I thought about starting with a dramatic preamble, and I could do that, I could conjure up my best flowery words I learnt from books and what have you to wax poetic about blood, sweat, and tears, but listen, you clicked the headline, you know why we’re here, let’s get into it.
These are my picks — mine alone, mind you — for the 10 best fights we saw in boxing in 2019, and my pick for the single worst, too.
(Obviously I didn’t see every fight in the world, but for what I saw, these are my choices. I just can’t see all the fights, I also have to spend time letting you know who said what on Twitter and who just had a good training camp and whatnot.)
After a fairly long layoff led to a ho-hum tune-up return for Gennadiy Golovkin in June, the Kazakh star was back on Oct. 5 and fighting for a vacated IBF middleweight title against Sergiy Derevyanchenko at Madison Square Garden.
Golovkin-Derevyanchenko never did kick up the buzz it should have. Maybe not enough people took Derevyanchenko seriously; he was still not a star despite proving himself very capable in a 2018 loss to Daniel Jacobs. Maybe his last name was just too hard for most people to remember. Maybe the hashtag never caught on. Whatever it was, this fight didn’t garner the hype it deserved.
But those who knew, knew. In our staff picks, all four of us did pick GGG, but even the earliest call — Patrick L. Stumberg taking Golovkin in six — called for a “fun, technical, competitive fight” while it lasted.
The old thunder from GGG was never truly apparently in this bout, even after he dropped the Ukrainian in the first round. Derevyanchenko settled in and made this one of the four hardest fights of GGG’s pro career, right up there with his two controversial bouts with Canelo Alvarez and his 2017 win over Daniel Jacobs. Golovkin did enough to edge the cards (114-113 and 115-112 twice), but this easily could have gone either way; there was a credible way to find seven rounds and a win for Derevyanchenko here. The decision was even booed a bit, a true rarity for any GGG fight, let alone one in his second home at Madison Square Garden.
In March at AT&T Stadium outside of Dallas, Manny Pacquiao was introduced to the crowd following Errol Spence Jr’s one-sided win over Mikey Garcia. The idea was to at least gauge if the audience was interested in seeing Spence-Pacquiao. Reception from fans in the stadium and watching around the world was a little lukewarm, and the fight didn’t wind up happening.
Instead, we got two other fights, both of which made this list, the first being Pacquiao facing Keith Thurman on July 20 in Las Vegas. For Manny, 40 at the time of the fight, it was a chance to regain a legitimate welterweight title for the first time since controversially losing the WBO belt to Jeff Horn two years prior in Australia. For Thurman, it was an opportunity to, at 30, prove he was truly back, and score what would’ve been a career-biggest victory, topping even his strong wins over Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Thurman had struggled a bit in January, when he returned from a nearly two-year absence to beat Josesito Lopez by majority decision, while a week before that, Pacquiao had a pretty easy night with Adrien Broner.
When the odds were first listed, Thurman was the slight favorite, but money came in on Manny, and the roles reversed by fight night. But for all it really matters, it was a toss-up on paper.
Manny set a tone on a confident Thurman in round one, dropping the younger man late in the frame and letting him know he wasn’t some old fart, he was a living legend here to win. Thurman was hurt again in the fifth round and was literally running around the ring after a 10th round body shot, but “One Time” was never out of it, either, outlanding Pacquiao according to CompuBox and having plenty of his own success, though he never had Pacquiao in any true danger, and Manny, the veteran he is, knew to roar back when Thurman did land a good blow.
That all tipped the judges to a split decision win for Pacquiao. Thurman talked the big game coming in, but it was Manny with his hand raised, and Pacquiao shrugged off the pre-fight bluster, smiling and saying Thurman was just promoting the fight. Thurman, for his part, called Manny a “truly great, great, legendary champion” after sharing the ring with him.
A late-year entrant, and maybe there’s a bit of recency bias, admittedly, but if you like a couple of well-matched veterans slugging it out — and I do — this deserves a spot in the top 10 for the year.
The 37-year-old Pascal and 36-year-old Jack came into this one needing to win. Pascal was coming off of a bizarre technical decision upset of Marcus Browne in August, seven months after Browne won a clear and bloody decision over Jack. Pascal’s win was the result of three knockdowns and an early trip to the score cards; he didn’t win any round where he didn’t floor but Browne, but he floored Browne enough to legitimately edge it when the fight ended.
Considering their ages and all that, Pascal and Jack fought at a torrid pace throughout this bout. As he did against Browne, Pascal took advantages of the openings Jack gave him, throwing bombs whenever he had a reasonable opportunity. He dropped “The Ripper” in round four, and had it come earlier in the round, he might have been able to finish. Jack came back, though, with a very good second half of the fight, and he put an exhausted Pascal on the canvas in the 12th round. Pascal showed a lot of heart just getting to the finish line.
Any split decision is controversial by nature, and this one was certainly no different, but it’s hard to get up in arms here. Jack won one card 114-112, and Pascal won the other two by the same score. BLH had it 114-112 Jack on two separate cards, but Pascal’s late round flurries may have nicked him a couple rounds that might otherwise have gone to Jack, and it has to be said that in the fourth, we saw a big swing; that was a 10-9 Jack round until the late knockdown, swinging it to a 10-8 Pascal round, which wound up being huge. This was just a gritty, tough fight between a couple of guys who were fighting like they couldn’t possibly afford to lose.
Women’s boxing still has a lot of detractors, and if we’re being honest, it’s not that hard to understand why, even beyond the simple explanations that many might leap to immediately. The biggest problem, at least in my view, is that it’s still hard to get two genuinely well-matched women’s fighters into the ring at the same time, at least with the bigger names on this side of the sport. Even fights between highly-ranked combatants often wind up being mismatches in the end; we saw that this year when Claressa Shields routed Christina Hammer and when Amanda Serrano was way too much for Heather Hardy. Hammer and Hardy are decent. Shields and Serrano are elite.
And much the same was expected at Madison Square Garden when Irish superstar Katie Taylor met Belgium’s Delfine Persoon for all four major 135-pound titles. Taylor, like Shields, came into the pro ranks with a serious amateur pedigree, and had her way in her first 13 professional fights. Persoon, who had been a top pro lightweight for a long time, had built her record facing opposition that just wasn’t that good very often.
But the Belgian proved no easy out for Taylor, and before the shocking main event of the evening, this one was looking like a legitimate show-stealer. It was a physical, hard-fought affair for all 10 rounds, with Persoon giving every bit as good as she got. Before the final scores were read, a lot of people had it even. A lot of people had it for Persoon.
Taylor edged a majority decision on scores of 95-95, 96-94, and 96-94. Persoon, having come up barely and controversially short in by far the biggest fight of her career, left the ring immediately and broke down in tears backstage. A rematch has been hoped for, but hasn’t happened yet, with Taylor moving up to 140 in November and Persoon actually down below 130 for her own, quieter return that same month. Women’s boxing is still fighting an uphill battle with most fans of the sport, but more fights like this one will do a lot to change minds. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to not see this as a truly terrific battle.
To get a fight like this 140-pound unification, not ordered by any sanctioning body or the result of any tournament, promoters and managers have to have faith in their guys. Maurice Hooker’s team felt he could beat Jose Ramirez. Jose Ramirez’ team felt he could beat Maurice Hooker.
Network lines got crossed here as Top Rank sent Ramirez over to DAZN to face Hooker in Texas, which is also Hooker’s backyard, part of an overall US TV rights deal with Top Rank and Matchroom that saw Matchroom send Luke Campbell to ESPN+ for his August bout with Vasiliy Lomachenko. Isn’t it nice when the carnies work together?
Anyway, the fight was outstanding, Hooker was able to use his reach early on, but Ramirez was ready for that approach and willing to charge into the phone booth, get up into Hooker’s grill, and land clean shots to the head and body. Both had a game plan, and they were sticking to it, each man having his share of success.
In the six rounds this fight lasted, we saw some terrific exchanges, ending when Ramirez staggered Hooker with a left hook in the sixth, sending the Texan into the ropes. Ramirez pounced and landed a series of shots that forced referee Mark Nelson to step in, the right call and one Hooker admirably lauded the referee for making so that he go on to fight another day.
Like Ramirez-Hooker, this was the sort of fight boxing could use more of: top guys fighting top guys, and once again here at 140. This one almost didn’t happen, as Regis Prograis threatened to pull out of the World Boxing Super Series tournament, and ultimately, in all reality, this wound up being saved by Matchroom far more than getting made because of the tournament organizers. There were none of the usual WBSS flourishes around the ring; this was a Matchroom show, like all other Matchroom shows.
But that’s not a bad thing, and between the ropes, Prograis and Josh Taylor delivered every bit the competitive battle that was hoped for by fans. Two in-prime junior welterweights doing their thing, with Prograis on the road against the Scotsman, who obviously had more crowd support in London.
We got a majority decision in the end, and there was an argument that maybe the fight could’ve been even, but most had Taylor winning, though it was never easy. Taylor seemed able to produce the more consistent attack overall, and Prograis said that while he thought it was “pretty even,” he respected the decision, while Taylor said Prograis lived up to his reputation, after joking that it was a “walk in the park” while only able to see through one eye after the fight.
The first fight of the year that felt like, well, a Fight of the Year came on April 26 in Inglewood, California, as Daniel Roman and TJ Doheny put their 122-pound titles on the line in a unification fight that flew under the radar for those who weren’t serious boxing fans.
If you haven’t seen this fight, you should. Roman and Doheny, 28 and 32 at the time of the fight, put on a tremendous war, stealing the show at the Forum beneath the Rungvisai-Estrada rematch main event.
Doheny went down in the second and 11th rounds, but he never gave up on the fight, battling even when it seemed he was just that important bit outgunned by the slightly younger man. Roman earned a majority decision win to unify the WBA and IBF titles.
After the fight, the two showed a tremendous and genuine respect for one another, complimenting each other not just as fighters, but as men. In a sport that can get very personal and very ugly at times, the Roman-Doheny war was one of rare class, with none of the fire lost from the opening to final bell. And this was another fight where, guess what? If you match top fighters against top fighters, good things happen.
A young man anointed as king of the PBC welterweights. A fiercely determined veteran contender still in his useful years. They came together at Staples Center in Los Angeles in late September, putting on the pay-per-view main event of the year with 12 rounds of hard-fought action at 147 pounds.
Six months after a questionable decision win over Yordenis Ugas, Shawn Porter brought his A-game to the bigger stage, giving Errol Spence Jr all he could handle and then some, and to his credit, Spence displayed a hell of a chin and an ability to deal with a rugged opponent who would rough him up trying to score an upset.
Spence’s motor proved reliable, as he was able to fight the distance largely at the pace Porter preferred, dropping the Ohio native in the 11th round with a vicious, clean left to the jaw, a shot that might well have knocked out anyone else at 147 — but Porter, while no perfect boxer, is not anyone else at 147.
When it was over, Spence admitted it wasn’t the performance he wanted, but that Porter deserved the credit for that, and Porter gave credit to his opponent for showing that Spence, too, had some real dog in him.
The biggest upset in boxing since at least Hasim Rahman knocking out Lennox Lewis in 2001 shook the sport to its core. And on the night of the fight, we saw a captivation with the audience, casual and diehard, that I personally haven’t experienced since we started Bad Left Hook back in 2006.
Chunkster Andy Ruiz Jr was drafted in to face WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight titleholder Anthony Joshua on short notice at Madison Square Garden, replacing Jarrell Miller, who had failed several drug tests for several different drugs. Going in, there wasn’t a lot of buzz about this fight, pretty much the bare minimum that accompanies any heavyweight title bout with a guy who’s a star, as Joshua is. Ruiz wasn’t expected to compete, let alone win, even if you thought he was better than the truly dismissive believed when they glanced at his — let’s be honest here — belly and breasts.
And Ruiz went down in the third, everything going to script. But instead of folding, Andy fired back, catching Joshua and putting him on the canvas in return, and he dropped him again in that same frame.
After some slightly quieter but now incredibly tense rounds, with Ruiz not wanting to run into anything silly and Joshua still not looking quite right, Ruiz found an opening in the seventh and put Joshua down twice more, with referee Michael Griffin stopping it the second time when Joshua didn’t come forward as instructed. AJ would get his revenge in December, winning a wide and frankly dull decision in Saudi Arabia, but for one night and the six months that followed, Andy Ruiz Jr lived the incredible dream.
My feeling up until just this past week was I was going to buck what seems to be the larger trend and name the first Joshua-Ruiz bout my Fight of the Year instead of this one. I’m a bigger sucker for atmosphere and whatnot than most, and Joshua-Ruiz created the most significant memories, had the most incredible atmosphere in the moment, made me feel the most.
But I rewatched Inoue-Donaire, and it’s just a better fight, an instant classic in every way. Joshua-Ruiz had the shocking dramatic twists and turns, but Inoue-Donaire was just, simply put, the absolute best of boxing over 36 minutes. We had Inoue, a young destroyer right in his prime years, heavily favored to do the business against Donaire, who was nine days shy of his 37th birthday, had returned to bantamweight in a risky move a year prior to enter this World Boxing Super Series tournament, and had gotten to the final largely on lucky (for his results, anyway) breaks, with Ryan Burnett suffering an injury in their quarterfinal bout, and Zolani Tete replaced by overmatched Stephon Young in the semifinals when Tete came up injured.
But Nonito reminded us all just who he is. At 118 pounds, his left hook is still dangerous, and he was better with his right hand in this fight than he’s perhaps ever been, backing Inoue down repeatedly. The 11th round was incredible, and Donaire gave a true warrior’s effort, falling short but climbing off the canvas twice and never showing an ounce of fear over a man who has intimidated pretty much everybody else that he’s fought so far. The brutality of it all left the victorious Inoue on the shelf with a broken orbital, and a healthy new respect among fans for both fighters.
Last on the Cutting Room Floor
There were a lot more fights than these that I also had in consideration, but these were the last batch to fall.
- Jermell Charlo’s Dec. 21 stoppage over Tony Harrison was a terrific main event on a really fun night of action from PBC, a dramatically better fight in terms of entertainment than their first bout in Dec. 2018.
- Tyson Fury’s Sept. 14 win over Otto Wallin was expected to be a nothing mismatch, wound up being a fairly dramatic fight, with Fury bleeding horribly — to the point that had it been a different fight, without so much network money tied up in one of the fighters, it probably would have been stopped in Wallin’s favor.
- Julian Williams’ May 11 upset of Jarrett Hurd started with some tremendous excitement, but over the 12 rounds it settled into a comfortable groove, with Williams leaving no doubt that he was the better man on the night. Would’ve been a strong contender for Upset of the Year if not for Ruiz beating Joshua less than a month later.
- Sergey Lipinets’ Mar. 24 stoppage of Lamont Peterson was an emotional night in a rare good FS1 main event, with Peterson and Lipinets trading a lot of good blows, but the younger man just being too strong. Peterson was stopped when his lifelong trainer Barry Hunter stepped in to throw the towel, with Peterson retiring in front of his home fans after the defeat.
- There were a couple of other “old man” fights that had some fantastic displays of determination this year. On Feb. 23 in Mexico, Humberto Soto outpointed Brandon Rios, and on Sept. 21, Alfredo Angulo scored his best win in nearly a decade when he beat Peter Quillin by split decision. These fights aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I understand that, but these aging warriors all showed a ton of spirit, and I get caught up in that every time.
- I also want to give a special shoutout to Golden Boy’s matchmakers for the Thursday Night Fight series. I don’t think there was a serious Fight of the Year contender on the series, but it was the most consistently entertaining programming of the year, perhaps, with a lot of prospects matched tough, some competitive fights between fighters looking to move up the ladder, and a lot of fights made specifically because they were going to entertain. Golden Boy get a lot of flak for their matchmaking, but they nailed it all year on TNF.
Bonus! The Worst Fight of the Year
There are a lot of forgettable fights over the course of a boxing year, and a lot of fights that were bad for various reasons. Mismatches, boring displays of one-sided boxing dominance, style matchups that just don’t spark.
But some fights are special in how bad they are. The Showtime main event between Robert Easter Jr and Rances Barthelemy on April 27 in Las Vegas was one of those. And fittingly, after 12 miserable rounds of complete non-action where both men refused to lead the dance, there was no winner.
“Nobody won this fight,” Steve Farhood said on Showtime, and Paulie Malignaggi agreed with him, adding, “It’s justified. Neither guy deserved to win.”
Over the full championship distance, 12 entire rounds, Easter landed 54 punches. Barthelemy landed 52. That’s 4.5 per round for Easter and 4.3 for Barthelemy. Neither man landed in double digits in a single round. Judges had to pick between nothing, and the draw was as it should have been. If you’re someone who scores 10-10 rounds, it would not have been unreasonable to score this fight something like 119-118.
This was all-time bad. Some highlights from the live thread:
- “Easter wanna be like Broner so bad he just stopped throwing punches”
- “this feels like when two first time marijuana stoned people fight”
- “how are so many punches missing by 4 feet from both guys??”
- “It’s like watching a pair of narcoleptics thumb wrestle.”
- “Fuck this fight, I’m switching over to Under Siege.”
- [at the end of the fight] “They hug, which is more contact than they made with their fists for the last 36 minutes.”
- “I’ve seen weigh-ins with 10x more punches thrown than this entire 12 round fight”
- “Jim Gray more feisty in postfight interviews than the fighters, pushing the action, had both guys on the back foot”