The Boxing Social panel came to metaphorical blows while deliberating whether Oleksandr Usyk or Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez should be named fighter of the year…
In many ‘normal’ years, several boxers who ended up as a mere sideshow in 2021 might have been leading contenders to win fighter of the year honours.
Take Stephen Fulton, for instance, the Philadelphia super bantamweight acceded to the level of world champion by besting Angelo Leo for the WBO title in January, and then faced and beat Brandon Figueroa to add the WBC title to his collection in November.
Or how about Josh Taylor? In May the undefeated Scottish super lightweight became just the fifth male boxer in history to hold all four sanctioning body belts in the ‘four-belt era’ when he beat a fine champion in Jose Carlos Ramirez in Las Vegas.
Or Tyson Fury? The Gypsy King stated a compelling case to be regarded as the best heavyweight of his generation by engaging and triumphing in a titanic and thrilling third fight against the debilitating fists of Deontay Wilder?
Then there was George Kambosos Jr, the undaunted Aussie, who toppled unified lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez Jr in a fight practically no one picked him to win.
In many years gone by Fulton, Taylor, Fury or Kambosos might have done enough to be crowned fighter of the year.
However not this year.
Indeed, once our panel started discussing who should be crowned the Boxing Social fighter of the year it soon became apparent that there were only really two contenders for the top prize – undisputed super-middleweight king Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and unified WBA super, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk.
Let’s remind ourselves of what both men achieved in 2021.
‘Canelo’ fought three times, an almost unheard of level of activity for a fighter regarded not only as the pound-for-pound number one but also the sport’s biggest commercial draw (for context and comparison, from 2002 until his ‘final’ retirement in 2017, Floyd Mayweather only once fought three times in a calendar year once, which was in 2005; Canelo last fought three times in a year way back in 2011, when he fought four times in all).
The Mexican’s first contest this year was a facile third-round stoppage of unworthy and overmatched mandatory contender Avni Yildirim, but his other two fights – an eight-round stoppage of WBO title holder Billy Joe Saunders and an eleventh-round victory against IBF champ Caleb Plant – were both significant victories against hitherto unbeaten professionals. In winning these two fights Canelo completely unified the super-middleweight division, becoming just the sixth undisputed male champion in the ‘four-belt era’.
As for Usyk, he fought only once in 2021, defeating Anthony Joshua in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to wrest the WBA super, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles from the Briton’s grasp. In doing so, Usyk became just the third cruiserweight in boxing history – after Evander Holyfield and David Haye – to move up in weight and win a version or versions of the world heavyweight title. It was a win that not only demonstrated Usyk’s formidable boxing brain and unique skillset, but was also secured on ‘away soil’, in the forbidding atmosphere created by 66,000 spectators, almost all of whom wanted Usyk to lose.
Two great fighters and two great years then. So how to decide between them? Essentially it came down to a question of preference; Canelo’s greater activity, or Usyk’s landmark victory?
Graham Houston advocated for Canelo, arguing: “I think you have to go with Canelo. Three title defences in one year is unusual these days. Sure, he was the favourite in all his fights, an off-the-charts favourite vs Yildirim, but a lot of people were giving BJS a chance, and some were thinking Plant was going to trouble Canelo. But the clincher for me is that Canelo is so darned good for boxing, such a great ambassador for the sport.”
John Angus MacDonald and Craig Scott also pitched in for Canelo. “Usyk’s victory was impressive,” said MacDonald. “But I think it’s worth remembering that most thought the Ukrainian was all wrong for Joshua. The surprise was he got the decision. Giving him fighter of the year for not getting robbed seems generous. Usyk beat one good fighter in 2021, Canelo beat two.”
“I think Usyk’s achievement was spectacular,” noted Scott. “It runs Canelo extremely close. But I’ll take Canelo because he stopped two undefeated champions and wiped out a division in a year when he was one of the only champions to fight three times.”
On the flipside, Luke G. Williams, along with Phil Rogers and Mark Butcher argued the case for Usyk. “Usyk’s historic achievement as a smaller man in the super-size heavyweight era gets him my nod,” Williams noted. “I think it also needs to be factored in that it was a win secured on AJ’s home turf, whereas Canelo fought with the crowd on his side. Canelo’s achievement in unifying super-middleweight is impressive, but it smacked a little of cherry picking, for it is one of the weaker weight classes in world boxing.”
In the end, with the panel deadlocked the casting vote went to Boxing Social supremo Rob Tebbutt who plumped for Usyk, pointing out that Canelo was a huge odds-on favourite against everyone he fought in 2021, whereas Usyk was a clear underdog.
So, congratulations, Oleksandr Usyk, the Boxing Social fighter of the year for 2021!