Despite Covid-19 and its variants still running rampant, the sport of boxing worldwide registered a relatively clean bill of health in 2021, displaying formidable punch resistance against the pandemic's onslaught. Granted, the sport saw its share of cancellations and postponements but it was a minor setback compared to the battering the virus has wreaked upon many other sectors of the global economy. Virtually every world titleholder - from 105-pound Seneisa Estrada to 277-pound Tyson Fury - defended their belts in 2021.

Houston proved to be a microcosm of the worldwide boxing scene with the vast majority of its active boxers at every level fighting at least once in 2021. The recipient of the Comeback of the Year award managed to secure three fights during the year. It is a testament to the dogged determination and dedication these ring warriors have for their brutal but beautiful craft. 

And the awards go to ...

Fighter of the Year

Jermall Charlo 

Jermall Charlo wins the top award on the strength of his lopsided title defense against a game but outclassed Juan Macias Montiel in June at the Toyota Center. Coming off his career-best performance against Sergiy Derevyanchenko last year, the undefeated Charlo entered the fight a heavy favorite.

Montiel’s record was mixed; he had stopped all 22 of the opponents he had beaten but had four losses to his name.  In his only other outing against an elite fighter, he was thoroughly dominated and blasted into oblivion by Jaime Munguia in two rounds in 2018. 

Although Charlo fell short of knocking Montiel out, he did everything else expected of him. He dictated the tempo and outmaneuvered Montiel every step of the way with his superior skillset. The hometown favorite was first to the draw from the outside, and when the battle went into trenches, he landed the first and last blows in most exchanges.

What Montiel lacked in finesse, he made up for in grit and guts. Alternating between orthodox and southpaw, Montiel found sporadic success in the trenches with multi-punch flurries upstairs and down but they were too few and far between to stymie Charlo’s momentum or even win any rounds decisively. 

Charlo might not have scored the knockout that most predicted but it was still a commanding enough performance to beat out his twin brother Jermell and Marlen Esparza for Fighter of the Year.

2020 winner: Tie between Jermall Charlo and Jermell Charlo

Fight of the Year

Jermell Charlo D12 Brian Castano

The stakes could not have been higher in this July shootout at the AT&T Center in San Antonio; Charlo was putting his three alphabet belts on the line and Castano his one for the undisputed and unified junior middleweight championship of the world. What transpired in the ring not only lived up to its hype but surpassed it. Every round was competitive, many too close to call but none were lacking in action.

Going into the fight, Charlo was perceived to be the better boxer and Castano the fiercer brawler but Charlo showed he knew his way around deep in the trenches and Castano proved unexpectedly competent on the chess board.

Taller and rangier, Charlo favored the circle-and-ambush strategy, moving around the ring, shifting directions, snapping with the jab and stepping in with power punches and combinations at opportune moments. But the cagey Argentinian knew a thing or two about the space-time continuum and repeatedly timed Charlo with lead rights to close the distance and unload follow-up volleys up close and personal.   

Up close and personal was where Castano more comfortable but Charlo held his own on the inside as he shoulder rolled with the punches and returned fire with ferocity and precision. Particularly potent was Charlo's counter left hook that rocked Castano on several occasions. 

At the end of ten frenetic rounds, the fight was declared a draw with Charlo winning on one judge's scorecard, Castano on another and the each boxer winning six rounds apiece on the third. Although the fight failed to produce a unified champion as expected, it churned out more than its fair share of thrills and suspense to win Fight of the Year.

2020 winner: Jermall Charlo W12 Sergiy Derevyanchenko

Knockout of the Year

Efe Ajagba KO3 Brian Howard

Going into the fight, everyone knew that any time Ajagba landed that sledgehammer of a right hand, it would be lights out for the hapless recipient. But two rather nondescript previous opponents had proven elusive enough to avoid a direct hit and last the distance with power-punching Nigerian.

Ajagba spent the first two rounds prodding and probing with his left jab to create openings for his moneymaker shot. When Ajagba unleashed his right, he rocked and rattled Howard even if it was just a grazing or partially-blocked blow. The writing was on the wall.

In the third round, Ajagba fired off a missile of a right as Howard was winging a left hook. It landed flush on the ear sending Howard crumbling face first to the canvas where he remained unconscious in a contorted position for the full count and the some. The savage and sudden conclusion was simply a shoo-in for Knockout of the Year.

Unfortunately, Ajagba couldn’t ride the momentum the Howard knockout into his next fight when he stepped up his level of opposition against Frank Sanchez. Ajagba was dropped in the seventh round en route to losing a 10-round unanimous decision for his first career defeat.

2020 winner: Jermell Charlo KO8 Jeison Rosario

Prospect of the Year

Darwin Price (18-1, 11 KOs)

It might seem peculiar that a fighter with a knockout loss as recently as December 2019 would take home this award. But upon further inspection that blemish becomes far less incriminating, looking more like a positive instead of negative; Price had won every round on every scorecard against Malik Hawkins before succumbing to a knee injury in the sixth round. 

In October Price entered the ring a slight underdog against the highly-touted and previously-undefeated Jean Carlos Torres (19-1, 15 KOs). Price, a former national amateur champion, seamlessly assumed the role of  matador against the hard-charging Torres all night. Gliding fluidly around the ring, he sidestepped Torres' attacks while utilizing his longer reach to spear Torres from the outside with stiff jabs and straight rights. When Torres closed the distance, he was met with jolting right uppercuts, one of which resulted in a knockdown in the third round. So thorough and methodical a beating Torres was taking that his corner decided to spare him further punishment and capitulated before the start of the seventh round.

Price was also a candidate for Comeback of the Year and Upset of the Year but was edged out by Marlen Esparza and Glanton W10 Apochi respectively. For Prospect of the Year, the lanky junior welterweight beat out streaking upstarts Eridson Garcia and Austin Williams on the strength of the overall quality of his opposition.

2020 winner: Efetobor Apochi

Comeback of the Year

Marlen Esparza 

In 2019, flyweight Marlen Esparza suffered a ghastly gash on her forehead from a headbutt en route to her first professional defeat to Seneisa Estrada. The bleeding was so profuse it affected Esparza's vision causing the fight to be stopped in the ninth round with Estrada declared the winner via technical decision. It was a bitter loss considering there was no love lost between Esparza and Estrada who was moving up a weight division to fight Estrada for an interim title.

But the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist got right back on the saddle as soon as the cut healed with a four-fight win streak, the third resulting in a world-title belt she wrested from Ibeth Zamora Silva via unanimous decision in June. In December Esparza successfully made her first defense the belt by outpointing Anabel Ortiz and cementing her claim for Comeback of the Year.

2020 winner: Regis Prograis

Upset of the Year

Brandon Glanton SD10 Efetobor Apochi

Coming into the fight, Efetobor Apochi (11-0, 11 KOs) vs. Brandon Glanton (13-0, 11 KOs) might’ve seemed like a dead-even matchup on paper. But upon closer scrutiny of their respective histories, Apochi had to be the favorite. He had a long international amateur career plus an impressive knockout victory over fellow undefeated prospect Deon Nicholson. Glanton, on the other hand, was a former college football player, a late convert to the sweet science and was still at the stage of his career of fighting opponents from Palookaville. 

Despite the disparity in experience and education, it was the supposedly less-seasoned Glanton who displayed the better fundamentals which ultimately tipped the balance in this closely-contested firefight. “Bulletproof” proved an apt nickname for Glanton as he kept his chin tucked, knees bent and gloves firmly shielding his chin and ribcage throughout. Apochi, on the other hand, fought complacently with head high and hands low for much of the bout.

For 10 rounds, the two evenly-sized cruiserweights engaged in a scintillating back-and-forth battle that was fought with both brain and bravado. Apochi assumed the role of boxer-puncher as he chipped away at Glanton's fortifications with his jab to create openings for power shots while Glanton was the banger-boxer who hid behind a tight guard while blasting away with counters from both fists with decapitating intentions. It was Glanton who was landing the cleaner punches on account of his better defense.

A pivotal moment came at the end of round six when Glanton landed a thunderous left hook followed by an overhand right that dropped Apochi along the ropes. Apochi appeared out on his feet as the ropes held him up but was spared further punishment as the bell rang. To his credit, he shook off the cobwebs regained his composure in between rounds and never strayed from his game plan. He even staggered Glanton with a clubbing right at the end of the tenth but failed to capitalize.

As the adage goes in boxing, in a razor close fight the fighter who scores the knockdown wins the fight and such was case in this fight as Glanton was declared the victor via split decision. With the win, Glanton emerges from obscurity as a force to be reckoned with in the division while Apochi saw his stock dip, losing not only his undefeated record but his 100 percent knockout rate.

Glanton-Apochi was a strong candidate for Fight of the Year but was edged out by Charlo-Castano on the magnitude that it was a world championship unification bout.

2020 winner: Eddy Valencia W8 Pablo Cruz

Round of the Year

Brandon Glanton-Efetobor Apochi, round 10

Almost every round in this action-packed shootout could conceivably be a candidate for Round of the Year but the tenth round trumps the rest on the closeness of the fight and how crucial it was to the outcome; a little more urgency and a punch or two more would have altered the result. Having suffered a sixth-round knockdown, Apochi was a behind on the scorecards and needed a knockout, or at the very least, knockdown to secure a victory. The Nigerian pecked away with his jab to set up power shots while Glanton continued to do what had worked for him all night - keep his chin down, gloves up and hammer away with both fists.

In the final moments of the fight, Apochi landed a chopping right to the jawbone that buckled Glanton's knees and sent him reeling backwards. But instead of pouncing on his buzzed opponent, the Apochi opted to step back, admire his work and gloat, allowing Glanton to finish the fight on his feet and win the fight via split decision. As it turned out, had Apochi scored a knockdown for a 10-8 round, he would have avoided his first career loss. 

2020 winner: Jermell Charlo vs. Jeison Rosario, round 6

Trainer of the Year

Ronnie Shields 

Ronnie Shields was the only trainer to have a fighter win a world title fight in 2021 when Jermall Charlo dominated and outpointed Juan Macias Montiel at the Toyota Center in June. Shields has been Charlo's chief second since the two division world titleholder turned pro in 2008. Besides Charlo, Shields also cornered for Erislandy Lara (1-0), Guillermo Rigondeaux (0-1) and Efetobor Apochi (1-1) in 2021.

Honorable mention in this category goes to co-trainers Bobby Benton and Aaron Navarro. The Benton-Navarro team cornered for the Regis Prograis (1-0), Darwin Price (2-0) and Eridson Garcia (2-0) in 2021.

2020 winner: Ronnie Shields

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