Way back in the olden days of 2001, Manny Pacquiao went from unknown in the States to a buzzworthy fighter with his sixth round smashing of Lehlo Ledwaba. Hell, two years after that, he became an even bigger star, beating the tar out of Marco Antonio Barrera on HBO.
In 2005, Ricky Hatton went from domestic star to global star when he retired the great Kostya Tszyu. In 2007, Nonito Donaire and Kelly Pavlik arrived on the big stages and made their marks. 2010 had the breakouts of Sergio Martinez and Marcos Maidana. In 2012, Danny Garcia; in 2013, Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev; in 2014, Terence Crawford. There are, of course, several other examples from recent years, but you get the idea.
Let's take a look at five fighters who made their names known this year, or catapulted to a much higher level, even if they already had some notoriety.
Honorable Mentions: Daniel Jacobs, Krzysztof Glowacki, Badou Jack, Fedor Chudinov, Jermall Charlo, Terry Flanagan, Anthony Crolla, Francisco Vargas, Jamie McDonnell, Amnat Ruenroeng
5. James DeGale
DeGale (22-1, 14 KO) probably should've been here some time ago, but better late than never -- and really, at 29, it's not late, just not as soon as might have been projected for him early in his career.
The UK super middleweight is possibly the best fighter in the world at 168 now, and his career got a real injection of life when he signed with Matchroom Boxing in 2014, after years sort of hidden away on Mick Hennessy's cards, facing uninspiring opponents which eventually resulted in a series of uninspiring performances from DeGale.
But to his credit, "Chunky" was able to refocus and get moving once he had bigger exposure again. He went 3-0 in 2014, two of those wins with Matchroom, going from Hennessy's smaller venues to Wembley Stadium and Echo Arena. In May of this year, he came to Boston for a vacant IBF title fight with Andre Dirrell, and proved the better man, following that up with a win in Quebec City over a determined and revitalized Lucian Bute on November 28. In his mind, DeGale has been ready for prime time for years. Now, he's actually there.
4. Viktor Postol
Postol doesn't have the record of a puncher. At 28-0 with 12 wins inside the distance, he appears on paper to be your standard European stereotype of a good boxer without that second gear. In 2014, though, Postol knocked out Selcuk Aydin on HBO, giving some thought that maybe he had more bite than it seemed.
2015 started with an easy win in April over Jake Giuriceo, a tune-up to keep Postol busy while he waited for his mandatory WBC title shot at 140 pounds. When Danny Garcia vacated the belt to move up in weight, kinda, Lucas Matthysse became Postol's opponent on October 3 at the magical StubHub Center in Carson, California.
Matthysse came in the clear favorite, a hardcore fan favorite noted for his action style and his wicked power, but it was Postol, considered a live underdog but an underdog nonetheless, who displayed dominance in the fight. He towered over Matthysse, and used his reach to establish distance. When referee Jack Reiss took away the clinch that he and trainer Freddie Roach designed to disrupt Matthysse's rhythm, Postol simply adjusted and continued on, winning the fight.
To the surprise of everyone, even those who thought Postol could very well win, he decked a frustrated and beaten Matthysse with a short right hand in round 10, and the Argentine battler made no effort to get back up, staying on his knee and taking the full ten count. There's a decent argument to be made that Postol, not Terence Crawford, ought to be considered the best fighter at 140 today.
3. Deontay Wilder
Wilder had already been a "star," of sorts, simply because he was the latest of the heavyweight American hopes, a bronze medal winner at Beijing 2008 before he really even knew what the hell he was doing, and a massive knockout puncher as a pro who had run over 32 straight opponents in four rounds or less from 2008-14.
But there had long been criticisms -- often quite valid -- about his matchmaking, and legitimate concern about how much he was really proving by beating these opponents. There was even the controversy in 2014, when he knocked out friend and former sparring partner Malik Scott in 1:36 in Puerto Rico, on a shot that didn't appear to cleanly land on Wilder. Though unproven, there was a lot of talk from fans about that fight being less than on the level.
How would Wilder hold up against a real opponent, or against someone who didn't crumble early? We got to find out in January, when he faced Bermane Stiverne for the WBC heavyweight title. Since then, Stiverne has claimed to have been ill going into the fight, but either way, Wilder wasn't able to break him to pieces quickly. In fact, Deontay had to go all 12 rounds, and he did so quite capably, staying patient and calm, never letting nerves or emotion get the better of him, in a virtual shutout victory.
That was followed by a couple of hometown title defenses in Birmingham, Alabama, where "The Bronze Bomber" beat Eric Molina and Johann Duhaupas, fringe contenders at best, stopping both of them (Molina in 9, Duhaupas in 11).
Because of that step back in competition, or perceived step back anyway, there are still questions about Wilder. But he did answer some of them in 2015, and he became a lot more legitimate than he was coming in, as well as a headliner on Showtime and network TV.
2. Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez
Known for years as one of the best in the sport pound-for-pound, Nicaragua's Gonzalez (44-0, 38 KO) finally got a chance to make his mark on the national stage in the United States this year, as he was paired with fellow action slugger Gennady Golovkin for a pair of cards on HBO and HBO pay-per-view, and he took that opportunity and made something of it for sure.
Gonzalez, the current flyweight champion and former champ at 105 and 108 pounds, demolished former titleholder Edgar Sosa on May 16, stopping the veteran in two rounds at a rowdy Forum in Inglewood, California. If that fight alone wasn't enough to convince people that "Chocolatito" was the real deal, then his wipeout of Brian Viloria on October 17 may have done the trick. In the co-feature of the Golovkin-Lemieux pay-per-view, Gonzalez dropped Viloria in the third round and stopped him in the ninth, dominating most of the fight.
Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions now believes that Gonzalez has the sort of attractive style and exposure that he can and should headline his own HBO card in 2016, which would in itself be quite a breakthrough. For a 112 (or maybe 115 by then) pound fighter to headline an HBO card would really show not only that Gonzalez is a legitimate star fighter, and deserves the attention, but that maybe American boxing fans can truly embrace the "little guys." Why wouldn't you want this sort of action in a main event?
1. Tyson Fury
Yes, Tyson Fury was already a star coming into 2015. He'd made a name for himself largely through his boisterous claims, his outlandish trash talk, his "not PC" (or terribly offensive) personal thoughts, and because one time, when he was a younger fighter, full of aggression, he punched himself in the forehead with a missed uppercut.
But there were a lot of people who didn't take Fury seriously for many years. Me, being a genius, I had started taking Fury more seriously over the years, because I thought his improvements in the ring were quite clear. I did not, however, expect him to beat Wladimir Klitschko. But he did on November 28, in Germany, on the score cards, in one of the biggest fights of the year.
Tyson Fury is not just some big guy with a great name who talks a lot anymore. He's the world heavyweight champion, the man who ended the nearly decade long reign of Wladimir Klitschko, and a true superstar. Everything Fury has said he would do, he has done. Love him, hate him, whatever -- with one fight, he became one of the true elite stars in the sport.