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 share their favorite -- and in some cases most memorable -- moments from the year in boxing.
I could take the easy/snarky route here and say the moment the Luis Ortiz-Malik Scott fight ended. Or I could take the personal route and say watching my podcast partner Kieran Mulvaney on my TV screen interviewing Sergey Kovalev and Isaac Chilemba in Russia. But instead I’ll go with that bizarre interview with Amir Khan and his trainer Virgil Hunter that followed Khan’s knockout loss at the hands of Canelo Alvarez. Why should it matter to Hunter whom Canelo fights next? It shouldn’t. But he went out of his way to challenge Canelo to take on Gennady Golovkin, and Khan got in on the double-dog dare as well. To me, Hunter was in that moment a boxing fan fighting for his sport, a man who’d seen the toll five years of Mayweather-Pacquiao teases took. So he told the man who’d just decimated his fighter what to do next, even if it wasn’t his place to do so and he didn’t stand to benefit directly. It was something I’d never seen before in nearly two decades covering boxing, and it was equal parts unusual and refreshing.
On a personal level, it’s been a year packed full of them. Back-to-back trips to London and Dallas rank high on the list. For the first time I got to witness first-hand a British fight crowd for Gennady Golovkin’s hard-fought win over Kell Brook, and 50,000 fans doing the wave at Cowboys Stadium as they waited for Canelo Alvarez to come out and whup Liam Smith. Spending a day with Bernard Hopkins during the final fight week of his career is up there, too; I’m pretty sure neither photographer Ed Mulholland nor I will ever look at beets quite the same way again. Being in StubHub for the extraordinary Francisco Vargas-Orlando Salido bout on a night that was raw with emotion over the death of Muhammad Ali is a night I’ll not soon forget.
But for me, the unquestioned highlight was traveling to Yekaterinburg, Russia – where the days were long and the nights were lively – to be a part of the broadcast for Sergey Kovalev’s win over Isaac Chilemba. One moment in particular I’ll always remember was when production manager Ken Clausen and I sat at the airport bar before we flew back home. Very few people in Yekaterinburg spoke English (it isn’t exactly on the tourist route), but our bartender did, and he looked at us and asked, incredulously, “Why are you here?” We made fists, and said “Sergey Kovalev. American TV. HBO.” At which the bartender gasped and, wide-eyed, exclaimed, “HBO! Game of Thrones!”
In Russia, winter is always coming.
The words “favorite” or “best” certainly do not apply to this unforgettable HBO moment, but that doesn’t make it less memorable. The legendary Bernard Hopkins, one month shy of his 52nd birthday, was attempting to go out on a high note in his Dec. 17 swansong fight against Joe Smith Jr., some 28 years after Hopkins graduated from correctional facility titlist into professional prizefighter.
The plan, as it turned out, went sideways – and quite literally. Hopkins was already losing by the time Smith started pounding on him in a neutral corner before sending his aged opponent out of the ring in what appeared to be an incredibly dangerous fall. Hopkins landed on the back of his head, all 180 pounds of him, and failed to “pull a Dempsey” when he was unable to find his way back into the ring after the 20-count. As anticlimactic an ending as it may have been, the fall may end up putting a new twist in the Hopkins legend that, far from tarnishing his legacy, may enhance it. After all, being the guy who literally had to be punched out of the ring to quit fighting at the age of almost 52 is a bragging right that few other fighters will ever be able to claim. Not bad, Mr. Hopkins. Not bad at all.
The death of Muhammad Ali was emotionally devastating news to boxing fans. “A Tribute to Muhammad Ali,” that was aired on The Fight Game with Jim Lampley was one of HBO Boxing’s best and most moving broadcasts in 2016. Ali left a dramatic legacy, both inside and outside the ring, and Lampley captured it perfectly.
Every Golovkin post-fight interview. The fact that the scariest fighter in boxing is also the most winning boxer proves that not everything in this violent sport is bad.
It wasn’t the most brutal fight of the year on HBO (that was between Orlando Salido and Francisco Vargas), but Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez’s win over Carlos Cuadras was special in its own way. There’s not a more savagely graceful fighter in the sport than Gonzalez, who is never less than balletic when he’s putting the hurt on. Still, Cuadras himself lacked little for skill, and also knew that he could make his greater size evident in several ways: Cuadras managed to trouble Gonzalez both by hitting him plenty and also by making Chocolatito chase him, skirting the ring to make the Nicaraguan work. By the 11th round Cuadras had Chocolatito reeling, hurting him a number of times down the stretch with strafing body shots.
Ultimately it wasn’t enough for the win, but Cuadras’ conviction in his own equality with Gonzalez produced 12 rounds of the highest caliber. And also a warning: Gonzalez’s power might not travel with him quite so easily in the future. And another warning: Should Cuadras’ template prove repeatable -- and it’s a template someone at middleweight might want to try out on Gennady Golovkin -- there’ll be more nights like this to come.