From Tyson Fury’s retirement claim that few seem to believe to Canelo Alvarez’s shocking loss to Dmitry Bivol, 2022 has been filled with moments that shook the boxing world — and there’s still six months to go.
At the midway point of the year, many boxers already have the inside track on capturing annual awards. There’s the ascension of Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez, of course, and the instant classic featherweight clash between Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan.
And finally, women’s boxing took center stage with a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden and an unforgettable fight between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano befitting the pivotal moment.
Here are ESPN’s picks for the most impactful moments — and fighters — through the first half of 2022:
Men’s fight: Leigh Wood-Michael Conlan
We’ve just seen the fight of the year – tell us we’re wrong 😲 #WoodConlan pic.twitter.com/a6VpAATScN
— ESPN Ringside (@ESPNRingside) March 12, 2022
The battle for the WBA “regular” featherweight title in March featured everything you want in a fight-of-the-year candidate. Both boxers were knocked down — Wood in the opening round, Conlan in the final round. There were multiple ebbs and flows throughout the match, a brutal fight from start to finish.
But the ending truly put this fight over the top. Conlan, ahead on all three scorecards entering the final round, needed to win the 12th to come away with the title. If Wood won the round, the fight would have been ruled a draw. Instead, Wood pinned Conlan on the ropes and knocked the Northern Irishman clean out of the ring.
Conlan, an Olympic bronze medalist, was sent flying through the ropes headfirst in a scary scene, one of the most unforgettable knockouts in recent memory to end an incredible fight in the backdrop of a rambunctious atmosphere in Nottingham, England, where Wood hails from.
Runner-up: Jermell Charlo-Brian Castano 2: In a back-and-forth rematch for the undisputed junior middleweight championship, Charlo left no doubt with a 10th-round knockout of Castano to capture all four titles. During the first half of the bout, this looked like it could top Wood-Conlan before Charlo took control and emphatically ended the fight.
Women’s fight: Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano
The buildup to the fight — one that took years to actually occur — was massive. It was billed as the biggest fight in the history of women’s boxing, had seven-figure paydays and the combination of Taylor and Serrano was the first women fighters to headline a boxing card at Madison Square Garden. Ever. So there was a lot of pressure for Taylor and Serrano — two future Hall of Famers and arguably the two best fighters in the world — to give fans a great performance.
Then they got in the ring at a packed MSG and put on a performance that remained in the boxing conversation for months afterward — a rarity for any fight, let alone a women’s fight. While Taylor won by split decision, 96-93, 97-93, 94-96, arguments could have been made for either fighter to win or even a draw. Every round was competitive and the fight ended with Taylor and Serrano trading blows in rapid succession in the middle of the ring with the crowd standing on their feet begging for more.
Rare is the fight that meets expectations. Almost unheard of is the fight that exceeds them, which Taylor-Serrano did. It’s hard to imagine a fight this year — men’s or women’s — coming close to it in magnitude or skill.
It also became a fight that helped propel the sport forward. The Claressa Shields-Savannah Marshall bout for the undisputed middleweight title and the Mikaela Mayer-Alycia Baumgardner fight for the unified junior lightweight title have already been scheduled for Sept. 10, both fights potentially building on the momentum created by Taylor-Serrano.
Men’s fighter: Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez
Only one top-shelf boxer has fought twice this year, and Rodriguez more than capitalized on his two opportunities.
At just 22 years old, Rodriguez stepped way up in class with a February fight against Carlos Cuadras, Rodriguez’s first at 115 pounds. He sent Cuadras to the canvas in Round 3 with an uppercut then cruised to a decision victory.
The encore performance was even better. Rodriguez delivered a master-class performance in late June with an impressive victory over Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Rodriguez seemingly won every round before he dropped the former champion in Round 7 in a surprisingly dominant eighth-round stoppage win.
Rungvisai owns a brutal KO of Roman Gonzalez and a decision victory over Juan Francisco Estrada, two future Hall of Famers. Rodriguez is clearly a special talent, and if he can pick up one (or even two) more statement wins in 2022, the coveted award at the end of the year should be his.
Runner-up: Dmitry Bivol: With his shocking victory over Canelo Alvarez, boxing’s then pound-for-pound king, Bivol has a great shot at claiming fighter-of-the-year honors. But he’ll likely need a second notable victory to beat out the competition. With Alvarez and fellow light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev seemingly tied up with other bouts, that might prove difficult.
Female fighter: Katie Taylor
There are other fighters to consider here, including undisputed welterweight champion Jessica McCaskill and Amanda Serrano. But Taylor beat Serrano by split decision in April, solidifying her spot as the No. 1 fighter in the world after the biggest win in the biggest fight of her career.
Beating Serrano in an action-packed fight, where it appeared Taylor (21-0, 6 KO) was done in the first half of the bout only to come-from-behind to win, only added to her legacy as a champion. She could have competition for women’s fighter of the year down the road, depending on what happens in other fights — including Claressa Shields-Savannah Marshall and Mikaela Mayer-Alycia Baumgardner — but Taylor likely authored the best win of the year, regardless of opponent.
Taylor is a legend. She’s willing to fight the best whenever she’s able — evidenced by Serrano this year, two fights against Delfine Persoon in 2019 and 2020 and Jessica McCaskill in 2017 — and she’s won. Every time. She may not have the knockout stats other fighters have, but she doesn’t need them. Her combination of speed and defense has made her one of the most accomplished fighters of all time — regardless of gender — and continues to make her the best women’s fighter in the world.
Upset: Dmitry Bivol over Canelo Alvarez
Bivol was a 4-1 underdog and boxed brilliantly against the fighter widely considered the best boxer in the world. The Russian was stepping way up in competition and showed off unseen aggressiveness in the biggest fight of his life.
Bivol impressed with his jab and footwork and he was able to keep Alvarez at the end of his jab. He also used feints and a keen sense of range to avoid the Mexican’s power shots. But perhaps most impressively, Bivol stood his ground and delivered four- and five-punch combinations with power.
The 115-113 scorecards all around belied the lopsided nature of the bout. At most, Alvarez won three rounds.
In hindsight, Alvarez’s loss to a bigger boxer who can really move doesn’t feel like the biggest upset. However, Alvarez’s recent form gave off the sense he was nearly invincible, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who picked Bivol to win, let alone in such dominant fashion.
Runner-up: Hector Garcia over Chris Colbert: In the eyes of oddsmakers, this was the bigger upset, with Colbert a 30-1 favorite in some sportsbooks, but magnitude matters. Still, Garcia has a helluva case that his victory, not Bivol’s, is the year’s most shocking result.
KO: Wood over Conlan
Anytime you send your opponent crashing through the ropes for the 20-count (that’s right, you get 10 extra seconds when you’re knocked down to the floor outside), it’s a fairly safe bet for KO of the year.
Shades of Oleg Maskaev’s right hand that sent Hasim Rahman flying onto the HBO commentary team’s table in their 1999 fight, Wood catapulted Conlan outside the ring for the dramatic 12th-round KO. Wood needed it, too. At best, Conlan was headed for a draw if he stayed on his feet.
Runner-up: Tyson Fury over Dillian Whyte: Fury’s KO wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but it came in a flash and gave a surprisingly dull fight an explosive ending. A single right uppercut — a picture-perfect punch — sent Whyte flat on his back at London’s Wembley Stadium. The challenger barely beat the count, but when assessed for his readiness to continue, stumbled into the ropes and the fight was halted. These awards are usually won by far more brutal knockouts, so it would be a surprise if this is still in contention when the year is over. But extra points for a heavyweight title KO.
Surprise: Josh Taylor decision over Jack Catterall
Taylor was a sizable favorite to retain his undisputed junior welterweight championship, but he just barely escaped with his four titles after 12 rounds with Catterall.
Fighting in front of his hometown fans in Glasgow, Scotland, Taylor was beaten to the punch much of the fight and appeared to lose a close fight on the scorecards. However, Taylor was awarded the victory with a split decision, winning by a three-point margin on one card and by a single point on the other.
If any fight begs for a rematch to settle the score, it’s this one. And Taylor appears headed for that fight after vacating his WBC title and declining to face top contender Jose Zepeda to pursue the Catterall rematch.
Event: Ukrainian boxers unite against Russia’s attack
When Ukraine was invaded by Russia in February, support came swiftly in the form of a group of truly great boxers who took up arms to defend Ukraine.
There were the Klitschko brothers of course, with Vitali, the mayor of Kyiv, leading the resistance and joining a territorial defense battalion in Ukraine’s capital. Wladimir was alongside him.
Heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk also joined a defense battalion, as did former three-division champion Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Lomachenko was set to challenge George Kambosos for four lightweight titles on June 5 in Australia but decided to pass on the opportunity with his country at war.
After careful consideration and time spent defending both his country and his family (wife and three children), Usyk decided to proceed with his scheduled rematch against Anthony Joshua.
They’ll meet Aug. 20 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for Usyk’s three heavyweight title belts he lifted from Joshua in lopsided fashion in September.
Usyk said he was inspired to fight Joshua when he visited a hospital with wounded soldiers. “They were … asking me to go … fight for the country,” Usyk said recently. ” … I want to live there, and right after the fight … I’m going to back to Ukraine.”
Usyk didn’t need permission to leave Ukraine during wartime due to a martial law exception for parents of three or more children (Lomachenko has two kids.)