It’s been quite a year in the squared circle. Trilogies have reached their brutal conclusion, undisputed champions have been crowned, and shocking upsets have left us slack-jawed in wonder. As 2021 draws to a close, The Sportsman has picked the five fighters that have defined an extraordinary year of fistic happenings. Join us as we count down to The Sportsman Boxer Of The Year.
Tyson Fury would tell you he doesn’t need to be on this list. That he requires no external awards, for he is the people’s champion. And he would be right. The WBC, The Ring and lineal heavyweight champion has been embraced like no other boxer of his generation. The theatrical swagger of Conor McGregor mixed with the everyman charm of Ricky Hatton. He is a genuine household name far outside the orbit of his sport. But he also happens to have had a historic 2021, and thus our ranking of the best boxers of the year would be incomplete without him.
‘The Gypsy King’ fought just once in 2021, but quality must triumph over quantity in this case. That one fight was his scintillating third battle with rival Deontay Wilder. Such was the class of their October clash, many have elevated their series above Ali-Frazier and Bowe-Holyfield in the annals of the greatest heavyweight trilogies.
The most effective measurement of the impact of Fury’s third bout with Wilder is a comparison to the backlash the fight received when it was made. Their first bout, an enthralling draw in 2018, was a solid-gold classic. But their rematch had been extremely one-sided. Fury thoroughly dominated Wilder before stopping him, and it looked like the matter would end there. ‘The Bronze Bomber’ would not relent though, and came out with an extraordinary list of excuses in the aftermath. The reasons for his loss were, according to him, as follows: his own trainer had spiked his water, the outfit he wore during his ring walk was too heavy, Fury had scratched the inside of his ears, Fury had boxed with egg-shaped weights in his gloves and the champion had put a ‘gypsy curse’ on him.
The delusions of wounded pride aside, Wilder had every right to a rematch by virtue of the fight contract. Either man could trigger a rematch regardless of what happened in their second meeting, and Wilder did just that. But after such a dominant display, Fury nor the fans were that enamoured with seeing a third fight, particularly as it scuppered the rumoured Fury vs Anthony Joshua bout that was bandied about at the time.
The tepid nature of the fight on-paper was forgotten when the action began. The second fight was proved to be an aberration, however doubtful the role of gypsy curses, and their trilogy fight even exceeded their spectacular 2018 meeting. The challenger hit the mat in the third round, then retaliated with two knockdowns of his own in the fourth. Fury, a fighter always at his best when up against it, fired back and would finally knock the courageous Wilder down in the tenth and then finish matters in the eleventh. The heavyweight championship of the world is the greatest prize in all of sport, and the very reason for that is due to the rigours men go through to hold it. Very few men have gone as close to oblivion as Tyson Fury did in retaining the heavyweight crown.
2021 was the year that this stretch of heavyweight history officially became the Tyson Fury era, in the same way the 60s and 70s belonged to Muhammad Ali, and the 80s was the domain of Mike Tyson. The combination of Anthony Joshua’s second loss in three years, and the career-defining Wilder triumph, has put the lineal champion front and centre of a division he first ruled in 2015. His legacy is assured, but 2022 will offer him a chance to expand upon it further.
Dillian Whyte seems Fury’s most likely next opponent, though Bob Arum has namechecked Joseph Parker and Andy Ruiz as being in the mix for that slot. What does seem certain is that, barring injury or COVID factors, Tyson will be back in the ring in March. It is what could follow that could potentially see him leapfrog a number of fighters in the all-time heavyweight list.
A blockbuster fight with the winner of Oleksandr Usyk’s rematch with Anthony Joshua is the bout boxing needs, preferably with all four heavyweight belts at stake. A win in such a match-up would see Fury transcend his already lofty status in boxing, and enter the conversation surrounding the greatest heavyweights of all time.