2018: Boxing The Year That Was
By Oliver McManus
2018 was one hell of a year so let’s skip over the pleasantries and get straight into the review!
The blandest of all the months, typically anyway, had little to report in terms of domestic action but Oleksandr Usyk, fighter of the year, ensured we had a performance and fight to savour. Up against Mairis Briedis in their WBSS semi-final, the Ukrainian took his first step on the road to undisputed by unifying the WBO and WBC belts. Riga, Latvia, served as the location for, arguably, the toughest fight of Usyk’s career and Briedis should, not be any stretch of the imagination, be seen as a bit-part player.
Briedis applied the pressure and more than played his role in an enthralling encounter. Back and forth for the full 12 rounds, Briedis looked to be on the front-foot more often and pushed Usyk to the top of his ability. A winner on consensus scoring by 115-113 – that is rounds in which two or three of the judges scored it the same – Briedis emerged the loser via majority decision. Few could begrudge either man the decision but it was Usyk that took it and the rest, as they say, is history.
Aside from that there isn’t much to write about aside from the fact Zab Judah returned, as he seems to do frequently in January, for his sole fight of the year. The former world champion eased to a decision win over Noel Mejia Rincon before declaring that 2018 would be “his year”. Mind you, he said that after his January win in 2017. And has already said that on Twitter this year.
An early contender for domestic fight of the year emerged in February as George Groves fought Chris Eubank Jr in their WBSS encounter. A bruising and bloodied encounter, Groves served as the older statesman of the sport in this respective bout and promised to show his challenger ‘levels’. That he did with the WBA champion roughing up Jr throughout the opening rounds and producing a class performance to withstand the aggression of Eubank. Chris returned with some success and, obviously, Groves dislocated his shoulder to add some last-minute drama but it was the Champion who consistently got the better of exchanges. A well deserved victory for George Groves.
Flip the coin and on the other side you have Lawrence Okolie vs Isaac Chamberlain in the dampest of squibs. A fight that many were, genuinely, looking forward to and seeing as a 50-50, failed to deliver. The weight difference showed with Okolie entering the ring looking a beefed up heavy weight and Chamberlain, such was the contrast, looking closer to light-heavy. Lawrence engaged in a clinching fight and Chamberlain never got a foothold. It was a comfortable victory for Okolie, who ended 2018 as British champion, but certainly not a convincing performance.
Frank Warren kicked off 2018 at York Hall as Zelfa Barrett, looking to move 20 and 0, suffered an upset defeat to Ronnie Clark. The Shark came out all guns blazing and never looked like shying away, a high-octane fight that saw the away fighter, deservedly, taking the decision. Anthony Yarde looked to continue his 2017 momentum by fighting Tony Averlant and whilst he targeted the body of his opponent to good effect, he looked relatively flat.
Don’t worry, I will get on to Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua and Dillian Whyte but let’s start with David Price vs Alexander Povetkin… who thought that was a good idea? That’s not a slur on David Price, wish him nothing but success, but I can’t remember any ‘pundit’ – professional or otherwise – genuinely expecting Price to win that fight. And so it proved, whilst the Liverpudlian did push Povetkin over the opening stages, Povetkin hit the power button and shellacked the heavyweight nearly-man into a state of confusion.
Anthony Joshua went the distance for the first time of his career as he added the WBO strap to his name via a points victory against Joseph Parker. The more interesting storyline throughout the build up was Eddie ‘Silver Spoon’ Hearn vs David ‘Let the fighters do the talking’ Higgins. Joshua showed he had the stamina although, as in his previous fights, AJ did take a breather in the seventh and eight. A nice performance, disrupted by the Italian referee, but not one to scream about. Maybe I’m just hard to impress, I don’t know.
His nearest rival, arguably, Dillian Whyte had got the business done in style the week previous with Whyte punishing the portly figure of Lucas Browne. The Australian, who carries oddly high stock, was on the receiving end of a thorough pulping and was knocked out by a sumptuous shot to the body. To the canvas he went before receiving oxygen but if Whyte’s lacklustre performance over Robert Helenius had fooled you then, don’t worry, he was BACK!
Oh and Deontay Wilder got the job done in somewhat dubious (yes dubious, not DUBOIS) fashion against Luis Ortiz. As well all know, Ortiz looked the better fighter and was showing the blueprint to beat Wilder before falling foul of those windmill-esque rangy arms of the Bronze Bomber.
In other news… Callum Johnson pulled off a remarkable upset and clubbed Frank Buglioni within a round – Buglioni appearing shell-shocked – to claim the British light-heavy belt; Paul Dempsey suggest Joe Joyce had ‘over-looked’ Donnie Palmer before Palmer was resoundly beaten within 40 seconds of the opening bell.
If March was to be considered the month for heavyweights, April witnessed ageing acts returning to our screens with varying degrees of aplomb. Going up against each other on rival networks were Amir Khan and Carl Frampton. Khan’s first fight in two years was against Phil Lo Greco who – beforehand – we were told was just a step away from the elite. 40 seconds into the first round of their encounter, on April 21st, and the viewing audiences had to check their calendars. No, this was not April Fools’ Day but a genuine ‘comeback’ against an opponent who was as bad as Marcus Kelly.
Carl Frampton, on the other hand, fought for the interim WBO world title against multi-weight world champion Nonito Donaire. A fight fought with grace and good manners, the build up showed no animosity, the battle in the ring was considerable but it was always Frampton who looked the classier act. Fighting well on the back-foot, Frampton utilised a lovely counter right against an ever-gracious Donaire. A beautiful display of technical ability from Frampton and a measured between two, surely, Hall of Fame fighters.
James DeGale was back Stateside looking to avenge his shock defeat to Caleb Truax from December of 2017. DeGale looked a healthier version of himself and boxed well, to a plan, but failed to look like the man who once held the hopes of a nation. Still a high level boxer but taken to uncomfortable depths by Truax.
Flicking back to the small hall scene and Walsall Town Hall played host to one of the fights of the year. Jason Welborn challenged Tommy Langford – a one time touted world title challenger – for the British Middleweight belt and went into the contest as a hefty underdog. Welborn took the fight to Langford as he applied the pressure and refused to wilt or let the Champion settle into his own fight style. Langford failed to adapt to Welborn’s more aggressive output and was on the receiving end of a decision loss – no controversy about that, let’s be honest.
The day after, May 5th, saw the, sadly inevitable, demise of a British great. David Haye sought to reaffirm himself in the heavyweight division with a rematch against Tony Bellew. A shadow of his former self, Haye never looked comfortable in the fight and it was, truth be told, an uncomfortable watch. That is, of course, unless you’re a Liverpudlian but as someone, like many, to have watched the ascendance of Haye, to see him go out in such devastating fashion was always going to be a bitter pill. One of the true British warriors, a legacy now tarnished by the inability to get away from the sport. Tony Bellew, make no mistake, a worthy winner as he established a legacy of his own.
An allergic reaction forced Liam Smith out of his world title challenge to Sadam Ali, Jaime Munguia came in on short notice and duly announced himself with a mammoth performance. Equally dramatic was Josh Warrington’s wrestling of the IBF Featherweight strap. The word wrestle used a lot less literally than when applied to Lawrence Okolie. The perennial underdog dug deep and was the aggressor throughout to take a deserved victory via split decision.
The middle month kicked off in sensational style with my 18th birthday before Tyson Fury, four days later, decided he would weigh in with some celebrations of his own. Sefer Seferi was the chosen punchbag for such a momentous comeback and Fury duly swathed through the motions in a veritable sparring match. Easily a fight that could and should be forgotten but the big man was back and that was a good thing!
On that same card Terry Flanagan looked to become a two weight world champion as he fought, previously unheralded, Maurice Hooker. Mighty Mo made life difficult for Flanagan who looked flat-footed and on the back foot from round one. A disappointing performance, the Mancunian failed to click into gear at any stage and lacked a sense of urgency about him.
Josh Taylor was made to work for 12 rounds against Viktor Postol – the Ukrainian really pushing Taylor to think throughout the bout. Postol earned plaudits after the fight in a contest that many, beforehand, had written him out of. Taylor looked to produce the crisper work over the course of their contest, dropping Postol in the 10th, but the scorecards were ludicrously wide and Barry McGuigan admitted that afterwards. Can it be a robbery if the right man won?
The month ended with a wonderful card in Belfast as Michael Conlan made his homecoming against Adeilson dos Santos. The Brazilian challenger, indeed former world title challenger, was comfortably outclassed but the undercard witnessed a stack of 50-50 fights. Jack Catterall and Tyrone McKenna went to war for 10 rounds, McKenna bringing out the best in Catterall and proving to be more than a handful; Jono Carroll and Declan Geraghty reignited their rivalry and did so in style – Carroll wearing down his opponent with relative ease.