Boxing Social takes a look at some of the highlights of the 2023 fighting calendar and weighs in on the top fighters, contests and talking points.
Fighter of the year: Naoya Inoue
Devin Haney becoming a two-weight world at champion 25-years-old, David Benavidez continuing to walk forward and break down solid opponents and Terence Crawford making history as the first male two-weight undisputed world champion all made strong cases for 2023’s top fighter, but it was a Boxing Day performance from Naoya Inoue that cemented the winner here.
‘The Monster’ stepped into his fourth division this year, stopping both Stephen Fulton and Marlon Tapales to become undisputed super-bantamweight champion. The 30-year-old continued to stun fans with his power-punching and speed, making knockouts normal in the lower divisions and looking simply unbeatable doing it. There aren’t many fighters for which it’s hard to imagine what their ceiling is, but Inoue is one.
Fight of the year: Robeisy Ramirez-Rafael Espinoza
Rafael Espinoza entered the ring against Cuban two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Robeisy Ramirez as the 6/1 underdog despite being undefeated in 23 fights. Ramirez put his WBO Featherweight World Title on the line, and looked set to keep it in round five despite being outworked by Espinoza up until that point. The champion caught the challenger switching stances and threw a right hook that dropped him heavy. Espinoza’s legs buckled and, even when he stood, he stumbled forward into the ropes. Many referees would have called it at that stage but, thankfully, Chris Young didn’t.
Espinoza put together a perfect advert for Mexican fighting spirit thereafter, showing fast hands and true grit that culminated in a knockdown of his own in the twelfth, Ramirez taking a knee after being pummelled to exhaustion. The fight had it all, most importantly fair scorecards. Espinoza won the title by majority decision in a back-and-forth thriller.
Knockout of the year: Zhilei Zhang-Joe Joyce 2
Zhilei Zhang was the underdog in April when he first faced Joe Joyce. The Brit had long been praised as unstoppable, but had trouble with ‘Big Bang’s southpaw stance and took a pummelling to his eye from left hands to the extent that the fight was called off in the sixth. Notably, Joyce was still on his feet.
Joyce deserves credit for taking the immediate rematch, but Zhang would go one better in September and crack the granite chin properly on his second chance. Desperate to avoid the left hand, Joyce was instead caught with a thudding right hook in the third that sent him falling face-first. ‘The Juggernaut’ made it to his feet on ten, but it was over with – the image prior of him lying on the canvas one many boxing fans would have struggled to imagine beforehand. It was a punch that helped Zhang elbow his way onto the heavyweight top table whilst, at the same time, conclusively ending Joyce’s steady, churning momentum.
Comeback of the year: Leigh Wood
Josh Warrington was up on all three judges’ scorecards going into the seventh round against Leigh Wood in Sheffield. Wood was laboured, cut, getting peppered with spiteful shots, and well on his way to losing his WBA Featherweight World Title – until he wasn’t.
He snatched the belt – that he had lost to and then won from Mauricio Lara this year – back with a vicious combination of hooks that stunned and floored the Leeds man. Despite his protests, Warrington was deemed unfit to continue and Wood cemented his status as one of the most thrilling fighters the UK has to offer after winning this same award in 2022 when he knocked Michael Conlan out in the twelfth round of their bout.
Upset of the year: Deontay Wilder-Joseph Parker
Calling Joseph Parker’s unanimous decision win over Wilder a big upset is perhaps an insult to the busy former world champion and his pedigree but, going purely by the betting odds and pre-fight predictions, it was. In hindsight, most aren’t surprised in the slightest. Wilder is nearing 40 and his last meaningful fights were two bruising losses to Tyson Fury.
Still Parker, had to endure questions about how he would handle the famed power of the American all week, and was privy to contract negotiations already taking place between his opponent and Anthony Joshua. It made the dominant twelve round display all the more satisfying, boxing strictly to a game-plan set by Andy Lee and not shying away from vicious exchanges. It was Parker who did damage, dazing Wilder in the eighth – a round ‘The Bronze Bomber’ was lucky to see the end of. This devastating puncher was made to look pedestrian by a dialed-in Parker, and his career is rejuvenated because of it.
Trainer of the year: Brian ‘BoMac’ McIntyre
McIntyre continued to guide 9-0 Keyshawn Davis through the lightweight ranks, flew to UK shores – and stayed longer than expected – as a late-replacement for Roy Jones Jr in the corner of Chris Eubank Jr to help him avenge his sole stoppage defeat in an immediate rematch with Liam Sith and, most importantly, cornered Terence Crawford.
‘BoMac’ and ‘Bud’ warned us all that their fight with Errol Spence Jr was not going to be close, and they were the smartest people in the room when Spence was stopped in the ninth after two knockdowns and a hellacious beating.
Prospect of the year: Andy Cruz
Cuba’s Andy Cruz turned over to the pro game under Eddie Hearn this year, defeating Juan Carlos Burgos by unanimous decision in his debut before becoming just the second man to stop tough Mexican southpaw Jovanni Straffon.
Hearn says with confidence that he’ll put him in with any lightweight in the world right now, naming only one or two he would feel nervous about. Whilst he will still likely be built more sensibly, it’s hard to argue against the three-time world amateur champion making a similar mark on the paid ranks over the next decade.