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Couldn't Get Ahead: Reflections on an Exasperating Year of Boxing, Part 1

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Jacob Mazer begins a look back at a largely down year for the sport of boxing.

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The first punch that crumpled Dmitry Sukhotsky was a straight left, deposited around the extended jab the Russian had left hanging on his opponent's shoulder. Sukhotsky's knees buckled. He fell to the canvas flat on his back, lay there for four seconds, lifted his head, put it back down, waited another second, then rose to his feet. He was back on the seat of his trunks a moment later, this fall as much the result of lingering disorientation as the blows that had grazed his forehead and cheek. He seemed to be regaining his senses when, responding to a pawing right with a half-hearted hook, another torpedo left hand shot down the middle, landing flush on his chin. Lying on the canvas, chest heaving, legs akimbo, it was clear that he would not rise again.

That final left hand was picturesque, and we will certainly be seeing it again on highlight reels of the man who dealt it, World Boxing Council 175-pound champion and number one ranked light heavyweight Adonis Stevenson. Juicy as the clip may be, the moment left a bitter aftertaste.

Much derision has been leveled at Stevenson over the last year. He'd come off of a great run in 2013, scoring knockout wins over Darnell Boone, Chad Dawson, Tavoris Cloud, and Tony Bellew. First, his decision to sign with mega-advisor/manager/whatever Al Haymon in February scuttled a significant and potentially thrilling match against fellow 175-pound hotshot Sergey Kovalev. In May, Stevenson struggled in his stay-busy bout against Andrzej Fonfara. This match with Sukhostsky, who was perceived as a non-threat in the build up and proved to be a non-threat on fight night, was not exactly a grand finish to his year.

But the bitter notes of Stevenson's victory are drawn not just from the specific circumstances of that fight, but rather because the match was so emblematic of the kind of year it has been for boxing. In 2014, we saw many of the sport's top fighters inactive or pitched against clearly overmatched opponents in bouts oriented more toward generating highlight reel fodder than offering any real test of mettle.

Consider Danny Garcia, 29-0, who has fought many big name opponents, who is ranked number one at 140 lbs and is in possession of the World Boxing Association and WBC Junior Welterweight belts. In another stay-busy fight gone awry, Garcia struggled to a decision win over Mauricio Herrera in Puerto Rico (many viewers, myself included, thought Herrera had won the fight). In August, Garcia made his "hero's return" in a 142 lb catchweight match against Rod Salka, an obscure, unranked fighter moving up from 135 lbs. To no one's surprise, Salka's night was over by the second round. Thankfully, the WBC and the WBA refused to sanction the match.

The most egregious episode of the year may not have taken place in the ring. Peter Quillin, 33-0, who until recently held the World Boxing Organization Middleweight title, chose to forgo a title defense against Matt Korobov, vacating his belt. The match would have netted him a career-high $1.4 million purse. Quillin cited the birth of a new child as his reason for passing on the fight. However, there has been much speculation that the fighter's decision to surrender his title was made at the behest of Haymon (who serves as his advisor) in order to shut out Roc Nation, Jay-Z's newly formed boxing venture, who had won the promotional rights to the match.

These are just a couple examples of lousy matchmaking and frustrating promotional maneuvers. Review the year and you'll find plenty more.

Looking back over these episodes, Al Haymon's name comes up an awful lot. Haymon's silence and elusiveness does give the advisor something of a nefarious aura, and it's tempting to proliferate conspiracy theories. I don't have the designs to Haymon's master plan, and I won't use this space to sort through all the knowns and the known unknowns of the situation. There's good work on it elsewhere. [http://www.boxingscene.com/what-al-haymon-planning--79627] Whatever Haymon's agenda is, the grand objective is probably not to torment boxing viewers. Perhaps there could even be a positive end to it? There have been some rumors that Haymon plans to steer boxing away from pay channels like HBO and Showtime and onto basic broadcast networks. This could be a great development for the sport, granting it wider exposure at a time when it holds a diminished profile in the larger sports landscape. And it must be said- for a sport that draws much of its loyal fan base from working class communities, keeping up with the fights sure does inflict some damage on the wallet. But on the other hand, are fights like Garcia-Salka to be the rule?

It also remains uncertain how Haymon plays into the supposed thaw in relations between the long-feuding Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions. To be fair, no one is really sure yet whether this new cooperation is sincere, or, if it is, what the implications will be.

For my part, I'm certainly excited by the prospect of seeing some previously impossible match-ups get made. But I also feel cautious in my optimism. I'm not just speaking about the complications of promotor-network relations. There have been a number of distressing bits of news regarding Golden Boy over the last year, and despite founder Oscar De La Hoya's militantly sunny attitude, I have questions about the stability of the company. Conflict with De La Hoya led longtime CEO Richard Schaefer to resign from the company in June. Since Schaefer's departure, it has come to light that many of the fighters thought to be under the Golden Boy banner may not have long-term contracts with the promoter, raising the question of whether the company actually has a stable or whether it has merely been housing Haymon's.

Furthermore, in October, De La Hoya agreed to buy out the company's second and third largest shareholders (De La Hoya is Golden Boy's largest shareholder). The withdrawing parties stated that Golden Boy had never made any distributions to its shareholders- in other words, the investors had seen no returns on their investment. What does that say about Golden Boy's fiscal strength?

Let's not be naive. As viewers and fans, we understand boxing is a business, that managers and promotors sometimes want to protect their fighters, that boxers and their teams assess their options from a risk-reward standpoint with an eye toward minimizing the former and maximizing the latter. But when the business machinations are this nakedly obvious, when they work so much to the detriment of that which is entertaining, meaningful, and dramatic within the sport, we have a right to decry it, don't we?

In an article on Grantland, Rafe Bartholemew declares 2014 boxing's "Year of Suck." He copes by relishing the sport's frequent ridiculousness; if you're a boxing fan, this is no doubt a familiar mechanism. Well, it certainly wasn't the finest year. But frustrating as it has been, 2014 has also seen some interesting developments which could make for a strong year to come. I'll discuss this more in my column next week.