Andy Foster's guidance, Deontay Wilder's knockout highlight 2019 Yahoo Sports boxing awards

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 03:  Andy Foster of the California Athletic Commission speaks onstage during the press conference at The Novo by Microsoft to promote the upcoming December 1, 2018 fight between  Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury in Los Angeles on October 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Andy Foster of the California Athletic Commission is the 2019 Yahoo Sports Man of the Year in boxing for prioritizing fighter safety. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

The action in the ring was great in 2019. There were a slew of candidates for Fight of the Year, which we’ll announce on Monday, and for the first time in a long time, the fights the fans most wanted to see began to be made regularly.

New stars emerged and the sport is, in a lot of ways, as healthy as it has been in a long time. There is an overwhelming amount of broadcast coverage, perhaps more than ever, and plenty of sponsor interest.

But for fighter safety, 2019 was one of the worst years ever. Four fighters died after bouts, underscoring the huge risk a fighter takes every time he/she walks up those three steps and slips beneath the ropes.

The California State Athletic Commission, under the direction of executive officer Andy Foster, has become a leader in regulation and ensuring fights are as fair as can be while at the same time prioritizing fighter safety.

A former MMA fighter with a 9-2 pro mark, Foster has become the country’s top combat sports regulator by focusing on these areas since his appointment in 2012.

In 2019, Foster led a commission that began to aggressively focus on the dangers fighters face in weight cutting. Foster won’t hesitate to force a fighter to move up a weight if he feels the fighter is too dehydrated and unable to compete safely at his/her current weight.

Fighters often try to shrink their bodies as much as possible to fight at the lowest possible weight class. Dehydration has been linked to many fighter deaths and traumatic brain injuries.

In addition, the California commission has become a leader in the anti-doping field, and in 2019 set standards for thresholds that sought to differentiate between cheating and contaminated supplements.

For all of that, and his commitment to quality sport, Andy Foster is the 2019 Yahoo Sports Man of the Year in boxing.

My runners-up are a pair of heavyweights who have revived interest in boxing’s most important division. For more than a quarter of a century now, whenever a lapsed fan would talk about what’s wrong with boxing, the discussion almost always began with issues in the heavyweight division.

If that complaint is put forward today, though, it’s simply because someone isn’t paying attention. The heavyweight division is as vibrant and compelling as it has been since the Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe era in the early 1990s.

This group isn’t near that yet, but it is on that path and it has talent at all levels.

WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder and lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury are my runners-up. With their talents, their accessibility and their willingness to promote themselves and their sport, they’ve lifted the game’s most important division and may finally be putting the tired old saw about “boxing is dead” to rest.

It would have been great if they’d fought an immediate rematch of their memorable 2018 draw in 2019, but they are not only signed to fight each other on Feb. 22 in Las Vegas, but they’ve signed to fight a third time. And their rematch would have almost certainly occurred had Fury not signed a deal with Top Rank in February.

My other runner-up is the veteran Manny Pacquiao, the legend from the Philippines who won two high-performing pay-per-view bouts and handed Keith Thurman his first defeat in a throwback performance. He did that while being as accessible as any major fighter ever and while holding down a sort of important second job.

Pacquiao, of course, is a senator in his native country.

Others I considered were unified super lightweight champion Jose Ramirez, a leader in his community; Matchroom Sport promoter Eddie Hearn; Top Rank president Todd duBoef; and Fresno, California-based promoter/manager Rick Mirigian.

My other awards:

Prospect of the Year: My requirement for this is a fighter must be under 25 years old, have fewer than 25 pro fights and have never fought for a world title. There are three fighters in this category who stand out from the crowd: welterweights Vergil Ortiz (21 years old, 15-0, 15 KOs) and Jaron Ennis (22 years old, 24-0, 22 KOs) and heavyweight Daniel Dubois (22 years old, 13-0, 12 KOs).

This is one of those years in which any of the three could win it, but my choice, after much consternation, is Dubois. He’s got the size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), punch and athleticism to sit atop the heavyweight division for a decade.

There remains a question about his chin, but if he can pass that test, he’s an otherwise elite talent who in a couple of years could lap the field in his division.

I fully expect Ortiz and Ennis to do big things, but Dubois has a chance to be special.

Trainer of the Year: Eddy Reynoso is a runaway winner here. He may now be the best trainer in the sport, because his work with Canelo Alvarez, Oscar Valdez and Ryan Garcia has been exemplary. He has taken different types of fighters and improved upon what they had and won in different ways.

He gets overshadowed because Alvarez is so good, but would Alvarez be as good as he is without Reynoso guiding him? It’s an interesting question.

Reynoso, though, figures to be an in-demand trainer for a long time to come.

Manager of the Year: Keith Connolly is the Babe Ruth, the Wayne Gretzky, the Tiger Woods and the Tom Brady of boxing managers rolled into one. An example of how good he is came last week: He manages Daniel Jacobs, who was scheduled to fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Chavez, not surprisingly, missed weight by nearly five pounds.

Connolly extracted a $1 million penalty from Chavez’s team that went to Jacobs. So Jacobs made more because his opponent missed weight than the vast majority of fighters do for competing. And that is only one example.

No one else is close. If the award is named after Connolly and he’s ineligible, then it would go to Rick Mirigian. But nobody had the kind of success with multiple fighters that Connolly did.

KO of the Year: Deontay Wilder blistered Dominic Breazeale with a right cross in May that may have knocked down a charging rhinoceros. He landed it flush on the chin and put Breazeale down and out.

There were plenty of other great ones, but no one punches with the authority of Wilder and ends fights as emphatically as he does. Just ask Luis Ortiz.

Round of the Year: There were plenty of great rounds in 2019, but none that I saw was as wild as Round 3 of a super middleweight bout between Irosvani Duvergel and Jerhed Fenderson on May 10 in Hollywood, Florida.

The round began with each guy landing hard blows, but Fenderson started to come on and dropped Duvergel. Duvergel was hurt, but beat the count. Fenderson went for the kill and they traded big blows again, before Duvergel obliterated Fenderson with a left hand.

Fenderson staggered across the ring and fell near the ropes. He tried to get up, went down and then got up again on unsteady legs. The referee let him continue, somewhat surprisingly, and Fenderson went after Duvergel again.

The fight moved to the corner and each man threw — and landed at the same time. It was a double knockdown and punctuated one of the wildest rounds you’ll ever see.

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