By Matt Christie
PLENTY of people who have worked in boxing for a long time will claim that the sport is incapable of surprising them anymore. That’s something I can understand if not completely agree with.
Boxing, I’d argue, has the capacity to shock like no other sport and it’s not always what happens inside the ring that causes it. As 2023 proved…
5) AMIR KHAN BEING BANNED
NOW, boxer fails drug test should not be any kind of shock. But there was something about the Khan news that came as a genuine surprise.
Perhaps it was the fact that it was Khan, a boxer who I’d interviewed a lot and was always taken aback by his honesty, that caused it. Perhaps it was the timing of the test, right at the end of his career in the moments after he’d lost his final contest. Or perhaps, simply, it was that it took so long for the news to come out: By the time we all got to find out about it, the UKAD investigation had finished, the hearing had taken place and the punishment – a two-year ban – had been administered.
What it highlighted, whether you believe Khan’s excuses or not, is that the entire 14-month process was far too long. That was without any outside interference, that was with Khan complying with all that was asked of him, when it was asked of him. With that in mind, what shouldn’t now surprise anyone is that more prominent cases last for years while those at the wrong end of them do all they can to squirm away from the consequences.
4) TERENCE CRAWFORD VERSUS ERROL SPENCE
OKAY, I didn’t fall off my chair paralysed by incredulity when the opening bell sounded. By the time they fought, we knew they were going to fight. But after years of waiting for Crawford and Spence to collide, it was a surprise – and a hugely welcome one – when they at last agreed to do so.
The year 2023 will be remembered for a lot of things. Best of all, perhaps, was a clear desire from the leading fighters to fight their closest rivals. Though the announcement of Crawford-Spence didn’t compare to when Mayweather-Pacquiao was confirmed, it still felt like a special moment.
And fight week in July – even though the outside world largely ignored it – was to us hardcore fans what the FA Cup Final used to be to every football fan before the Champions League existed and live football was everywhere. There was genuine excitement and magic in the air. It was a timely reminder that boxing, when the best fight the best, is one of the most intoxicating sports on the planet. And who knows, perhaps if fights like Crawford-Spence occur more frequently than twice a decade, our sport will not only be ours, but everyone’s.
3) IRON JAWS CRUMBLE
WHEN Zilhei Zhang boxed rings around Joe Joyce in February, stopping him in six rounds on eye injuries it was an upset, because Zhang was a heavy underdog, but not a surprise, because we all knew that sooner or later, Joyce would encounter that kind of opponent.
However, what occurred in the rematch was a genuine shock. Opinion was divided going into it; either Zhang would prove the superior boxer again or Joyce would rectify his mistakes to restore order. What nobody predicted was that Joyce, whose chin had been built by the media into something to rival George Chuvalo’s, would be knocked out by a single blow.
When it happened, wow. The man who had walked through some daft punishment in the past, who had claimed his skull was thicker than standard human skulls, was now scrambling on the floor unable to get up.
The only other moment that was comparable took place in January, when Chris Eubank Jnr was stopped by Liam Smith. Like Joyce, Eubank had been dining out on media-manufactured indestructibility for too long.
2) HEARN AND WARREN MAKE FRIENDS
IT was startling when Frank Warren and Eddie Hearn were spotted in the same room, at the same table, and in the same photograph with huge grins on their faces.
The enemy lines between Matchroom and Queensberry (or equivalent) have been in place for a long time but since Eddie came along at the start of the 2010s – so young, cocksure, and handsome he immediately got wedged up Frank’s nose – those lines only became more ingrained.
There were the odd suggestions of a truce, whether to make a big fight or simply to chat over coffee during a worldwide pandemic, but the collective egos ultimately proved too substantial for any real ground to be given. That all changed in 2023 thanks purely to the eye-watering amount of cash to be made in Saudi Arabia.
Together, and with the help of other promoters, they produced a brilliant card of boxing. What the sport should now be very wary of, however, is becoming too reliant on that money.
As the longstanding grudge between Warren and Hearn proves, nothing lasts forever.
1) FURY BEING FLATTENED BY NGANNOU
THERE is nothing that ages worse in boxing journalism than a damning preview that gets it wrong. “I won’t honour this with a prediction,” I self-righteously wrote ahead of Fury-Ngannou, “aside from reaffirming my view that an upset is not going to occur, nor at any time look likely.” Ouch.
The biggest upset in boxing history very nearly occurred and looked exceptionally likely. Fury looked awful from the get-go and Ngannou, the debutant, played a huge part in that. The moment when it all started to unravel for Fury is the one that shocked me the most in 2023.