on Showtime, matched against a young Mexican fighter named Hernan Marquez, nicknamed "Tyson" as so many fighters have been (in some way) for the last ten years or so. Donaire chose to mess around with a southpaw stance for much of that fight, toying with an unprepared opponent, and when he bored of that, he put the kid away without any trouble.
So expectations weren't exactly big when Marquez went to Panama on April 2 to face WBA flyweight titlist Luis Concepcion, who was making an argument as the best in the world at 112 pounds, even considering Pongsaklek Wonjongkam's claim to the lineal championship.
But instead of Concepcion beating down a hand-picked foe, we saw the two men go to war in a wild-swinging, free-for-all brawl that still stands as a solid contender for Fight of the Year. Both hit the canvas in the first round and never looked back. Then Marquez took over. Concepcion went down again in the third, and once more in the tenth. The 11th round saw referee Luis Pabon step in and stop the fight, giving Marquez a big upset and a great win. He had arrived.
On July 2, Marquez successfully defended the title against Edrin Dapudong, a set-up for a rematch with Concepcion in late October. On the 29th of that month, Marquez left no doubt: He stopped Concepcion in one minute, 49 seconds, and established himself as the real deal.
Juan Manuel Marquez: Juan the Revelator
What more can you say about Marquez's November 12 performance against Manny Pacquiao? For the third time in nearly eight years, he neutralized the explosive Filipino living legend, establishing his own living legend in the meantime. Pacquiao had become such a force of nature, such a dominant fighter, that he appeared unbeatable to the unwashed masses, and even to most experts.
The fight was decried as a physical mismatch. Marquez, at 38, accepted a 144-pound catchweight. Too old. Too heavy. Too much, too late for the great Mexican fighter, who never quite got his due as a great Mexican fighter over the years. Always in the shadow of Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, then later the likes of Antonio Margarito, and more recently, Canelo Alvarez and JCC Jr, Marquez was given no shot this time out, despite battling Pacquiao tooth-and-nail over 24 razor-thin rounds in 2004 and 2008.
But then came the revelation: He's the ring master he's always been, maybe even more so. In what may have been the finest overall performance of his excellent career, Marquez lost a widely-disputed majority decision to Pacquiao and came out the winner in the public eye. Once again, the yokels and the know-it-alls agreed for the most part: Marquez was, at least, Pacquiao's equal. Still.
Oh, and 37.2 million watched the fight in Mexico, an all-time record. Looks like he's the superstar he's long deserved to be.
Carlos Molina: Back For the First Time
As for the famed Mexico vs Puerto Rico rivalry, another blow was struck by light-punching battler Carlos Molina on July 9. Picked to be the comeback opponent for Kermit Cintron on Showtime, Molina dominated his more highly-regarded foe and won a clear 10-round decision. Four months prior, Molina had himself returned from a two-year layoff, finally getting free from ex-promoter Don King, and took undefeated Cuban Erislandy Lara to a draw on Friday Night Fights, in a fight most felt Molina deserved to win.
Unfortunately for Molina, his performances against Cintron and Lara (plus a beatdown of Allen Conyers in April) were so impressive that he hasn't been able to find a fight since July. Without a power promoter and with no big fanbase, he's in that position where he's too good to have an easy time finding fights, yet not a big enough name to force himself into one, and he doesn't have the political machine working for him. There is talk that Molina could face Paul Williams in January.
Erik Morales: El Cuatro Veces Campeón
Though fellow veteran Jorge Arce laid claim to the title of Mexico's first four-division champion, the cold fact is that one of the titles Arce claims was an interim belt. That means that it's Morales who is, indeed, Mexico's first-ever four-division titlist. Morales achieved the feat on September 17 under much criticism of the WBC, as the sanctioning body was accused of grossly favoring a Mexican fighter by (1) stripping Tim Bradley of their 140-pound title, (2) skipping over an already scheduled eliminator bout between Ajose Olusegun and Ali Chebah (which could have been changed to a vacant title fight), and (3) attempting to set up Morales with a very easy fight for the belt.
It was manufactured and it was, frankly, phony by the time Morales had stopped untested young Pablo Cesar Cano, the fourth of Morales' scheduled opponents for the date. But it meant something to Morales, meant something to Mexican boxing fans, and the fight was, as most Morales fights are, pretty damn entertaining to watch, as the kid battled his heart out through a swollen and cut face, drenching Morales' white trunks in blood before the fight was stopped after 10 rounds.
But Morales' greatest performance of the year, and one of the best of his entire Hall of Fame-bound career, came in April. And Morales lost. Matched with Marcos Maidana in a shameless pay-per-view that sold very little and frankly deserved to sell no more, Morales fought with one good eye for 11 of 12 rounds, frustrating Maidana with veteran savvy and good old-fashioned boxing. Everyone expected the crude but powerful Maidana to devastate Morales, and some were even squeamish about watching. Turns out the old pro had been saving the best of his comeback for that one night. He may never have another one again, but he reminded us just who Erik Morales is on April 9, and if anyone deserves a bogus title, my vote goes to "El Terrible."
Brandon Rios: The New Margarito, For Better or Worse
Rios, a Mexican-American originally from Lubbock, Texas, and now based in Oxnard, Calif., started grabbing attention in 2010 when he put the hurt on Anthony Peterson and frustrated his opponent into so many low blows that finally, the referee had no choice but to stop the bout.
Training with Robert Garcia and often alongside his fighting style role model Antonio Margarito, Rios got his 2011 started in a big way when he had a great come-from-behind knockout of Miguel Acosta in February, claiming his first world title.
After that, he entered into a verbal and physical feud with Urbano Antillon, a fighter like Rios who knows no other way but coming forward and throwing. They had three hellacious rounds on July 9, with Rios coming away clearly the stronger, superior man in the ring. He fights again on December 3 against basically an English version of Antillon, John Murray.
Rios will always have people who just plain can't like him because of his much-publicized and tasteless insults of Freddie Roach in 2010, but he's winning some over with a ferocious style. And even if you hate him, you don't want to miss his fights.
Marco Antonio Rubio: Bursting the Bubble
Most of Rubio's 2011 has been sort of a drag, really. On New Year's Day, he knocked out an untested Dominican named Wilson Santana, and in June and September, he took home easy wins in silly mismatches against Ricardo Marcelo Ramallo and Mohammed Akrong.
It's what he did on April 8 in Quebec that gives him standing here. That night, Rubio was matched with David Lemieux in what was originally billed as a WBC middleweight eliminator. Young destroyer Lemieux came in 25-0 with 24 knockouts, with all but three of his stoppage wins coming in the first or second round.
As expected, Lemieux came out guns blazing at the 30-year-old veteran, who was best-known as a guy Kelly Pavlik demolished in 2009. Lemieux won the early rounds, but headhunted and wasted energy. Rubio suckered the eager beaver in, picked up some timing, and in the sixth round, hurt Lemieux and turned the tide of the fight for good. In the seventh, with power shots landing at will and Lemieux unable to switch to a Plan B, Rubio stopped Lemieux and picked up the stunner win in Lemieux's backyard.
Rubio is now waiting on a WBC title shot that may never come, and staying active, but not doing anything more.
Orlando Salido: In Enemy Territory
One of the seemingly lost upsets and great fights of 2011 was the April 16 barnburner in Puerto Rico between undefeated featherweight titlist Juan Manuel Lopez and Mexican veteran Orlando Salido. On paper, it wouldn't be much of a fight: The powerful, younger Lopez would deal with Salido the way Yuriorkis Gamboa -- Lopez's woulda-been rival -- had in 2010, perhaps even knock him out at some point.
Salido, with no pressure on his back since nobody expected him to win (though I did go in with the feeling he might be dangerous for the flawed Lopez), went to Puerto Rico and though Lopez looked good in the early rounds, he started hammering the favored fighter with big right hands and left hooks, flooring Lopez in the fifth round and rattling him repeatedly after, until the referee chose a strange moment to stop it in the eighth. But somewhat questionable stoppage aside, it was Salido's night. He overwhelmed Lopez, and struck a big blow for Mexico yet again in the rivalry with Puerto Rico.
Victor Ortiz, a Mexican-American born in Kansas and based in California, may have made the list had it not been for his KO-4 loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr in September. He went from redemption story back to headcase in the blink of an eye. ... Another formerly written-off Mexican-American star, Chris Arreola, has re-established himself as the best bet to become the first-ever Mexican heavyweight titlist. ... Abner Mares has become one of the top bantamweights in the world, but his win over Joseph Agbeko in August was such a criticized fight that I can't put him in league with the other guys on the list. ... Miguel Vazquez has done nothing amazing this year, but he's firmly planted himself near the top of the lightweight division. ... Giovani Segura laid waste to Ivan Calderon for a second time this year, and has now moved up to flyweight. He gets a shot at a title in December, when he travels to Manila to face Brian Viloria. ... Mikey Garcia has turned some heads with his HBO appearances. ... After years of delayed promise and out of the ring troubles, Mike Alvarado has gotten his game together this year and is closing in on a possible title shot at 140. ... If Antonio Margarito defeats Miguel Cotto again on December 3, it's going to be a big, big deal to close out the year.