HBO Boxing Insiders' 2016 Year-End Picks: Breakthrough HBO Fighter

Photo: Ed Mulholland

With the end of the year approaching and Boxing's Best airing, HBO Boxing Insiders take a look back at the fights that aired on HBO and HBO PPV in 2016. Here, they make their selections for Breakthrough HBO Fighter.

More: Fighter of the Year | Fight of the Year | Round of the Year | KO of the Year | Best Blow | Best Corner | Favorite Moments

Eric Raskin: Vasyl Lomachenko

It’s tempting to consider someone like Carlos Cuadras, who rose from relative anonymity to push Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez to the brink, or a pure prospect like Joseph Diaz Jr. or Oscar Valdez. But the biggest breakthrough belonged to the man I believe was the HBO Fighter of the Year, even though Lomachenko came into 2016 established, respected and not necessarily in need of a breakthrough. While I don’t agree with Jim Lampley or Roy Jones’ decisions to, at varying times this year, elevate Lomachenko to the top of their pound-for-pound lists, the mere fact that people are doing so tells you how far he’s come in the last 12 months. In 2015, Lomachenko, itching for bigger challenges in just the fifth and sixth fights of his pro career, was stuck marking time. In 2016, he made his mark by taking on better fighters, headlining in New York and Las Vegas, and barely breaking a sweat in either of his two outings. Lomachenko’s star power is still a work in progress, but his talent is not, and the entire boxing world now recognizes that.

Kieran Mulvaney: Joe Smith Jr.

Until the last fight of 2016, I was struggling to come up with a winner here. Who truly broke through this year? It might have been Jessie Vargas after his win over Sadam Ali, but then the rest of his year didn’t quite pan out, even though he did get a massive payday. JoJo Diaz and Oscar Valdez both took a step forward and a step up, and both look like the real deal, but did they truly break through? Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford looked sensational, but are they significantly more advanced career-wise than 12 months ago? The answer came, finally, with the very last punch thrown on an HBO boxing telecast in 2016. Hands up if you’d heard of Joe Smith Jr. this time last year? Thought so. And now he is one of the most talked-about boxers in the country. Who knows how far it will go? But there will be opportunities in 2017, for sure, and he’ll always be the answer to the trivia question of who was the only person ever to stop Bernard Hopkins.

Diego Morilla: Vasyl Lomachenko

A multiple Olympian with an extraordinary amateur pedigree like Lomachenko can always be expected to succeed, but this is boxing, where the best-laid plans end as soon as the first punch lands. Loma learned it the hard way when he arrogantly tried to lift a title in his second pro bout against a true warrior like Orlando Salido, but he finally had his breakthrough year in 2016 after annihilating Roman Martinez with a one-punch demolition and then battering Nicholas Walters into submission. Sure, those slow-motion highlights against a sitting duck like Romulo Koasicha were made to become the hot viral thing on social media as proof of his speed and accuracy, but you need real wins against live, proven opponents to get the accolades. Lomachenko got them in 2016, and the expectations about what he will do in 2017 are now enormous. 

Nat Gottlieb: Oscar Valdez

Valdez had three fights in 2016. The first was a victory over former world champion Evgeny Gradovich to capture a vacant featherweight title and then Valdez went on to successfully defend his belt twice, with both victories coming by way of TKO. The 25-year-old fighter from Mexico, who qualified for two Olympics, has a crowd-pleasing, aggressive style and a 90 percent KO rate. Combined with his million-dollar smile, Valdez has superstar potential. 

Hamilton Nolan: Vasyl Lomachenko

This is a tough category, because the year in HBO Boxing mostly consisted of stars doing what stars do. Lomachenko probably comes closest to fitting the bill. We knew he was very good, but now we know he is very, very, very good. 

Oliver Goldstein: Joe Smith Jr.

Not rich pickings for this category, but even in a good year Joe Smith would have a strong claim to this award having sent, finally, Bernard Hopkins packing into retirement. Smith made his name earlier in the year with a surprise stoppage of Andrzej Fonfara, before being lined up as a farewell victim for Hopkins. Eight rounds and an ignominious knockdown through the ropes later, it was clear Hopkins chose the wrong opponent. Smith is a big light heavyweight and looks, moreover, like a substantial fighter. Expect to see more from him in the future.