Boxing in 2023: Crawford joins the greats, Benavidez's rise and heavyweight hope

Saudi Arabia's backing of the sport makes for an exciting year ahead

Terrence Crawford celebrates with his championship belts after defeating Errol Spence Jr. Getty Images
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The past 12 months in boxing have felt transitional with the emergence of new stars in the US and the broadcasting landscape undergoing some major changes. That said, it has still been a year with some meaningful and exceptional fights.

Chief among them was Terence Crawford establishing his all-time great status with a one-sided dismissal of his welterweight rival Errol Spence in July. There was also a huge result in the division below as Teofimo Lopez returned to form with a virtuoso display to dethrone light-welterweight champion Josh Taylor in June.

At lightweight, Gervonta Davis easily dealt with Ryan Garcia in a fight rich in celebrity but lacking in competitiveness. Devin Haney edged past Vasyl Lomachenko in a fight many thought he lost, and then moved up to impressively beat down Regis Prograis in the 140 pound division. The outrageously gifted Shakur Stevenson fought twice but continues to underwhelm fans with his style making him as hard to watch as he is to beat.

Arguably the biggest star in the sport, Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez, had a modest year by his standards with victories over John Ryder and Jermell Charlo. He remains the man at super middleweight but will face increasing pressure to face rising star David Benavidez.

Janibek Alimkhanuly established himself as No 1 at middleweight, while Tim Tszyu continued to build momentum at light middle.

Further down the divisions, Naoya Inoue looked peerless as he dismantled Stephen Fulton in the summer and then unified the 122lbs weight class by beating Marlon Tapales on Boxing Day.

At the other end of the spectrum it has been a disappointing time for the heavyweights, with Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk fighting just once - and not against each other. However, with Saudi Arabia now fully behind the division and closing the year with the epic "Day of Reckoning" show, that's all set to change in 2024. Below we look at some of the main talking points from the past 12 months.

Crawford joins the greats of the sport

That his long-awaited super fight against Spence ended up being so one-sided is testament to the incredible talent of Crawford. Spence had been cleaning up at welterweight for the best part of a decade but looked like he didn’t belong in the ring with the Omaha switch-hitter. The win cemented Crawford's place as the best American fighter of his era and established his all-time great credentials. It's difficult to give out fighter of the year on the basis of a single victory, but many will crown Crawford given how decisively he seized his big moment. Often it's not if you win, but how you win, and Crawford's sensational performance will go down in history. A seemingly pointless rematch with Spence will be next in the early part of 2024.

Benavidez enjoys breakthrough year

In this age of inactivity, posting two high-level wins in a calendar year is enough to put you in the conversation for fighter of the year. Benavidez did just that. In March he wiped the floor with Caleb Plant and then last month bludgeoned Demetrius Andrade into submission. But really, he deserves recognition for his transformation in the past 12 months. He started 2023 as a curiosity but ends it as one of the most exciting fighters in the sport and with fans calling for a showdown against 'Canelo’ Alvarez. He’s far from perfect but his ultra-aggressive style makes him must-watch TV and you get the impression he really would fight anyone.

Jesse Rodriguez underlines his rich potential

The 23-year-old cemented his reputation as the one of the most exciting little men in the sport with his December stoppage of Sunny Edwards. That followed April’s win over Cristian Gonzalez and a stellar 2022 when he defeated Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Carlos Cuadras. Next year promises to be even more exciting with a mooted match-up against the legend Juan Francisco Estrada.

Lopez back with a bang

Inoue's victory over Fulton and Crawford's win over Spence showed exactly why they are rated as the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, but Lopez deserves special credit for his exceptional victory over Taylor. His fortunes have dipped in recent times - beaten by George Kambosos Jr and deeply unimpressive against Sandor Martin - but he returned to form in spectacular fashion against Taylor. With the Scot pushing forwards, Lopez was able to counter him all night long to sweep up the WBO and Ring Magazine titles at 140 pounds and propel himself back into the pound-for-pound conversation.

Saudi Arabia breathes life into the heavyweight division

What was a deeply disappointing 2023 for the big men had a positive ending with the December 23 "Day of Reckoning" card. Anthony Joshua's return to form is great news for the division, and with the Fury-Usyk unification bout set for February 17, next year could be the best year for heavyweight boxing in a very long time. There is talk of Joshua fighting Filip Hrgovic next for the IBF title with the winner being in line for a shot at either Fury or Usyk. However the division shakes out, it appears the big time cards in the kingdom are here to stay.

Fight of the Year - Jaime Munguia UD over Sergiy Derevyanchenko

Munguia needed a knockdown in the last round to swing the fight his way and earn a hard-fought win on the cards back in June. The Mexican was a pre-fight favourite but nobody has an easy night against Derevyanchenko - just ask Gennady Golovkin - and he found himself down late in the piece. Munguia rallied in the 11th and scored a knockdown in the 12th to get the nod. Derevyanchenko has been campaigning for a rematch ever since and many felt he had done enough. Nobody would complain at seeing this run back. The fifth round was also probably the round of the year. Honourable mentions to Artur Beterbiev v Anthony Yarde, Joe Cordina v Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov, and Katie Taylor v Chantelle Cameron II.

KO of the year - Ja'Rico O’Quinn KO5 over Peter McGrail

Having lost every round and been down twice, to say this outcome was unexpected is probably underselling it. Liverpool's McGrail, the highly-regarded Olympian nicknamed 'the Scouse Lomachenko', looked to be on his way to an impressive win on his US debut. But a counter right hand, delivered after taking a straight left, was enough for O’Quinn to turn the lights out and pull off a huge upset.

Five fights for 2024

Tyson Fury v Anthony Joshua: It's absurd these two tailor-made rivals haven't met in an all-British showdown. It's hard to overstate just how big it would be come fight night. Maybe 2024 is the year the stars will align.

Artur Beterbiev v Dmitry Bivol: The clear No 1 and No 2 at light heavyweight and also a fascinating blend of styles with the aggression of Beterbiev and the ultra-slick Bivol. With Bivol victorious in Saudi Arabia on December 23, and Beterbiev favoured to beat Callum Smith in January, it raises hope that the kingdom could yet tempt the two into the ring together.

Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez v David Benavidez: This all-Mexican battle for super middleweight supremacy is starting to gather momentum. Benavidez is calling for it and there are no promotional or contractual barriers, but it's Canelo who calls the shots. Let's hope he gives the fans a treat.

Jesse Rodriguez v Juan Francisco Estrada: The young pretender versus the old master at super flyweight. With Estrada ringside for Rodriguez's recent win over Edwards, it looks like we might get it.

Gervonta Davis v Vasyl Lomachenko: Davis is on the brink of crossing over into the mainstream in the US, while the great Lomachenko showed he still has plenty left to offer in his razor-thin defeat to Haney.

'Day of Reckoning' - in pictures

Updated: December 27, 2023, 8:35 PM