Catch & Counter With Caryn: 2020, The Year That Almost Wasn't

By Caryn A. Tate on December 31, 2020

There aren't many fighters who can beat the best boxer in the world in just their 16th bout.

2020 has been a strange year in every area, including sports. Boxing is no exception. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport was MIA from March until June.

 

Despite bizarre and dangerous circumstances, the fighters have persevered and given boxing fans some excellent fights and performances. Here, I break down the best of the year.

 

Prospect of the Year

Edgar Berlanga (16-0, 16 KOs)

 

Berlanga sports a 100% knockout ratio, but that's not why he's my prospect of the year. It's the way the 23-year-old super middleweight has been able to deliver his obvious and seemingly freakish power. In his last few bouts in particular, Berlanga seems to want to get in some rounds—but he'll see an opening and as soon as he lets loose, his opponent is done.

 

When Berlanga steps up his level of opposition, we'll be able to see just how solid his all-around boxing skills are. But for now, he looks the part.

 

Comeback of the Year

Errol Spence Jr. (27-0, 21 KOs)

 

Unified IBF and WBC world welterweight champion Spence had a serious car accident in October 2019. He was thrown out of the car but amazingly didn't suffer any broken bones. Still, his front teeth were damaged and in the only photo the public has seen, Errol was nearly unrecognizable from his injuries directly following the incident. When news came out that Spence planned to return to boxing, people wondered if he would be able to fight at the same level he did before. Would that even be possible after a devastating accident that nearly cost him his life? Physically or mentally, or both, many thought it wouldn't be possible.

 

Spence returned December 5th versus former world champion Danny Garcia, a challenging fight for a man coming off of a nearly 15-month layoff and trauma.

 

As I detailed in my summary of the fight, Spence may have showed a little ring rust but that appeared to be it. His fantastic foot positioning, speed, intelligence and doggedness were all there, and his volume was there in places. Spence's ability to position himself where he's able to be as offensive as he likes, while limiting his opponent's ability to land anything of note, was still there. He took the occasional punch well, disproving the naysayers who thought he wouldn't be able to take shots anymore thanks to his tooth injuries.

 

I couldn't help but imagine what Spence must have been thinking and feeling as he lay in the hospital bed after his accident last year. The sadness, the hopelessness, probably despair...with the incredibly long and uphill road ahead, it had to feel beyond daunting.

 

For most of us, surviving an accident like that and being able to return to normal life with our families would be a major victory. For someone to not only return to normal life but to get his body and mind back into fighting shape—much less at the world, elite level—was inspiring and something truly special.

 

Upset of the Year

Teofimo Lopez def. Vasyl Lomachenko

 

On October 17, young champion Teofimo Lopez (16-0, 12 KOs) faced the great Vasyl Lomachenko (14-2, 10 KOs) for the undisputed lightweight world title. Going into it, huge majority of people in boxing reckoned it would be a somewhat dangerous fight for Loma, but that he would secure a comfortable win. It was hard to find people who picked Lopez to win the fight.

 

Lopez defied expectations that night. He outboxed the brilliant boxer Lomachenko, establishing his jab early on and his excellent hook which prevented Loma from moving to his own right (probably Loma's single favorite move). Lopez simply wouldn't allow Loma to move that direction, and thanks to his reach, Loma didn't feel comfortable taking serious risk early on to try to get inside.

 

Eventually Loma, who seemed to know he was well behind, began to take those risks and take some shots to get inside on Lopez. But it wasn't enough, and Lopez won a relatively comfortable decision.

 

Lomachenko was seen as pound-for-pound #1 by the majority of pundits, but the lowest anyone could have him was #2 in the world ahead of this bout. Lopez shook up the sport with this win and completely upset the status quo.

 

It's the kind of single win that changes not only a fighter's career but the entire sport. Kudos to Lopez for making it happen against someone of Lomachenko's caliber.

 

Honorable Mention: Tyson Fury def. Deontay Wilder

 

Even if one thought Fury would beat Wilder, no one thought it would be by knockout. Most pundits said Fury would win on points, or Wilder would win by knockout.

 

Fights like this are good reminders to avoid generalizing and making assumptions.

 

Fury hurt longtime heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder early in their bout in February, and didn't let him off the hook, resulting in Wilder's corner throwing in the towel. It was a deviation from Tyson Fury's usual way of winning fights, which is by pure boxing, and hence a dramatic upset.

 

Trainer of the Year

Derrick James

 

Derrick James is currently the only coach who trains two unified world champions: welterweight Errol Spence Jr. and junior middleweight Jermell Charlo.

 

But James gets my nod for best trainer of the year for more than just that, which is impressive enough. It's the way his fighters have gone about dismantling their respective weight classes. It's the growth they have both shown from fight to fight, year to year.

 

Spence and Charlo both show so much intellect in the ring that in many ways they're more like fighters from a different era. It's rare in modern boxing to see fighters as smart and, importantly, multi-dimensional as both of these men are.

 

They are both special fighters, but the coach they have in common deserves a lot of credit for helping them tap into their best. Not many trainers are able to do that, particularly with more than one fighter at once.

 

Knockout of the Year

Jermell Charlo (def. Jeison Rosario)

HIGHLIGHTS VIDEO

 

Jermell Charlo (34-1, 18 KOs) won back the WBC world super welterweight title a year ago in the rematch with Tony Harrison, when Charlo impressively stopped Harrison in the penultimate round. Jeison Rosario (20-2-1, 14 KOs) stunned boxing fans in January when he upset Julian Williams with a 5th round knockout.

 

The stage was set for a unification fight between Charlo and Rosario, which we got in September.

 

It was a competitive fight, though Charlo dropped Rosario three times (in the first, 6th, and 8th rounds). It was mostly Rosario's determination and power that kept him competitive—whenever he was able to land on Charlo, it seemed to keep Jermell honest and forced him to really mind his defense throughout.

 

At the start of the 8th, Charlo threw a jab to Rosario's stomach that not only stopped him but had him in convulsions as he lay on his back on the canvas. It was the sort of knockout most of us have never seen, and the fact that it was against another champion made it that much more impressive.

 

Fight of the Year

Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Teofimo Lopez—October 17, 2020

 

For me, a fight of the year is generally one with high stakes and elite skills. The stakes for this bout were unmistakable: it was for the undisputed lightweight world title and Loma has long been most pundits' #1 or #2 pound-for-pound. Any fight Lomachenko is in features elite skills, and in Lopez's coming out party, he showed that he can not only hang with the best fighter in the world but could beat him and beat him convincingly. He outboxed the boxer: the guy with nearly 400 amateur fights and a single loss (which was avenged); the guy who won his first world title as a pro in his third fight; the guy many seemed to think couldn't be beat.

 

And let's be clear: Lomachenko is a legitimately great fighter. In fact he's an all-time great and his achievements are special. He was not at all an easy fighter to beat.

 

All of which make Lopez's victory that much more impressive. The 23-year-old had shown very good athleticism and power before his fight with Loma, but most didn't think he was well-rounded enough to beat someone of Loma's caliber ahead of the fight. But he showed he has the intelligence, positioning, speed, and punch selection to rival the best.

 

Female Fighter of the Year

Jessica McCaskill (9-2, 3 KOs)

 

In August, McCaskill challenged longtime undisputed welterweight world champion Cecilia Braekhus (who was then undefeated). McCaskill normally fights at lightweight and super lightweight, which didn't help her chances to beat the skillful Braekhus in most peoples' eyes ahead of this bout. McCaskill was seen as a "stay busy" sort of fight by many—the gap in experience was broad, and some pundits called Braekhus the pound-for-pound women's boxer in the world (or at least had her high on their lists).

 

Braekhus was justifiably seen as the better boxer, but McCaskill reminded the world why that doesn't always matter. She roughed Braekhus up, fighting her on the inside and making the longtime champion uncomfortable. McCaskill just didn't allow Braekhus to do what she likes to do, which is box nice and neat from the outside at a measured pace. To her credit, Jessica pressed the action, which is risky to do anytime but particularly against a good boxer. McCaskill had more dog and that's what got her the win that night.

 

McCaskill showed that she was more comfortable in uncomfortable places that night, and that she was willing to do whatever it took to win. It was an excellent and highly impressive accomplishment, made that much more so by McCaskill defying expectations.

 

Male Fighter of the Year

Teofimo Lopez (16-0, 12 KOs)

 

There aren't many fighters who can beat the best boxer in the world in their 16th bout. That's just what Lopez did in October when he defeated Vasyl Lomachenko for the undisputed lightweight title, in a fight that saw Lopez as the huge underdog.

 

Lopez proved to the world that he has elite skills and is now one of the best boxers in the sport, or perhaps the best. Importantly, he also reminded other fighters that if you go ahead and take the toughest fights, even if you get less money than you'd like, you win and from then on you are the number one guy. And then you call the shots.