No other sports are like the combat sports. Whether you’re a boxer or a mixed martial artist, one win or one loss can change the course of your entire career.
That’s not the case in team athletics, not when you can go 10-6 in a football season and still make the playoffs, and not when the best baseball team this year still came up short on 59 occasions.
There are no seasons in boxing. There’s no starting over from scratch next year. There’s just what you’ve done lately and what it means for what is to come.
While 2016 isn’t yet over, many boxers can still say they had a good year. There are the fighters who won titles, the titleholders who successfully defended their belts, and the prospects and contenders who continued to develop and move up in the rankings.
There are a handful who had truly breakout years. They won’t necessarily be the Fighter of the Year — though one will be a candidate — but they each have moved their careers forward by leaps and bounds, with their 2016s putting them into position for even bigger things in 2017.
In alphabetical order, they are:
Frampton was already a star in Northern Ireland and around the United Kingdom, thanks to boxing fans being able to watch his rise, and thanks to the talents that earned him a world title at junior featherweight in 2014. He’d defended it with a pair of victories in 2015, then kicked off 2016 with one of the biggest fights that could be made at 122 pounds: a unification bout with Scott Quigg.
It was a huge fight. Alas, it wasn’t a great one. Frampton boxed at the beginning, breaking Quigg’s jaw early but remaining patient instead of trying to finish his opponent. The fight finally became more entertaining in the later rounds. Frampton won a split decision, wrapping up his time at 122 on a high note.
Then he moved to 126. Plenty of boxers want to take their time to settle into their new weight class. Not Frampton. He took on a tough challenge in his first fight at featherweight: titleholder Leo Santa Cruz. This fight entertained throughout. Frampton won the battle and the belt by majority decision.
He’s now 23-0 with 14 knockouts, has increased his stardom and has shown that he belongs in the mix with a pool of talented opponents.
It’s certainly not the opponents that Joshua has beaten. It’s where those victories have taken him.
Joshua, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, won a heavyweight world title with ease in April, needing less than five minutes to dethrone a vulnerable beltholder in Charles Martin. Then, for his first defense, he pounded away at unbeaten but limited prospect Dominic Breazeale until Breazeale could take no more.
Joshua is a star in the United Kingdom, a 27-year-old with 17 wins and knockouts in all 17 of those fights. He has a title, which means the other top heavyweights will want to face him, and he has speed and power, which means that he can give those other top heavyweights a tough fight.
There had been talk about Joshua facing Deontay Wilder in 2017. Joshua may not need to wait to get a big name, however. There was talk of him meeting former heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko in December, though there also was possibility of that match falling apart.
Klitschko is coming off a decision loss to Tyson Fury last year. If the fight does happen, Joshua will want to beat Klitschko with emphasis, doing what no one has been able to do to Wladimir since more than a decade ago.
You may be skeptical, given that Ramirez has fought only once this year. That one fight was quite an announcement to the world that he had arrived as one of the best super middleweights.
Ramirez captured a title by shutting out Arthur Abraham in April on the pay-per-view undercard of the third fight between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley. Abraham was never the best at 168; he’d lost to Carl Froch in 2011 and Andre Ward in 2012. But he’d remained a presence. Even after Abraham was knocked out by Robert Stieglitz in 2013, Abraham came back to beat Stieglitz two more times.
Abraham couldn’t overcome Ramirez’s boxing and combination punching. Ramirez, who seemed poised at just 24 years old, won the title and established himself in a division otherwise lacking in depth. The list of the top 168-pounders includes Ramirez, James DeGale and Badou Jack in the first tier, followed by guys like Andre and Anthony Dirrell and George Groves.
Ramirez, now 25, suffered a hand injury that kept him from following up immediately on his victory over Abraham. But he’ll be back, and he’ll have time to add to his record of 34-0 (24 KOs).
Shields was the favorite going into the 2016 Olympics. She is still a favorite coming out of them.
That’s because she was the reigning Olympic champion before she arrived in Brazil, and she remained the Olympic champion when she left. Her first gold medal came in 2012, when she was the best middleweight in the world at just 17 years old. Shields had four years to get even better, and she triumphed again this year.
Each time, she was the lone American fighter to leave with gold around her neck. Shields is also the first American boxer ever to win two gold medals.
Part of that is because of inequality. There are fewer opportunities for female boxers in the United States, so it made sense for the moment for Shields to remain an amateur. Don’t expect her to go for three golds, however. Shields is hoping to explore just how much of a star she has become — and how much of a star she can develop into as a pro.
She was featured regularly in the American media ahead of the 2016 Olympics, including being the subject of a documentary. Her name and face are far better known now. It’s time for her to strike while the iron is hot. She’s 21, has a compelling story, an outgoing personality and is a novelty in a country that is embracing female mixed martial arts but has never paid much attention to female boxers.
Shields could help change that mentality.
Spence won’t be the first member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team to win a pro world title. Rau’shee Warren, a bantamweight, already has that honor. But Spence has been seen as the best of the team pretty much from the time he entered the paid ranks.
He’s living up to those expectations so far.
In 2015, Spence went from welterweight prospect to 147-pound contender, taking out a certain level of opponents in the way that the best talents should, scoring technical knockouts over Samuel Vargas (gone in four), Phil Lo Greco (done in three), Chris van Heerden (broken down in eight), and Alejandro Barrera (finished in five).
That set him up for this year, when he similarly destroyed opponents a few steps up from those he’d beaten last year. Chris Algieri, who’d held a world title at 140, couldn’t last five rounds. Leonard Bundu, who’d been outboxed by Keith Thurman, was taken out in six. He’s now 21-0 (18 KOs).
Those aren’t huge wins, but that doesn’t mean this hasn’t been a breakout year. Spence is being positioned as the next big thing. The Algieri fight was the main event of a card on NBC in April. The Bundu bout was a special feature that aired after the U.S. men’s basketball team won gold, leaving a huge audience to watch Spence perform in a national spotlight.
He’s the mandatory contender to one of the world titles at 147. That belt is presently held by Kell Brook, who may be moving up to 154.
Spence was the cream of his Olympic team. Now it’s time to see whether the cream will rise to the top.