The business of boxing has changed. The world around us, even compared to just a couple years ago, is a very different place. But the essence of what happens between the ropes — the ancient stuff that keeps a man off the canvas, that knocks another senseless, that keeps us turning out to witness this godforsaken sport — keeps ticking like clockwork. How is it measured? That’s timeless, too. Fighters fight. Good fighters win. The best? They locate impossible mountains and get to fucking climbing.
Say what you will about any of the candidates for The Queensberry Rules’ 2021 Fighter of the Year award — lord knows we couldn’t shut you up if we tried — but a close examination reveals who picked, and then reached, the loftiest peak. Although Oleksandr Usyk (19-0) had the best, most significant win of the year in a brilliantly fought unanimous decision over Anthony Joshua, that performance was edged by the ambitious three-fight body of work from Canelo Alvarez, our TQBR 2021 Fighter of the Year.
Let’s quickly give the other contenders their due:
Tyson Fury (31-0-1) authored the final, decisive word in his trilogy with Deontay Wilder, stopping the American in dramatic fashion in a classic slobberknocker. But for all its spectacle, it wasn’t even the most impressive heavyweight performance of the year (which belonged to Usyk).
Josh Taylor (18-0) unified the junior welterweight division against the world’s other best 140-pounder, the previously undefeated Jose Ramirez, in a massive win. A massive, but close win — and Taylor’s only fight of 2021.
Nonito Donaire (42-6) extended his batshit revival, at age 39, with poster-perfect fourth-round knockout wins over Nordine Oubaali and Reymart Gaballo, the latter being a top-five bantamweight. Fantastic stuff, but a notch short of FOY level.
Dig deeper, and a contrarian could even make a case for Stephen Fulton, Terence Crawford, and George Kambosos — though their 2021 achievements objectively pale in the shadow of what Canelo Alvarez (57-1-2), the man of the hour, was able to accomplish.
It could be argued that Alvarez’s 2021 campaign was colored by fortuitous timing and his own clout — that he was able to squeeze three fights into the calendar year by fighting in February; and that, as the face of the sport, he was in a better position than all to negotiate on his terms, cut through promotional bullshit and get dates sealed.
It could also be argued that the February fight, a third-round knockout of fringe super middleweight Avni Yildirim, shouldn’t count for much when taking the measure of Canelo’s FOY credentials.
Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s an apt technical phrase for those arguments: dumb. Canelo has earned his status in the sport, and if he is using that power to fight more often, then thank Yahweh, Zeus and all the lesser nymph gods. (Aren’t we constantly bitching that this is what the best fighters should do?) And as for the strength of schedule? Look, no one is giving Alvarez bonus points for beating Yildirim, a stay-busy opponent. But, again, consider the body of work:
After a six-fight run in which Canelo fought Gennady Golovkin (twice), Danny Jacobs, Sergey Kovalev and Callum Smith — during which he leapt from middleweight to light heavyweight — Canelo dispatched Yildirim, then crumpled top-five super middleweights Billy Joe Saunders and Caleb Plant in surgical, savage stoppage victories. These aren’t simply contenders that Alvarez is toppling. They are skilled fighters of all shapes, sizes and styles — each of them multiple levels above the 140-pound limit at which Canelo began his career — and the ginger son of a bitch is annihilating them.
From a technical standpoint — and this may be the most impressive bit of all — Alvarez, now 31 and a veteran of 60 professional fights, keeps getting better. That his power has not only carried to the higher divisions but even seems to have improved is a testament to how he has refined his footwork, balance and timing over the years. He has the confidence in his defense and granite chin to plant his feet when the moment is right and atomize dangerous and naturally larger men. Canelo laying waste to the 168 and 175 pound divisions is David vs. Goliath — if Bruce Lee had been born on the planet Krypton and happened to be named David.
If your knickers are in a bunch over our FOY nod going to Alvarez, you’ve either made the conscious decision to overlook the context of his efforts or you’ve simply grown bored with his reign (2021 marks the second time in three years Canelo has won our year-end fighter award). In either case, find a hobby. Because what Alvarez is serving up for us right now is once-in-a-generation special, a bitches’ brew of what fans love about old-school boxing and gloriously fulfilled expectations within the new-jack fight game.
(Photo by Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)