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Boxing's best years Part 2

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Last week’s installment relived 13 of the greatest years during the age when fighters piled up big numbers against a thicket of difficult opponents, and what made those years special was the fact that each fighter emerged with his record unscathed.

But in the years since the advent of television, the money elite fighters earned for each outing grew exponentially, reducing the need to step into the ring so often. Today, we are fortunate if the best of the best fight more than two times a year, which makes the task of identifying the best years a far more different – and difficult – chore. In the years beyond 1960, there have been fighters who put together 12-month campaigns that stand out above the rest in terms of quantity, quality and accomplishment and it is here that I present – in chronological order – 13 of the best 12-month segments of the last 50 years.

Muhammad Ali – 1966: 5-0 (4 KO)

Ali was approaching a momentous crossroads in his life during 1966: Whether or not to accept military induction during the Vietnam War. Anticipating he needed money – and fast – to finance the turmoil that was to come, Ali produced a two-minute drill of defenses that hearkened back to the days of Joe Louis.

On March 29 in Toronto, Ali pounded his fists on the concrete-like skull of George Chuvalo, who did plenty of fighting back but still lost the 15 round decision. Next was a rematch with Henry Cooper in London on May 21, the man who nearly knocked Ali out with a powerful hook to the jaw at the end of round four three years earlier. Their second bout was both different and similar in that Cooper failed to threaten Ali as severely and the champion ended matters the same way he did before – by way of cuts.

Ali returned to London on August 6 and blitzed Brian London into a third round TKO with a blinding flurry of punches along the ropes, and Ali continued his European tour when he stopped difficult German southpaw Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt in the 12th round. But Ali saved his very best effort for last when he defended against Cleveland Williams in Houston. Though Williams was past his prime and had bullets in his body, his punching power remained a dangerous wild card. In the end, Ali used his blazing hand speed to carve, his "Ali Shuffle" to confound and his combinations to put Cleve away in the third round. It was "The Greatest" at his greatest.

Ruben Olivares – 1971: 8-0 (7 KO)

"Rockabye Ruben" piled up spectacular numbers early in his career. He began with 22 consecutive knockouts and his first 59 fights he had 58 victories – 54 by knockout – against a single draw against German Bastidas in 1967. Olivares crushed Lionel Rose to win the bantamweight title and it appeared he would reign for as long as he could make the limit. But in Olivares’ final fight of 1970, Chucho Castillo shockingly lifted the belt via cut-induced 14th round TKO. Because of that, 1971 was to be the happy hooker’s proving ground – and did he ever deliver the goods.

On March 4 he scored a tune-up sixth round KO over Chung Sul Park in Guadalajara to set up the rematch with Castillo at the Forum in Inglewood. Olivares turned to his underrated boxing skills to build a lead but Castillo showed why he remained a dangerous proposition as he dropped Olivares in the sixth. But Olivares picked himself up and proceeded to pick apart Castillo en route to a lopsided unanimous decision.

Now a two-time bantamweight champion, Olivares kept himself busy with several non-title affairs with Yoji Mineyama (KO 3), Yambito Blanco (KO 5), former flyweight champion Efren "Alacran" Torres (KO 4) and grizzled 116-fight veteran Valentin "Kid Pasqualito" Galeano (KO 9). "El Puas" wound down the year with a pair of successful title defenses, the first of which was a war with Kazuyoshi Kanazawa in Nagoya, Japan that ended with three knockdowns in round 14. His final fight was against beloved veteran Jesus Pimentel at the Forum. "Little Poison" was a big hitter (69 knockouts in 77 wins) who was finally receiving his first shot at a world title at age 31. Pimentel did his best to stay even in the first half of the fight, but Olivares proved to be too young and powerful and he punished Pimentel on the way to an 11th round TKO.

Olivares, who started 1971 on the outside looking in, was back on top and looking strong at year’s end.

Saensak Muangsurin – 1977: 6-0 (4 KO)

The native of Phetchabun, Thailand holds the record for winning a world title in the fewest amount of fights – three – and he defied the odds by building a more than respectable reign after dethroning Perico Fernandez via eighth-round KO to win the WBC junior welterweight title. The year 1977 proved to be his best as he put up his belt six times against good opposition and came away with six victories.

On January 15 at Chiang Mai, Thailand, Muangsurin repelled the challenge of the respected Monroe Brooks by stopping him in the 15th round. The southpaw then took his belt to Tokyo to fight freshly defrocked WBC lightweight king Ishimatsu "Guts" Suzuki, who he polished off in six rounds on April 2. Next up was a rematch with Fernandez in the challenger’s home turf of Madrid, Spain on June 17, and though Fernandez managed to last the 15-round distance the result was the same – a Muangsurin victory.

Muangsurin (who was born Boonsong Mansri) returned home and fought another veteran American challenger in Mike Everett, who he dusted in six rounds. On October 22, Muangsurin took on slick New Yorker Saoul Mamby in Korat, Thailand and from all reports the American did more than enough to lift the belt. But Muangsurin escaped with the belt firmly around his waist and he ended his very busy year on December 30 with a 14th round KO over tough challenger Jo Kimpuani in Chanthaburi.

The Mamby fight aside, it wasn’t often that a champion put up his belt six times in a year, and that’s why this campaign made the list.

Ray Leonard – 1979: 9-0 (7 KO)

Trainer Angelo Dundee spent the first two years of Leonard’s career skillfully matching him with a variety of styles to give his charge a reservoir of experience to draw upon when the level of competition inevitably rose. And 1979 proved to be the year that Leonard transformed himself from a fighter of the future to a dynamic and charismatic part of the present.

Leonard started the year with a HBO-televised turf war with fellow Maryland native Johnny Gant at the Capitol Centre in Landover on January 11. The 22-year-old was simply too much for the 30-year-old Gant as he stopped him in eight rounds. Leonard then stepped up to junior middleweight to take on French-Canadian Fernand Marcotte, a rugged 59-fight veteran. The bout air on NBC ended with Leonard stopping Marcotte with an explosive right to the jaw in round eight.

Just six weeks after beating Marcotte, Leonard took another step up when he fought the 56-2-4 (31 KO) Daniel Gonzalez, who began his career with 42 straight victories and had never been knocked out. But Leonard turned out the powerfully built Gonzalez’s lights before ABC’s cameras with a pair of resounding knockdowns and the fight ended just 123 seconds after it began.

Next up for Leonard was crafty southpaw Adolfo Viruet on ABC, and though he was as durable as advertised Leonard scored a knockdown in round four en route to a 10 round decision. Leonard’s next opponent, powerful middleweight Marcos Geraldo, provided a stern test for Leonard. In the third round, Geraldo stunned Leonard first with a hook to the jaw, then a right that nearly floored the 1976 gold medalist. But Leonard used his quickness, power and resourcefulness to fight his way out of trouble and win a challenging 10-round decision.

Leonard stepped up his competition even more on June 24 when he blasted out junior middleweight contender Tony Chiaverini in four rounds and used dazzling and explosive combinations to take out NABF welterweight champion Pete Ranzany in four rounds. But Leonard made a giant statement on September 28 when he crushed Andy Price – who held victories over Carlos Palomino and Pipino Cuevas – in a single round.

Leonard’s development as a fighter became complete on November 30 against WBC welterweight champ Wilfred Benitez, who tested Leonard’s patience like never before by delivering a master class in defensive skill and counterpunching ability. But Leonard closed the show in grand style by stopping Benitez in the final moments of the 15th round, a precursor for the great efforts that would come in future years.

One of the most important factors for Leonard was that he was seen on so many television platforms, which contributed heavily to the huge purses he would earn.

Salvador Sanchez – 1980: 5-0 (2 KO)

Despite his status as mandatory challenger, Sanchez was a largely unknown quantity to American audiences when he fought longtime WBC featherweight champion Danny "Little Red" Lopez in Phoenix on February 2. Sanchez’s brilliant counterpunching, especially with the right, paved the way to what was thought to be a massive upset 13th round TKO. Subsequent efforts throughout this year would prove beyond doubt that Sanchez was no upstart, but a 21-year-old legend in the making.

On April 12, Sanchez fought top challenger Ruben Castillo, a slick, intelligent boxer-puncher who pushed WBC junior lightweight champion Alexis Arguello before falling in the 11th. Back at his natural weight, Castillo gave Sanchez a stern challenge before Sanchez’s vaunted late-rounds strength kicked in and led him to a 15-round decision.

On June 21, Sanchez fought a rematch with "Little Red," who managed to build a slight lead after 10 rounds. But Lopez faded and Sanchez strengthened in the late rounds, using his tremendous combination punching to register a 14th round TKO. On September 13, he received another tough challenge from undefeated Guyana native Patrick Ford but Sanchez still earned a majority decision. Finally, "Chava" wrapped up a spectacular year with a 15 round decision over Juan LaPorte, who would give WBA champ Eusebio Pedroza one of his toughest fights the following year.

From obscurity to pound-for-pound entrant: That’s a heck of a year.

Donald Curry – 1985: 4-0 (4 KO)

By now the age of champions fighting three or four times a year had taken hold, but Curry still made the most out of his outings in 1985. Curry was coming off a solid 1984 that saw him beat Marlon Starling, Elio Diaz and Nino LaRocca, but this 12 month segment would move many to declare him boxing’s next great superstar.

The WBA welterweight champion started the year by beating up – and slicing up – rugged Welshman Colin Jones in four rounds on January 19. Jones had given WBC champ Milton McCrory two tough 12 rounders – a draw and a disputed decision – and Curry succeeded in drawing favorable comparisons between himself and McCrory with his dazzling performance.

A little more than two months later before a friendly crowd in Dallas, "The Lone Star Cobra" stopped James "Hard Rock" Green in two rounds in a junior middleweight contest, perhaps taken with an eye toward an eventual fight with world middleweight king Marvelous Marvin Hagler. On June 22, Curry stepped back down to 147 and bombed out Pablo Baez in six rounds, but the deal-sealer as far as his pound-for-pound status took place on December 6 when he took on McCrory in a fight that was three years in the making.

An intense and stone-faced Curry dominated the first round with precise and powerful punches while McCrory had trouble landing cleanly. In the second Curry connected with a spectacular hook to the jaw that sent McCrory sprawling to the canvas in sections. McCrory courageously regained his feet, but the cold-blooded "Cobra" put him down for good with his final punch, a splattering right to the head that left referee Mills Lane no choice but to call an immediate halt.

Few fighters did it better than Curry in 1985 in terms of establishing superstar credentials, but this next fighter topped even Curry in terms of skyrocketing his profile.

Jeff Fenech – 1985: 8-0 (7 KO)

At the start of the year, Fenech was a four-fight pro looking to make a name for himself after being robbed of a medal-round appearance at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But "The Marrickville Mauler" would quickly make up for lost status in 1985 as he transformed himself from a novice fighter to an established world class presence in the space of 12 months.

On February 1, Fenech stopped 27-fight veteran Wayne Mulholland in five rounds to grab two regional bantamweight belts and followed up with a four round KO of Rolando Navarro four weeks later. It was here that Team Fenech received an offer to fight IBF bantamweight champ Satoshi Shingaki, a notion that was considered absurd until they looked at tapes of the Japanese. On April 26, Fenech proved his team’s hunch correct as he knocked Shingaki in nine rounds and set a new record for the least number of days needed to capture a share of the world title (196 days).

Following two non-title wins over John Matienza (KO 6) and John Farrell (KO 9), Fenech proved that the Shingaki win was no fluke as he polished off the former champ in four rounds on August 23, winning each round handily before forcing a corner stoppage. Fenech scored a stay-busy two round KO over Kenny Butts on November 4 and finished the year by beating the highly touted 26-0 Jerome Coffee over 15 rounds on December 2.

Mike Tyson – 1986: 13-0 (11 KO)

In 1985, Tyson created a stir in the boxing world by blasting out his first 15 pro opponents but 1986 was the year when the legend of "Iron Mike" really began to take shape in mainstream circles. After Tyson stopped Dave Jaco (KO 1) and Mike Jameson (KO 5), Tyson was featured on ABC for the first time against Jesse Ferguson, who at 14-1 was his best opponent to date. Tyson was nothing short of sensational as his muscular granite-block body produced the perfect blend of phenomenal speed and awesome power en route to a sixth round KO. Tyson was featured again on ABC nearly two months after he knocked out Steve Zouski in three rounds, and this time the foe was the savvy veteran James "Quick" Tillis. Tillis provided an early blueprint for future foes by staying on the move and tying up whenever Tyson got close, but Tyson still prevailed by 10 round decision.

Just 17 days later on May 20, Tyson made his HBO debut against the loquacious Mitch "Blood" Green, who also took Tyson the 10 round distance before losing. But Tyson regained his KO touch against Reggie Gross (KO 1), William Hosea (KO 1) and Lorenzo Boyd (KO 2) and especially against Marvis Frazier on ABC, which set a record for the shortest fight in network TV history at 30 seconds.

Tyson returned to HBO’s airwaves on August 17 and stopped Jose Ribalta in the 10th, and followed up with another HBO-televised two round blast-out of former cruiserweight champ Alfonzo Ratliff. Those performances earned Tyson a place in HBO’s heavyweight title unification tournament, and his opponent on November 22, 1986 was WBC champ Trevor Berbick. When Tyson stopped the Jamaican in two rounds, Barry Tompkins said it best: "We have a new era in heavyweight boxing."

Felix Trinidad – 1994: 3-0 (2 KO)

In 1993, Trinidad established himself as a star in the making by brutally smashing the crown off IBF welterweight king Maurice Blocker’s head, but it was in 1994 that "Tito" secured his place among the elite. On January 29, Trinidad emerged victorious in an all-Puerto Rican showdown with Hector Camacho, but performance against Yory Boy Campas on September 17 stamped him as one of boxing’s best.

The 56-0 Campas was Trinidad’s mandatory challenger and he had to go to court to force the fight to take place. An impossibly short hook to the jaw dumped Trinidad on his behind in the second round, but once the champion regained his feet he showed why he was a coming great. Trinidad drilled explosive combinations off Campas’ readily available face in a spectacular demonstration of firepower. Referee Richard Steele was forced to intervene after Trinidad’s final punch caused Campas’ head to snap back grotesquely.

His final fight of 1994 came against the highly regarded 32-0 Oba Carr, who said before the fight he was primed for the fight of his life. Carr proved his assertion correct by decking Trinidad with a heavy right early in the second, but the Puerto Rican superstar regained his feet quickly and rumbled with the upset-minded American, slowly breaking him down in the process. A series of withering rights produced two knockdowns and a referee’s stoppage in the eighth round.

Oscar de la Hoya – 1997: 5-0 (2 KO)

"The Golden Boy" was truly golden in 1997 as he maintained an unusually demanding schedule for a fighter commanding seven-figure purses every time out. De La Hoya started the year with a defense of his WBC junior welterweight title against the 41-0 Miguel Angel Gonzalez, a former lightweight king. Using a razor-sharp jab, De La Hoya picked apart Gonzalez en route to a solid decision victory.

Next up was a showdown with WBC welterweight king Pernell Whitaker, still considered by many among the best fighters in the world despite his struggle against upstart Cuban expatriate Diosbelys Hurtado just a few months earlier. Though Whitaker’s considerable bag of southpaw tricks confounded De La Hoya, he still emerged with the decision and his third divisional crown.

De La Hoya, discouraged by his performance against Whitaker, fired defensive specialist Jesus Rivero in favor of high-octane trainer Emanuel Steward for his June 14 defense against David Kamau (28-1, 21 KO), whose only defeat was a hotly disputed decision against Julio Cesar Chavez. Following a feeling out first round that Kamau may have won, De La Hoya dropped Kamau with a pair of heavy hooks early in the second and finished the job a couple of minutes later with another powerful hook.

On September 13, De La Hoya scored a lopsided decision victory over the ever retreating but still relevant Hector Camacho and wrapped up his busy year with an eighth round TKO over Wilfredo Rivera, who gave Whitaker a pair of stirring challenges the previous year. It was a year that saw De La Hoya tackle a wide variety of styles from a gauntlet of credible opponents and emerge with his perfect record intact.

Shane Mosley – 1998: 5-0 (5 KO)

The reigning IBF lightweight champion put his belt on the line five times in 1998 and scored five knockouts. Who could have asked for more of the man some were comparing to the two other "Sugars" – Leonard and Robinson?

Mosley kicked off his campaign with an eighth round KO of the 20-1 Demetrio Ceballos on February 6 and followed with another eight round knockout of former IBF junior lightweight champion John John Molina. Three years earlier, Molina had pushed De La Hoya to the brink of defeat, and he was not a man who was easily stopped. On June 27 at the Apollo Theater in Philadelphia, Mosley added another scalp in Wilfredo Ruiz, who he stopped in five rounds. Then, on September 22 at the MSG Theater inside Madison Square Garden, Mosley polished off Eduardo Morales, who entered the bout with a glittering 26-0 record, in just five rounds.

"Sugar Shane" rounded out the year in most impressive fashion by beating another tough former 130 pound champion in Jesse James Leija. Mosley used his blurring hand speed and extraordinary power to drop Leija in the sixth, eighth and ninth rounds to force a corner stoppage

. Floyd Mayweather – 2001: 3-0 (2 KO)

"The Pretty Boy," despite enduring more than his share of out-of-the-ring distractions, continued to persevere and succeed in the ring, and 2001 proved to be his best year since his Fighter of the Year campaign three years earlier. It was a 12-month segment that featured terrific in-ring performances that both showcased his skills and tested his courage under fire.

Mayweather began the year with a hastily arranged superfight with Diego Corrales, a bout which would have been a unification showdown had the IBF not stripped Corrales for signing for the bout. It was only Mayweather’s second fight in 10 months as he wrestled with his relationship with his father Floyd Sr. in and out of the ring, but his distractions paled in comparison to Corrales’ who was facing a variety of charges that would eventually land him in jail. Inside the ring, however, Mayweather was razor sharp as he pasted Corrales with combination after combination and registered five knockdowns en route to a spectacular 10th round stoppage.

Next for Mayweather was a May 26 defense against Carlos Hernandez, a fight that tested his resourcefulness like none other. Late in the sixth round, Mayweather banged the knuckles of his left hand off the top of Hernandez’s head and the pain shooting up and down his arm forced him to turn away and take the only mandatory eight count of his career. Forced to fight outside his comfort zone, Mayweather nevertheless executed an alternate game plan that not only kept Hernandez at bay but also allowed him to continue to pile up the points necessary to leave the ring a unanimous decision victor.

His final outing of the year took place on November 10 in San Francisco against top challenger Jesus Chavez, a swarming, volume-punching whirlwind who won his last 32 fights by battering them into submission. Though Chavez succeeded in imposing a fast pace, Mayweather willingly engaged him on the inside before darting back to long range and pelting him with pinpoint counters. Several massive uppercuts snapped back Chavez’s head, and the accumulation of punishment moved corner man Ronnie Shields to halt the contest between rounds nine and 10.

Glen Johnson – 2004: 3-0 (2 KO)

Few years have ever changed the perception of a fighter more strongly than 2004 did for Johnson. When he began the year, he was the hardscrabble hard-luck "Road Warrior" for whom boxing did little in terms of favors. His final bout of 2003 saw him fight for a title for the third time in Clinton Woods’ hometown of Sheffield for the vacant WBC light heavyweight belt, and the draw that resulted from it forced a rematch on February 6 – again in the pro-Woods turf of Yorkshire.

Johnson confounded the bettors by winning a close but unanimous decision and finally becoming a champion. But Roy Jones, fresh off a shocking second round knockout loss to Antonio Tarver, still saw Johnson as easy pickings and challenged him for the title. Instead of a Jones coronation, he got crowned. Using a highly effective swarming style, Johnson beat Jones at every turn before knocking him unconscious in round nine. If anyone had doubts about Johnson’s worth before, the Jones result drove home the point in most frightening fashion.

The Jones victory earned Johnson a fight with Tarver, and though the minor IBO belt was on the line the real prize was recognition as the best light heavyweight in the world. The pair would engage in a see saw fight that was tension-filled throughout, and Johnson emerged with a split decision victory as well as Ring’s Fighter of the Year award.

"I am not the best out here," the humble Johnson said after knocking out Jones. "Just the one who is willing to fight the best." But in 2004, there was no question which fighter had the best year.

There were more candidates to profile, such as Juan Coggi’s 1993 campaign that saw him go 7-0 and six title defenses, Julio Cesar Vazquez’s 1994 run of six defenses, Barry McGuigan’s title-winning year of 1985, and the years produced by showmen Naseem Hamed in 1997 and Jorge Paez in 1989. Space considerations prevent me from going into detail, but suffice it to say that they are worthy of consideration. Hopefully the year 2008 will produce several more candidates for a future accounting.