In years gone by, you could spend hours or even days debating which pugilist deserves the accolade of ‘fighter of the year’. Not so in 2016. In a disappointing year for boxing, there was a consensus among journalists and fans alike over who should get the prestigious award for their achievements in the ring over the past 12 months. Here, Knockoutpunch reveals its top three prizefighters of a torrid year for the sport.
1. Carl Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs), Northern Ireland
In a year riddled with underwhelming mismatches as fighters refused to take the necessary risks to achieve greatness, Carl Frampton bucked the trend. The Northern Irishman dared to be great in 2016 by going on the road to face two unbeaten foes in Scott Quigg and Leo Santa Cruz, and he came out of it with two hugely impressive wins which proved beyond doubt that he is the best active British fighter in the sport today. In February, ‘The Jackal’ stepped into the lion’s den to take on domestic rival Quigg in a highly-anticipated super bantamweight unification clash. While the fight failed to live up to the hype (mostly because Quigg refused to engage until late on after suffering a broken jaw in the fourth round), Frampton showed tremendous composure and skill to outbox his opponent in front of a partisan crowd and unify super bantamweight titles. However, it was the 29-year-old’s next outing that really underlined his pound-for-pound credentials and made him a shoo-in for ‘fighter of the year’ honours. In July, Frampton moved up in weight to challenge Mexican-American boxer-puncher Santa Cruz for his featherweight belt. Entering the bout as an underdog, Frampton put on a boxing clinic in New York to earn a well-deserved majority decision in a thrilling slugfest that featured relentless action. After such a gruelling 12 months, no-one would begrudge Frampton a tune-up fight. But that’s not how the Belfast man rolls – he and Santa Cruz will meet again next month in a rematch. If all other fighters shared the determination of Frampton to test himself against the very best, then boxing would be in much better shape.
2. Joe Smith Jr (23-1, 19 KOs), United States
The New York native has come a long way since a TKO defeat to the unheralded Eddie Caminero in his seventh pro fight while campaigning a super-middleweight. Since that sole loss in August 2010, light-heavyweight Smith has reeled off 17 straight wins, including three in a sensational 2016 that sent him from obscurity into ‘fighter of the year’ contention. The 27-year-old got his stellar year underway with a second-round stoppage of Fabiano Pena in April. Barely two months later, Smith would shock the boxing world with a stunning first-round KO of light-heavyweight contender Andrzej Fonfara in what many regarded as the upset of the year at that point. That surprise victory on prime time television in the US caught the eye of retiring ring legend Bernard Hopkins, who hand-picked Smith as his opponent for his final fight in December before hanging up his gloves. It proved to be an unwise decision for the usually astute Hopkins, with Smith brutally knocking the future Hall of Famer out of the ring for an eighth-round KO – the first stoppage loss of Hopkins’ glittering career. Perhaps it is time for Smith to give up his day job as a union labourer, now that he has firmly established himself as a legitimate contender at 175 pounds.
3. Terence Crawford (30-0, 21 KOs) United States
The man known as ‘Crawdaddy’ has barely put a foot wrong since turning professional in March 2008, reeling off 30 straight wins as he continues to climb the mythical pound-for-pound standings. And 2016 was another great year for Omaha’s Crawford, who fought three times against solid opposition and kept his unbeaten run intact. He started his campaign with a one-sided beatdown of Hammerin’ Hank Lundy in February, forcing a technical stoppage in the fifth round against his outgunned opponent to retain his WBO junior welterweight title. The highlight of his year came in July, however, when the 29-year-old Nebraskan completely outclassed fellow champion Viktor Postol in Las Vegas, dropping him twice on his way to unifying world titles. Many pundits had foreseen a 50/50 fight beforehand but Crawford made a mockery of their predictions by toying with Postol over 12 rounds for a wide points win. To put the cherry on top of another impressive 12 months, Crawford went to war with noted slugger John Molina and took him apart as he notched up an eight-round TKO victory. ‘Bud’ clearly belongs among the elite, so here’s hoping he gets a shot at Top Rank stablemate Manny Pacquiao in 2017.
Honorable mentions: Roman Gonzalez, Manny Pacquiao, Vasyl Lomachenko, Andre Ward, Gennady Golovkin