Every year, boxing produces new stars. Maybe not stars that extend into the mainstream, but those that break into the elite ranks of the sport. Some were already known to diehards, some had been on the cusp, some burst onto the scene, and some finally got their overdue propers.
Oakland's Ward won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in 2004, the first American gold at the summer games since 1996. His pro career coming into '09 had been a bit rocky, though flawless in official record. He was criticized for being handled too carefully, suffered a pretty bad knee injury, and had started to garner some flak as someone that didn't "want it" as a pro, at least in a few circles.
But Ward shut up the doubters this year. He started off with a dull, routine win over Henry "Sugar Poo" Buchanan in one of the year's worst televised fights, then took a step up in competition against the powerful but flawed Edison Miranda. After routing Miranda in May, Ward was one of six to sign on for Showtime's revolutionary Super Six World Boxing Classic, where he'd be thrown to the wolves. He took one more tune-up fight, an easy win over unqualified opponent Shelby Pudwill, and then was due to face Mikkel Kessler in November.
Kessler came in as the unofficial king of the weight class and the tournament's co-favorite, along with Arthur Abraham. In Oakland, Ward got a little dirty, but that was just a footnote. He outclassed, outquicked, outboxed, outeverythinged the Danish titlist, and took a technical decision when the fight was stopped in the 11th round. He left the building with Kessler's WBA title, leaving the former beltholder bewildered and giving him by far the worst beating of his career.
Andre Ward leapt to the top of the super middleweight rankings, and he broke through bigger and better than anyone else in boxing this year.
2008 was a breakthrough year for Bradley, too, as he upset Junior Witter on Witter's turf to win the WBC 140-pound title, an upset to most. Before Witter, Bradley hadn't taken on much by way of stiff competition, and while the fight was closer than many seem to remember it being these days, Bradley was the clear victor, and won a decision on hostile ground, never an easy fight against a defending titlist.
But 2009? Wow -- Timothy Bradley not only kept winning, but he turned up the heat on his career. An April win over Kendall Holt in an exciting affair (Bradley was knocked down twice) unified the WBC and WBO titles, though Bradley shortly after forfeited the WBC belt. In August, he tore up Nate Campbell over three rounds before the fight was stopped, originally a TKO for Bradley but later rightly changed to a no-contest, as a headbutt caused the bad bleeding and eye injury that made Campbell pull out of the bout.
This past weekend, Bradley made the biggest statement he's made yet. Faced with friend and former travel partner Lamont Peterson, another promising and unbeaten young American, Bradley scored a virtual shutout of his friendly rival, and it wasn't because Peterson hadn't shown up to fight, or that Peterson didn't live up to the hype. Lamont was sharp; Tim Bradley was just a lot better than him over the course of 12 rounds.
Years and years of frustrating, even maddening, performances had plagued the advancement of Brian "Hawaiian Punch" Viloria. So often, he'd lay off the gas, or not fight aggressively at all, and wind up being outfoxed by guys that simply didn't seem like they should have been beating him.
Finally this year, it clicked. In April, Viloria upset Ulises "Archi" Solis to win the IBF 108-pound title in what I feel was the year's most underrated, ignored and overlooked great fight, finishing Solis with a right hand to the jaw in round 11. In August, he defended in Hawaii against Jesus Iribe.
Right now, Viloria has a January defense against Carlos Tamara scheduled, and talk is that should he win that fight, he'll go head-to-head with world champion Ivan Calderon. Both fighters want it. Given Calderon's struggles this year with Rodel Mayol, I think we might be looking at the man who takes down the king.
Personally, I always liked Pascal, but admitted that his ceiling was likely limited, in part (or even in large part) because of his own foolish habits in the ring. A good athlete with good reflexes and good speed, Pascal seemed to often think he was the new Roy Jones, an otherworldly speed specimen. In December 2008, Pascal got some respect from doubters when he lost a gritty war in England to Carl Froch. But 2009 showed that it wasn't a one night only deal.
He started off his year with a decent win over Pablo Daniel Zamora Nievas, and then decided to move up to 175 pounds to take on WBC titlist Adrian Diaconu. American fans were lucky, as Versus picked up the fight and we wound up getting a barnburner in Montreal, with the relentless Diaconu fighting to overcome the natural physical advantages that Pascal held, and in the end, coming up just short. Pascal went home with the belt, and defended against Silvio Branco in September, winning by 10th round TKO.
On December 11, Pascal and Diaconu rematched. This time, American fans were unlucky, as Versus had blown their boxing wad on a dull Bernard Hopkins fight on December 5 (as well as rights to Roy Jones Jr. getting creamed), and a rumored deal to get the fight on ESPN Classic fell through. Pascal fought through a bad shoulder injury, gritting his teeth through the pain and overcoming Diaconu in another spirited bout. Pascal may need surgery, but one thing's for sure. He established himself as more than a cocky pretender this year.
In December 2006, Sergio Martinez fought Russell Jordan (then 14-4) on Versus. Martinez was being hyped by some as a legitimate contender at 154 pounds, but for all the world, he looked to me like just another fluffy-record scrub from the Argentine rings. He'd also done a number in Spain, another country not exactly known for its high level of competition in boxing.
It wasn't until an October 2008 fight with Alex Bunema on HBO that we got to find out that Martinez might truly be for real, as he dominated and stopped Bunema in a rather shocking fashion. In February of this year, Martinez was matched with Kermit Cintron. He knocked Cintron out, but due to the worst refereeing of the year courtesy Frank Santore Jr., the fight went on.
At the end of it, Martinez obviously deserved a win, but two of the three judges scored it 113-113. Having been robbed of a win, Martinez called out anyone near him in weight that didn't have a fight set. He tried to move up and face middleweight world champion Kelly Pavlik, but that didn't happen. He called out Joshua Clottey. That didn't happen. There was talk of a rematch with Cintron, and that didn't happen. Finally, after Pavlik pulled out of a second attempt to fight Paul Williams, Martinez found himself with a fight on December 5.
And what a fight it turned out to be. After 12 rounds of great warring from both competitors, Martinez wound up on the short end of the stick. Some felt he won, but it was no robbery. And his stock jumped up once again after such a tremendous performance.
After Bernard Dunne won a war with Ricardo Cordoba to claim the WBA junior featherweight title in February, he took seven months off before returning to face Thailand's Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym at The O2 in Dublin.
Poonsawat is tiny for a 122-pounder, at a listed 5'3 1/2" that might not even measure quite that high. Dunne, at 5'7", looked huge compared to him. But it was Kratingdaenggym's power punching that won the fight in short order. Dunne looked sharp in round one, but was lured into a war in the second, and it all spiraled out of hand quickly at that point. In the third, Poonsawat finished him off with three seconds left in the round, claiming the belt and winning for the first time out of his home country.
The notorious Kameda clan had disgraced Japanese boxing and the country's "old-fashioned" manners in general many times over the years, and when the more talented of the two fighting brothers, Koki, signed on to fight Daisuke Naito for the WBC flyweight title, it was a huge, huge deal.
Young Kameda had been hyped and been torn down by boxing fans all over the world. But he proved his skill and his worth in the ring on November 29, beating Naito in a terrific fight that set records on TV in Japan, drawing outrageously huge numbers. He now looks to be the best flyweight on the planet, and we'll see if he can handle being the hunted instead of the hunter. My guess is he'll handle it just fine.
Before 2009, Perez, a 30-year-old Colombian living in California now, had never really fought anyone. His trip in May to South Africa had him matched with Silence Mabuza, a longtime top contender at 118 pounds, whose only two losses had come to the best bantamweight of this decade, Rafael Marquez.
With Mabuza firmly in control of the fight (accounts say that Perez was "hopelessly behind" on two or even all three scorecards), he was caught with a big left hand in the 12th round that sent him to the mat. Though Mabuza got up, Perez pounced and finished him off with 98 seconds remaining in a fight he surely was going to lose.
That got him a shot at IBF 118-pound titlist Joseph Agbeko on Showtime. Agbeko had beaten Vic Darchinyan in the summer, and the October fight with Perez looked to some like a sure win for Agbeko. After all, who was Yonnhy Perez? But those who knew their boxing landscape knew Perez was a live dog at the very least. In a back-and-forth war that exceeded expectations and may have been the best fight of an electric month, Perez won on the scorecards, taking Agbeko's title and bursting into the highest ranks of the bantamweight divison.
His careet stunted by terrible promoting from Don King, Devon Alexander went into his August fight against Junior Witter for the vacant WBC junior welterweight title still a bit of an unknown commodity. We knew his talent was real, but talent can't always make up for a lack of experience in a big fight atmosphere, against an opponent who knows what's what.
Frankly, I felt Junior Witter was holding his own when suddenly, he quit after eight rounds. Official scorecards were wide in favor of Alexander (80-72, 79-73, 79-73) so perhaps I was off radically, but the corner retirement seemed to come from nowhere.
But for his part, Alexander looked quite good that night. His speed proved out against a better class of opponent, and he looked a bit more powerful than previously suspected, too. He was on his game, and he'd come to fight, and come to win his first major title. He did so. Let's hope that King can get this kid in motion in 2010, instead of spending his time on has-beens and pipe dreams. I guess more realistically, I hope Alexander gets out of King's camp.
At 36, it's a little late to break through, but I'm going to count one for Danny Green. He and his management have managed to become semi-obnoxious in the wake of his first round TKO of Roy Jones Jr., offering such hideous ideas as a fight with 47-year-old train wreck Evander Holyfield as proper follow-up, but Green has long been a good fighter, and had never quite gotten his due outside of Australia. While I don't think he deserves THAT much credit for catching an old, shop-worn Roy Jones cold early in the fight, he deserves some credit, and when you combine that with the credit he was already due ... well, it works out fine.
I said in a comment yesterday that I still wish that Antonio Tarver hadn't ducked out of a December 2007 fight with Green, because I felt then that Green would have bashed him up good. I still feel that way. Showtime had Danny Green on camera this past weekend, as Green tries to negotiate a fight with Bernard Hopkins. What seemed more beneficial to them is a Hopkins refusal and an attempt to get Tarver back into the ring, in a fight with Green. It could happen.