The best fighters, fights, knockouts and surprises of 2021 so far

We’re on the halfway level of the 12 months, and whereas we sadly have not seen any of the highest three heavyweights within the ring simply but, the trilogy battle between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder is correct across the nook. That will probably be adopted shortly by a compelling title tilt between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk. And whereas a real heavyweight title unification combat would possibly come collectively briefly order, Joshua-Fury was tantalizingly close earlier than legal action forced the division onto its current course.

What we did witness over the previous six months was two fights from the face of boxing — Canelo Alvarez, a welcome sight in an period when the marquee names are not often so lively. Claressa Shields, already an undisputed two-division world champion, loved each a world title fight victory in boxing and a successful pro debut in MMA.

We additionally noticed 4 of the game’s rising stars — Ryan Garcia, Devin Haney, Jaron Ennis and Vergil Ortiz — rating victories of their first bouts towards real competitors. One of many brightest prospects in boxing, Xander Zayas, has been one of the lively fighters over the previous six months, recording three victories and two knockouts in that span.

For each very good battle with actual stakes, like Josh Taylor-Jose Ramirez and Oscar Valdez-Miguel Berchelt, novelty occasions with nothing on the road, like Floyd Mayweather-Logan Paul, introduced in plenty of eyeballs and pay-per-view buys.

A powerful begin to the 12 months has set the desk for a promising end to 2021, and a second half that kicks off with Fury-Wilder 3 will probably be punctuated by a scorching summer time battle between the legendary Manny Pacquiao and Errol Spence Jr., with extra to come back.

Whereas we watch for all of these tasty clashes, let’s take the time to focus on the very best of what 2021 has delivered to date, and hand out some well-earned awards.

Greatest male fighter: Canelo Alvarez

It is exhausting to look past Alvarez, who maintained his degree of brilliance in his most up-to-date combat, including a 3rd tremendous middleweight world title to his waist by defeating Billy Joe Saunders. Saunders was a slippery southpaw with an unbeaten file, and arguably the very best opponent Alvarez had confronted at 168 kilos. However Alvarez’s accuracy was off the charts, together with a devastating uppercut within the eighth spherical that disfigured Saunders’ face and left him with a number of fractures to an eye fixed socket, forcing the English boxer’s nook to throw within the towel after the eighth.

Alvarez (56-1-2, 38 KOs), 30, from Guadalajara, Mexico, must be applauded not only for his consistency, accuracy of punches and high quality of various mixtures, but in addition for his refreshing stance of taking over the hardest challenges accessible. He’s intent on unifying all of the belts at tremendous middleweight by the top of the 12 months, with a full unification bout seemingly on the horizon towards Caleb Plant. He’s the most important attract boxing in 2021 after 73,126 turned out at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for his win over Saunders.

In a irritating six months for boxing followers, when huge fights have fallen by way of whereas the pattern of YouTubers, retired boxers and MMA crossovers preventing each other gained reputation, pound-for-pound No. 1 Alvarez stays a dependable determine for high quality and leisure. — Nick Parkinson

Others receiving votes: Josh Taylor


Greatest feminine fighter: Claressa Shields

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Claressa Shields tells Stephen A. Smith what she needs to perform each in boxing and MMA.

There is a motive Shields calls herself the GWOAT (Biggest Lady of All Time), and carries such a powerful following in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, which just lately held a parade in her honor. Shields is on the high of the meals chain in two divisions and at present sits No. 2 in ESPN’s ladies’s boxing pound-for-pound rankings.

Shields proved herself once more by extending her professional file to 11-0 along with her victory over Marie Eve Dicaire in March, making her the primary boxer within the four-belt period (since 2004), male or feminine, to turn out to be an undisputed champion in two divisions. She instantly rotated, traveled all the way down to JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and started her first full MMA coaching camp.

The beginning of Shields’ professional MMA debut within the Skilled Fighters League in June was tenuous, as her opponent, Brittney Elkin, had management early on. However Shields’ persistence and hanging energy allowed her to tug off a come-from-behind victory through third-round stoppage.

The 2-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time undisputed boxing champion nonetheless has objectives to perform in her authentic sport of selection, however an opportunity to make a serious affect in a second sport is the stuff that legends are manufactured from. — Eric Woodyard

Others receiving votes: Jessica McCaskill, Seniesa Estrada, Amanda Serrano, Katie Taylor


Greatest combat: Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez vs. Juan Francisco Estrada 2

These two future Boxing Corridor of Famers first confronted off in 2012 at 108 kilos. The combat was sensational, even when Gonzalez and Estrada have been identified solely to hardcore boxing followers on the time. Practically 10 years later, they lastly met once more, and one way or the other, the motion was even fiercer, their abilities much more finely tuned.

Nevermind that the rematch befell two weight lessons above the preliminary bout, and the quantity of wear and tear and tear on each of the come-forward fighters over the previous decade. Gonzalez and Estrada mixed for greater than 2,500 punches in what was simply the very best combat of 2021. And this wasn’t simply senseless slugging. No, this was inside preventing on the highest degree.

The bout was particularly memorable as a result of it cemented one of many biggest comebacks in latest reminiscence. Chocolatito was written off after his brutal knockout defeat to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2017. He appeared sensational towards Kal Yafai in 2020, and this efficiency left little doubt that the previous pound-for-pound king continues to be among the finest fighters on this planet.

Gonzalez received the primary assembly, and most followers (together with myself) believed he deserved this determination, too — however Estrada earned the nod. This fall, they will meet once more, and we’ll see if they’ll high themselves another time. — Mike Coppinger

Others receiving votes: Oscar Valdez vs. Miguel Berchelt


Greatest knockout: Oscar Valdez vs. Miguel Berchelt

Watch Berchelt-Valdez (ESPN+)

There have already been so many spectacular knockouts in 2021. Efe Ajagba’s eraser of Brian Howard. Gabriel Rosado’s completely timed counter-shot of Bektemir Melikuziev that put a sudden halt to the recent prospect’s fast ascent.

However none have come near matching the pure savagery and the stakes of Oscar Valdez’s one-punch KO of Miguel Berchelt. Valdez will get bonus factors as a result of Berchelt was a determined favourite getting into the competition as effectively.

For the better a part of 9 rounds, Valdez appeared effectively on his technique to a title in a second weight class. However he left little doubt when he rapidly evaded Berchelt and despatched his Mexican countryman, who slumped face-first to the canvas, unconscious.

The sequence was stunning: Valdez slipped the appropriate hand, then ducked underneath the left hook earlier than unleashing the punch that modified the trajectory of his profession and made him a two-division champion.

Now we have six extra months, however fighters will probably be hard-pressed to writer a knockout extra savage than that one. — Coppinger

Others receiving votes: Gabriel Rosado vs. Bektemir Melikuziev


High prospect: Xander Zayas

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High Rank is planning for Edgar Berlanga and Xander Zayas at Madison Sq. Backyard subsequent 12 months for the Puerto Rican Day Parade weekend combat card. Zayas says he is already wanting ahead to that and preventing 2-3 extra instances this 12 months.

Watch Xander Zayas vs. James Martin (ESPN+)

I’m impressed by the talent, poise, maturity and growth of Xander Zayas. The charismatic 18-year-old is mature past his years, inside and out of doors of the ring.

He began his 2021 marketing campaign with a unanimous determination victory over James Martin contained in the High Rank bubble in Las Vegas — simply the second combat of his professional profession to go the space. Two months later in Kissimmee, Florida, Zayas unleashed his energy once more with a first-round TKO over Demarcus Layton, which took lower than a minute contained in the ring.

Zayas pushed his file to 9-0 with seven knockouts in June, with a third-round TKO of Larry Fryers at Virgin Resorts Las Vegas, in his first combat in entrance of a crowd in a 12 months and a half.

Zayas continues to sharpen his instruments by sparring a number of the greatest fighters within the sport, together with Gervonta Davis, Daniel Jacobs and Adrien Broner. A pupil of the sport, Zayas is self-aware, receptive to recommendation and takes criticism effectively. As soon as the bell rings, he handles enterprise by combining above-average boxing abilities with explosive energy. — Bernardo Osuna

Others receiving votes: Vergil Ortiz, Conor Benn, Edgar Berlanga, Jared Anderson


Greatest shock: Mauricio Lara defeating Josh Warrington

Warrington stunned the boxing world when he handed again his IBF world featherweight title in the beginning of the 12 months, hoping it might clear the best way for him to face both Xu Can or Gary Russell Jr. at 126 kilos.

What was a good larger shock was when the Englishman — then ranked ESPN’s No. 1 featherweight — produced a pallid efficiency in what was speculated to be a routine, warm-up combat towards unheralded Lara from Mexico, who had by no means boxed an elite-level fighter, in February.

Warrington (30-1, 7 KOs), 30, paid for a ponderous and weary method in his first combat for 16 months, as he crashed to a ninth-round knockout defeat and the primary setback of his profession. The English boxer was floored within the fourth spherical (and almost stopped) earlier than Lara really stopped him within the ninth spherical.

Warrington, who had appeared so sharp in his earlier title protection in October 2019 (a second-round win over Sofiane Takoucht), is now trying to rebuild his profession, beginning with a rematch towards Lara (22-2, 15 KOs) in England this fall. — Parkinson

Others receiving votes: Pacquiao-Spence coming collectively; Valdez’s KO of Berchelt; boxing’s love affair with the Paul brothers; Ryan Garcia pausing his profession over psychological well being considerations.


Greatest disappointment: Negotiations between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury falling aside

The most important letdown boxing has seen prior to now six months was the collapse in discussions in making boxing’s first-ever four-belt heavyweight world title combat this summer time between Fury and Joshua.

It might have been the most important combat of 2021, and now we’re at risk of not getting all of it.

The rival champions agreed in June 2020 to combat one another, and followers’ hopes of seeing the large showdown have been raised by progress in talks to stage the combat, regardless of challenges offered by the pandemic, which dominated it out from taking place within the fighters’ native England.

Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn, who promotes WBA-IBF-WBO champion Joshua, mentioned in April that the combat was “one hundred pc taking place,” with a date in late July or August in Saudi Arabia within the works. WBC king Fury’s co-promoter Bob Arum was simply as assured — in January he mentioned: “I am 95 p.c assured the combat occurs.”

However these hopes suffered a knockout blow in Might with the information that Deontay Wilder, who Fury stopped to win the WBC belt in February 2020, had received an arbitration case that claimed Fury owed the American a rematch subsequent. It means we now have Fury-Wilder 3, an enormous combat, however not as huge as Fury-Joshua, whereas Joshua should defend his belts towards obligatory challenger Oleksandr Usyk subsequent.

Each heavyweight title fights current huge dangers to the potential for Fury-Joshua as soon as once more coming into play for late this 12 months. Wilder is likely one of the largest single punchers in boxing –perhaps the most important. Usyk has had solely two fights at heavyweight, however the Ukrainian is a grasp technician, who unified all 4 belts at cruiserweight and, like Joshua, is a gold medalist from the 2012 Olympics.

After being informed we have been getting Fury-Joshua for nearly a 12 months, to lose it this summer time was a heavyweight blow to boxing’s schedule, already decreased because of the pandemic. Each champions will draw plenty of consideration for his or her subsequent title defenses, however Fury-Joshua would have been the kind of crossover occasion that boxing will get solely each few years or extra, attracting viewers from past the game’s hardcore following. — Parkinson

Others receiving votes: Spence selecting Pacquiao over Crawford; the Floyd Mayweather-Logan Paul circus; phrases, however no fights between Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia, Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney; fighters persevering with to combat “in-house.”


Voting was carried out by a 10-person panel of ESPN boxing contributors, which included Mike Coppinger, Timothy Bradley Jr., Bernardo Osuna, Nick Parkinson, Ben Child, Cameron Wolfe, Michael Rothstein, Eric Woodyard, Andres Ferrari and Andrew Feldman.


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