After 2020 significantly cut down the volume of fights and memorable moments fans are accustomed to in boxing, 2021 delivered in a major way.
Looking back at the last 12 months, the year could best be described as “the year of the upset,” with several key title fights that going in seemed like afterthoughts playing out far differently than most of the world expected. In selecting the “best of” in boxing for 2021, it was far and away the most stacked category.
Some selections were far easier. Canelo Alvarez made 2021 a signature year in his career, by impressing in the ring, and doing so with as active a schedule as any notable fighter in the world.
There were plenty of other boxers who shined brightly as well, claiming titles and putting on epic performances that will be rewatched for years to come. Some finished them with spectacular knockouts that will long be remembered.
The results of many of those stunning bouts will have lasting effects. In recognition of the very best of those fighters and performances, let’s take a look back at the last 12 months and recognize those who stood out above the rest.
Men’s fighter of the year: Canelo Alvarez
Choosing a winner in this category is often mind-numbingly difficult, with so many accomplished fighters to choose from across boxing’s many divisions. But when selecting the standout men’s boxer of the year, activity is usually a top consideration, especially when trying to separate the best from one another.
Alvarez, the sport’s biggest star, competed three times in 2021. He kicked off his campaign with a stay-busy win over a hapless Avni Yildirim in February. Alvarez eviscerated Yildirim in just three rounds, and then moved on to the real fights.
Alvarez (57-1-2, 39 KOs), of Mexico, added a third 168-pound title to his active collection with a bone-shattering performance against Billy Joe Saunders in May. Alvarez drilled the Englishman with a right uppercut in Round 9 that fractured his orbital bone in three places. Saunders didn’t come out for Round 10.
That fight, at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, broke the boxing indoor attendance record in the U.S. with 73,126 fans. Most impressively, Saunders was undefeated and ranked in ESPN’s top 3 at 168 pounds. Saunders was regarded for his defensive ability and movement, but Alvarez penetrated his guard with a series of well-placed body shots and a relentless pressure style that wore Saunders down and set him up for the finish.
Then, in November, Alvarez realized a career-long goal of becoming an undisputed champion with an 11th-round TKO of Caleb Plant. Like Saunders, Plant was known for his defense and movement, and he was also a top-3 super middleweight. Alvarez blistered his body with hooks and crosses, and then scored two knockdowns in Round 11 before referee Russell Mora waved it off.
The pair of wins over previously undefeated opposition makes Alvarez the unquestioned 2021 men’s fighter of the year.
Runner-up: Oleksandr Usyk
There were plenty of other boxers who made noise in 2021, and Usyk is chief among them. The former undisputed cruiserweight champion looked shaky in his first two fights at heavyweight, and thus, he was an underdog leading into his August clash with then-unified champion Anthony Joshua.
Usyk rose to the occasion and completely dominated Joshua in London to claim three heavyweight world titles. Most surprising of all, Usyk buckled Joshua numerous times and appeared to be on the brink of scoring the stoppage in the waning seconds of the fight.
If Usyk competed more than once in 2021, he might have wrested the top spot from Alvarez, but he’ll have plenty of opportunities to win the award in 2022. Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs), of Ukraine, owes Joshua a rematch in the first half of 2022, and if he wins, a matchup with Tyson Fury for the undisputed championship could follow later in the year.
Honorable mention: George Kambosos Jr., Josh Taylor
Women’s fighter of the year: Amanda Serrano
The seven-division world champion had another standout year, winning all three of her fights convincingly, knocking out Daniela Romina Bermudez by KO in March and winning unanimous decisions over Yamileth Mercado in August and Miriam Gutierrez in December. She also won, as has been her M.O., in two weight classes — Bermudez and Mercado at featherweight and Gutierrez at lightweight.
The win against Gutierrez was particularly convincing, as Serrano looked like she’d barely been touched while Gutierrez’s face was swollen and beat up.
While other fighters also had really good years — more on that below — Serrano’s big performances also reached a wide audience. Two of her fights were co-features on pay-per-view cards, and the third was a headlining fight on NBC Sports Network in the United States.
What Serrano has done has started to take women’s boxing into more of the mainstream, thanks in large part to her partnership with YouTube sensation-turned-boxer Jake Paul. In a year when a lot of fighters made names for themselves, that’s what helped set Serrano apart from the rest.
— Michael Rothstein
Honorable mention: There are a bunch of fighters that could argue for the top spot because of the years they had. Claressa Shields fought only once in 2021 (along with two MMA fights), but when she did step into the squared circle, she made history, headlining an all-female pay-per-view where she beat Marie-Eve Dicaire to unify the junior middleweight division and become the first fighter to be undisputed champion in two weight classes in the four-belt era, man or woman.
Savannah Marshall knocked out both of her opponents at middleweight this year and is on a seven-fight knockout streak. Undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor continued her run as ESPN’s No. 1 pound-for-pound women’s fighter with three wins — two of them dominant. Two-division champion Seniesa Estrada had three standout performances, two at strawweight and one at junior flyweight.
Mikaela Mayer defended her WBO junior lightweight title twice, including a victory over Maiva Hamadouche to take the IBF junior lightweight title in a clash that may well have been the women’s fight of the year. Alycia Baumgardner returned after not fighting in 2020 to make a statement in 2021 with a vicious knockout of Terri Harper to claim the WBC junior lightweight title. Dina Thorslund defended her WBO bantamweight title twice, including a knockout of Zulina Munoz in November.
Fight of the year: Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder 3
The third meeting between Fury and Wilder wasn’t just a slam-dunk for the best fight of 2021; the October showdown will go down as one of the greatest fights in the storied history of the heavyweight division.
Indeed, Fury and Wilder saved the best for last, in a fight that appeared dead until an arbitrator stepped in. All the vitriol surrounding the proceedings created legitimate bad blood between this pair of big men, and they more than delivered on the disdain with the manner in which they competed.
This wasn’t a boxing match as much as it was a brawl. Fury, just like he did in the second fight, marched forward and winged bombs. The end appeared near in Round 3 after Fury floored Wilder, but the American beat the count and pressed on.
Wilder turned the tables in Round 4 when his destructive right hand dropped Fury, the third time “The Gypsy King” was sent to the canvas in this trilogy. Moments later, Fury was knocked down again. Suddenly, it seemed Wilder might exact revenge.
But just like Wilder had in Round 3, Fury survived and wrested control for good in Round 6. Wilder absorbed a hellacious beating, but displayed a never-say-die attitude in line with his desire to never have the towel tossed in on his behalf. Exhausted and beaten, Wilder continued to throw his fight-changing haymaker, and remained dangerous.
It appeared Wilder might even last the distance for a stretch, but the big shots added up. Fury drilled Wilder with a looping right hand in Round 10 for a second knockdown.
One round later, Fury pinned Wilder in the corner and connected on a loaded-up right cross that sent Wilder crashing to the mat in a heap. The ref didn’t bother counting this time; Wilder had given enough.
Wilder didn’t reclaim the WBC heavyweight championship, but in defeat, he regained respect after turning off many fans with a plethora of excuses and accusations offered up after his loss to Fury in the second bout.
Together, Fury and Wilder authored a heavyweight championship classic in Las Vegas, one that others in the division will be hard-pressed to top for years to come.
Runner-up: Juan Francisco Estrada-Roman Gonzalez 2
Nearly eight-and-a-half years and two weight classes later, the future Hall of Famers met for the second time, and somehow they eclipsed their brutal first fight.
Their March meeting in Dallas for the unified 115-pound championship was a brawl from start to finish, and cemented Chocolatito’s dramatic resurgence to the upper echelon of the sport.
They combined for 2,529 punches according to CompuBox, a record for the historically frenzied junior bantamweight division. Amid all the violence, it appeared Gonzalez clearly won, but the judges had other ideas and awarded Estrada the victory via split decision to even the series.
Fortunately, they’re slated to meet a third time in the spring to deliver clarity, once and for all.
Honorable mention: George Kambosos Jr.-Teofimo Lopez, Stephen Fulton-Brandon Figueroa
KO of the year: Fury-Wilder 3
Oscar Valdez’s left hand that rendered Miguel Berchelt unconscious was unforgettable, a dazzling knockout that gained him a 130-pound world title. The fight was, however, one-sided to that point, and the outcome never in doubt. Magnitude matters, which is why Fury-Wilder is the top knockout of the year. Even though Fury was in control by Round 11, the knockout had context and consequence well beyond the highlight reel.
Wilder had complained that the towel Mark Breland tossed into the ring from his corner during the February 2020 meeting with Fury had robbed him of the chance to rally. This time, there could be no controversy, real or imagined, as Fury sent Wilder out on his shield to conclude one of the greatest heavyweight title trilogies of all time.
Runner-up: Oscar Valdez KO 10 Miguel Berchelt
Honorable mention: Gabe Rosado KO 3 Bektemir Melikuziev; Efe Ajagba KO 3 Brian Howard; Brandun Lee KO 3 Samuel Teah
Upset of the year: George Kambosos Jr. def. Teofimo Lopez by split decision
In a year littered with upsets, none was more shocking than Kambosos’ convincing decision win over Lopez. Sure, Kambosos was rated in ESPN’s top 10 in his decision, while Sandor Martin, Mauricio Lara and Kid Galahad weren’t. But Lopez was the only ranked pound-for-pound fighter to suffer an upset.
Not only was it impossible to find a single person who picked Kambosos ahead of the fight, other than himself and his father, almost every prognosticator predicted an early-round KO for Lopez.
After all, Lopez was coming off a clear decision win over Vasiliy Lomachenko in October 2020. But Kambosos didn’t buy the hype, and delivered the performance of a lifetime.
There simply was nothing fluky about this upset. Kambosos boxed beautifully, jabbing with rhythm and with his head off the centerline. He made sure to end most exchanges with a hard right hand and was more than happy to fight violently on the inside.
The Aussie showed he was for real from the start, scoring a knockdown of Lopez in the closing seconds of Round 1. But Lopez proved he was game and rebounded to floor Kambosos in Round 10. This was no flash knockdown, either. Kambosos appeared to be badly hurt and Lopez closed in, looking for the finish.
Kambosos was able to fend off Lopez’s charge and won the championship rounds to seal the victory in a life-changing effort. Both fighters emerged bloody, bruised and swollen in one of the best action scraps of the year.
Now Kambosos is the shot-caller and undisputed champion of the loaded lightweight division.
Runner-up: Sandor Martin def. Mikey Garcia by majority decision
Garcia, a four-division champion, was in talks to fight Regis Prograis in a high-stakes bout at 140 pounds, but when the prospect of that matchup disappeared, Garcia signed to fight the little-known Martin in a stay-busy welterweight bout.
Garcia looked lethargic from the start and Martin showed the timing necessary to take advantage. He consistently beat Garcia to the punch, and even though the favorite came on down the stretch, it was too late. This was a 10-round fight, and Martin clearly did enough to grab the biggest victory of his career.
Honorable mention: Kiko Martinez KO 6 Kid Galahad; Mauricio Lara TKO 9 Josh Warrington
Prospect of the year: Jared Anderson
The 22-year-old from Toledo, Ohio, truly broke out in 2021, showing the look of a future heavyweight champion.
Anderson kicked off his campaign with a brutal sixth-round KO of Kingsley Ibeh in February, followed by a second-round KO of Jeremiah Karpency two months later.
He received his biggest exposure in his final two fights of the year: a second-round TKO of Vladimir Tereshkin on the Fury-Wilder 3 PPV undercard, and a second-round TKO of Oleksandr Teslenko in December on the undercard of Vasiliy Lomachenko-Richard Commey.
At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Anderson has the requisite size to do serious damage in the heavyweight division. He also possesses the jab and movement, and the right team to expertly guide him; he’s managed by James Prince and promoted by Top Rank, with matchmaker Brad Goodman moving him well in 2021.
As he enters 2022, Anderson is clearly ready for far better opposition along the lines of Carlos Takam, Sergey Kuzmin and Derek Chisora. If Anderson can land a fight or two with a gatekeeper in the first half of the year, the Fury sparring partner could be ready for a top-10 opponent by the fall.