James DeGale and George Groves are no closer to friendship now than they were before. (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.
[ Related: Part One of the Countdown ]
15. Tyson Fury (17-0, 12 KO, Heavyweight)
Tyson Fury is an enigma. There are nights where he looks like he's getting it down, such as his July domination of Dereck Chisora. And then there are nights where he looks every bit the awkward buffoon he's sometimes painted as being -- he was buzzed by American club fighter Nicolai Firtha in September, and got an early stoppage win in five. His next time out, Neven Pajkic put him on the canvas before a questionable stoppage in the third secured the victory for the 23-year-old Fury.
Tyson Fury is exciting for a heavyweight, comes to fight, and has some star qualities. But you can't help but feel that he's going to lose one of these fights he's not supposed to lose, and that the fall from grace will be pretty enormous.
14. Gavin Rees (35-1-1, 16 KO, Lightweight)
Rees, 31, just fights. That's all he does. He's generously listed at 5'7", and with his physical shortcomings, he's made the career decision to just come straight at opponents and try to bust them up in close. He sometimes winds up emptying his own gas tank, as we saw on June 4 in a win over Andy Murray, and he fights so hard and in such close quarters that clashes of the head are bound to happen, as we saw in a technical draw on October 1 against Derry Mathews. Rees once won a world title, which was a better story than anything, and was then sent back to reality by Andriy Kotelnik.
But reality isn't so bad a place, really. Rees will always have his fans, is always worth watching, and won't retire with regrets.
13. Darren Barker (23-1, 14 KO, Middleweight)
Darren Barker got his shot this year, facing Sergio Martinez in Atlantic City on October 1, mostly because Martinez is having a bit of a tough time finding suitable challengers, and Barker, as the reigning European champion, fit the bill as well as anyone.
Barker is a strange fighter. He does not lack for skills, nor for pop (he's no thumper, but he can hurt opponents). He's a very good boxer. But he has a tendency to struggle, and it's not so much fighting up or down to opposition as it is the fact that he tends to tire easily. Guys like Domenico Spada and Affif Belghecham should not have given Barker the problems that they did. But really, Darren fought about as well against Martinez as he did against those two. He didn't tire against Martinez, because he didn't put in the same effort. Instead he got worn down and knocked out without making much of a dent in the champ along the way, though he did some good work defensively. I think that's one of those fights that seems more interesting immediately than it really is; looking back, Barker might have nicked a couple rounds, but I wouldn't go calling it some big challenge or anything.
Still, Barker's talented enough I'd give him a fair shot against anyone else in the division.
12. James DeGale (11-1, 8 KO, Super Middleweight)
DeGale started 2011 with an easy win in March against a guy with a losing record, then geared up for a May 21 date with rival George Groves. It's so rare that we see a couple of top prospects risk a fight against one another. We have things like ShoBox, but DeGale was considered a true blue chipper, and Groves was at worst a notch below that level. Two guys with futures were putting it on the line very early in their careers.
It wound up being, oddly enough, one of the most anticipated and talked-about fights of 2011. In the ring, it was more tense than it was good, and was an incredibly close fight won in the end on majority points, by the underdog Groves.
After the loss, it was questioned how DeGale would come back. A young man with a pretty huge ego, could he handle a personal loss in his 11th pro fight? After five months away, DeGale returned to face Piotr Wilczewski for the European title, and won a close decision on October 15. So he's got his belt, his rival is signed to the same promoter now, and if he has nothing else, a money return match with Groves is always there for later.
DeGale has blue chip talent. There are now two questions: Can he mentally handle the adversity, and even more important, is Warren pushing too hard and too fast with DeGale now that he's lost some of his top veterans?
11. Scott Quigg (23-0, 16 KO, Super Bantamweight)
Quigg, 23, is the gem of Hatton Promotions and one of the best young fighters in the United Kingdom. The Bury native started topping decent journeymen in 2010, and this year demolished Franklin Varela and veteran Jason Booth, the latter win giving Quigg the British title at 122 pounds in a totally one-sided effort that left Booth more in awe of the young fighter than anything else.
Quigg really might be the best bet for world-stage success of the top young Brits right now. If he stepped up to world level in his next fight (he's not, as he's facing Jamie Arthur on February 4), Quigg could do some damage. There are guys in our top ten that I'd pick Quigg to not just beat, but to beat impressively. He's starting to pick up a little buzz with American media, and not just the handful of nutters like myself who purposely spend many Saturday and Friday afternoons watching UK boxing. Those who watch him come away impressed. He's got talent, killer instinct, power, and skills, and fights as if he's truly determined to be the best.
10. George Groves (14-0, 11 KO, Super Middleweight)
Obviously, it was a good year for George Groves. After a scare in November 2010 against tough Kenny Anderson, Groves went 3-0 in 2011, including an upset of rival James DeGale, and a crushing TKO-2 defense of his British and Commonwealth super middleweight titles on November 5 against former champ Paul Smith.
Now 23, Groves is younger than DeGale and having signed with Frank Warren, he's got a brighter future than he did under the Hayemaker banner, which took him as far as it was going to in the sport, given that it's not a real promotional company. Retaining manager/trainer Adam Booth was also a good idea; Booth used to catch some heat, but his handling of Groves has really been quite fantastic, he's a better trainer than he was given credit for being, and no matter what you say about David Haye, in the end, Booth did get him the best deal to fight a Klitschko.
As for Groves, there seems to be less urge to rush him into the limelight than there is with DeGale. DeGale being an Olympic gold medalist and earlier Warren investment might be hurting him more than helping him anymore. Groves is more "just a fighter" at this point, and doesn't have the same pressure.
9. Nathan Cleverly (23-0, 11 KO, Light Heavyweight)
Cleverly, 24, won the WBO light heavyweight title on paper in May, defending it against an incredibly lame short-notice replacement opponent for Juergen Braehmer, and then he defended it once in October against Tony Bellew, which we talked about in part one.
I said then that I feel more flags were raised on Cleverly than anything in that fight, and that's truly my belief. Many are high on Cleverly still, and I was at one point, too, but I think he looked better as a prospect than a true contender, or "champion" if you want to put that on him.
I don't know what it is -- he seems a bit overconfident in himself, seems a bit content with where he's at. A guy like Bellew has little more than determination, and that pure determination gave Cleverly a test and a half. Cleverly never should have been in that close a fight with Tony Bellew. I think he overlooked him to some degree.
I will say that I feel he's a talented fighter, right now one of the UK's best, and that he's got a career ahead of him if things go right. But the jury deliberated in the case of Cleverly this year, and head into 2012 still in recess. There's a lot more to prove.
8. Brian Magee (35-4-1, 24 KO, Super Middleweight)
My pick for the UK's most underrated fighter, the 36-year-old Magee gave Lucian Bute a better fight than just about anyone has on March 19, and I think is the forgotten man at 168 pounds. He's better than or right even with half the guys who competed in the Super Six.
Then again, perhaps I'm just the world's biggest Brian Magee fan. His style, toughness, and willingness to be dirty makes him a tough out for anyone, and if I were Warren, I'd keep him far away from DeGale and Groves for the time being.
7. Martin Murray (23-0-1, 10 KO, Middleweight)
Murray, 29, was supposed to be a poor man's Matthew Macklin when he faced Felix Sturm on December 2 in Germany, and that's kind of what the fight amounted to. Using Macklin's game plan for the most part against Sturm, Murray came out with a draw that could have been a close win, and put himself into the mix at 160 pounds.
Unlike Macklin, Murray may very well get a rematch. Sturm probably can't offer a low enough purse without seeming like a complete jerk, and Hatton may even accept a couple of options. It's not as if Murray is going to be getting in there with Sergio Martinez or JC Chavez Jr; in a strange way, it's Felix Sturm who is the go-to man for fighters wanting to catch a break nowadays.
Murray may never have another performance that good in him, but we'll see. I'm betting a rematch with Sturm looks roughly the same, and hope we do see it.
6. Kevin Mitchell (32-1, 24 KO, Lightweight)
If you put aside those troublesome drug charges against Mitchell and his mom, it was a great year for Mitchell, who fought only one time, but made it count in the British Fight of the Year, a win over John Murray on July 16. It was quite a return for Mitchell, 27, who had been out of the ring for 14 months following a bad loss to Michael Katsidis in West Ham in 2010.
Most figured Mitchell would show up out of shape, that is if he showed up at all. Instead, he was sharp, fit, and just too good a boxer for Murray, slicing and dicing his way to an eighth round stoppage win.
Hopefully Mitchell can get his personal and legal matters sorted and get his career on track for real. He should be in talks for serious fights at 135 right now, but everything is on hold.