2013 Boxing Awards Pu Pu Platter, Part I

Sick of the drip-drip-drip of year end boxing awards yet? Hard to blame you, hard to blame you. So we'll bring out two enormous platters to conclude our 2013 awards.

In the first installment, that flavor is heavy and serious. In the second one, that flavor is light and fluffy. Just add "of the year" to every category below and devour 'em all. Feel free to send them back to the waiter, your blog host Tim Starks, if you'd prefer something else — although this year he shares some of the responsibility for the meal with staffers who contributed their opinions and quips: Alex McClintock, Andrew Harrison,  Patrick Connor and Sam Sheppard, as well as our friends on Facebook. Also, please add in some of your own dishes. (This year we evicted "Event of the Year" because I'm not even sure what it means anymore. It's either the year's biggest pay-per-view/the year's highest-rated night or something more nebulous, like a kind of "storyline of the year," all of which is covered by some other award.)

And don't forget to consume all the major category nominees and winners from the past weeks' awards blog entries, if you haven't yet.

Trainer. Most every trainer who might be considered the Trainer of the Year had some kind of ding on his record: Robert Garcia turned Marcos Maidana into an Adrien Broner-beating machine and brought Mikey Garcia to the precipice of a Fighter of the Year campaign, but he also clearly didn't have Nonito Donaire's ear against Guillermo Rigondeaux and had the wrong game plan for Brandon Rios against Manny Pacquiao. Virgil Hunter had some success beyond Andre Ward, but didn't make Amir Khan remotely better. Some trainers, like Angel Garcia and Ann Wolfe, had tremendous success with individual fighters but nothing else. You can't really knock what Joel Diaz and Joe Gallagher did, but there's a slightly better candidate who should sound familiar: “You could make the case for Freddie Roach again, having brought Pacquiao back and transformed Ruslan Provodnikov from a caveman into a caveman who can duck,” as Alex said. It doesn't end there, either. Miguel Cotto appeared to be his old body-punching self under Roach. In 2012, there was cause to whisper that maybe Roach had lost his touch, with the likes of Pacquaio going down and Khan and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. regressing. In 2013, he had his touch back.

Prospect. There are endless ways to define what makes a Prospect of the Year, but ours had traditionally been "early-career fighter who showed the strongest signs of graduating into a full-fledged contender soon."  That would by necessity, then, discount sterling Olympic prospects like Vasyl Lomachenko, Anthony Joshua or Felix Verdejo, and set aside (for now) prospects who took big steps up and passed with flying colors like my D.C.-area prospects Dusty Hernandez-Harrison and Mike Reed. Although, even after only one professional fight, Lomachenko showed he might qualify as a contender very soon. So we'll go here as we did in 2012 with a heavyweight: Deontay Wilder. He can punch, he's quick, he's enormous and he began to test himself in 2013, beating faded ex-contenders like Siarhei Liakhovich and experienced gatekeepers like Nicolai Firtha. Let's see what he does in 2014 before we get too excited, because David Price, last year's winner, didn't have his chin tested much before 2013 and this year he got KO'd twice. Still, Wilder is dripping with potential, and has shown signs of big progress fight to fight by tightening up his game and overcoming a little duress against Firtha.

Manager. Once upon a time Al "Don't Call Me Manager, I'm An Adviser" Haymon had competition for airtime and stable quality among the likes of Cameron Dunkin. And sometimes, those rival managers could compete with him in other ways, by moving their fighters more smartly or matching them more competitively. But the airtime/stable quality competition is thoroughly decreased as of 2013, to the point that I stopped counting all his additions and his fighters' network appearances. And despite being given almost a whole network to himself, Showtime, his stable has been matched in tons of excellent fights and even sometimes (gasp!) against one another.

Upset. Great year for upsets, 2013. We had the aforementioned Tony Thompson-Price shocker early in the year, and then we had Maidana beating up Broner late. Sandwiched inbetween was Jhonny Gonzalez taking out Abner Mares — a pound-for-pounder taking a kind of warm-up for an appetizing Leo Santa Cruz battle only to be upset by the grizzled, savvy old pro, and via a 1st round knockout no less. 

Comeback Fighter. Which leads right into the next category, doesn't it? Pacquiao got back on his feet in style in 2013, but it's not like much of anyone had written him off entirely — there were doubts he would remain elite, certainly, but few convictions. Gonzalez was a guy who was counted out. He had lost most of his "big" fights in recent years even in cases where he was sometimes the favorite — Daniel Ponce De Leon, Toshiaki Nishioka, Gerry Penalosa, Israel Vazquez — and the successes at the top level had dwindled since Fernando Montiel in 2006 down to about one, vs. Hozumi Hasegawa (OK, maybe a little more if you count Jackson Asiku or Elio Rojas). Point being, since '06 Gonzalez was more known for losing the big ones than winning them. But by beating Mares, he might've scored his best-ever victory. Now that's a comeback.

Comeback Within A Fight. On Facebook I'd said something about there being some good contenders for this honor, and at the time I was thinking mainly of Carl Froch's surge back from getting thoroughly outboxed and out-younged by George Groves, but that one is tainted by the bad stoppage. No, really, there's only one true contender for Comeback Within A Fight, and that's John Molina erecting a celluloid monument to the old saying that goes something like "Boxing's the only sport where you can hit the equivalent of a 10-run game-winning home run in the 9th inning." Mickey Bey was in full control of the bout against Molina heading into the 10th and final round, and wouldn't you know it, Molina erased his lead entirely with that technical knockout. The moment was made all the more glorious by the look of misery on the face of Leonard Ellerbe, adviser to Floyd Mayweather, who promotes Bey, who in turn is easy to root against because of how he got busted with a banned substance in his system earlier in the year. It was the workmanlike grinder miraculously stealing victory from the well-connected cheater… 

Robbery. Patrick nominated Felipe Orucuta's loss to Omar Narvaez here, and there's a case for it — I gave Narvaez four rounds, while two judges gave it to him 115-113 and the other had it 118-110 for Orucuta. There were some close rounds, but I'd lean toward thinking 118-110 Orucuta's scorecard was more realistic than having Narvaez winning. The most offensive decision of the year was Chavez over Brian Vera, however. It's not that a draw would've been wholly out of order in a bout almost everyone thought Vera won. But all three judges saw Chavez winning, two of them by a significant margin. That made no damn sense on one level, i.e. the level where people use their eyeballs to score fights. It made too much sense on another level — the spoils went to the "house" fighter with the name of a living legend who had abused Vera's willingness to fight for big money by repeatedly missing weight targets pre-bout. Boo, hiss to judges Marty Denkin, Gwen Adair and Carla Caiz for making Chavez's silver spoon taste all the sweeter.

Worst Scorecard. There's little that can be said about C.J. Ross' draw verdict for Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez that hasn't already been said by froth-mouthed boxing fans everywhere, and given that Ross has left the judging game, it feels like piling on. "So bad that she had to be put into witness protection for chrissakes," observed Patrick. But it's award season and we have to give it to some card and she's far and away the owner. It was a shutout or near it, Mayweather-Canelo.

Best Decision. After everything the judges got wrong in 2013, more than a few fans expected that the judges might rip off Maidana against Broner. Instead, Broner got just the loss that ass-whooping deserved. Well done, Levi Martinez, Nelson Vazquez and Stanley Christodoulou.

Worst Refereeing.  What got into Steve Smoger this year? He's had some questionable calls over his career, sure, but this year he spent a whole fight shoving Karo Murat all over the damn place, including a last-second face-shove, in the Bernard Hopkins bout. It was highly unprofessional. Then he let Glen Tapia take an exceedingly long beating from James Kirkland without purpose, even after warning his corner that he'd stop the fight if Tapia took more big head shots (after which he took many, many more) and when he finally called off the bout, he made far too tentative a move to save Tapia and Tapia took some extra punishment from a Kirkland in kill mode. Smoger was once one of the best referees, if not the best referee, in the sport. In 2013, he sullied his reputation twice. Honorable mention: Howard Foster, who stopped Froch-Groves far, far too soon, on the opposite end of the Smoger spectrum.

Best Refereeing. This is how it's done, Smoger and Foster: Michael Griffin stepped in at the precise moment he should've in Adonis Stevenson-Tony Bellew, following a knockdown where Bellew was shaky but still fit to continue and Stevenson trapped Bellew in the corner. Smoger was once the "not too early, not too late, but just right" guy. There's now a contender for his throne.

Worst Fight. What's to like about Carlos Molina-Ishe Smith? Nothin'. Well, other than maybe the fact that it's over. Maybe you can find something to enjoy in Guillermo Rigondeaux's two displays of supremacy in 2013; I did, a little. But the Rigo bouts and Molina-Smith were better than Wladimir Klitschko clinching Alexander Povetkin every two seconds and then fouling the living shit out of him in every imaginable fashion overall. Boxing fans are in bad, bad need of a referee who will penalize Klitschko early and often for the tactics that make his fights so excruciating — most especially the clinching and the manner in which he extends his left hand without throwing it. Referees have enabled him without fail (no, the late point deduction in the Povetkin bout wasn't going to dissuade Wlad) in a long career of ugly showings.

Best Top-To-Bottom Card. The aforementioned Maidana-Broner card was pretty good, but nothing topped the Andre Berto-Jesus Soto Karass-helmed Showtime tripleheader. Berto-Soto Karass was a borderline Fight of the Year candidate and featured an honorable mention Knockout of the Year candidate, while the chief supporting bout between Omar Figueroa and Nihito Arakawa produced Fight of the Year and Round of the Year finalists. And Keith Thurman-Diego Chaves would've been a tasty supporting bout on any night, but instead it was an afterthought to the two bouts that followed it.

Best Performance. This category had a number of nominees from the staff and Facebook crowd, among them valid offerings like Miguel Cotto-Delvin Rodriguez, Mayweather-Canelo and Rigondeaux-Donaire. For my money, I'll go for Danny Garcia over Lucas Matthysse. Perhaps I'm biased by my preconceptions. A number of people picked Garcia to win, but I was as convinced as I get for any high level fight about the ending: that Matthysse would knock him out. Instead, Garcia dismantled the Matthysse bomb like an especially pimp version of James Bond at the end of one of his flicks. He stood up to a Matthysse shot that sent his mouthpiece flying out of the ring and overcame a late charge by the powerful Argentian with skill, intelligence and grit. And for his troubles, he won the junior welterweight championship of the world and moved into some pound-for-pound top 10 lists.

Best Losing Effort. Here's another one that had some good nominees, like Groves-Froch and Provodnikov-Bradley, where the losers elevated themselves. Then there's Arakawa-Figueroa, where Arakawa endured through inhuman and inhumane punishment. But I don't want to glorify that one excessively — as brave as Arakawa was, his corner or the ref or the doctor should've stopped what bordered on human sacrifice. Since Groves might've been on the verge of being stopped legitimately by Froch had the ref not stepped in prematurely, we'll go with Provodnikov, who arguably deserved a win over Bradley on the scorecards and announced his arrival at the elite level prior to beating Mike Alvarado to cement his standing.

Promoter. Golden Boy got booted from HBO — the network that essentially established Golden Boy — and didn't miss a beat, helping Showtime make in-roads against the industry giant. It also partnered with Showtime and Haymon on some positive trends, like stacked multi-fight cards. It got lucky with some of its matchmaking, sure, but there were few showcase bouts and most Golden Boy cards met a baseline of entertainment that was reasonably high. We'll overlook the FS1 show they established where Golden Boy airs utter trash 49 times out of 50, based on the good work they did on Showtime.

Network. Tough call here. HBO fights and fighter swept all four of our standalone award categories: Knockout, Fight, Round and Fighter. It generated the more well-rounded boxing offering with the likes of Legendary Nights and The Fight Game. It remains far and away the boxing ratings giant among cable networks. It developed a new batch of stars in response to the threat from Showtime — Sergey Kovalev, Stevenson, Gennady Golovkin, etc. — and when you combine that with its fall/winter season in 2013, it's easy to envision HBO as the frontrunner for Network of the Year in 2014. But it's also hard to ignore just how much Showtime's boxing program gained ground on HBO's in 2013, partially a byproduct of the overall growth in subscribers at Showtime, partially the result of an allegiance with Golden Boy and Haymon that netted some of the biggest attractions in the sport (Mayweather, Broner, Alvarez) and partially a byproduct of simply putting on a shit-ton of good and/or evenly matched fights. Showtime by a nose. 

Best Trend. Odd as it sounds, this year's best trend is a continuation of last year's worst trend: the Cold War between Golden Boy and Top Rank, and the related deepening bifurcation of the sport. Last year this mostly hurt boxing, with fights like Mayweather-Pacquiao still not happening and, ultimately in the case of Mayweather-Pacquiao, exceeding its peak's expiration date. This year, it led to some furious game of oneupsmanship between HBO and Showtime and Top Rank and Golden Boy, and fans benefited. Most other good trends of 2013 — HBO guys like Golovkin fighting more frequently, stacked Showtime cards — were an outgrowth of that competition. For reasons that we'll elaborate upon in our year in review piece later, this trend will not continue to net such gains indefinitely, and we've already seen the good element of the dynamic begin to fray.

Worst Trend. Where to start? The nominees are both serious — still too many showcase fights, fighters failing to make weight, terrible decisions, etc. – and semi-serious: “Calling anything that isn't a fucking Toughman contest 'purist." — Patrick; “Worst trend is the concept of being 'Team' anything. It's such a meaningless label. TEAMVADA TEAMBRONER TEAMARIZAFRONTKICK etc” — Sam. But none of it matters if the sport of boxing degenerates into a mere graveyard of fighters' bodies. Too often in 2013, avoidable risks weren't avoided when it came to fighter safety. We lost Frankie Leal because so many people (his team post-Top Rank, regulators in Mexico, even Leal) ignored the warnings that he should retire. We watched Magomed Abdusalamov get beaten into a coma on HBO because the referee and corner ignored warning signs in a fight that stopped being competitive around halfway through the battle. We watched as Tapia took a worrisome beating that simply wasn't necessary after the 4th round, probably, and after the 5th round, indubitably. Bad decisions inspire passionate denouncements, as they should. So do the alphabet belts, and the use of PEDs, and a whole variety of wrongs in boxing. There will always be deaths related to boxing, same as there are for pursuits like NASCAR racing, and it will always be uncomfortable to be a fan of the sport when they occur. But boxing becomes indefensible when reasonable steps aren't taken to protect fighters' health and safety. In 2013, boxing showed that it needed a culture change — one that emphasizes erring on the side of caution with stoppages, that preaches to corners/doctors/refs the value of boxers literally living to fight another day or just plain living and that realizes that licensing fighters who shouldn't be fighting isn't worth whatever marginal financial gain is offered for all involved.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.