Fight of year: Rodriguez-Takayama

Francisco Rodriguez Jr., left, engaged in nonstop action with Katsunari Takayama in August. Mario Ocampo/LatinContent/Getty Images

The strawweight division is boxing's smallest, one in which the combatants are a mere 105 pounds, or about half the size of a small heavyweight. But do not take their diminutive stature as a sign that they can't fight or aren't capable of delivering just as much raw violence and excitement as any of their bigger, more popular colleagues.

For example, in 2011, Japan's Akira Yaegashi knocked out Pornsawan Porpramook of Thailand in the 10th round of a gripping, action-packed fight to win a strawweight world title in what became the ESPN.com fight of the year. It was easily the best fight in the history of the division, which was created in 1987.

Three years later, boxing fans were treated to another epic fight in the weight class as Mexico's Francisco Rodriguez Jr. (15-2, 10 KOs), a 21-year-old making his first title defense, and Japanese veteran two-time titleholder Katsunari Takayama (27-7, 10 KOs), 31, making his third title defense, met in a rare strawweight unification fight Aug. 9 in Rodriguez's hometown of Monterrey, Mexico.

What they delivered was special: the second-best fight in 105-pound division history and the 2014 ESPN.com fight of the year. It was a frenzied battle that was so good and so filled with unrelenting action from bell to bell that, other than the mandatory one-minute rest period between rounds, it felt like one extended round as they exchanged punches nonstop for virtually the entire fight.

It was an all-out war that was as intense and action-packed as any fight in boxing in recent times. From the opening bell, they sprinted toward each other and never stopped trying to crush each other in search-and-destroy style.

After Takayama seemed to get the better of the action in the first two rounds (despite being cut over his left eye), Rodriguez scored a knockdown inside the first minute of the third round when he connected with a left hook to the body that sent Takayama sprawling to the mat but seemingly not badly hurt. He popped up quickly, and the combat resumed in what became a breathtaking battle of attrition.

They never stopped punching as they took turns rocking each other round after round. It was tiring just to watch them as they stood head-to-head and chest-to-chest and pounded away, including at the end of the sixth round, which had amazing action. Even after emptying their tanks for 11 rounds, they still had enough left for a sensational final round, one of the best of the year, as they continued to fight at 100 mph.

The whole fight had ridiculous, nonstop action. The heart and conditioning of both of these warriors was something to behold. Other than counting on the only knockdown, referee Samuel Viruet had very little to do because there were virtually no clinches.

Want a testament to how incredibly entertaining this slugfest was? The great Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. was ringside cheering wildly as Rodriguez and Takayama left everything they had inside the ring. Rodriguez got the decision on scores of 116-111, 115-112 and a way-too-wide 119-108, but what fans will remember is the phenomenal action.

Postscript: Rodriguez soon vacated his belts, moved up to flyweight and was held to a draw against Jomar Fajardo in November. Takayama has not fought since but will face countryman Go Odaira on New Year's Eve in Osaka, Japan, for both of the vacant titles. Perhaps it will also be a memorable fight, but it seems doubtful it can match the ferocity of what Takayama and Rodriguez did to each other a few months earlier.

Other unforgettables

Orlando Salido KO11 Terdsak Kokietgym (Sept. 20 at Tijuana, Mexico):

Meeting for a vacant interim junior lightweight belt, former featherweight titlist Salido and former world title challenger Kokietgym waged an absolutely sensational fight that featured nonstop action, seven total knockdowns (Salido was down three times and Kokietgym four times) and massive courage from both guys. If all of that weren't great enough, the sheer mayhem was capped off with Salido scoring a huge knockout. It was a riveting battle, which did not come as a huge surprise given Salido's penchant for being in excellent fights. Even Kokietgym has been in his share. Mix them together and the result was the kind of fight that produced jump-out-of-your-seat action. The fight started super fast and never let up. They came out banging and each hit the deck in the opening round, then continued to trade knockdowns in a wild fight. Salido was down in the second round, Kokietgym in the fourth round on a body shot, Salido again in the fifth round and Kokietgym yet again in the seventh round. From the seventh round until the KO, Salido took over the fight, but the action never let up. Finally, in the 11th round, Salido ended the fight with a vicious four-punch combination for a spectacular knockout. It was a devastating end to a great fight.

Tommy Coyle TKO12 Daniel Brizuela (Feb. 22 at Hull, England):

Coyle, fighting in his hometown and gaining a reputation as an all-action brawler, squared off with Argentina's Brizuela in a hellacious lightweight fight that was dramatic, intense and worthy of repeat viewing. Sure, neither has a big name in boxing and there was no world title at stake, but that didn't stop them from turning in a memorable scrap that featured all-out action, three point deductions for rough stuff, eight -- yes, eight! -- knockdowns and the great 11th round, which was picked as ESPN.com's round of the year. Overall, each man hit the deck four times, but it was resilient Coyle who was the last man standing. Brizuela notched the first three knockdowns, one late in the second round and two more in the sixth round, when he nearly got the stoppage. Brizuela, who was cut over his left eye from an accidental head-butt in the 10th round, also had Coyle down in the wild 11th round. Coyle scored knockdowns in the eighth round, two in the 11th round and one more in the 12th round. "How are these two still standing? What a fight," said Sky Sports broadcaster Nick Halling as the 11th round ended. Indeed, it was a tumultuous affair. Both guys looked as if they were ready to go at any moment in the 12th round. Coyle, however, cracked Brizuela with a right hand that sent him into the ropes and followed with a left hand that dropped him yet again. Brizuela pounded the canvas with his fist out of frustration, then quickly got to his feet and seemed OK, but referee Steve Gray elected to halt a fight that won't soon be forgotten.

Terence Crawford TKO9 Yuriorkis Gamboa (June 28 at Omaha, Nebraska):

This fight had everything you could possibly want in a prize fight: competition, an awesome atmosphere, high stakes, two skilled and undefeated fighters who both showed heart, hard punching, knockdowns, action and a definitive ending. Crawford, making his first lightweight title defense, returned home for his first professional fight and drew a crowd of 10,943 for the first world title fight in the city in 42 years and, boy, was it worth the wait. The fight was expected to be a boxing match between two slick and skilled fighters, but it quickly became an action-packed affair. Crawford struggled to deal with Gamboa's speed for the first four rounds, but after that he took over the fight. Still, Gamboa, a former unified featherweight titlist coming off a year layoff, never appeared totally out of it until the very end, even rallying to rock Crawford in the ninth round. Crawford scored four knockdowns overall, first dropping Gamboa in the fifth round and again in the exciting power-punch-filled eighth round, prompting HBO's Hall of Fame announcer Jim Lampley to punctuate the round with, "Unbelievable stuff here in Omaha, Nebraska! This crowd, many of whom are at their first live prize fight, getting their money's worth in a big way!" Crawford finished Gamboa off with two more knockdowns in the ninth round as the crowd went nuts and a star was born.

Lucas Matthysse KO11 John Molina (April 26 at Carson, California):

Matthysse is a tremendous puncher and rarely in a bad fight. Molina, also a big puncher, knows no other way but to brawl, and, since his chin has betrayed him, he walks a tightrope whenever he's in the ring. So when Matthysse and Molina were matched, it figured to be an excellent junior welterweight fight -- if Molina's chin could hold up against Matthysse's thunderous power. It held up long enough for them to produce a scintillating and bloody five-knockdown slugfest in which they spent nearly the entire fight trading fierce punches at close quarters until "The Machine" simply wore Molina down and stopped him with a late-rounds onslaught that was not for the faint of heart. Molina was credited with knockdowns in the second round and fifth round (although the fifth-round punch was a shot behind Matthysse's head). Matthysse was also cut by an accidental head-butt over his left eye in the third round. But Matthysse kept firing away and eventually took over the fight as he administered a beating to determined Molina in the later rounds. He got credit for a knockdown in the eighth round when it was really a push. But Matthysse did have a big round and laid a serious beating on Molina, who was bleeding under his left eye. "This is a brutal battle between Matthysse and Molina. We can hear every thudding blow," Showtime's Mauro Ranallo roared early in the eighth round. Matthysse scored another knockdown in the 10th round and finished the bloody Molina in the 11th when he floored him again with a brutal left hook and a right hand that ended the bone-crunching battle.

Curtis Stevens TKO10 Tureano Johnson (April 4 at Philadelphia):

Boxing fans have long known that Stevens likes to rumble. Those same boxing fans now know the same about Johnson, who was taking a big step up in competition, as they turned in a quality rumble marred only by the debatable stoppage. The ending, however, did not take away from the excitement produced in the first nine rounds of this middleweight slobber-knocker. They went at each other from the opening bell in a blazing first round filled with power punches. Although it was mostly a one-sided fight in Johnson's favor, the action never relented. In the 10th and final round, it was obvious that Stevens was going to need the knockout to win, and he got it when he connected with a left hook that hurt Johnson and sent him into the ropes, where he landed another fierce left hand. Stevens continued to throw punches with abandon, but, although most of the shots missed the target or just caught Johnson's gloves, referee Gary Rosato jumped in quickly, giving Stevens a questionable comeback victory in an otherwise sizzling fight.

David Lemieux TKO10 Gabriel Rosado (Dec. 6 at New York, Brooklyn):

If Lemieux was going to move on to a possible world title shot, he was going to have to go through Rosado, a fierce competitor and former title challenger who will expose an opponent if he is not at his best. Given their aggressive styles, the middleweight match figured to be a barn burner when it was signed, and it more than lived up to the hype as they engaged in a rock 'em, sock 'em brawl that had the crowd cheering throughout. Although Lemieux was firmly in control from the third round on, it was still very exciting. Lemieux dropped Rosado in the third round, when his left eye turned into a swollen, black-and-blue wreck, hampering his vision. Then came the round of the year contender in the fourth, which featured hellacious back-and-forth action as both fighters were rocked. By the sixth round, Rosado's eye was essentially closed. Lemieux showed no mercy as he continued to pound Rosado, including nearly dropping him with a left hook at the end of the ninth round. As Rosado continued to take punishment in the 10th and the eye was in terrible shape, the ringside doctor ordered the fight stopped. It sure was fun while it lasted.

Steve Cunningham W10 Amir Mansour (April 4 at Philadelphia):

It was the better boxing of former cruiserweight titleholder Cunningham against the brute strength of Mansour in a heavyweight fight that was hard-fought, intense and dramatic. Cunningham survived two knockdowns and nearly being knocked out to rally for a tremendous victory on a card that also included fight of the year contender Curtis Stevens versus Tureano Johnson. Cunningham and Mansour brawled throughout the fight in which both men were bruised and bleeding. Mansour nearly ended the fight in the fifth round as he dropped Cunningham twice and nearly had him out. Although Cunningham looked done after the round, he dug deep, stayed calm and fought his way back into the fight, taking advantage of Mansour's inexperience. Cunningham countered Mansour's wild shots and continued to win rounds despite being so damaged in the fifth round. If there was any doubt that Cunningham had mounted a successful comeback, he salted the win away with a knockdown in the final 35 seconds of the fight when he dropped an off-balance Mansour with a left hand. It was the kind of fight that should raise the stock of both men, who put it all on the line.

Monty Meza Clay TKO10 Alan Herrera (Aug. 8 at Pittsburgh):

This was a terrific and unexpected action-packed fight as Meza Clay, the hometown favorite, and Mexico's Herrera turned in a toe-to-toe brawl with neither man giving an inch throughout the extremely fast-paced fight. Meza Clay applied nonstop pressure as his crowd went wild throughout the bout. In the sixth round, Meza Clay dropped Herrera with an overhand right-left hand combination, but Herrera was not badly hurt. It was caused more by the relentless pressure from Meza Clay than any particular punch. Herrera rallied late in the round, however, as he finally forced Meza Clay to back up in what proved to be a tremendous round. Meza Clay was pulling away in the middle rounds largely because of his nonstop punching, but Herrera came back to badly rock Meza Clay with a huge right hand with 30 seconds left in the ninth round. Meza Clay retreated to the ropes, and Herrera was all over him. Meza Clay was in massive trouble but continued to punch as they closed the round in an extended and hellacious exchange. Promoter and former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson was sitting in with the Fox Sports 1 announcers losing his mind during the round, finally saying, "I had no idea this fight would be so exciting!" The fighters continued to let it all hang out in the 10th round, and with Herrera, who was cut over his right eye, finally beginning to wilt, referee Rick Steigerwald jumped in to stop the bout after Meza Clay connected on one final right hand that rocked Herrera. It was a fantastic fight.

Jose Lopez W8 Roberto Castaneda (Aug. 16 at Caguas, Puerto Rico):

Putting the controversy of the majority decision scoring aside -- there were accusations of manipulated scorecards -- this was a wild junior featherweight slugfest, especially in the early rounds. The two traded big shots and were repeatedly wobbled like drunken sailors in an old-fashioned shootout that featured a ridiculous five knockdowns in the first round, seven overall in the first three rounds and a deluge of power shots throughout the fight as both guys showed immense courage. Referee Roberto Ramirez was a busy man as Lopez dropped Castaneda and then got dropped four times, all in the opening round. Lopez caught Castaneda with a right hand and dropped him in the second round. In the third round, Lopez rocked Castaneda and dropped him for the third time with a right hand early in the frame. And if all the knockdowns and slugging weren't enough, Castaneda also lost a point in the third round for hitting Lopez behind the head. This was simply a surreal, toe-to-toe brawl.

Travis Dickinson TKO6 Matty Clarkson (May 17 at Leeds, England):

Dickinson, defending his English light heavyweight title, and Clarkson put on an exciting, brutal fight filled with hard punches in which they combined for six knockdowns, with Dickinson down four times and Clarkson twice. Dickinson dropped Clarkson with a right uppercut less than a minute into the fight, and the action continued throughout. By the end of the first round, Channel 5 broadcaster Dave Farrar was on the money when he said, "Already this has the feel of a mini-classic." Clarkson was down again in the second round from a left hook, and Dickinson suffered a flash knockdown in the third. The brutal fifth round, the best of the fight, was a big one for Clarkson, whose body attack dropped Dickinson three times and put him on the verge of an upset win. But Dickinson, his face showing the agony he was in, also landed big shots. "Absolutely extraordinary action here," cried Farrar down the stretch of the fifth round. They continued to fire away in the sixth round, and, when Dickinson landed a combination that rocked Clarkson, who had bad swelling on the right side of his face and under his left eye, referee Michael Alexander jumped in with 20 seconds left. It was a poor stoppage, but it was one hell of a fight.

Robert Guerrero W12 Yoshihiro Kamegai (June 21 at Carson, California):

Fighting for the first time in 13 months since being wiped out by Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a welterweight world title fight, Guerrero was matched with Kamegai in what many expected to be an easy victory for him on the comeback trail. As it turned out, it was anything but. Somebody forgot to tell Kamegai he was not supposed to be competitive. Although there was little drama and no knockdowns, it was a bloody, high-contact fight. Guerrero was never in serious trouble, but Kamegai pushed him very hard as they both showed incredible heart and will in a brutal fight. They traded fierce shots on the inside in the sixth round, and Guerrero was getting the worse of it when their heads collided, causing a terrible cut over Guerrero's left eye. It was a mess for the rest of the fight, but Guerrero fought through the injury and continued to pour it on, snapping Kamegai's head back with straight left hands. In the end, they combined to throw an astonishing 1,913 punches, according to CompuBox statistics, and kept a frenetic pace for the entire exciting fight.

Robert Stieglitz D12 Felix Sturm (Nov. 8 at Stuttgart, Germany):

Two of Germany's most popular fighters were looking for a big fight since Sturm was coming off losing his middleweight title and Stieglitz had lost his super middleweight belt two fights earlier. They met in a big-money super middleweight fight that ended in a draw, but not until they had delivered a whale of a show -- a surprise because neither is known as an action fighter. But they were on this night as the bout was close and action-packed throughout. Stieglitz was more aggressive and threw a lot more punches, but Sturm was accurate with his combinations and connected frequently, including with several powerful uppercuts. A draw seemed perfectly legitimate, and, given how good the fight was, a rematch would be welcome.

Rodrigo Guerrero TKO7 Daniel Rosas (Feb. 15 at Tapachula, Mexico):

Guerrero, a former junior bantamweight world titleholder, and Rosas engaged in a violence-filled battle that ended in a mild upset as Guerrero simply wore down Rosas. Guerrero started fast, dropping Rosas hard in the first round. Rosas, who suffered a deep cut in his right eyebrow, got himself together and fought back for a strong third round. There were numerous brutal exchanges in which both men took punishment. In the seventh round, Rosas was fading, his eye was bleeding and he was taking a pounding when the referee stepped in to stop an unanswered assault from Guerrero.