HBO Boxing Insiders' 2017 Year-End Picks: KO of the Year

Photo: Ed Mulholland

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 2017. Here, they make their selections for KO of the Year.

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

 

Nat Gottlieb: Lemieux TKO Stevens

Apparently Curtis Stevens did not get the memo about never trading hooks with David Lemieux. In the third round Stevens connected on a left hook, but Lemieux countered with an overhand right and then followed it right up with a short, but powerful left hook that crumbled Stevens to the canvas flat on his back. Stevens remained unconscious for a long stretch before being removed from the ring on a stretcher and taken to a hospital. It was one of the most brutal knockouts of the year.

Springs Toledo: Lemieux TKO Stevens

The dummy jab is one of boxing's great inventions. It allows you to slide in closer and makes an opponent blink just in time for what's coming next. It works best when your opponent's back is at the ropes. Lemieux's set up a right hand that landed, but at near full-extension, which means most of the force had fizzled, and Stevens did well by countering it with a left hook. However, Lemieux's right hand was something of a dummy too, because Lemieux was still moving in to position himself at mid-range as he threw it. Stevens' left hook landed first, on Lemieux's neck. Lemieux's landed on Stevens' chin, where it says nighty-night.

Before the fight, Stevens referred to Lemieux with a particularly offensive obscenity. That proved a costly mistake, as Lemieux used it to recast a simple contest into a mission. "I wanted to make an example of him," he said in the post-fight press conference. "Respect everybody, respect every fighter."    

Hamilton Nolan: Joshua KO Klitschko

No changing of the guard was bigger than Joshua ascending into the heavyweight throne that the Klitschkos have controlled for many years.

Gordon Marino: Joshua KO Klitschko

Frank Della Femina: Lemieux TKO Stevens

David Lemieux knocking out Curtis Stevens gets my nod for KO of the Year. As is common for Stevens, he spent all of fight week talking about how he was going to hurt/kill/maim/severely injure his opponent (see also: Golovkin, Fall 2013). And while this is all good and great when it comes to promoting the fight, if you’re Curtis, at some point you have to consider whether this is actually working out in your favor anymore. Look no further than the left-handed howitzer Lemieux landed in the third round of their March 11th bout that sent Stevens into the shadow realm. The exchange on the ropes was oddly reminiscent of Canelo-Kirkland, which if memory serves was also my 2015 pick for KO of the Year.

Oliver Goldstein: Sor Rungvisai KO Chocolatito

sor+rungvisai+celebrates+chocolatito+ko.jpg

There were good arguments to be made that Chocolatito deserved the nod after his first fight with Sor Rungvisai. None were available after the second. If this wasn’t the knockout as total wipeout, it was still shockingly, solemnly definitive.

Kieran Mulvaney: Lemieux TKO Stevens

In the aftermath of this crushing blow, there was some mild pushback from those who watched the knockout on TV to the reaction of those who were in the arena. “Hey, it didn’t look that bad.” “I’ve seen way worse.” “I’m not convinced it’s knockout of the year.” “Jim and Max sure seemed to be overly dramatic in their selling of it.” Maybe it was one of those moments when you had to be there. I was there, and I’m telling you: there probably wasn’t a single person in the arena at Turning Stone that night who didn’t think, for at least a moment, that Curtis Stevens might be dead. It wasn’t just the hammer blow that knocked him out – and if you like to judge your knockouts on their technical brilliance and not whether or not the guy at the receiving end is unconscious and unmoving afterward, Lemieux’s hook was a thing of beauty, timed perfectly, thrown with precision and purpose. Nor was it solely the way he crashed to the canvas right in front of the announce team, his left arm unfolding from his prone body and convincing the timekeeper to beat a hasty retreat. It’s also that he lay there, completely unmoving, for a loooong time. It is not an exaggeration to say that a lot of eyes were trained on Stevens’ chest, to make sure he was actually breathing. There are knockouts, and there ae knockouts. This was a knockout.

Carlos Acevedo: Lemieux TKO Stevens

There is no telling just where Curtis Stevens went after David Lemieux nailed him with a left hook so concussive it left him draped out on the ring apron. He seemed to have an out-of-body experience as physicians rushed to his aid. In a battle between two left-hooking machines, Lemieux landed his first (and with more accuracy) when the two exchanged blows along the ropes in the third round. The explosive shot sent Stevens in a free-fall. He was unconscious before he hit the canvas. That knockout blow, and its effect, underscored the cruel paradox of boxing: how terror and beauty can co-exist simultaneously. Thankfully, Stevens was not seriously hurt, and likely does not remember a thing about what happened to him. Better for him, then, and better for us as well.

Eric Raskin: Beltran KO Maicelo

beltran maicelo KO

It’s the punch you don’t see coming. And Maicelo definitely never saw Beltran’s left hook coming. Beltran feinted just enough to get Maicelo looking at the wrong shoulder, then suddenly the hook struck the jaw, and the Peruvian prospect was out before he hit the canvas. The back of his head slammed into the mat with sickening force, and, maybe it’s distasteful to say it, but that’s why this is my KO of the Year pick over David Lemieux-Curtis Stevens. Both knockouts were the result of vicious, single hooks, but the landing for Maicelo was more violent.

Matt Draper: Lemieux TKO Stevens

I don’t know what could top David Lemieux’s destruction of Curtis Stevens back in March. HBO’s Roy Jones Jr. summed it up best: The Canadian caught Stevens “right on the button.” It was an instant KO, with Stevens’ body just crumbling to the canvas. Our digital team covering the fight paused before posting anything until we had word Stevens was conscious and coherent – because so much time had gone by without him moving a muscle. He eventually left the ring and headed to the hospital, which wasn’t a surprise considering the strike Lemieux landed.

Diego Morilla: Sor Rungvisai KO Chocolatito

The first fight was so mired in controversy that it afforded Gonzalez the chance to keep a lower position in most of the pound-for-pound rankings he had dominated up to then. But the signs were troubling, starting with his razor-thin win over Carlos Cuadras in his previous bout. And it all came crashing down on a chilly night in Carson, when the Nicaraguan paid a heavy price for his jump in weight, his change of training habits, his loss of his lifelong trainer Arnulfo Obando, and especially his fan-friendly style that exposed himself to a lot of punishment in his quest to dish out a similar and more devastating brand of his own. The hopes of imposing such a punishment on Rungvisai in their anticipated rematch finally disappeared in the fourth round, when it became clear that the Thai champ was just too strong and too determined for him. Legend has it that if a fighter falls face-first to the canvas without making an effort to stop his fall with his hands, he is knocked out already. Gonzalez gave testimony of his greatness when he stood up to challenge that notion after nosediving onto the mat in the first knockdown. He was, however, unable to challenge Rungvisai’s claim of superiority for much longer, as he went down on his back in his next trip to the canvas to put an effective end to his run as a pound-for-pound entrant in one of the year’s most devastating stoppages.

Michael Gluckstadt: Lemieux TKO Stevens

There are sports sounds that stay with you. The crack of the bat on an Aaron Judge home run. LeBron James rattling the rim. David Lemieux's punches have their own timbre. And his thwacking KO of Curtis Stevens earlier this year is its signature song.

Podcast: Crawford vs. Diaz Recap

HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney break down Terence Crawford's dominant win over Felix Diaz at Madison Square Garden and what it will take for an opponent to challenge the 140-pound champ. Plus, they explore whether Ray Beltran's one-punch KO of Johnathan Maicelo is the new frontrunner for Knockout of the Year.

Watch: Beltran vs. Maicelo Highlights

Watch highlights from Ray Beltran's win by KO in Round 2 over Johnathan Maicelo.

Showcase Meets Showdown When Crawford and Diaz Clash at MSG

Photo: Ed Mulholland/Top Rank

By Eric Raskin

Terence Crawford could shadowbox in Omaha and draw 10,000 fans. The Nebraska native has headlined the CenturyLink Center four times and worked his hometown fans into a frenzy in each of his four victories there. But there’s some uncertainty about what he can do in New York City, where he'll face Felix Diaz on HBO World Championship Boxing this Saturday at 10:15 p.m. ET/PT.

Crawford resonated nicely the first time he fought there, drawing a sellout crowd of 5,092 in the small room at Madison Square Garden last February. This Saturday night he steps up to the big room, the main arena, where Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier, where Roberto Duran and Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto heard the roar of nearly 20,000 diehards. To crib from a handful of musicians, this ain’t somewhere in middle America, where it’s the heart that matters more. This is where dreams are made. Where you prove you can make it anywhere. Where Terence Crawford, the rising star attraction, is put to the test.

And it’s where, if Felix Diaz has anything to say about it, Terence Crawford, the fighter, is put to the test as well.

Crawford vs. Diaz straddles two worlds: It’s a star showcase, designed to gauge and then increase the visibility of a man who might be partially counted on to carry boxing in America over the next several years; it’s also a real fight, one in which a legit lineal title is on the line and the challenger is an Olympic gold medalist who’s never lost as a pro in this weight class (junior welterweight).

Not insignificantly, it’s a fight that challenger asked for, called for, almost begged for.

“I called out Terence because Terence is the best in the division,” Diaz said on a recent conference call. “It is a big opportunity for me to fight at Madison Square Garden against him. … I am definitely motivated that I am being overlooked and that I am the underdog. But I have my own plans.”

In 2008, Diaz became the first boxer (and only the second athlete, period) from the Dominican Republic to win an Olympic gold medal. But as a pro, he’s operated somewhat under the radar. The southpaw has fought only 20 times in eight years, and never for a major title before. He made a big leap against Lamont Peterson in 2015 and came up just short, losing a majority decision on his opponent’s home turf, but he bounced right back with a close win over previously unbeaten Sammy Vasquez. At 19-1 with nine KOs, Diaz, on paper, doesn’t look much different than Dierry Jean or Thomas Dulorme or any number of other B-level fighters Crawford has breezed through. But a closer look at the NYC-based Dominican’s skill set – his blend of boxing know-how and steady pressure – suggests Crawford could be pushed on Saturday night. And the champ seems to recognize that.

“It’s gonna be a real fun fight,” the Nebraskan said. “I’m real excited for this fight. I’m real up for it. … He’s got the skills, he’s a good fighter, he is an Olympic gold medalist, and this is the fight that a lot of people were calling for, and we are here now.”

Crawford respects the challenge – but he’s the prohibitive favorite for a reason. Diaz is a southpaw, which might give him an edge against some opponents. Not this one. Crawford is a switch-hitter who instinctively senses the perfect times to go lefty and open up better angles for delivering his offense, particularly his money-shot straight left hand. He possesses exceptional footwork that also makes those angles possible. Crawford (30-0, 21 KOs) can’t be rattled in the ring; his body may be 29 years old, but he has the mental wherewithal of a much older fighter.

Since “Bud” beat Yuriorkis Gamboa in a 2014 Fight of the Year contender to establish himself as one of the sport’s must-watch warriors, he’s gradually inched his way up the pound-for-pound lists. When Crawford outpointed Viktor Postol last July, it was both a crowning moment and a mild letdown. Crawford claimed the lineal junior welterweight title that evening, but for the first time in quite a while, he took his foot off the gas down the stretch and left observers unfulfilled.

Diaz is out to take Crawford out of his rhythm and show Crawford’s backers what a real letdown for their man looks like.

“I know how good Crawford is,” said Diaz’s promoter Lou DiBella. “Felix knows how good Crawford is. The media knows how good Crawford is, but he is not God, he is not unbeatable. He’s had tough fights with guys like Gamboa, who was a little guy, and Diaz has a lot of the same attributes when it comes to pressure and style which could make it a very difficult night for Bud.”

Diaz doesn’t have Gamboa’s exceptional hand speed, but at 5-foot-5 against the 5-foot-8 Crawford, there are indeed similarities to the Cuban build-wise. Diaz isn’t hard to hit, but he doesn’t seem to mind it. If the 33-year-old Dominican is able to walk through Crawford’s heaviest artillery and keep applying pressure, this fight could get more stressful than any Crawford has had since Gamboa.

And that’s to say nothing of the baked-in stress of being the headliner and trying to fill boxing’s most famous arena.

“Obviously, we could have taken the fight to Omaha and had a massive sellout like we always do,” said Crawford’s promoter Bob Arum, “but we decided that we wanted to showcase Terence at the ‘Mecca of Boxing,’ Madison Square Garden. There is no place else in boxing – with all due respect to Las Vegas and other arenas – there is no place in boxing that has the symbolism and the history of Madison Square Garden.”

Crawford’s mission is to write his name in concrete among the best of his era. Diaz’s mission is to make sure he has to go through the jungle to get there.

Co-Main Event Preview: Beltran vs. Maicelo

One of the many who has tried and failed to upend Crawford, “Sugar” Ray Beltran, attempts to keep his “I can beat anybody not named Terence Crawford” tour rolling in the co-feature, as the Phoenix-based Mexican veteran meets New Jersey’s Jonathan Maicelo in a 12-round lightweight bout. Beltran (32-7-1, 20 KOs) would be undefeated over the last five years if not for running into Crawford. Last time out, on the undercard of Crawford’s fight with John Molina, Beltran took apart prospect Mason Menard, schooling and stopping him in seven rounds. Maicelo (25-2, 12 KOs) is on a four-fight win streak, but he’ll either need to find another gear or pray that the 35-year-old Beltran suddenly hits the wall if he wants to extend it to five.
    

Ray Beltran vs. Jonathan Maicelo Slated for Crawford-Diaz Co-Main Event

Photo: Ed Mulholland

Photo: Ed Mulholland

Two-time world title challenger Ray “Sugar” Beltran and heavy-fisted Jonathan “The Last Inca” Maicelo will go mano-a-mano in a high-stakes battle of world-rated lightweight contenders. Sanctioned by the International Boxing Federation (IBF) as a world lightweight title elimination bout, the winner of the 12-round rumble will also lay claim to the vacant World Boxing Association (WBA) International and the NABF and NABO lightweight titles, currently held by Beltran. Beltran vs. Maicelo will be the co-main event to the Terence “Bud” Crawford – Felix Diaz World Junior Welterweight Championship, Saturday, May 20, at the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden. Both fights will be televised live on HBO World Championship Boxing, beginning at 10:15 p.m. ET/PT. 

The world championship event will also feature the Pride of Newark and 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson on the non-televised undercard.

Beltran and Maicelo, who hail from Mexico and Peru, respectively, have a combined record of 57-9-1 (32 KOs), -- a winning percentage of 85% with over half their victories coming by way of knockout. Both boast unbeaten streaks dating back to 2015.

“We are ready for this fight. It is a very important fight for the whole team, because it will be the fight that will take us to the opportunity of battling for a world title," said Beltran. "We are focused on winning. We are coming to fight and give a great show to all the fans. I don’t just want to win. I want to look good and win convincingly. Little by little I am making my dreams come true. I have battled a lot in my career. We have fulfilled many of our goals, like now that we are going to fight at Madison Square Garden. Being able to fight in a historical place, where all the greats have fought, is a dream come true."

“This is a very important fight for my career. This fight means everything to me because I will be able to display my skills in front of a big audience and on a big stage like Madison Square Garden,” said Maicelo. “Right now I’m at my best and on May 20 everyone will see the best of me. I’m working very hard in the gym because everyone knows that Beltran is a tough fighter, but I’m focused on winning because this is a world title elimination bout that will take me straight to the opportunity of fighting for a world title.”

Beltran (32-7-1, 20 KOs), a native of Ahome, Mexico who resides in Phoenix, AZ., enters this fight having won his last three fights by knockout. A two-time lightweight world title challenger and a former sparring partner of eight-division world champion Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao, Beltran still trains at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif. In his last fight, in the co-main event to the Crawford John Molina Jr. world title fight on December 10, Crawford scored a sensational one-punch seventh-round knockout of once-beaten Mason Menard in an NABF-NABO lightweight title fight. Beltran is currently world-rated No. 2 by the World Boxing Organization (WBO), No. 3 by the IBF and No. 4 by the World Boxing Council (WBC).

Maicelo (25-2, 12 KOs), a native of Callao, Peru who fights out of North Bergen, New Jersey, is riding a two-year four-bout winning streak. His most impressive victory was his in his last fight, against Jose Felix, Jr. on February 17. Felix, who entered the fight with a 35-1-1 record and world-rated No. 3 by the WBO, was knocked down five times by Maicelo. Maicelo's upset unanimous decision victory over Felix has propelled him to No. 7 in the IBF.