It was a pretty good year. Lop off the heavyweights, and it was a very good year in the ring. There were an unusual number of terrific fights, some startling results and a general changing of the guard among the elite.
Who woulda thunk that a journeyman, with a 9-9-2 record in his last 20 fights, would emerge as fighter of the year? But Glencoffe Johnson, the Road Warrior who has spent his career having to supplement his boxing income by doing construction work around Miami, can finally give up his day job.
He began the year by going over to England, where he had been held to a "draw" with Clinton Woods in their first attempt to fill the vacant IBF light-heavyweight title, and this time the judges got it right. He was a champion, finally, not that many people cared. After all, the "real" champion was Roy Jones Jr. — except not for long.
With what still must be considered the punch of the year, Antonio Tarver did the unthinkable and put away the unbeatable in the second round. Jones obviously still had not recovered, because Johnson, not with one punch but with hundreds, beat him up until boxing’s longtime No. 1 was out cold in the ninth round.
Then, in what must be juicy retribution for all those hometown decisions he suffered, Johnson got the decision over Tarver. My scorecard, judging off TV with perhaps the bias of the HBO commentators, had Tarver ahead, 115-113. Still, I accept the decision and gladly proclaim Gentleman Glen (his preferred nickname) as 2004 Fighter of the Year.
But let us give some honorable mentions to those he edged out. First among the also-rans, on my ballot (and remember, since this is "my" column, one man, only one ballot), to Diego Corrales. "Chico" started the year by winning a controversial decision against Joel Casamayor, then solidified his status as one of the elite in the game by forcing Acelino Freitas to quit like a puppy.
I wish Winky Wright would have had the chance to beat someone other than Sugar Shane Mosley, but at least he did it twice. Wright proved beyond reasonable doubt that at 154 pounds he is The Man and, overall, one of the game’s top practioneers.
Marco Antonio Barrera, who was left for dead by Manny Pacquiao last year, rose once again in his magnificent career. Barrera and old rival, Erik Morales, put on their third classic meeting, this one probably with the clearest outcome. It was close, but Barrera won and deserves mention.
Bernard Hopkins, who inherited the pound-for-pound crown when Roy Jones was upset by Tarver in May, confirmed his status with a dominant win over Robert Allen the following month. Then Hopkins came through, in the sport’s biggest fight of the year, with a seventh-round shot to Oscar de la Hoya’s liver. In a truly bizarre ending, Hopkins did not pick up de la Hoya — it was the other way round. Oscar has become Bernard’s promoter and Bernard has become a partner in de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions.
Let’s give a mention to Jose Luis Castillo, who clearly beat Juan Lazcano for the lightweight title vacated by Floyd Mayweather Jr., then cemented his standing atop the 135-pounders with a close but clear victory over Casamayor. And, what 2004 hath wrought, could be appreciated in 2005 — in this case, a lightweight showdown between Castillo and Diego Corrales.
De la Hoya has promised to return, not as a puffed-up middleweight, but as a welterweight. However, he has joined Jones as one of the former elite.
Boxing was able to welcome back two of its grand old stars. Felix Trinidad Jr. came back after a 29-month retirement and slaughtered Ricardo Mayorga, Also, Kostya Tszyu returned after 22 months off for injuries and blasted out his longtime 140-pound mandatory, Sharma Mitchell, in three rounds.
Too little too late for 2004, but these comebacks augur well for 2005. Trinidad is in line to have a showdown with Winky Wright and Tszyu will have many to pick from in the talent-heavy 140-pound division, including the game’s latest star, Miguel Cotto - as well as Floyd Mayweather Jr., Vivian Harris and Ricky Hatton.
The comeback of the year, though, belongs to Juan Manuel Marquez, who was knocked down three times in the first round by Manny Pacquiao and somehow survived to get a draw. There were some, who despite a 10-6 opening round, scored the bout for Marquez. It was the fight of the year until Barrera-Morales III came along. A draw was a wonderful decision. It sets up a February rematch.
There will also be a rematch of Johnson-Tarver, there’s a chance of a Mayweather-Arturo Gatti showdown and clearly 2005 should be another pretty good year. There may be a couple of heavyweight matchups in there, unfortunately.
It should get off to a rousing start Jan. 15 with a cruiserweight unification bout between Jean-Marc Mormeck and Wayne Braithwaite. Their styles almost guarantee a wonderful night.
But before we wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, let us give a quick trainer of the year nod to Dan Birmingham, who has handled Winky Wright forever. Birmingham has also led Jeff Lacy to become the first 2000 American Olympian to a world title.
Cotto, Lacy, Juan Diaz and Rocky Juarez give us all hope for the game’s future. Now, if only one would eat enough to become a heavyweight.