It has been an extreme year on both sides of the ropes in the British boxing year with unforgettable fights, unforgivable decisions and all against a backdrop of continued caution.
In Las Vegas in October, on a night of true grit, Tyson Fury survived two knockdowns and eleven rounds of savage fighting to send Deontay Wilder to the canvas face first in the eleventh round. It was for the WBC belt, one of the four that are moving ever closer to extinction.
It was a modern classic, make no mistake, a brawl like the cherished fights in black and white that Rocky Marciano delivered in the Fifties.
Wilder will return better, according to his people, and Fury has an ordered defence against his number once contender, and the world’s longest-serving mandatory, challenger, Dillian Whyte.
The third fight with Wilder only happened after an arbitration hearing in the USA insisted that Fury must fight Wilder next; the plan was to travel to Saudi Arabia in August for a scheduled showdown with Anthony Joshua. It’s easy – at the end of the year – to forget that Fury vs Joshua was made, tickets were booked, deals were negotiated.
The Fury and Joshua fight was done and dusted on 11 May and dead by 17 May after the hearing’s dreaded announcement; less than two weeks later, Wilder and Fury fight was made and then Joshua against Oleksandr Usyk was sealed for September. It was a moment when everybody in and outside the game watched in amazement.
In the ancient and accepted boxing way, nobody took any responsibility for the collapse of the most pressing heavyweight showdown since the long dance led to Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson all those lovely years ago. It was, everybody involved said, the fault of the other guys. It was an early pantomime.
Still, the Usyk and Joshua fight was a truly magnificent event with 70,000 trying to get Joshua over the line at Tottenham’s ground. It was no good, Joshua got it all so badly wrong in the ring and lost on points. Usyk was exceptional.
The British boxing business is the envy of the world for the fights we put on outdoors. If there was a desert outside Basildon we might just take over the sport.
Fury’s win in Las Vegas and Joshua’s loss in North London were truly outstanding events; it was a privilege to be ringside for both.
There was a lot more heartbreak for British boxers in rings up and down the land and overseas; Joshua got it wrong, lost his belts, made his money and will get revenge. A few others lost and are gazing at a far more uncertain future.
At the very end of the year, Dereck Chisora lost a slugfest to Joseph Parker on a night of emotion in Manchester. Chisora has to look at his life before fighting again. He will be pulled by lunacy, some sanity and probably his indestructible fighting heart.
Josh Warrington had a terrible year; surrendering his IBF featherweight title outside the ring, getting stopped my Mauricio Lara and then their rematch ended on cuts. Warrington had a bad year for a good guy.
Kid Galahad won Warrington’s old belt and then, in possibly the British shock of the year, was knocked out by a Spanish veteran, Kiko Martinez. It was a brutal finish.
On the same night, Terri Harper, fresh from the surgeon’s knife and with repaired hands, was knocked out standing up by American Alycia Baumgardner. She was sleeping on her feet for a few seconds. Harper lost her WBC super-featherweight title. She will move up in weight. “I can always go back to peeling spuds at the chippie,” she said.
Billy Joe Saunders was slowly dismantled by Saul Canelo Alvarez in front of 73,000 people in Texas and lost his WBO super-middleweight title; he also lost for the first time. Saunders suffered a damaging face injury and has not come even close to returning.
In Dubai behind closed doors, Carl Frampton lost to Jamel Herring for the WBO super-feather weight title. Frampton knew early in the fight that it was not going to be his night. He retired from the sport at the end. It was a brilliant decision.
There were also nights of glory, make no mistake, at all levels in the British game. Some British title fights were tiny classics and the endless debuts of tomorrow’s fighters were refreshing.
Sunny Edwards was flawless in beating the world’s number one flyweight, Moruti Mthalane, to win the IBF version of the title. He made one easy defence and is currently unbeaten in 3,789 Twitter fights. Sunny can fight on both sides of the keypad.
Leigh Wood was a massive underdog in his WBA feather world title fight with China’s Can Xu; Wood smashed Xu down in 12 easy rounds. It’s Michael Conlan, the Belfast boy, next.
Chantelle Cameron won the WBC light-welterweight title in Las Vegas, defended it, added the IBF version and topped the bill at the O2; it was an outstanding year for her and women’s boxing. In any normal year, those facts would win a boxer a major award.
Savannah Marshall retained her WBO middleweight title with two knockouts and looks untouchable at the weight; at the Olympics, Lauren Price won the gold medal at middleweight and Karriss Artingstall the bronze at featherweight. They pair have run out of space on the walls at their new home to hang their trophies; they will both turn professional in 2022.
Galal Yafai’s gold medal in Tokyo will, I believe, always be the finest ever won by a British boxer; Galal’s route to gold was ridiculous. Frazer Clarke won bronze, Ben Whittaker and Pat McCormack both lost in finals for silver. It was Britain’s greatest games. They will all be professionals soon.
However, it was Josh Taylor, an Olympian from London 2012, who had the best win of the year. Taylor unified the four recognised belts at light-welterweight behind closed doors in Las Vegas in May. He beat Jose Carlos Ramirez, dropped him twice and became only the fifth man since 1988 to hold all four belts. It is history and worth considering that there are currently as many as 80 men holding a version of a world title belt. Taylor, just like Canelo at super-middle, has all four.
Taylor’s win lacked the excesses of Fury’s fight, but it was truly impressive. Taylor is British boxing’s true star.
There are other stars, men and women in shadows, glimpsed in low-key wins or in corners or in gyms. Tony Sims, a trainer from Essex, had a great three weeks back in the Spring. Conor Benn stopped Sammy Vargas in one round; Ted Cheeseman regained the British light-middleweight title against James Metcalf in the 11th; Felix Cash won the British middleweight title when he stopped Denzel Bentley in three rounds. That’s the real business, make no mistake.
The list could go on and on, with honourable mentions for the dead, the living, the dreaming and the clueless. They are all part of a British boxing business that against great odds delivered some truly unforgettable moments in 2021.