The final night of the Major League Baseball regular season was, my top-notch colleague Tim Brown wrote, "ridiculously, stupidly, exhaustingly, thrillingly … perfect."
It's also the ideal description for the kind of a year boxing had in 2011. Yes, there were enough negative stories to fill a dozen notebooks:
• The sport's most powerful man, Ross Greenburg, resigned under heavy pressure as president of HBO Sports in July.
• One of boxing's greatest stars, Floyd Mayweather Jr., is expected to spend three months in jail after pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge.
• Officials in New Jersey suspended three judges following a bout for turning in incomprehensible scorecards that were, quite literally, divorced from reality.
Yet through those and other mishaps, the fighters kept the fans coming back. Because, like no other year in recent memory, the spectacular fights kept coming.
Week after week and month after month, highlight-reel fights occurred in venues spanning the globe. For the first time in decades, more than a dozen fights would have been more than worthy for Fight of the Year honors.
In some recent years, the battle between super middleweights Carl Froch and Glen Johnson in June might have been the Fight of the Year. This year, it's an honorable mention – and doesn't even come close to being in the top 10.
[Related: Boxing's top five stories of 2011]
A baker's dozen of the year's best fights, with the 2011 Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year taking its rightful spot at the head of a very deep class, follows:
13. Lamont Peterson W12 Amir Khan, Dec. 10, Washington, D.C. – Peterson upset Khan in a barnburner of a match that was mired in controversy. Khan lost two points for pushing and Golden Boy officials whined loudly when it was over. That took away from a tense, fast-paced bout that featured the best of what the sport has to offer: heart, courage, conditioning and determination. Each fighter worked the body marvelously and at the end, rather than filing protests and crying about the officiating, Golden Boy officials should have sent a DVD of the fight to every boxing fan.
12. Samuel Vargas TKO5 Ahmad Cheikho, Oct. 22, Mississauga, Ontario – Vargas and Cheikho are young, lesser-known super welterweights based in Canada and their fight wasn't widely heralded. If you've seen any of the fights in the "Rocky" series, though, you have an idea of what this match was like. The bell rang and they came to the center of the ring and traded punches. And they didn't stop until five furious rounds had ended and Vargas pulled out a victory. Skill has to play a part in picking Fight of the Year, because a great bout is a lot harder to accomplish against a great fighter, so this one is lower than it would be if the list was chosen on sheer action alone.
11. Froch W12 Johnson, June 4, Atlantic City, N.J. – The bout was in the semifinals of Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic and it had all the makings of a special match going in. Both men were press-forward fighters who weren't particularly difficult to hit. That always makes for a good match and they didn't disappoint. The eighth round was one of the year's finest.
10. Brandon Rios TKO11 John Murray, Dec. 3, New York – Rios should win Action Fighter of the Year, because he's on this list more than once. Much of the pre-fight talk was on how Rios failed to make the lightweight limit of 135 pounds and lost the World Boxing Association title on the scales as a result. But it was a savage and bloody bout in which both men landed thudding shots. Rios took over, but the previously unknown Murray came out bigger in stature despite the loss.
9. Orlando Salido TKO8 Juan Manuel Lopez, April 16, Bayamon, P.R. – Lopez is one of the game's best action fighters and he was expected to blow through Salido en route to a showdown with Cuban rival Yuriorkis Gamboa. Instead, he and Salido stood toe-to-toe and put on a jaw-dropping performance. Lopez hit the deck in the fifth, then got trapped in the corner in the eighth and lost his World Boxing Organization featherweight title when Salido fired away on him.
8. Rios TKO10 Miguel Acosta, Feb. 26, Las Vegas Rios was being outboxed by Acosta in the early rounds, but he's not easily stopped and kept plowing forward. By the fight's midpoint, the momentum had turned and Rios was laying into Acosta with some powerful shots. There were frequent exchanges in which each guy landed what appeared to be knockout-type blows, but it was Acosta who finally succumbed.
7. Mike Alvarado TKO10 Breidis Prescott, Nov. 12, Las Vegas – Prescott is known for racing to an early lead and then fading. In this fight, he fought at a very high pace early and Alvarado was having trouble matching it. Part of it may have had to do with Alvarado's needing to shed nearly 30 pounds in the final day before the weigh-in. But Alvarado didn't stop attacking and his power eventually wore Prescott down. Hopelessly behind on the cards, Alvarado got the stoppage with just over a minute left.
6. Marcos Maidana W12 Erik Morales, April 9, Las Vegas – Morales is no stranger to Fight of the Year-caliber bouts and he put on another sensational show against Maidana. Maidana may be the hardest puncher in the division and he hit Morales with blows that would have dented a tank. Morales had a welt the size of an egg alongside his eye, but he did as he always does and threw non-stop punches, making it one of the most entertaining matches of the year.
6. James Kirkland TKO6 Alfredo Angulo, Nov. 5, Cancun, Mexico – In my pre-fight column, I noted that this fight could be a poor man's version of the epic 1985 match between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. That's what it turned out to be. The first round is, unquestionably, the Round of the Year. Both men got off the deck in a wild brawl. Kirkland, though, took over near the end of the first round and never relinquished control. Had Angulo been more in the fight, this might have won Fight of the Year, but instead, it has to settle for a solid top 10 spot.
5. Manny Pacquiao W12 Juan Manuel Marquez, Nov. 12, Las Vegas – The greatness of the bout, in which two of boxing's five best fighters went at it ferociously with a high degree of skill and technical acumen was lost amid the controversy over the scoring. Many felt that Marquez had done enough to defeat Pacquiao, but the disputed call can't obscure the fact that the action was first-rate from start to finish.
4. Victor Ortiz W12 Andre Berto, April 16, Ledyard, Conn. – Ortiz was hammering Berto with powerful punches almost from the opening bell. Berto went down three times and was hurt four or five other times in the fight. Berto, though, didn’t give up and actually put Ortiz on his back twice. The momentum shifted repeatedly, but Ortiz was the stronger fighter. It was his power that led him to the unanimous victory and earned him the World Boxing Council welterweight title.
3. Delvin Rodriguez D10 Pawel Wolak, July 15, New York – The bout was so entertaining and reminiscent of some of the famous 1940s battles that ESPN2, which aired the match on its Friday Night Fights series, rebroadcast it the following week. It called for a rematch and it got a spot on the prestigious Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito card. It was a classic slugfest with great sustained action.
2. Akira Yaegashi TKO10 Pornsawan Porpamook, Oct. 24, Tokyo – It was round after round after round of a fierce, bitter battle in which the momentum volleyed back and forth and the punches never stopped. Several rounds could be contenders for Round of the Year. Yaegashi won the WBA minimum weight title with the stoppage, but both guys should be on your must-watch list.
1. Hernan Marquez TKO11 Luis Concepcion, April 2, Panama City, Panama – Watching the fight live, it was almost too good to be true: It was so action-packed, it seemed like it was from a badly scripted movie. Both men were down in the first and Concepcion was down twice more after that. It was a brutal battle with unrelenting action and, for that, the bout is the 2011 Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year.
Dozens of other fights could be on the list. Leaving the Staples Center on Oct. 15, after the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson fight, I ran into a group of fans standing outside marveling about the lightweight title fight on the undercard between Antonio DeMarco and Jorge Linares. One man said he'd been watching boxing for 20 years and it was the best fight he had ever seen.
It was good – plenty good – and filled with drama. But it's a testament to the quality of the matches in 2011 that the bout didn't even make the baker's dozen list of the year's best scraps.
We can only dream that 2012 will be as entertaining. As Tim Brown might have written, from a pure boxing standpoint, it was a "ridiculously, stupidly, exhaustingly, thrillingly … perfect" year in 2011.
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- Orlando Salido