With the end of the year approaching and Boxing's Best airing, HBO Boxing Insiders are taking a look back at 2014. Here, they make their selections for this year's breakthrough HBO fighter.
Kieran Mulvaney: Vasyl Lomachenko
This took some thinking. On one level, the clear winner here is Terence Crawford, who broke through from boxing aficionado cult figure to one of the most widely praised and heavily hyped boxers in the sport. But can you win the Breakout Fighter of the Year award when you're already Fighter of the Year award? More to the point, should you? At some point, you have to start letting somebody else win something, right? Another possibility is Sergey Kovalev, who moved to a new level with his dominant win over Bernard Hopkins; but he was hardly a surprise package, even if the thoroughness of his defining win was in fact surprising. Nicholas Walters was a strong contender here after his spectacular wins against Vic Darchinyan and Nonito Donaire. But I'm going with Lomachenko, because even though he went just 1-1 on HBO in 2014, that record obscures a greater truth: that the Ukrainian, with just four professional fights to his name, is an otherworldly talent.
He lost his first fight of the year, but that was a world title challenge in just his second pro bout, against a veteran with 55 professional fights who came in overweight and used every barely-legal and less-than-legal trick in the book to defeat the precocious challenger. And even then Lomachenko was coming on strong at the end. After rebounding to win a title in his next outing, he returned to HBO on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao's defeat of Chris Algieri, and totally dominated his opponent (an opponent, moreover, with a 52-1 record coming in) despite effectively having to fight half the contest one-handed after he injured his left wrist. This guy is sensational, and watching him take on the rest of the featherweight division (including Walters) in 2015 is going to be fun.
Eric Raskin: Terence Crawford
He wasn't quite my HBO Fighter of the Year, but I can't possibly deny Crawford this honor. For fans in Omaha and on couches across the country, it was a Crawford lovefest all year long. He went from skilled but unexciting prospect to must-see lineal lightweight champion in a single year, and by the time it was over, nobody could think of a single bad thing to say about Crawford—not even on Twitter, which was mostly invented so that people could hurl insults at people they'll never meet.
Hamilton Nolan: David Lemieux
Terence Crawford had a more impressive year overall, but we already had some idea of how good he was. Lemieux, coming down from Canada, was more of an unknown quantity. He showed he can probably hurt anyone in the world.
Nat Gottlieb: Terence Crawford
With convincing title fight victories over Ricky Burns, Yuriorkis Gamboa, and Ray Beltran, Crawford made boxing fans here and in the UK take notice. He's set to join the packed junior welterweight division in 2015 and will have a chance to thrust himself into the conversation for best-of-the-best.
Oliver Goldstein: Jessie Vargas
Ah, remember the heady days of 2012-3, when ex-Soviet Bloc fighters launched onto HBO airwaves like missiles blown into space? This year was less electric, more steady: those who might have been candidates for this award — Chris Algieri, Jose Benavidez — often either followed up their big win with a loss (as in Algieri's case) or never fully deserved their nod in the first place. In any case, Jessie Vargas has done just enough in my book to warrant being called Breakthrough HBO Fighter, after wins against Khabib Allakhverdiev, Anton Novikov, and Antonio DeMarco established him as a top-drawer light welterweight.
Tim Smith: Terence Crawford
He has combined poise, power and charisma with fantastic boxing skills to light up boxing. His two fights on HBO this year were must see-TV.
Diego Morilla: Terence Crawford
As debatable as the rest of the categories may be, this one's the biggest no-brainer of the bunch. A record of 3-0 with two of those wins against former world champions would lock the choice for almost anybody, but Crawford did it with such style and class that it is impossible to ignore him as a potential pound for pound entrant in the very near future. With his amazing athleticism and his polished boxing skills, Crawford took the world of boxing by storm coming out of nowhere – almost literally. Imagining a fighter from Omaha sneaking into the big time boxing picture was probably considered as unlikely as imagining a Jamaican skier making it to the Winter Olympics, but Crawford slalomed his way into the boxing spotlight with the poise of a veteran and the hunger of a young lion, and he is now headed for a career-defining 2015.
Michael Gluckstadt: Nicholas Walters
I almost gave this award to Crawford last year, which makes me think he shouldn't be the one to get it this time. Instead, I'd give it to someone who truly emerged from nowhere this year and has a great nickname to boot. "The Axe Man" chopped down former fighter of the year Nonito Donaire in his HBO debut and set himself up for a tantalizing fight against fellow Breakthrough candidate Vasyl Lomachenko.