Featherweight champ Naseem Hamed capped a brilliant 1997 with a wild shootout with former titleholder Kevin Kelley, which he won by fourth-round KO in his U.S. debut. Photo / Al Bello-Getty Images
For many – especially those who gather in New York City’s Times Square – the turning of the New Year is a time of celebration, hope and renewal. For others it represents a time of reflection; to recall the good and bad of the previous year and to assess where improvements can be made.
In that vein, the transition from 2012 to 2013 offers an opportunity to remember the best of what was. Many believe that Nonito Donaire, Juan Manuel Marquez, Brian Viloria, Leo Santa Cruz and Andre Ward – among others – were the best 2012 had to offer. In fact, ESPN has already named “The Filipino Flash” its Fighter of the Year and the guess is that he’ll receive quite a few more mentions before the dust settles. With four quality wins on his 2012 ledger Donaire has made a strong case for becoming the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighter in the post-Pacquiao/Mayweather era.
That said, it’s safe to say that no fighter in the modern era will ever duplicate the very best years produced during the various Golden Ages. Henry Armstrong may have produced the best back-to-back years in the sport’s history, for in 1937 he went 27-0 (26) and won the featherweight title from Pete Sarron while in 1938 he was 14-0 (10) and added the undisputed welterweight and lightweight titles in consecutive bouts. That level of activity will never happen again because the top fighters now can reap tens of millions fighting only twice a year.
If today’s financial structure were in place during the 1930s and 1940s, no one – even Armstrong – would have fought nearly as often. Boxing is a brutal sport even for the greatest ones and if “Hammerin’ Hank” – or Harry Greb, Jimmy Wilde or Archie Moore for that matter – could have fought less for more money they would’ve done so. Conversely, if yesteryear’s pay scale and broadcast environment were in effect today, our top stars would have had to fight 15 or 20 times a year just to pay the bills.
Therefore, it’s useless to assemble a top 10 list of “best boxing years” that blends the exploits of two completely different eras. It wouldn’t be a fair fight, for the old-timers’ numbers would overwhelm today’s best. That’s why this list will only go back to 1992, when the era of minimum fights for maximum money began to kick in.
So, without further delay, here’s one man’s opinion of the best 12-month stretches boxers have assembled in the last 20 years:
10. Naseem Hamed – 1997: 5-0 (5)
At age 23, “The Prince” was nearing his physical peak but in terms of activity and accomplishments 1997 was his best. Already the WBO featherweight king since September 1995 and with four defenses under his belt, Hamed began the year by meeting longtime IBF titlist Tom “Boom Boom” Johnson in a rare unification fight on February 23. Johnson was underrated but respected, for his all-around game led him to 11 defenses in a five-year reign. By the time he met Hamed, however, Johnson was nearly 33 and the 10-year age difference was graphically evident once the first bell sounded. Hamed’s otherworldly speed and wicked power proved too much for Johnson, who was stopped in round eight soon after tasting a massive uppercut.
Hamed made two impressive defenses of the unified belts, stopping Billy Hardy in 93 seconds on May 3 and crushing 24-2 Argentine Juan Gerardo Cabrera in two on July 19. Hamed was stripped of his IBF belt in August for not meeting mandatory challenger Hector Lizarraga, who went on to beat Welcome Ncita for the vacant title that December. Instead, Hamed defended his WBO belt on October 11 against fellow southpaw Jose Badillo, whose only loss in 21 fights was to Johnson. Badillo lasted far longer than Hardy and Cabrera combined but he lost every round (60-54 twice, 60-53) before succumbing in the seventh.
Hamed’s star was skyrocketing worldwide and on December 19 he made his much heralded U.S. debut. Not only did he choose to fight ex-WBC titlist Kevin Kelley – perhaps his best opponent to date in terms of pedigree and world-level experience – he also opted to fight in the challenger’s hometown of New York City and at the hallowed Madison Square Garden. The fight far exceeded the considerable hype as they exchanged six knockdowns in less than four rounds. Though his shaky chin once again was exposed, Hamed had the final say with a crushing left to the temple. The spectacular ending left broadcasters and viewers alike shouting “we want more,” but as far as 1997 was concerned Hamed gave everything he could. (Click the “NEXT” button at the lower right corner of each page to view Nos. 9 through 1.)