by David P. Greisman, photo by Chris Farina
This was not a year without the usual downers, disappointments and dubious decisions.
There were still boxers who died or were critically injured.
There were still fighters who tested positive for banned substances, and there still is a lack of significant progress when it comes to a grand effort to catch and stop those who use performance-enhancing drugs.
There still were numerous instances of bad judging and refereeing, and there are still maddening messes brought about by this sport’s many sanctioning bodies.
There was plenty to be mad and upset about, and it should not go ignored. But it should not allow us to forget that this was yet another very good year of boxing. From the opening months through to December’s final big fight card in the United States, 2013 has been a gift that kept on giving.
My fellow columnist Jake Donovan has already done a stellar job breaking down the years that were for America’s two major boxing networks, HBO and Showtime. My colleagues will continue the year in review with in-depth articles about the best fighter, fight, event, knockout, round and other categories that delve into the specific pugilistic pinnacles.
This, then, is rather a look back at several of my favorite highlights from the year that was:
Emotional Triumphs as Ruslan, Adonis Reached the Summit
Adonis Stevenson leapt and ran around the ring with sheer jubilation reminiscent of an audience participant called down to Contestants’ Row on “The Price is Right,” then fell to his knees, the emotion continuing to pour forth. Ruslan Provodnikov scored the biggest win of his career and called out to his mother, who was seated at ringside.
These moments would’ve been great without knowing any background. They were made even greater when you consider just why these fighters were so emotional.
Stevenson was 35 years old when he scored a one-round, one-punch technical knockout over Chad Dawson in June. He had turned pro in 2006, at the age of 29, and has blossomed at an age that is later in the life of a prizefighter. Though this January brings a big fight between Lucian Bute and Jean Pascal, the two most popular Montreal boxers of the past several years, it is Stevenson who seems poised to carry the torch next.
He is a man whose criminal background as a gang member and pimp has been well reported. Though his past cannot be justified and should not be glorified, it is an integral part of his story. He has reformed and made something great of his life, beating the odds just as Bernard Hopkins set out to do more than 25 years ago.
And he has achieved his greatest results after the death of a great trainer who believed in him. Emanuel Steward passed away in October 2012, and Steward’s nephew, Javon “Sugar” Hill, took over in Stevenson’s corner.
Stevenson began his 2013 with a win over Darnell Boone, a tough journeyman who had knocked Stevenson out in 2010, giving Adonis his only pro loss. Then came Dawson in June, a win that made Stevenson the lineal light heavyweight champion. He fought twice more after that, beating up former titleholder Tavoris Cloud and stopping contender Tony Bellew.
It’s a campaign that has put him in consideration for the “Fighter of the Year” award. If he wins the award, it will be in recognition of a standout year in the life and career of Adonis Stevenson. But even if the award goes to someone else, Stevenson can look back at 2013 as the year that his dreams became reality. Through that lens, it’s easy to understand Stevenson’s reaction to the Dawson win.
Provodnikov, meanwhile, was for a time seen as a tough but limited brawler, a sparring partner and an ESPN2-level fighter that many — this writer included — mistakenly felt was but a “keep-busy” opponent for when Timothy Bradley returned to the ring in March.
Provodnikov gave Bradley hell, and the two put each other through a grueling war that ended with Bradley surviving and taking a unanimous decision. As clear as it seemed to us that Bradley had made a strategic mistake and paid for it, we soon would be forced to recognize just how much Provodnikov should also be credited, and how much he has improved under the tutelage of Freddie Roach.
In October, Provodnikov traveled to hostile territory, fighting in front of Mike Alvarado’s hometown crowd. He broke Alvarado down and left with a junior welterweight world title. Finally, he belonged. Finally, he is respected. And now he can have opportunities that never would’ve been available before. He went 1-1 in 2013, but this was the year that made whatever is to come in Provodnikov’s 2014.
New Stars and Other Fun Featured Fighters
In pro wrestling, injuries to the big names can mean opportunities for previously ignored talents. The key for them is to make the most of their minutes, to make the fans and the bosses take notice.
With the split between HBO and Golden Boy Promotions, and with stars such as Sergio Martinez and Andre Ward sidelined for much of the year, there was a great opportunity in 2013 for other boxers to become fixtures on the network.
I’ve already mentioned Adonis Stevenson. There also was fellow light heavyweight Sergey Kovalev, who went from spots on NBC Sports Network earlier in the year to being part of an HBO tripleheader in August.
Kovalev went to Wales to challenge titleholder Nathan Cleverly. HBO aired the fight on tape-delay, showing it as part of a broadcast airing later that evening from Atlantic City. And Kovalev ensured that fans took notice, powering through Cleverly en route to a fourth-round technical knockout.
HBO further whetted our appetite for a fight between Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson, putting them on the same card in November. Stevenson stopped Tony Bellew, and Kovalev knocked Ismayl Sillakh out in two.
Down at middleweight, titleholder Gennady Golovkin fought four times in 2013, three times on HBO, and has become a veritable ratings magnet. This year brought wins over Gabriel Rosado, Nobuhiro Ishida, Matthew Macklin and Curtis Stevens. He’s knocked out all but three of his foes, and fans are hoping that 2014 will give a chance for them to see what Golovkin can do against 160-pound champion Martinez.
Other fun featured fighters who I can’t allow myself to miss: featherweight titleholder Evgeny Gradovich, flyweight titleholder Juan Francisco Estrada, and junior featherweight titleholder Leo Santa Cruz.
Gradovich began his year with a win on ESPN2 over Billy Dib, then followed it up with a pair of appearances on Top Rank’s shows in Macau, China, outpointing Mauricio Munoz and stopping Dib in a rematch.
Estrada has bounced back from his loss last year to 108-pounder (and now 112-pounder) Roman Gonzalez. He’s also appeared on a pair of Macau shows, topping Brian Viloria in April to take a pair of title belts, then defending them in another enjoyable outing, this one against Milan Melindo in July.
Santa Cruz didn’t have five appearances like he did in 2012, but he did have a trio of wins, stopping Alexander Munoz on the May undercard to Floyd Mayweather vs. Robert Guerrero, stopping Victor Terrazas in three rounds in August, and then winning a decision over Cesar Seda in December.
Young Talents Surprised by Hardnosed Challengers
Abner Mares had spent three years fighting against a tough group of opponents, beginning with a 2010 draw against Yonnhy Perez, continuing with wins over Vic Darchinyan, Joseph Agbeko (twice), Anselmo Moreno and Daniel Ponce De Leon. The lone “gimme” came after the Agbeko bouts, when he went the distance against faded veteran Eric Morel.
Mares had won titles at 118, 122 and 126, and then his run crashing to a halt in less than a round. Former titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez dropped him twice, took his featherweight title, got the boxing world buzzing and has left us wondering what will happen when their rematch happens in February.
Adrien Broner, his promoter and the network that features him were hoping that the popular star could make the jump into a pay-per-view attraction. He won titles at 130, 135 and 147, and his December defense against Marcos Maidana was originally supposed to be the initial dip into the PPV pool.
Instead, the fight was moved to regular Showtime, and the cocky Broner’s comeuppance came sooner than his handlers expected. Maidana is not fast or flashy, and in no way does he attempt to resemble Floyd Mayweather or Roy Jones. But he came in with a good strategy and a pair of heavy hands, and he dropped Broner twice and took a unanimous decision.
It was the last big fight in the United States for 2013, and judging by the message boards and podcasts, it will continue to be the talk of the sport until Mayweather’s and Canelo Alvarez’s next opponents are announced.
Boxing as a Big Event
There was no bigger show in 2013 than Mayweather’s fight with Alvarez. There will be nothing like it again for years to come.
Mayweather-Alvarez wasn’t aesthetically a bout that will be replayed for years to come, but the personalities involved meant that it brought in a record amount of pay-per-view revenue, a record amount of ticket sales for Nevada, record ratings in Mexico, and brought tremendous excitement to Las Vegas.
WWE has WrestleMania. The NFL has the Super Bowl. There’s so much more to look forward to in boxing besides one big event a year, but there’s little in our sport like the atmosphere that Mayweather’s and Manny Pacquiao’s fights have created in recent years.
There were other big events in 2013, though. Wladimir Klitschko vs. Alexander Povetkin drew remarkable ratings overseas. Canelo Alvarez vs. Austin Trout had just short of 40,000 fans in Texas. Sergio Martinez-Martin Murray had tens of thousands in Buenos Aires. And Carl Froch had blockbuster shows against Mikkel Kessler and George Groves.
All Day Belongs to Boxing
Thanks to technology, I can now wake before dawn on a Saturday morning to see bouts taking place in Australia or the preliminary matches on an undercard in Asia.
By afternoon and early evening, there might be title fights airing out of Germany or Russia or the United Kingdom.
And then more preliminary bouts are being shown in the evening in the United States as well, but it through Top Rank streaming its undercards or Showtime putting two to three fights on its “Showtime Extreme” channel.
Some Other Nights to be Thankful For
We actually got a pair of bouts we truly wanted: Nonito Donaire vs. Guillermo Rigondeaux, and Danny Garcia vs. Lucas Matthysse. And while Garcia-Matthysse was merely good instead of great — and though Donaire-Rigondeaux wasn’t exceptionally exciting — it was good to get two pairings we’d been asking for.
But three of my other favorite nights of 2013 didn’t involve big names:
In mid-July, there was John Molina’s come-from-behind, last-round technical knockout win over Mickey Bey Jr.
In late July, there was the “Knockout Kings” card on Showtime that brought Keith Thurman’s battle with Diego Chaves, Jesus Soto Karass knocking out Andre Berto, and the ridiculous war between Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa.
In mid-August, there was the “Friday Night Fights” card airing from a Chicago stadium with three fun fights, including Andrzej Fonfara’s knockout of Gabriel Campillo and Artur Szpilka’s rematch technical knockout of Mike Mollo.
Great Fight Weekends In Person
I traveled to nine shows in 2013: four HBO cards, three Showtime broadcasts, one ESPN2 show and one local show..
There was the unexpectedly enjoyable August card in Atlantic City in which Kiko Martinez beat Jhonatan Romero and Darren Barker topped Daniel Geale.
There was Alvarado vs. Provodnikov in the suburbs of Denver, where one of the best moments came as Saturday night gave way to Sunday morning, and Ruslan Provodnikov walked into the bar/restaurant at the fight hotel. All conversation stopped, and many in the restaurant broke out in applause.
And my year ended with the atmosphere at the Alamodome in San Antonio when Marcos Maidana dropped Adrien Broner and then went on to win.
I’m quite fortunate to be able to cover a sport I love, and one that I love to write about. There are many nice people in the sport, from the journalists to the industry insiders to the dedicated fans that are willing to pay to travel the country in order to catch a potentially great fight.
Yes, every year in this sport will still bring an assortment of downers, disappointments and dubious decisions. But it is that potential for greatness — fights and fighters, matches and moments — that keep us hopeful, and keep us coming back.
The 10 Count will return next year.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s new book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]