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British Boxing 2022 Year in Review

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  • British Boxing 2022 Year in Review

    Click image for larger version  Name:	McGRAIN.PNG Views:	0 Size:	852.3 KB ID:	22443

    By Matt McGrain

    For British boxing, it was a good year.

    Here I select four categories: the British Fighter of the Year, fairly self-explanatory; the British Fight of the Year, that is the best fight contested by two men from the United Kingdom; the British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, that is, the British fighter who breaks into the divisional top-ten for their division, often unexpectedly; and finally the British Prospect of the Year, that is the fighter who has boxed fewer than ten professional contests at the end of 2022 who I think will be worth watching in 2023.

    Remembering the last time British boxing didn’t have a great year is becoming more and more difficult.

    British Fighter of the Year: Joe Joyce

    Tyson Fury, Sunny Edwards, Leigh Wood, and John Ryder might all be seriously considered for the British fighter of 2022 but in the end, Joe Joyce was the name I returned to. His April destruction of Christian Hammer had an almost routine feel to it, a step down after his 2021 ruination of Carlos Takam and Daniel Dubois – but in September, Joyce turned in a performance of genuine pre-eminence, bettering Anthony Joshua by becoming the first man to stop the New Zealander Joseph Parker. It took eleven rounds, but despite Parker’s excellent chin and competent boxing, there was an air of inevitability about this stoppage early and that is what “The Juggernaut” really had to prove: that he could bring the same ceaseless pressure against quality opposition that he could against fellow prospects and slipped contenders. The answer was a resounding “yes.”

    See Parker attempt to bomb his apparently slower opponent early in the first. Joyce’s frame is immutable, he holds steady, his massive arms are set in place as Parker punches on and around them. Joyce can ride punches, not the same as defensive soundness in a sport that is scored by judges, but something more fundamental, an ability to avoid the worst attentions of an opponent he wants to punch at him – if Joyce can make opponents routinely exchange, he would expect to win.

    And, of course, when someone get through, that chin, a mandible unshaken by the 250lb Parker landing a flush straight-right at the end of round three that Joyce didn’t really seem to notice. Joyce is huge at 6’6 and 270lbs, has an elite engine, astonishing for his weight and range, hits with power, has serviceable footwork that leaves him routinely in a position to punch, which makes his pressure style so allowable at the highest level. Tyson Fury greeted both Oleksandr Usyk and Joe Joyce at ringside after his most recent victory and it was Joyce who caught the eye of Fury’s father, John, who predicted that Fury would lose “at 98%, he’d need to be 100% for that fight” while Usyk would be too small. I agree. Suddenly, Joyce seems the most dangerous man in the heavyweight division.

    A final thought: it’s completely unproven at this point and will never be settled completely but it is possible that in Joyce and Deontay Wilder the heavyweight division has the greatest chin and punch in all of history. How tragic it would be if the two never met – but don’t be surprised if they do not. Wilder is no coward, but Joyce is rapidly becoming the problem the division does not need.

    British Fight of the Year: Leigh Wood vs Michael Conlan

    Usually, identifying the British Fight of the Year is a glorious charge down this year’s memory lane but for 2022, this was not a requirement. The British Fight of the Year is also the fight of the year anywhere, Leigh Wood’s astonishing twelfth round knockout of Michael Conlan is a lock.

    Conlan, out of Belfast, was a storied amateur, and were it not for Katie Taylor, he would have likely been the definitive Irish amateur of the modern era. He turned pro with much fanfare after expressing doubts about the amateur code in which he had become a world champion, and sure enough was fast-tracked to a minor alphabet strap in just fifteen fights.

    Wood meanwhile, was in a strange twilight zone between never-would and sort-of-has, returning from a loss of his European featherweight title to surprise in picking up his own minor strap against Can Xu in the summer of 2021. Xu was a prohibitive favourite but was out-boxed for stretches and behind after twelve rounds when Wood stopped him – Conlan, then, was warned.

    He posted a warning of his own on the bell of the first round, dropping his man with a winging left-hand creating absolute bedlam at the Nottingham Arena, but Wood seemed clear-eyed despite the close attentions of referee Steve Gray. Wood needed that clarity because the beating he absorbed in the second was substantial. He was battered, moved, and his legs seemed about to leave him. He survived and he chose a range just outside Conlan’s jab and he held it, moving competently, controlling his opponent’s offence, but all while losing rounds. He swallowed slingshot lefts from Conlan all night and somehow boxed his way back into the contest. His watch word was professionalism - Wood was a better professional. He never went away – he stayed in the fight and kept the fight in Conlan’s face. It is worth noting, also, that even in the second round when Conlan thrashed him, Wood insisted on continuing to target the body.

    Wood won the tenth; in the eleventh he was hurt to the body by sickening punches but continued to try to position his left foot inside Conlan’s southpaw right and with forty-five seconds remaining the Northern Irishman took his dominance as a signal to make war. This was a mistake. Seconds from the bell, Conan found himself on the ground looking up, immediately insisting he had slipped, but only after having been driven back by that never-erring two-handed attack of Wood.

    The roof nearly lifted at the beginning of the twelfth. Let it drown out the “boxing is dead” doomsayers. Wood went one better in the final round, knocking Conlan unconscious and out of the ring.

    “I can’t really remember [the knockdown],” Conlan said after the fight. “I’ve got to watch it back. Hopefully it was a good fight for tv.”

    It was the best fight fought in Britain since the first Chris Eubank-Nigel Benn contest from 1990.

    British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: Liam Davies

    At the beginning of 2021, Liam Davies was a six-round preliminary fighter, blowing out professional losers in what barely passed for a workout. By the end of the year he was fighting over ten rounds and had selected his alphabet on-ramp – now, as 2022 comes to a close, he is the British and European 122lb champion and ranks the tenth best fighter of his weight class in the world according to TBRB. Marc Leach was a significant favourite over Davies when they met this summer over twelve, a first for our British Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, but he looked huge in the ring, dwarfing Leach and apparently stepping into the ring closer to the lightweight limit of 135lbs. Davies looked for the one-two from the first and flashed Leach after mere seconds to take a lead he never surrendered. All three judges made him the winner. Davies boxed through some serious blood after a cut caused by a clash of heads, and although there was a move in some quarters to diminish the significance of this result after what was seen as an unrepeatable lightning start, Davies dispelled these notions by getting back in the ring just a few months later against Ionut Baluta.

    Baluta is a well -known name on these shores for his performances against Michael Conlan (a narrow decision loss) and Brad Foster (who he beat over ten in May). It is fair to say that Baluta represents the style that most troubles Davies, a swarming, aggressive, brawling attack that introduces chaos and uncertainty against a fighter who wants to control distance. The result was a lo-fi classic of hard exchanges and urgent tactical tussles but Davies, despite ceding the territory often, won exchanges with speed, quality and composure, to take a clear decision and become perhaps the world’s most unlikely ranked fighter. He currently has nothing slated, but 2023 will be a huge year for him one way or the other.

    British Prospect of the Year: Ben Whittaker

    There is a fascinating rematch in Ben Whittaker’s future.

    Now 2-0 as a professional light-heavyweight, it was in the 2021 Olympic finals of the same weight-class that the twenty-five-year-old ran up against the legendary Cuban amateur Arlen Lopez. Lopez, already an Olympic and World champion, added a second Olympic title and both men turned professional, perhaps to contest the big prizes in the paid code at some point in the future.

    That Olympic final exposed Whittaker’s two great weaknesses. Accurate, quick of foot and hand, tall for the weight-class at 6’3”, he was criticised during his amateur career for a low workrate, preferring to admire his work or await a countering opportunity when his natural distance gives him a chance at a lead-jab. If he slips behind, as he did against Lopez, Whittaker has a dearth of power that may prohibit any come-from-behind dramatics, whatever the ruleset.

    That’s plenty for his training team to be going on with, but the training team is headed by the man who turned Tyson Fury from a slickster seeking a decision to a monolith who dominates opponents with meaty punches, SugarHill Steward. “I don’t need a yes man,” Whittaker commented on Steward’s appointment. “He’s a teacher of the sport.”

    “I like what Ben wanted,” is Steward’s own comment. “He wanted the hard road. He wants to be taught; he wants to learn…I believe this man is going to be a superstar.”

    For now, Lopez will have to wait, and has his own progress to worry about, his professional record also just 2-0. If both he and Whittaker keep winning though, these two may meet as superstars somewhere around 2025.