2017 In Review Part 1: Recapping Boxing's Biggest Storylines

This excerpt first appeared in this week's issue of the Fightful Boxing Newsletter, which releases each Thursday morning at Fightful.com.

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It's no secret that many thought 2016 was a bad year in boxing. After all, Canelo Alvarez vs. Gennady Golovkin didn't happen that year, it was the first full year post-Mayweather, most of the fights were somewhat uninteresting or just complete mismatches. This year wasn't a perfect year, but it has been a massive improvement both in and out of the ring for various reasons.

From two mega fights taking place to even more big fights being set up for 2018 and ESPN getting back into showcasing world championship boxing on its main channel, there's no shortage of storylines fans followed all year long. Below are a summary of five of the biggest storylines boxing had in 2017:

Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor Dominate The Summer Boxing Season:

No boxing fight has dominated the mainstream sports landscape in quite some time like Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor did for the entire buildup of the fight. The fight, which almost broke pay-per-view records when it happened in August. Almost everyone knew McGregor would lost fight, but it made it no less interesting to follow.

This fight made headlines with its massive press conferences, which included many comments made from both sides that pushed the envelope on what is acceptable trash talk and what is going too far. At times, the press conference were borderline unwatchable, but at other times, it was one of the most entertaining verbal feuds in combat sports.

The fight itself was certainly far more entertaining than many people give it credit. McGregor also performed far better than many boxing analysts believed he would, even winning some of the early rounds in the fight before Mayweather ultimately scored the TKO win. McGregor even did so well, boxers such as Paulie Malignaggi and Manny Pacquiao were either publicly interested in fighting McGregor next or were linked to potentially having a fight with the UFC champion.

Although McGregor lost, one can argue his public popularity has increased thanks to the fight. The sport also benefited with the increased attention from the general public. Badou Jack, who will likely fight WBC light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson next, had by far the best performance on the pay-per-view card and will likely garner a bigger audience and television viewership for when his next fight takes place, likely on Showtime.

UFC also experienced some ripple effects due to McGregor's absence. Without its biggest star, the promotion has suffered to have a major pay-per-view star for the future given that Ronda Rousey's MMA career is in doubt as she prepares for a wrestling career, Jon Jones' UFC career is in doubt and Georges St. Pierre isn't a long time answer for being a pay-per-view star.

As far as what this event does for boxing long term, it's too soon to say. Boxing is headed in a positive direction and for as much noise some boxing purists have made saying this fight hurts the integrity of the sport, the sport needs as much eyeballs as it can get as we enter 2017. With ESPN and the networks started to showcase major boxing events more often, 2018 seems to be a make or break year for boxing and this fight could potentially help the sport by creating newer stars in Gervonta Davis and Jack, who picked up wins on the pay-per-view card. As a promoter, Mayweather could further elevate those two boxers and in the case of Davis, groom him into being the next Mayweather. Only time will tell what the true effects from Mayweather vs. McGregor will have on both boxing and mixed martial arts.

Tyson Fury's Quest To Return (Then Leave, Then Return Again) To Boxing:

Perhaps no heavyweight boxer has drawn the attention of fans all over the world without having to fight in two years quite like Tyson Fury. Fury shocked the world by beating future Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. Since then, he has failed drug tests, retired twice and come out of retirement twice, get suspended by the UKAD and have his boxing license revoked by the British Boxing Board of Control. Even with all of that going against Fury, he has still remained in the global heavyweight conversation and has fights against the likes of Anthony Joshua, Dillian Whyte and Deontay Wilder looking like a possibility.

Fury's natural charisma and outlandish character has kept him relevant despite the lack of boxing activity and is now mounting a comber to return to form and get back the world titles that were stripped from him. Now that Fury is in the clear with the UKAD and a January meeting with the BBBofC potentially ending with Fury getting his license back.

Nothing seems to be certain as of this point and if Fury is back to boxing, there's no telling whether the Tyson Fury we'll see will even be remotely close to the Tyson Fury that ended Klitschko's historic reign as the world heavyweight champion.

Even though this might not be the biggest heavyweight fight in the world, in the United Kingdom, a Joshua vs. Fury fight has the potential to be the biggest and highest-viewed boxing match in the history of the sport in the region. Fury is the most interesting name to consider when looking at the heavyweight division in 2018 (a division that is only looking far more impressive with Joshua and Fury leading the charge and up-and-coming boxers such as Jarrell Miller and Daniel Dubois emerging as potential stars in the division).

Top Rank's Return To ESPN And Impact On The Sport:

When it was revealed that HBO would not be showing Manny Pacquiao’s 2016 fight against Jessie Vargas on pay-per-view, Bob Arum and Top Rank knew it was time to sever ties with the network and look elsewhere. Elsewhere turned out to ESPN, who is now trying their at being a major player in televising big time boxing fights like they did years ago.

ESPN’s gain was truly HBO’s loss. Not only is ESPN showcasing world title fights, but they’re doing so with HBO’s top television stars, such as Terence Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko. Take that plus a lack of Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez fights on HBO and you have a year in which HBO boxing’s viewership was down from 2016, a year in which many considered was a bad year for the sport. With Top Rank entering a multi-year broadcasting with ESPN, the network now has access to some of the biggest names in the sport, starting their partnership with Manny Pacquiao’s WBO welterweight title defense against Jeff Horn, which ended up being a massive ratings hit. Under the four-year deal, ESPN will televise live Top Rank-promoted fights on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, the network's Spanish language channel, and stream them on the ESPN App.

Top Rank, who have experience working with making pay-per-view events, are expected to do two pay-per-view events next year with ESPN’s help. By this point, it’ll be very hard to determine how good those pay-per-view buys can be. Pacquiao vs. Vargas did about 300,000 buys, which fell somewhere within some people’s expectations, but it is a significant drop from Pacquiao’s usual pay-per-view buyrate.

ESPN is now getting back into serious boxing broadcasts at the most opportunistic time, with some of HBO’s top boxing stars now becoming a part of ESPN and other top stars -- such as Andre Ward and Miguel Cotto -- either leaving or set to leave soon. Boxing’s popularity in the United States now seems to be on the rise, especially since CBS’ broadcast of the Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia welterweight unification fight did the best television viewership in almost 20 years.

Unification Bouts Further Helping The Sport:

This year not only brought about several high-profile matches all over the world, but also many divisions unify world titles. Perhaps the biggest unification is the extremely rare four-belt unification fight between Terence Crawford and Julius Indongo, in which Crawford unified the WBA, IBF, WBO and WBC junior welterweight titles.

When we first saw James DeGale and Badou Jack kick off the year with a WBC/IBF super middleweight unification, little did we know that it was a sign of things to come. In March, we saw the welterweight division unify the WBA and WBC titles at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York in what ended up being the highest-watched boxing match in nearly two decades. The following month saw Anthony Joshua unify the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles when he took down future Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko in 11 rounds in what could likely be 2017’s Fight of the Year.

The second half of 2017 laid out the foundation for what the biggest matches of 2018 are going to look like, mainly in the super middleweight and cruiserweight division. The thing both divisions have in common is that they are a part of the World Boxing Super Series tournaments. With both tournaments having one winner hold multiple world titles by the end of next spring, the WBSS could be the future of boxing with the two tournament gathering arguably eight of the best boxers in their respective divisions. The fact that the tournament organizers were able to work with the sport’s governing bodies to allow all of these fights take place. Unifying world titles kills two birds with one stone.

Not only can these fights be marketed as a must-see high profile battle between two champions, but also the number of world titleholders go down and the titles’ value go up. That is not to say that boxing will be back on the map as the premier combat sport by the end of the year, but 2017 is a damn good start. With so many high-profile fights already made this year and more to come in 2018, the sport is primed for a comeback.

Retirements All Over 2017:

As with any other sport, retirement is simply a part of the game. Each year a significant athlete or two announces that they will be retiring, whether it would be premeditated or abruptly. This year, boxing has plenty of retirements from both of those sides. In fact 2017, may have been the year with the most amount of noteworthy names to have retired. The list, to name a few below, is absolutely staggering:

  • Miguel Cotto
  • Wladimir Klitschko
  • Juan Manuel Marquez
  • Takashi Uchiyama
  • Robert Guerrero
  • Shane Mosley
  • Floyd Mayweather Jr. (again)
  • Timothy Bradley Jr.
  • Andre Ward
  • Jean Pascal

What makes this a more memorable year are the final fights of some of these boxers. In the cases of Cotto and Klitschko, and especially Klitschko, fans got to see high-caliber fights and that will likely end up on many people’s top 25 in terms of boxing matches for 2017. At one point, Klitschko was the most-feared heavyweight boxer in the world and was even a top 3 heavyweight when he fought in his last bout against Anthony Joshua back in late April. Even in defeat, that fight cemented Klitschko’s status as an all-time great heavyweight by delivering an all-time great heavyweight title fight in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium.

Of course, many of these retirements came with little to no fanfare. Bradley, Mosley and Marquez hadn’t fought in a high-profile fight in years and their retirements were somewhat expected at this point outside of Bradley, who was still relatively young enough to keep on fighting, but the amount of wars he had in recent years have taken a massive toll on Bradley’s body and overall health.

Perhaps the saddest retirement was Guerrero’s. Sure, Cotto’s loss to Sadam Ali earlier this month was a heart-breaker for millions of boxing fans, but Guerrero was simply an unfortunate case of a fighter taking one too many fights. In front of a record-low television audience on FOX, Guerrero got decimated by Omar Figueroa in just a few rounds, getting knocked down repeatedly in what will go down as one of the worst performances on a nationally-televised main event in recent U.S. boxing history.

But now that the retirements have all been done, and with no more retirements expected for the remainder of the year, it’s time to see what the 2021 and 2022 Hall of Fame ballots could be. Most of the aforementioned names will be first eligible on those ballots so it will be interesting to see who ends up making those Hall of Fame classes.

As for boxers who could be calling it quits next year, guys such as Orlando Salido, who already announced his retirement last week before going back on his word days after, are highly likely to retire at the end of the year. Perhaps a couple of names whom fans could see for the last time in the ring are Manny Pacquiao and Roman Gonzalez. Pacquiao is almost 40 years old, no longer an elite fighter and is not training full-time due to his duties as a senator in the Philippines. Gonzalez already suffered two straight losses to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and is also getting up there in years. He’s already achieved enough to call it a career and is still competing at a weight classes that may be too big for him at 116 pounds.

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