Anthony Joshua’s empire, Billy Joe Saunders’ overseas brilliance and drama at super-middleweight

Buncey's British boxing review of the year: It has been a glorious year of great fights. The stage is now set for some of the most lucrative contests in British boxing history in 2018

Steve Bunce
Friday 29 December 2017 13:31
At times in 2017 Anthony Joshua was perfect on both sides of the ropes
At times in 2017 Anthony Joshua was perfect on both sides of the ropes

It was all about glory in 2017 as boxing fans sat in record numbers to howl in delight at a succession of men in a series of great fights with enough blood, drama, sadness, skill and raw fun for the year to be a real contender for any grand prizes.

At times Anthony Joshua was perfect on both sides of the ropes, a dignified man, cradling tiny babies, shaking hands, taking selfies and then fighting like his life depended on the next three minutes.

He won two fights, survived one brutal round when he needed the roar of 90,000 to help him stagger up from a sickening knockdown to beat Wladimir Klitschko; he ended the year arriving at Sports Personality like the man delivering Milk Tray but left in a hurry with nothing from a night the bookies predicted would be a mismatch.

A few random tweets and private messages did seep under the wall protecting Joshua and they were enough to just cloud the purity of the empire he and his shrewd team are erecting at the core of world boxing. There will be nothing simple in 2018 for Joshua because the men he wants to fight have demanded vast sums and he has set such a high standard.

He does not want an easy fight, trust me.

A complex deal was reached between Tyson Fury and the doping authorities to allow the Big Lad to fight again in search of what many consider to be rightfully his. He has been declared fit to box, he has lost over three stone, dropped his coach, found a new one and appears to have also found calm as he starts the long walk back to the heavyweight title.

I think Fury insults Big Josh’s sense of decency and that is an ache far worse than any physical pain. A 2018 fight between the pair is, sadly, unlikely.

Fury will make his long-awaited return to the ring in 2018

The rematch of the foul-mouthed, violent fight between David Haye and Tony Bellew was pushed back from December when Haye’s crumbling body once again suffered an injury. The pair now clash in May, both dreaming of getting a call for a fight with either Joshua, Fury or the American Deontay Wilder, the man with the WBC heavyweight bauble.

The men of nine-stone will give British sport some of its finest moments in 2018

Steve Bunce

It is dangerous to fight with distant prizes dangling in front of your eyes and that is what makes the second instalment so watchable; Bellew needs another win to convince doubters of his heavyweight stock and Haye is just about the most desperate brawler in British boxing. It is arguably a perfect storm of a fight between boxers that divide opinion.

There was some subtle brilliance in December when Billy Joe Saunders wowed the Americans with a flawless display in Canada on HBO to retain his WBO middleweight title. Saunders could meet Amir Khan next in the type of fight that has increasingly come to excite fans and raise unknown celebrities from their darkened bars; it will be Britain’s first fight with a red carpet.

Khan was last seen gobbling illicit strawberries, screaming like a child in the dark and still smiling on location in a simulated jungle, but his pulling power is immense. Saunders wants the great Kazak, Gennady Golovkin, but that fight is even more remote after the last win.

The men of nine-stone, that’s featherweight in the boxing business, will give British sport some of its finest moments in 2018. Last January Carl Frampton fell just short in a bitter fight in Las Vegas; he returned from his first loss, had a fight collapse just before the first bell, ended his relationship with his trainer and promoter and finished the year in a hard fight; the split with his “old people”, the fighting McGuigan family, will end in court.

Frampton was glum that final night in Belfast, which is a typically harsh piece of self-assessment and he remains one of the world’s top attractions. He fights in his beloved city in April and once again old and new rivals, like Scott Quigg and Kid Galahad, will be avid ringside observers.

At the same weight Lee Selby had an equally gruelling year of setbacks, deaths and difficult fights. He is still a world champion and will now fight unbeaten Josh Warrington at Elland Road in front of a massed crowd, all standing in puddles of hopeful tears on their treasured terraces; it will also be a savage night in the ring, the type of fight and night that people remember in 25 years.

Selby beat Eduardo Ramirez at the end of a difficult year

Nicola Adams, back from a break to be by her mother’s side, will let her smile illuminate the undercard in Leeds, a city oddly light on great boxing nights.

In December James DeGale lost his world title, left the ring utterly confused and will need to find a few answers from the mayhem of his defeat. DeGale had stood, arrogant, snarling and with some conviction on the side lines as Chris Eubank Jr, George Groves, Callum Smith and five other super-middleweights committed to something called the World Boxing Super Series.

“Let them fight,” DeGale declared. “I will beat the winner.” They did fight, Eubank Jr and Groves were brilliant in their quarters.

In February Eubank Jr and Groves fight in Manchester, it is sold-out and Smith travels to Germany for the other semi-final. Only Smith, part of the fighting quartet of Liverpool brothers, refrained from glorying in DeGale’s fall; Eubank Jr and Groves were understandably brutal online.

Groves and Eubank will fight on February 17

DeGale is still undercover, his future as clear as fog. Poor James was part of an extreme year for the British and a star-busting telescope is necessary to gaze down from Joshua’s towering column to the myriad scrappers at the heart of a thriving but increasingly cruel business.

It seemed like dozens of men remained unbeaten or moved from zero to six or seven fights without so much as breaking a sweat in rings; Daniel Dubois, a heavyweight of 20, turned professional in April and has now won six by knockout, having been in the ring for just over 12 minutes. It’s a packed business of genuine stars, but few have the ability to turn heads with such wonderfully casual ease as Dubois - he does have a dozen domestic rivals to beat before the choir can start singing.

However, on the safe side of the ropes a boxer’s head can be turned by the slightest breeze from a fixer’s thin lips with an empty promise of riches, glory and an end to whatever keeps the fighter awake at night. The next twelve months will be brilliant inside the ropes and tetchy away from the lights as the scramble for boxing’s Promised Land, which is never more than one punch away, continues with a series of power struggles, including a luscious television battle.

It feels like it could be a dangerous year for the business as record numbers watch a sport that has not really changed in fifty or so years; there will need to be great fights and that is not always good business.

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