John Murray had a tough year, but didn't leave boxing fans feeling as though their time or money were wasted. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Note: I am not British. I merely watch a lot of British boxing. I have no automatic regional ties to anyone, no emotional attachments to anyone, and no biases toward anyone. I didn't do this to be deeply analytical or anything -- it's more for fun, just to write about boxing, which I sometimes don't do enough of (just writing and discussing boxing for pure enjoyment, I mean) because there's all this other stuff to do.
I've decided to put this in three parts, as each part is fairly lengthy and all of it at once would be a bit of a chore to read. Parts two and three will also go up today, and I guess this is the start of our year-end festivities, now that all the major fights of the year are in the books.
25. Matthew Hatton (42-5-2, 16 KO)
Matthew Hatton is, like, an OK fighter, I guess. He's alright. He does his best. You wouldn't say he's exciting, and he's really not gifted, and he doesn't punch hard, and his fights generally aren't memorable, but he always shows up for them.
As overachievers go, Matthew is a bit harder to like than most because he's where he is in large part because his last name is Hatton. He recently complained that he wasn't able to land a fight that he didn't actually much deserve by any logical stretch, because he's used to being able to get strings pulled. I'm not saying that makes him a bad guy or anything, just one of those boxing-specific deals I always find interesting.
He's here because I'd definitely pick him to beat Colin Lynes or Lee Purdy.
24. Tony Bellew (16-1, 10 KO, Light Heavyweight)
Tony Bellew is an odd case. He should be known as an action fighter, but it's hard to ignore his dreadful July 16 fight against Ovill McKenzie, which is high on the list of worst televised fights of 2011. He did follow that with an almost shockingly strong showing against Nathan Cleverly on October 15, in a fight that many felt was an absurd mismatch pressed by promoter Frank Warren as a way to (1) use Bellew to draw a Liverpool crowd, which he did, and (2) give Cleverly an easy W, which he did not.
Now 29, Bellew can go one of two directions. Either he proves that the Cleverly performance was no fluke, and becomes more than a domestic-level light heavyweight, or he doesn't, and tops out where most of us expected prior to the Cleverly battle. To me, that fight raised more flags about Cleverly than anything, but that's a story for another time (such as later on this list).
23. Lenny Daws (22-2-2, 9 KO, Junior Welterweight)
32-year-old Lenny Daws has had some career path. Back in 2006, Daws defeated Colin Lynes and Nigel Wright, the latter win netting him the British title at 140 pounds, which he promptly lost to Barry Morrison in January 2007. He later drew Wright in a rematch in November of that year, and stepped back into mediocre competition for nearly two years before knocking out Morrison in September 2009 to win the British title for a second time.
This year, Daws lost his belt to Ashley Theophane in February, and then picked up a rebound win on November 12 over Stuart Green. He's still a top contender at British level, but that's all he's going to be. Still, not a bad career.
22. Denton Vassell (19-0, 9 KO, Welterweight)
Vassell, 27, is one of the Hatton group's hopes for the future, but if he's going to be a serious player, it's time to get moving. He struggled with Bethuel Ushona on March 26, but got wide scorecards. A better win came on November 12, when he clearly defeated Sam Colomban.
I don't think there's a lot of ceiling here. Vassell is an OK fighter, and the Commonwealth champion, but he's not pressing to get up to British level just yet. 2012 is the time for that. Again, they have to start moving on him if there's any real hope that he's more than this. While he isn't old, he's not getting younger, either. Is the ceiling low, or is he being poorly handled?
I guess for domestic welterweights, he's probably actually the best going right now. I certainly rank him over Colin Lynes, who holds the British title.
21. Jamie McDonnell (18-2-1, 7 KO, Bantamweight)
McDonnell, 25, is one of my favorites. It all started in January 2010, when he upset Ian Napa, who had been headed for a fight with Jerome Arnould for the vacant European bantamweight title. Instead of Napa, that wound up McDonnell's fight in March 2010, and he won that one, too. Two upsets in two months, and suddenly the kid was British, Commonwealth and European champion.
He still holds all three titles, too, and he had a couple of terrific fights this year with Stephane Jamoye (MD-12) and Stuart Hall (UD-12). McDonnell isn't threatening the world class guys at 118 pounds, but he's a lot of fun.
20. Ola Afolabi (18-2-3, 8 KO, Cruiserweight)
Often forgotten as a legitimate cruiserweight contender, Afolabi, 31, wasted 2011 with a series of mismatches, making for four straight overall dating back to 2010. The last time he fought a threat, he lost a narrow decision to Marco Huck in December 2009. He seems somewhat content to hang around, sparring the Klitschkos and then picking up a little pocket change on their undercards. If that's what he wants to do, then cool, who can argue? But I feel it's too bad -- he's good enough to hang with anyone in the cruiserweight division.
19. Gary Buckland (24-2, 8 KO, Super Featherweight)
Buckland, 25, is one of those guys who seems like he's not supposed to be here. After winning a Prizefighter last year, including a TKO-1 victory over then-unbeaten British 130-pound champ Gary Sykes (who entered thinking it was easy money), Buckland's name was known.
After weak fights in April and June, Buckland got a crack at Sykes, this time "for real" in a 12-rounder with Sykes' British title on the line this time. The two had a good fight, and in the end, it was Buckland's cleaner, harder punching that carried the day. He's a hard charger and not built for longevity, but he's someone you tune in to see fight. He's got a lot of guts, a big gas tank, and nothing to lose, really. He wasn't supposed to be here.
18. Dereck Chisora (15-2, 9 KO, Heavyweight)
What a year for Dereck Chisora. After trouncing Sam Sexton in September 2010 to unify the British and Commonwealth belts, Chisora signed up to fight Wladimir Klitschko. He didn't do it because he was a top contender or because anyone felt he would win. He did it because, you know, why not? It's good money and he figured he could give it a shot.
But Wladimir canceled the December date, and rescheduled for April 2011. Then he canceled that, and while Chisora got some money to step aside and make room for a willing David Haye, he was still dicked around and lost precious time in his career. After all that time was a-wasted, Chisora showed up at 261 pounds on the scales for a July 23 fight against Tyson Fury, and in front of a big TV audience on Channel 5, Chisora dropped the titles and looked lousy.
After a tune-up on November 11, Chisora signed to fight Robert Helenius in Finland for the vacant European title. Most figured he would lose, but at least he was back to a more normal 243 pounds. Instead of losing, he poured on the pressure and kicked Helenius' ass in Helsinki. Having truly battled a referee -- one who waved his hand in front of Chisora's face on one occasion, not like how Amir Khan "battled a referee" -- Chisora's rage after getting robbed in Finland was forgivable. Clearly, the deck was stacked.
But no matter: The boxing world saw what happened, and now Chisora is set to face Vitali Klitschko on February 18. Finally, a little justice.
17. Ashley Theophane (31-4-1, 9 KO, Junior Welterweight)
Ashley Theophane has had some hard luck in his career, but he settled down this year, situated himself in the UK, signed with Hatton Promotions, and started getting it done. In February he lifted the British title from Lenny Daws, in July he knocked out Jason Cook, and in December he overcame a tough fight from late replacement opponent Ben Murphy to retain again. The next step is European level. I don't know how high Theophane can go. He's a little limited, and doesn't have big power, but he's tricky, crafty, and smart in the ring. He's never been coddled, and he's earned his place as a back-end top ten type in the 140-pound division.
16. John Murray (31-2, 18 KO, Lightweight)
John Murray went 1-2 this year, and his win over Karim El Ouazghari in April wasn't exactly impressive. But his July loss to a career-best, comebacking Kevin Mitchell was British Fight of the Year, and though he may not have "deserved" the shot at Brandon Rios on December 3 at Madison Square Garden, he sure as hell earned his money.
It's impossible to not like John Murray, I believe. He gives a great effort every time, and in both of his losses this year he was bloodied, battered, beaten up, and had to have someone else stop him. He gave no impression that he wanted to quit. Plus, after the Rios fight, he had two Twitter messages that sealed the deal for me as a fan of John Murray:
1. I've got the heart of a lion just not the skills, but every fight I have will be value for money. #100%everytime