2018 Yahoo Sports Boxer of the Year: Oleksandr Usyk edges Naoya Inoue

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Oleksandr Usyk is now 16-0 with 12 knockouts in his professional career. (Nick Potts/PA)
Oleksandr Usyk is now 16-0 with 12 knockouts in his professional career. (Nick Potts/PA)

The World Boxing Super Series hasn’t gotten the attention in the U.S. that it deserves, and those who haven’t watched it regularly are seriously missing out.

The finalists for the 2018 Yahoo Sports Fighter of the Year, cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk and bantamweight Naoya Inoue, both competed in the WBSS during the year. Usyk became the undisputed cruiserweight champion, while Inoue has won his first two bouts in the tournament via first-round knockout.

They were the leaders over an avalanche of qualified candidates. Super lightweight Regis Prograis went 3-0 with two knockouts, stopping Julius Indongo in the second and Juan Jose Velasco in the eighth before claiming a wide unanimous decision over Terry Flanagan.

Jose Ramirez, the WBC super lightweight champion, went 2-0 with one-sided decision victories over Amir Imam and Antonio Orozco. In some years, that would be enough to win, though it wasn’t even close in 2018.

Canelo Alvarez defeated Gennady Golovkin in an outstanding bout to win the middleweight title, then came back and bludgeoned an overmatched Rocky Fielding to pick up a super middleweight belt. Again, good year, but not enough to win in this year, particularly when Fielding proved to be such a weak opponent, when the decision over Golovkin was so controversial and when Alvarez failed two anti-doping tests.

Vasiliy Lomachenko was 2-0, winning the WBA lightweight belt by stopping Jorge Linares in the 10th in a bout in which he seriously injured his shoulder early, and then scoring a decision over WBO champion Jose Pedraza in a unification bout.

Claressa Shields went 4-0, won super middleweight and middleweight titles and was by far the best and most dominant female fighter in 2018. A few things work against Shields, though. First is the quality of opposition that Usyk and Inoue defeated, and, second, is her lack of finishes. Had Shields gotten the opportunity to fight WBC-WBO middleweight champion Christina Hammer as planned in November, she would have had a better shot at winning. But Hammer pulled out with an injury, and Shields lost by far her best opponent.

IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence went 2-0 with stoppages of Lamont Peterson and Carlos Ocampo, but his level of opposition wasn’t enough to get him into the top two this year.

The same is true of WBO welterweight champion Terence Crawford, who stopped Jeff Horn in the ninth to win the title and then defended it against bitter rival Jose Benavidez Jr. via a 12th-round knockout.

And finally among the others considered is Mikey Garcia, who won IBF belts at 135 and 140 pounds by defeating Robert Easter Jr. and Sergey Lipinets, respectively.

All of those fighters had great years and deserve to be in the conversation for Fighter of the Year, but they have to take a backseat to Usyk and Inoue.

Inoue is on the verge of superstardom, even though he fights in a division that isn’t historically popular in the U.S. and he doesn’t speak English. But he has a hugely charismatic personality and has the kind of punching power that always gets attention.

It’s often been said that Deontay Wilder is boxing’s biggest puncher, and while that may be true, pound-for-pound, no one hits harder than Inoue. He’s young in his career — he’s only 25 and didn’t turn pro until 2012 — but he is already among the best body punchers in boxing’s modern era.

He’s clearly on a Hall of Fame track and could ultimately become remembered as one of the best small men in the sport’s history.

As great as Inoue was in 2018, and as great as he figures to be as his career rolls on, what he did can’t compare to what Usyk accomplished in 2018. The 31-year-old opened the year as the WBO cruiserweight champion. He ended it with all four belts, having decisioned Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev and then stopping Tony Bellew.

His opponents entered their bouts against him with a combined record of 79-2-1 with 57 knockouts. All are highly regarded and Usyk handled them masterfully.

He was so good during the year that he proved he deserves to be in consideration for the mythical title as boxing’s pound-for-pound greatest fighter along with Crawford, Lomachenko, Spence, Garcia and Alvarez.

Usyk is a brilliant boxer and while he’s not considered a puncher, he no doubt has plenty of pop, as he showed when finishing Bellew.

He’s likely going to move up to heavyweight and will add a significant talent to what is quickly becoming a fascinating division.

That, though, is for the future.

In 2018, there was no doubt. Oleksandr Usyk was as good as there was and is the Yahoo Sports Fighter of the Year.

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