A remarkable year of boxing has drawn to a close and it’s now time to reflect on what has been a turbulent but often brilliant 12 months, consisting of behind-closed-doors barn fests, shocking upsets galore, mesmerising fights and spectacular performances.
No, we didn’t get to see Tyson Fury vs Anthony Joshua, Terence Crawford vs Errol Spence Jr or even Teofimo Lopez vs Gervonta Davis, but there was still drama aplenty, more than enough to keep us boxing lovers captivated throughout.
We head into 2022 with the heavyweight division as enthralling as ever, after Fury dismantled Deontay Wilder in their epic trilogy to finally put their long-standing rivalry to bed, while Anthony Joshua has it all to do after losing his collection of belts to the Ukrainian mastermind, Oleksandr Usyk.
Canelo Alvarez cemented his place as the pound-for-pound No 1 in boxing throughout 2021
Canelo Alvarez also completed a mission he embarked on towards the backend of 2020, breezing through the super-middleweight division with relative ease and coming out standing clearly at the top of the pound-for-pound list.
But while there have been success stories in abundance, 2021 has also been filled with jaw-dropping upsets that frankly none of us saw coming, with Mauricio Lara, Kiko Martinez, George Kambosos Jr and Leigh Wood giving us some truly memorable evenings.
Now, it’s time to hand out a number of awards to those who have made the year quite so entertaining, as Sportsmail analyses the best knockouts, upsets, fighters and more.
Fight of the year: Fury vs Wilder III
Where else to start but the fight of the year, and while there are a number of contenders competing for second spot, Fury’s sensational victory over Wilder stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The pair came head-to-head for a third and, most likely, final time on October 9, after a determined Wilder won his arbitration case to secure a trilogy bout and put an all-British undisputed showdown between Fury and Joshua on hold.
It’s a fight no-one wanted at the time, but one that certainly delivered, as Fury finally put to bed any lingering questions that remained after his rematch win the year prior.
Tyson Fury (right) ended his rivalry with Deontay Wilder after a stunning KO in their trilogy
Having controversially drawn their first encounter, Wilder insisted there had been foul play in the rematch, blaming injuries, a disloyal trainer, his hefty ring-walk costume, a biased referee, spiked water and pretty much anything he could think of for his one-sided stoppage defeat.
The American promised redemption as he left coach Mark Breland for Malik Scott in preparation for the bout, while Fury was made to overcome a number of hurdles, including contracting Covid-19 – which pushed the fight back – and the difficult birth of his daughter, Athena, who was subsequently placed into intensive care and at one point needed a ventilator to help with her breathing.
The fight itself was incredible. With so much personal dislike between the pair and equally as much on the line for both, it simply had everything, as Fury got the job done in the 11th round.
In their third encounter in 34 months, Wilder showed what he had been working on as he targeted the jab to the body in a fast start, but even by the end of round one Fury provided another reminder of his largely newfound power and aggression with a thudding right hand than shook the 6ft 7in giant.
Wilder connected with his trademark right hand in the second, though not fully flush as the Gypsy King ate the punch with little distress, and with 30 seconds remaining in the third, a brutal combination saw the American floored.
The Gypsy King was floored twice in a dramatic, back and forth encounter in Las Vegas
It all changed in the fourth, as a perhaps overly-eager Fury went in for the kill, only to walk on to a thunderous right hand that quite literally reverberated through his entire body. He crashed to the canvas with a look of total shock spread across his face. And just seconds later, the unsteady giant was down again.
Fury showed his customary remarkable powers of recovery as he grew back into the fight, wobbling Wilder with huge shots in the seventh and eighth, before finally flooring Wilder once more with a stunning overhand right in the 10th. It was all over in the 11th as Fury delivered one final conclusive blow.
The Gypsy King retained his WBC strap with victory and cemented his position as the heavyweight’s undoubted No 1. Quite simply, the fight of 2021.
Male fighter of the year: Canelo Alvarez
Again, there’s only one answer here, and it’s Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, who reached new heights during a truly phenomenal 2021.
The 31-year-old embarked on a journey for super-middleweight domination in December 2020, as he claimed a comfortable unanimous decision victory over the previously unbeaten Callum Smith to claim the WBA, WBC and The Ring titles.
Canelo, insisting he would be more active after a disrupted 2020, where he fought just once, needed only three rounds as he blasted Avni Yildirim away in February to retain his newly-gained belts in what acted as a warm-up for bigger tests to come.
Less than three months later, Canelo was out in the ring once more, this time taking on Britain’s Billy Joe Saunders, who had been screaming for a fight of such magnitude for years.
Saunders, unbeaten in his 30 prior outings, was alive in the fight and causing the Mexican some issues but Canelo ultimately ended proceedings with one brutal uppercut in the eighth round, with the Brit retiring on his stool before the ninth could begin.
Saunders, who was down on all three scorecards at the time of the stoppage, subsequently revealed he had suffered a broken eye socket and cheekbone in three places during the defeat.
Canelo Alvarez ripped through the super-middleweight division in a hugely successful 2021
Canelo claimed the WBO belt in victory, before moving on to Caleb Plant in November, where he collected the final piece of the puzzle.
The all-time great knocked Plant out in the 11th round to become the first-ever undisputed super-middleweight champion, unifying all four belts in under 12 months.
Winning just about every round beforehand, Canelo finally finished the job with two huge knockdowns in the 11th, with the fight quickly waved off.
Canelo, a four-weight world champion, has since confirmed he wants to jump up all the way to cruiserweight next, with the WBC giving him permission to take on Ilunga Makabu.
There’s also the option of Artur Beterbiev at light-heavyweight, a division Canelo has fought in before, when he knocked out Sergery Kovalev in 2019.
Female fighter of the year: Katie Taylor
Katie Taylor must be getting bored of winning this award year-on-year, but it’s difficult to give it to anyone else in 2021.
The 35-year-old – who has acted as an inspiration to so many female fighters out there – defended her collection of lightweight belts on three occasions this year, winning all by unanimous decision.
Taylor most recently retained her undisputed titles with victory over Firuza Sharipova in a slightly scrappy affair on the undercard of Conor Benn’s emphatic win over Chris Algieri earlier in December.
The WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO and The Ring champion showed moments of her undoubted class as she moved to 20-0 with scores of 98-92, 97-92 and 96-93.
Earlier in the year, Taylor also edged out Natasha Jonas in a thrilling contest in Manchester, needing every bit of grit, guile and guts in a brilliantly entertaining 10-round contest.
Taylor admitted she was made to dig deep after claiming the win, but insisted she showed the heart required of a champion at such an elite level.
Undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor defended her titles three times in 2021
Next up for Taylor was former world featherweight champion Jennifer Han, 38, who also put up a great fight having moved up two divisions to take the bout.
Han started the fight brightly, with her clever movement causing Taylor problems. But the champion came into her own in the second half of the fight, knocking Han to the canvas in the eighth.
All three judges scored the bout 100-89 in Taylor’s favour, which certainly seemed harsh on her opponent, but she was the clear and deserved winner regardless.
Following another successful year, Taylor is now on a collision course to take on Amanda Serrano next year, after the seven-weight world champion sealed an impressive victory over over Miriam Gutierrez a week later.
Another possible candidate for the award was Savannah Marshall, who defended her WBO middleweight title twice, both with stoppages, against Maria Lindberg and Lolita Muzeya. The 30-year-old is on course to fight Claressa Shields in an historic bout next year.
Chantelle Cameron was also in the mix, having defended her WBC super-lightweight title with a fifth-round stoppage win over Melissa Hernandez, before becoming a unified champion as she added the IBF strap to her collection with a points win over Mary McGee.
KO of the year: Valdez vs Berchelt
There have been some truly jaw-dropping knockouts in 2021, many of which could be considered the best.
We had Ryan Garcia’s epic body shot that left Luke Campbell in a heap right at the start of January. We’ve also had massive knockout wins for Benn, both against Samuel Vargas and Algieri, while Callum Smith destroyed Lenin Castillo with a quite terrifying shot.
There was also, of course, Fury’s win over Wilder, Josh Warrington’s shock defeat by Mauricio Lara, and even a certain Jake Paul, who claimed highlight-reel KOs against Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley.
This year, though it’s up for debate, Sportsmail’s prize of the best KO goes to Oscar Valdez, who claimed Miguel Berchelt’s WBC super-featherweight strap with a truly stunning knockout in February.
A number of fans have argued Jake Paul claimed the KO of the year against Tyron Woodley
The unbeaten 30-year-old became a two-weight world champion as a left hook sent Berchelt crashing to the canvas face first and ending the contest over in an instant – with just one second of the round remaining!
Valdez scored knockdowns in round four and nine, but it was the decisive shot landed in the 10th and final round that left those watching utterly stunned.
Having put in a near punch-perfect performance, a retreating Valdez moved out of range of a right hand, slipped underneath a left and countered with a huge left hook of his own, landing flush on the face of Berchelt, who was out in a flash. What. A. Shot.
Upset of the year: Warrington vs Lara
We saw plenty of upsets across 2021, but the one that immediately jumps to mind is Warrington’s shock defeat by Lara in February.
The fight represented more than just a bout between Warrington and his then-unknown rival, but also the return of boxing in Britain after a total suspension of events was ordered for January following the announcement of a lockdown.
The previously unbeaten Warrington, who held the IBF world title strap, was heading into 2021 in search of a place in the history books after more than a year out of the ring, set for a potentially legacy-defining unification bout against WBA champion Can Xu.
Xu suddenly pulled out of the bout, however, which Warrington later admitted left him close to tears, with a new working date of April 24 proposed.
But after the governing body refused to sanction a unification clash with the WBA champion, instead ordering a bout against mandatory challenger Kid Galahad – who he had already beaten – Warrington vacated his belt in search of a mega-fight down the line.
Warrington insisted he couldn’t let the governing body stand in his way of history, while promoter Eddie Hearn promised a huge fight after Lara, revealing the Yorkshireman had his heart set on Can or Gary Russel Jr.
Instead, Warrington was battered from pillar to post and ultimately flattened by a hard-hitting but relatively unknown 22-year-old Lara.
Fighting at a behind-closed-doors Wembley Arena, Warrington – who insisted he was looking for the early knockout – started poorly and was caught flush by the Mexican, who came in as a 25/1 underdog.
An accidental clash of heads saw their rematch scored a technical draw
Disaster struck in round four when Warrington was left jelly-legged by two thunderous left hooks and put to the canvas by a third. The Brit was all over the place as he managed to survive the remaining 20 seconds of the round, though in truth the fight should have been stopped there and then.
Despite showing immense heart as he made it to the ninth round, he was never able to recover in full and was knocked out in stunning fashion by one final left hand.
Warrington would have his shot at redemption seven months later in September but the eagerly-anticipated rematch was short-lived. After a fascinating opening round-and-a-half, Lara suffered a gruesome cut from an accidental clash of heads, with the ringside doctor deeming him unfit to continue. A technical draw was given.
Other contenders for the biggest upset include Mikey Garcia’s shock loss to Sandor Martin, Galahad’s defeat by Kiko Martinez and Lopez falling short against George Kambosos Jr.
Performance of the year: It’s a tie…
Yes, this is a massive cop out, but I simply couldn’t pick one. Instead, it’s a tie between Oleksandr Usyk in his win over Joshua and Kambosos Jr in his win over Lopez.
Let’s start with the former. Usyk is an incredible fighter, that we all know. Winning Olympic gold, becoming undisputed cruiserweight champion and never losing as a professional – all after a brilliant amateur career – there was no doubting that this guy is special.
But moving up to take on a 6ft 6in Joshua, who looked significantly improved in his most recent wins over Andy Ruiz Jr and Kubrat Pulev, for many seemed a step too far, particularly after his underwhelming heavyweight displays against Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora.
Oleksandr Usyk (left) put in a masterful performance as he defeated Anthony Joshua (right)
Usyk proved any doubters wrong with a masterful 12-round display on away soil at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as he totally outclassed a bamboozled Joshua to become unified champion.
The Ukrainian had Joshua hurt on numerous occasions, nearly getting the stoppage in the 12th and final round, with the judges scoring the bout 117-112, 116-112 and 115-113, all in his favour.
Joshua did have some success in the middle rounds but struggled with a busted eye in the championship rounds, as Usyk came into his element and pulled out of sight.
Alongside Usyk in the performance of the year is Kambosos Jr, who shocked the world in November as he defeated Lopez – the man who defeated Vasyl Lomachenko in his previous outing.
In doing so, he claimed the IBF, WBA and WBO lightweight titles, alongside the WBC ‘franchise’ strap, having come into the bout as a 6-1 underdog.
George Kambosos Jr (centre) claimed a stunning points win over Teofimo Lopez in November
He dropped Lopez in the opening round, before being put to the canvas himself in the 10th as he claimed a split decision win with scores of 115-112 and 115-111, the third given 114-113 in favour of his opponent.
Lopez came out swinging wildly having predicted a first-round stoppage but was floored after falling into a huge right hand. ‘Teo’ wasn’t particularly hurt, but it was a punch that showed Kambosos Jr was there to compete, not just take part.
Kambosos Jr, who beat Lee Selby on points in 2020, used his jab to great effect throughout the bout and showed resilience in abundance after being dropped in the 10th.
He was the deserved winner, in a result that goes down as one of the shocks of the year. It could easily have replaced Warrington’s defeat further up the page.
The previously unbeaten Lopez was insistent he won the fight after the final bell, saying: ‘He’s a hell of a fighter, but I won tonight, everybody knows that.
‘The referee raised my hand. I won tonight, I don’t care what anybody says, I won tonight. At the end of the day, I’ve been here, I done that, I want to thank God, I want to thank everybody that came out tonight, look, I ain’t no sore loser, I take my wins like I take my losses.’
Most improved fighter: Conor Benn
Next up it’s the most improved fighter of the year, and the prize goes to Benn.
The 25-year-old was incredibly raw and somewhat reckless only a couple of years ago, but working tirelessly and meticulously under the stewardship of the shrewd and widely respected Tony Sims, he now resembles a totally different fighter, having developed into one of Britain’s most exciting prospects.
Benn has pushed himself towards a mega-fight – potentially even a world title shot – in 2022, after three impressive wins this year.
Conor Benn (right) beat Samuel Vargas (left) in one decisive round to kick off 2021 in style
He started a momentum-building run in November last year, claiming a unanimous decision win over Sebastian Formella, Remarkably, he was then looking at a domestic bust-up against Josh Kelly, which would now represent an undoubted step backwards.
‘The Destroyer’ then put in a career-best display as he wiped out veteran Samuel Vargas in one destructive round, after which he proclaimed himself ‘the most improved boxer globally’.
Benn then put in another solid performance in a unanimous decision victory over Adrian Granados, though visibly frustrated after his opponent promised to come and fight and did the exact opposite.
In December, he faced another sliding doors moment against former world champion Algieri, who was meant to be his toughest opponent to date.
That proved not to be the case, however, as Benn put in a measured and spiteful display, dominating the American veteran from the opening bell, before closing the show with a huge knockout in the fourth round.
Benn destroyed Chris Algieri with a fourth-round stoppage in his toughest test yet on paper
After the fight, a pumped up Benn said: ‘When I say I’m top five, I’m top five for a reason.
‘No-one’s done that to Algieri. No-one’s beat Granados as easily as I did. No-one knocked out Vargas in one round. What more do I have to do?’
Benn is now looking to take on Adrien Broner – who has won world titles across four weight divisions – early next year, while also expressing an interest in the winner of Amir Khan vs Kell Brook.
Biggest disappointment: No AJ vs Fury
There has been much to celebrate in 2021, but perhaps the biggest disappointment is that we never got to see Joshua vs Fury in an all-British undisputed showdown.
It appeared as if we would finally see the heavyweight pair go head-to-head in one of the biggest fights in history after they agreed a two-fight deal, with the first to take place in the summer.
Joshua would put his WBA, WBO and IBF titles on the line, while Fury would throw his WBC belt into the mix as the search for a first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis neared its conclusion.
Hearn confirmed the ‘hard bit (of negotiations) is now over the line’ in March and in May stated it would take place in Saudi Arabia on either August 7 or August 14, though Frank Warren then insisted there were still details to be ironed out.
A double-header between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury was seemingly signed and sealed
Wilder’s untimely intervention ultimately threw a rather major spanner in the works, however, and we’re now once again a mile away from a showdown between the two.
While Fury took care of business, Joshua lost his collection of belts to Usyk, with the pair set to go to battle once more early next year – unless the Briton steps aside, that is.
If he does step aside, Joshua would likely have agreed a shot at the winner, but though the Ukrainian would be the underdog you simply can’t rule Usyk out of it. More likely, particularly after Fury was ordered to face Dillian Whyte next, is that Joshua does go straight into the rematch, where many predict he will lose again.
Fury’s US promoter Bob Arum has revealed that if an agreement can’t be made to fight Whyte, they could vacate his WBC belt and defend his Ring magazine strap instead, perhaps against Ruiz Jr.
Warren, on the other hand, has revealed Fury could take an interim fight without his WBC belt on the line.