By Johnny Walker
You’d never know it by listening to much of the mainstream boxing media in North America, but 2011 was a good year for the heavyweight division, with lots of strong matchups finally being made as the group just below the dominant Klitschko brothers jockeys for position. Here are some of our picks for the heavyweight winners and losers of 2011.
Heavyweight Fighter of the Year: Vitali Klitschko
Vitali Klitschko is just amazing. Coming back after three plus years off due to injury to dominate everyone he faces, and arguably not losing a round in the process over eight fights, is the stuff of legend. Not to mention that he’s never been knocked down, much less knocked out. And he sports the highest knockout percentage (88.89%) in the division’s history. More and more boxing fans now realize that iron-chinned, hard-hitting Vitali would have given anyone in boxing history a very rough time, and would win far more than he loses in a mythical competition among the all-time greats.
In March 2011, Dr. Ironfist first dispensed of mandatory opponent Odlanier Solis, who blew out a knee after Vitali landed a hard shot to his temple at the end of round one. Vitali was furious at this waste of his time, and used this anger for motivation, coming into his next fight, against top Polish contender Tomasz Adamek, in perhaps the finest physical condition of his career. Former cruiserweight champion Adamek had previously beaten some very big men in Michael Grant and Kevin McBride, but against Klitschko, he looked like a hopeless novice in a TKO loss. The fact that Adamek was beaten to a pulp, yet it still appeared that Vitali didn’t go all out against him, says it all.
Incredibly, at 40 years old, Vitali Klitschko is now a better, a more complete fighter than he was before his retirement. His younger brother may own more belts, but for this writer, it is Vitali who is the world’s preeminent heavyweight.
Heavyweight Fight of the Year: Monte Barrett vs. David Tua II, Manukau City, New Zealand
These two veterans may never beat either Klitschko brother – but who cares? Their first fight in Atlantic City in 2010 was a thriller, with Barrett knocking Tua to the canvas for the first time in the Tuamanator’s career in a fight most observers thought he won, but that was scored a draw. The rematch in New Zealand was even better, with Barrett dominating early, working behind a stiff jab and giving Tua another first: the first cut of the durable Kiwi’s career. Tua stormed back in the second half of the fight, finally knocking Barrett down (and breaking his jaw) in the final round, only to see Barrett miraculously rise and beat the count. Barrett won a unanimous decision, a distraught Tua losing a very lucrative payday against Vitali Klitschko in the process.
Tua has recently accused Barrett of using performance enhancing drugs, and Barrett has fired back that Tua is a washed up whiner, the “Queen of New Zealand.” These two used to be friendly, but now there seems to be nothing but hard feelings on both sides, making the idea of a trilogy very attractive. Hopefully we see Barrett – Tua III sometime in 2012.
Heavyweight Fight of the Year, Runner-up: Robert Helenius vs Dereck Chisora, Helsinki, Finland
Lost in the kerfuffle over the poor decision that gave Helenius the win here was the fact that it was a great heavyweight fight. Big man Helenius suffered a broken hand in round one, but to his credit still battled hard all the way. Chisora, in contrast to his fight earlier this year against Tyson Fury, showed up in great shape, getting inside on Helenius and blunting his power while also landing some solid body shots that sapped the Finn’s strength in the late rounds. The contrast in styles made for a very exciting fight.
Heavyweight Knockout of the Year: Mariusz Wach
Veteran Mike Tyson conqueror Kevin McBride had just gone the distance with Wach’s countryman, Tomasz Adamek, so the thinking was he might provide some stiff competition for the rising giant Wach. But it was McBride who was knocked stiff as Wach landed a crushing right hand to McBride’s chin that sent the massive Irishman sprawling to the canvas, knocked out stone cold at 2:25 of round four. This was the definition of a highlight reel KO.
Heavyweight Rookie of the Year: Artur Szpilka
While Tomasz Adamek was brave but battered versus Vitali Klitschko, Mariusz Wach and Artur Szpilka gave Polish fans plenty of reasons for optimism regarding the future of the heavyweight division. Szpilka, a southpaw, is the kind of colorful character the division needs: he enters the ring in an orange prison jumpsuit (a visual reference to a stretch he did in jail for soccer hooliganism), accompanied by sexy strippers dressed (scantily) as policewomen. Once in the ring, Szpilka provides a nice combination of speed and power to quickly dispose of the opposition. He’s still a bit rough around the edges, but at age 22, he’s got lots of time to mature and improve. We at Boxing Insider eagerly anticipate Szpilka’s antics in 2012.