Boxing in 2023: The biggest storylines, best fights and questionable decisions in the first six months

Boxing fans have been treated to six months full of action, intrigue and controversy to start 2023. More than perhaps any other year in the modern era, this year has fully displayed the best and worst of the sport.

The first half of the year has already produced a lengthy list of Fight of the Year candidates and has seen many of the biggest possible fights in the sport made. Despite the good, the sport has still at times been plagued by controversy or the stubborn refusal of some fighters and promoters to make appropriate fights.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at where things stand in boxing as we approach the second half of the year.

Big fights coming together

A clash between young superstars Ryan Garcia and Gervonta “Tank” Davis was discussed for years but differences in promotional and network alliances — as well as boxing’s tendency to protect young, valuable fighters — made it seem the fight would not come together any time soon.

Shockingly, the two fighters forced the issue and got the fight made for April 22. The fight, won by Davis via brutal body shot knockout, was a massive box office success and raised Davis’ profile to arguably “the face of the sport.” The fight also proved hurdles that often prevent the biggest possible fights from coming together can be overcome if the involved parties are invested enough.

Those hurdles were once again cleared when it was announced the long-awaited fight between Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford for the undisputed welterweight championship as official for July 29. This came after several previous failed negotiations to get the fight done.

Add in other fights, such as undisputed bantamweight champion and top pound-for-pound fighter Naoya Inoue moving up a weight to challenge unified titleholder Stephen Fulton on July 25 and the reportedly-planned bout between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and undefeated middleweight champion Jermall Charlo, and there are plenty of huge fights to get boxing fans excited.

Biggest heavyweight fight still not set

One seemingly obvious fight to make continues to not come together, however, as Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk continue to butt heads publicly. WBC champion Fury is the best heavyweight of his era and the top-ranked heavyweight in the world. Usyk, a former undisputed cruiserweight champion, holds the other three world titles in the division. Both men are undefeated and cemented as elites on pound-for-pound lists.

While it seems obvious that the two fighters should step in the ring and crown the first undisputed champion of the four-belt era, the fighters have engaged in a cycle of seemingly bad-faith negotiations, suggesting the fight may happen and then announcing that negotiations have fallen apart.

This is not unusual for Fury, whose talent has always been paired with bizarre personal behavior. He has retired and unretired almost too many times to count and ends up tied to less appealing fights than many of the biggest and most interesting challenges available. Lately, Fury has spent more time talking about fights with UFC heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

If Fury wraps up his career without ever facing Usyk, it will almost certainly be Fury’s fault and will stand out as a black mark on his otherwise impressive resume.

A year of tremendous in-ring action

2023 kicked off with two months of great action. Week after week, it felt like a new fight was added to the list of Fight of the Year candidates. Leigh Wood vs. Mauricio Lara, Luis Nery vs. Azat Hovhannisyan, Amanda Serrano vs. Erika Cruz, Artur Beterbiev vs. Anthony Yarde and many other all-action bouts went down in January and February.

Things slowed down after those first two months, but not by much. Christian Mbilli vs. Carlos Gongora, Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov vs. Joe Cordina and Katie Taylor vs. Chantelle Cameron were all standout fights, but it may have been the June 10 bout between Jaime Munguia and Sergiy Derevyanchenko that stole away the honors of being the best fight of the first half of the year.

The next generation continues to take over

Gervonta Davis’ win over Ryan Garcia was a huge moment for Davis, establishing himself as one of the two biggest draws in the sport, alongside Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. But Davis is hardly alone in being a young fighter who has scored a career-best win in 2023.

Devin Haney had already established himself as undisputed lightweight champion but had done so without facing the elite names at the top of the 135-pound division. That changed on May 20 when Haney defended his titles against former unified champion and longtime pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko. Haney vs. Lomachenko was a tremendous fight, showcasing true top-shelf skills from both fighters before Haney edged out a unanimous decision victory. While there was some degree of controversy to the decision, Haney put in the best performances of his career and showed long-term potential as one of boxing’s best at just 24 years old.

Teofimo Lopez had struggled in three fights since becoming unified lightweight champion. Because of those struggles, the 25-year-old entered his bout with junior welterweight champion Josh Taylor as an understandable underdog. Rather than another disappointing outing, Lopez turned in a career-best showing, thrashing Taylor from bell-to-bell to take a clear decision and win the WBO title. Lopez has since insisted that he is retired and claims he has vacated the title, but it seems unlikely he has truly walked away from the sport.

Those are just three of the young fighters who have made big statements this year and several others have the opportunity to continue their own climb up the mountain.

Boxing still can’t avoid controversy

While 2023 hasn’t had the same level of controversy of some other years, there still have been moments that have tainted the sport to one degree or another.

The most obvious of these moments is likely Rolly Romero’s May 14 win over Ismael Barroso to become WBA junior welterweight champion. Barroso, who took the fight on late notice and had spent years being skipped over for title opportunities, dominated the action, outboxing Romero from the opening moments. In Round 9, Romero was awarded a knockdown on what appeared to be a clear shove and then the referee jumped in to stop the bout shortly after, awarding Romero the TKO victory despite both men actively punching and Barroso getting the better of the exchange when the referee stopped the fight.

It seemed a clear case of the “money fighter” being bailed out in a fight where he was outclassed by fighter who was basically unknown by all but the hardest of boxing hardcore.

Haney’s win over Lomachenko also led to a lot of online protestations. The fight was nip and tuck throughout and, being reasonable, could have been scored close for either fighter. But, as the broadcast noted several times, it felt Lomachenko won “the story of the fight” by having the more dominant rounds, and some of the rounds were scored in ways that didn’t seem to reflect how the action had played out, leading many to claim the judging to be either incompetent or corrupt. Of course, with Haney moving to promotional and network free agency after the bout, it’s unclear who would have the investment in Haney to pull strings to ensure he win a narrow decision.

There have been other odd scorecards and minor robberies in the sport. But looking at boxing as a whole, 2023 has produced six months of great action and superstar performances while improving on making previously “impossible” fights happen.

Here’s to hoping that positive momentum can carry into the second hard of the year.

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