By Michael Rosenthal
Oleksandr Usyk could be fighting for more than his unified cruiserweight championship when he faces challenger Tony Bellew on November 10 in Manchester, England. He could be battling to become 2018 Fighter of the Year.
Usyk already has outpointed Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev in the semifinals and final of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament this year. A victory over the veteran Bellew would give him a 3-0 record against three legitimate challengers in 2018, which would be hard to top.
Also working in Usyk’s favor is the fact that no one else really jumps out as a prime candidate.
Canelo Alvarez has the most important victory of 2018 – a majority decision over fellow pound-for-pounder Gennady Golovkin in September – but he isn’t a legitimate candidate after a controversial result and a presumed mismatch against Rocky Fielding on December 15.
Pound-for-pound No. 1 or 2 Vasyl Lomachenko will have had a strong year if he defeats Jose Pedraza in a title-unification matchup on December 8 after stopping Jorge Linares in May, but he looked human against Linares and Pedraza isn’t seen as a legitimate threat.
And while the best two heavyweights – Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder – will have made strong statements if Wilder beats Tyson Fury as expected on December 1, neither will have had huge year.
Here is a closer look at five boxers who should be in the Fighter of the Year discussion:
Record in 2018: 2-0 (3-0 if he beats Tony Bellew)
Summary: The beauty of the best boxing tournaments is that they force participants to face one elite opponent after another, which is what the gifted Ukrainian did this year. And he did it in his opponents’ backyards, making his feat particularly impressive.
Usyk (15-0, 11 knockouts) had to dig deep to beat the then-undefeated Briedis in January in Latvia, Briedis’ home country. He won a majority decision (115-113, 115-113 and 114-114) to unify to two titles but wasn’t as dominating as he had been in other fights.
I chalk that up more to the ability of Briedis than any failings on Usyk’s part. And bottom line: He beat a very good opponent in a hostile environment.
Usyk bounced back from that test to unify all four major 200-pound titles against unbeaten Gassiev in Russia, his country. Gassiev was coming of an impressive stoppage of highly regarded Yuniel Dorticos in their semifinal but was nearly shut out by a far superior Usyk.
Now comes Bellew in Manchester, England, Bellew’s native land. The 35-year-old Liverpudlian, coming off back-to-back stoppages of David Haye at heavyweight and the winner of 10 consecutive fights, seems to have remained near the top of his game at 35.
If Usyk can beat him, it would cap a special year and could give Ukraine back-to-back Fighters of the Year.
Record in 2018: 1-0 (2-0 if he beats Pedraza)
Summary: Last year’s Fighter of the Year stopped Linares with a vicious left to the liver in the 10th round of their fight but the Ukrainian struggled to get to that point, as the fight was even on the cards after nine rounds.
Like Usyk against Briedis, that fact has as much to do with Linares’ special ability as it does with any limitations Lomachenko might have. And I have to say this: Linares is better than Briedis, which means Lomachenko’s performance against the Venezuelan was stronger than Usyk’s against Briedis.
Pedraza is a legitimate opponent for Lomachenko. The one-time amateur star has good all-around skills, which allowed him to take Ray Beltran’s title in August. He also isn’t far removed from a seventh-round knockout loss to Gervonta Davis, which damaged his reputation.
Lomachenko is expected to handle Pedraza easily. That would limit the magnitude of the victory and hurt his chances of repeating as Fighter of the Year.
Last year, Lomachenko stopped Jason Sosa, Miguel Marriaga and Guillermo Rigondeaux to win the award. The victory over Rigondeaux, who was unbeaten at the time, pushed Lomachenko over the top.
Records: (2-0 each if Wilder beats Fury)
Summary: Joshua outpointed Joseph Parker in a unification fight in March and stopped Alexander Povetkin in seven rounds in September, which was a strong year. Wilder went to hell and back to stop respected Luis Ortiz in 10 rounds in March. If he can do the same to Fury on December 1 in Los Angeles, he will have had an even stronger year than Joshua.
That said, neither will have done enough to become Fighter of the Year.
Parker held a title but was considered a notch below the top heavyweights and while Povetkin used his refined skill set to give Joshua some trouble early, he ultimately folded under Joshua’s power.
Wilder’s performance against Ortiz was impressive, as he demonstrated a resilience we hadn’t seen before to go with his unquestioned power. The problem is that a victory over this version of Fury, who is in the midst of a comeback after a 2½-year layoff, won’t carry the weight it would have immediately after Fury upset Wladimir Klitschko.
Joshua and Wilder might have to beat the other to become Fighter of the Year.
Record in 2018: 2-0
Summary: Inoue, the slugger from Japan, is a Fighter of the Year waiting to happen but this probably isn’t the year.
The product of Japan defeated Jamie McDonnell in May and Juan Carlos Payano in October, two victories that might not seem particularly special even though both McDonnell and Payano are good fighters.
It was the WAY Inoue recorded the victories – combined with his opponents’ ability – that stands out: Neither made it past two minutes of the first round.
McDonnell was stopped 1:52 into the fight, Payano at 1:10, which underscored Inoue’s growing reputation as a living, breathing wrecking ball. He has stopped 15 of his 17 opponents in his short career.
Inoue needs defining fights. When he gets them, he could be a Fighter of the Year candidate multiple times.
10 MORE WHO MADE (OR COULD MAKE) A SPLASH IN 2018
Tony Bellew – He will be 2-0, with victories over Haye and Usyk, if he can find a way to win on November 10.
Terence Crawford – Overhwelmed Manny Pacquiao conqueror Jeff Horn and stopped a determined Jose Benavidez Jr.
Issac Dogboe – Has three KOs (including one against Jessie Magdaleno) and could get a fourth against Emanuel Navarrete on December 8.
Carl Frampton – Has victories over Nonito Donaire and Luke Jackson. Can add a third against unbeaten Josh Warrington on December 22.
Tyson Fury – An upset of Wilder wouldn’t make him Fighter of the Year but it’d be dramatic.
Daniel Jacobs – Beat two unbeaten fighters, Maciej Sulecki and the highly regarded Sergiy Derevyanchenko.
Jose Pedraza – If he can upset Lomachenko, he will have victories over the respected Beltran and arguably the best fighter in the world. Not bad.
Regis Prograis – Looked impressive in his three victories – knockouts of Julius Indongo and Juan Velasco, and a decision over Terry Flanagan.
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai – Outpointed Juan Francisco Estrada in an anticipated showdown and beat two obscure foes.
Callum Smith – Stopped George Groves in the WBSS final after outpointing Nieky Holzken.
Michael Rosenthal is the most recent winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades.