1. Glen Johnson – 2004: 3-0 (1)
Few years have ever changed the perception of a fighter more dramatically and favorably than Johnson experienced in his signature year – and that’s why his 2004 campaign sits atop this list.
At the start of 2004, Johnson was what he had been for the majority of the past six years – a hard-luck battler who, because he lacked the star power to attract title opportunities at home, was forced to travel abroad and lose heartbreakingly close decisions. He lost verdicts to IBF super middleweight titlist Sven Ottke in Germany, to Silvio Branco in Italy, to Omar Sheika in Philadelphia, to Derrick Harmon in Las Vegas, to Julio Cesar Gonzalez in California. He also notched draws to Daniel Judah in Connecticut and, in his final fight of 2003, to Clinton Woods in England for the vacant IBF light heavyweight title.
But 2004 would start out far differently for Johnson. The draw verdict in November 2003 mandated a Feb. 6 rematch, again in England, against Woods. This time he emerged with a close but unanimous decision to finally become a major titlist in his fourth attempt. While winning a belt would qualify as a great year for any fighter, what Johnson achieved in his next two fights would lift “The Road Warrior” to heights that positively affected him for the rest of his career.
Just four months after suffering a shocking second-round knockout to Antonio Tarver, Roy Jones Jr. thought the quickest route back to the top was through Johnson, who, knowing a big payday when he saw one, immediately accepted Jones’ challenge. The bout was set for Sept. 25 in Memphis, neutral ground for both Florida-based fighters but not exactly an unbiased crowd as most rooted for Jones.
Using a highly effective swarming style from first bell to last, Johnson steadily wore down a defensive-minded and inactive Jones to build a solid lead on the scorecards. After eight rounds many observers began to envision an upset by clear-cut decision but Johnson had one final surprise in store in round nine. A crushing overhand right to the temple caused Jones’ body to strike the canvas with a thud and for several frightening moments he was unconscious. If anyone had doubts about Johnson’s worth before, the one-punch KO over Jones drove home the point in most emphatic fashion.
The Jones victory earned Johnson a fight with Tarver, and though the minor IBO belt was on the line the real prize was recognition as the best 175-pounder on earth. The pair engaged in a see saw fight that was tension-filled throughout, and Johnson emerged with a split decision victory – his third consecutive upset. The trio of huge wins vaulted Johnson into the top echelon in terms of public recognition, ability to attract big-money opportunities and his final legacy. That legacy received a big initial boost when Johnson was named THE RING’s Fighter of the Year. For the next eight years Johnson remained on the top shelf of the sport, and that standing was largely due to what he did in 2004.
“I am not the best out here,” Johnson said after knocking out Jones. “Just the one who is willing to fight the best.” But by fighting the best – and beating the best – Johnson enjoyed the greatest year of his generation.
Even though the scope of this list encompassed just 20 years, whittling the candidates down to 10 was still an arduous process that excluded more than a few worthy candidates. Twenty-one years that earned honorable mentions include, in alphabetical order:
* Iran Barkley, 1992: 3-0 (1) – Stopped Darrin Van Horn to win the IBF’s 168-pound belt, decisioned Thomas Hearns to capture WBA light heavyweight title and stopped Robert Folley in four.
* Julio Cesar Borboa, 1993: 4-0 (3) – Stopped Robert Quiroga to win IBF super flyweight belt, then defended against Joel Luna Zarate (W 12), Carlos Mercado (KO 3) and ex-flyweight belt-holder Rolando Pascua (KO 5).
* Juan Martin Coggi, 1993: 7-0 (6) – Dethroned WBA super lightweight titlist Morris East (KO 8) and notched defenses against Jose Rivera (KO 7), Hiroyuki Yoshino (KO 5), Jose Rafael Barboza (W 12), Guillermo Cruz (KO 10) and Eder Gonzalez (KO 7) while notching a non-title win over Domingo Martinez (KO 3).
* Luis Collazo, 2005: 4-0 (3) – Knocked out journeymen Kevin Carter and Richard Heath before upending WBA welterweight titlist Jose Antonio Rivera in a Closet Classic and impressively stopping Miguel Angel Gonzalez in eight to defend his belt.
* Miguel Cotto, 2007: 3-0 (2) – Defended WBA welterweight belt with 11th round TKOs over Oktay Urkal and Zab Judah as well as a thrilling 12-round verdict over Shane Mosley.
* Oscar de la Hoya, 1995: 4-0 (3) – Decisioned John John Molina in 12, iced Rafael Ruelas in two to unite the IBF and WBO lightweight belts and notched KO defenses against Genaro Hernandez and Jesse James Leija.
* Danny Garcia, 2012: 3-0 (2) – Twice defeated Erik Morales (W 12, KO 4) and united the WBA and WBC super lightweight titles by knocking out Amir Khan.
* Naseem Hamed, 1998: 2-0 (1) – Stopped recently stripped WBA featherweight titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Sr. and decisioned Wayne McCullough in WBO featherweight defenses.
* Bernard Hopkins, 1997: 3-0 (2) – Knocked out John David Jackson and Glen Johnson as well as decisioning Andrew Council to keep IBF middleweight title.
* Philip Holiday, 1996: 4-0 (2) – Kept IBF lightweight title by beating John Lark (KO 10), Jeff Fenech (KO 2), Joel Diaz (W 12) and Ivan Robinson (W 12).
* Roy Jones Jr., 1994: 3-0 (2) – Starched Danny Garcia (KO 6) and Thomas Tate (KO 2) before dominating a weight-drained James Toney to win his second divisional title.
* Erik Morales, 1999: 4-0 (3) – Successfully defended WBC super bantamweight title against Angel Chacon (KO 2), Juan Carlos Ramirez (KO 9), Raynante Jamili (KO 6) and Wayne McCullough (W 12).
* Shane Mosley, 1998: 5-0 (5) – Defended IBF lightweight title with knockouts over Demetrio Ceballos, John John Molina, Wilfredo Ruiz, Eduardo Morales and Jesse James Leija.
* Manny Pacquiao, 2008: 3-0 (2) – Earned a split decision over Juan Manuel Marquez and scored knockout victories over WBC lightweight titlist David Diaz and a comebacking Oscar de la Hoya.
* Saen Sor Ploenchit, 1994: 4-0 (1) – Captured WBA flyweight title from David Griman (W 12), then out-pointed ex-champs Jesus “Kiki” Rojas, Aquiles Guzman and Yong Kang Kim in title defenses.
* Frankie Randall, 1994: 3-1 (1) – Stopped Julio Cesar Chavez’s 90-fight unbeaten streak by split decision to win WBC super lightweight title, lost it back via hotly disputed eight-round technical decision, out-pointed Juan Martin Coggi to capture WBA 140-pound title and defended it by stopping Rodney Moore in seven.
* Johnny Tapia, 1995: 6-0-1 (1) – Defended WBO super flyweight belt four times against Jose Rafael Sosa (W 12), Ricardo Vargas (Tech. Dec. 8), Arthur Johnson (W 12) and Willy Salazar (KO 5) while mixing in non-title 10-round decisions over Jesse Miranda and Raul Rios.
* Felix Trinidad, 2000: 3-0 (2) – Decisioned David Reid to win WBA super welterweight belt, stopped Mamadou Thiam in three and halted Fernando Vargas in 12 to unite WBA and IBF titles.
* Julio Cesar Vazquez, 1994: 6-0 (2) – Defended WBA super welterweight belt six times against Juan Ramon Medina (W 12), Armand Picar (KO 2), Ricardo Nunez (W 12), Akhmet Dottuev (KO 10), Winky Wright (W 12) and Tony Marshall (W 12).
* Andre Ward, 2011: 2-0 (0) – Decisioned Arthur Abraham to earn a spot in the Super Six final, then out-pointed Carl Froch to win the tournament and merge the WBA and WBC super middleweight titles.
* Pernell Whitaker, 1993: 1-0-1 (0) – Won third divisional crown by outpointing WBC welterweight titlist Buddy McGirt and appeared to out-point Julio Cesar Chavez in boxing’s last head-to-head fight for pound-for-pound supremacy only to be given a draw.
Photos / Al Bello-Getty Images (Hamed-Kelley, De La Hoya-Whitaker and Cotto-Mosley), John Gurzinski-AFP (Mayweather-Corrales), Ethan Miller-Getty Images (Pacquiao-Hatton and De La Hoya), Naoki Fukuda (Donaire-Mathebula)
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Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emaPhotosiled at email@example.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.