Two days before Jarrett Hurd and Erislandy Lara were to meet in an April 7 junior middleweight world title unification fight at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, at the prefight press conference, Hurd uttered words that were prophetic.
"There's a storm coming," said Hurd, predicting an exciting fight.
How right Hurd was, as he and Lara turned in a grinding, grueling, hard-fought classic that was the 2018 ESPN.com Fight of the Year.
Lara, a consummate boxer, had the well-earned reputation as a boring fighter for a series of sleep-inducing fights. But when pressured he had also been in some good ones. Hurd did his homework and applied absolutely relentless pressure on Lara, forcing the southpaw to abandon his usual style.
Instead, they spent most of the fight chest to chest banging it out in a rough, tough slugfest. Hurd hammered Lara with left hooks to the body, and Lara landed many clean head shots that couldn't budge Hurd. The action, drama and pace steadily built throughout the fight until they were emptying their tanks over the final four rounds.
"Lara's standing his ground. He is fighting like a man, but, boy, it's tough against this young guy," Showtime's Al Bernstein observed in the ninth round.
As they continued to hammer each other in the 12th round of an obviously very close fight, Bernstein said matter-of-factly, "What an amazing fight."
He was right, and it only got better. With just 37 seconds left, Hurd delivered the winning punch, a left hook that dropped a bleeding Lara for what provided the margin of victory in a split-decision win -- 114-113 for Hurd on two scorecards and 114-113 for Lara on the third - that was every bit as good as it was close.
2. Murat Gassiev TKO12 Yunier Dorticos (Feb. 3 at Bolshoy Ice Dome, Sochi, Russia): In the World Boxing Super Series semifinals, Gassiev scored three knockdowns in the final round and sensationally and dramatically stopped Dorticos in the waning seconds to culminate an exceptional, high-level slugfest in which he unified two cruiserweight world titles.
3. Alex Saucedo TKO7 Lenny Zappavigna (June 30 at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City): It was a can't-miss fight on paper and, boy, did this toe-to-toe junior welterweight bloodbath deliver unrelenting action. In front of a hometown crowd, Saucedo put on an Arturo Gatti-like performance as he dropped Zappavigna in the third round, nearly got dropped in the incredible fourth round and, with both men badly bleeding and having pummeled each other, got the win when Zappavigna's corner threw in the towel in the seventh.
4. Oscar Valdez W12 Scott Quigg (March 10 at StubHub Center, Carson, California): In a savage back-and-forth and bloody battle during a rain storm, featherweight world titlist Valdez and friendly rival Quigg, who had failed to make weight, busted each other up in a frenzied fight in which Valdez overcame a badly broken jaw suffered in the fifth round.
5. Deontay Wilder TKO10 Luis "King Kong" Ortiz (March 3 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York): After four slow-paced rounds, things seriously ignited in an action-packed heavyweight world title fight in which Wilder dropped Ortiz in the fifth round, survived a near-stoppage in the seventh and stormed back for a thunderous 10th-round KO to retain his title.
6. Kosei Tanaka W12 Sho Kimura (Sept. 24 at Takeda Tava Ocean Arena, Nagoya, Japan): The Japanese countrymen engaged in an all-out slugfest that resulted in Tanaka winning a majority decision to take Kimura's flyweight world title and claim a belt in a third weight class.
7. Canelo Alvarez W12 Gennady Golovkin II (Sept. 15 at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas): Alvarez eked out a win to claim the unified middleweight title in the year's biggest fight, a close and exciting battle that matched the hype as he and GGG slugged it out in even more exciting fashion than their controversial 2017 draw.
8. Vasiliy Lomachenko TKO10 Jorge Linares (May 12 at Madison Square Garden, New York): Pound-for-pound king Lomachenko, who moved up to win a lightweight world title, got a stiff test from Linares in a terrific fight in which Lomachenko tore the labrum in his right shoulder in the second round, survived a knockdown in the sixth round and stopped him in the 10th with a left to the body.
9. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai W12 Juan Francisco Estrada (Feb. 24 at The Forum, Inglewood, California): Sor Rungvisai retained his 115-pound world title by extremely hard-fought majority in the main event of "Superfly 2" in an intense and thrilling slugfest fought at a wildly fast pace that reached a crescendo with an epic final round.
10. Leo Santa Cruz W12 Abner Mares II (June 9 at Staples Center, Los Angeles): In 2015, the Los Angeles rivals met for a vacant featherweight belt and produced a memorable battle Santa Cruz won by majority decision. The rematch was worth the wait, with the pair again producing fireworks in another all-action bout that Santa Cruz again won as he retained his title.
Knockout of the Year: Murat Gassiev KO12 Yunier Dorticos
Murat Gassiev had already dropped fellow cruiserweight world titleholder Yunier Dorticos twice in the 12th round of the World Boxing Super Series semifinals on Feb. 3 at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia, in what had been a thrilling action battle between huge punchers.
Gassiev first floored Dorticos with a mammoth left hook on the chin that put him flat on his back in the center of the ring midway through the round, and moments later Dorticos ate another mean left hook that dropped him again. Dorticos was in all sorts of trouble, and it was obvious the end was near.
And when that inevitable end arrived, it was as sensational as it gets -- and the 2018 ESPN.com Knockout of the Year.
"Dorticos weaving all over the place. His legs are about as sturdy as wet noodles right now," World Boxing Super Series broadcaster Ronald McIntosh roared. "He can barely hold his boxing stance. Gassiev looking to take him out with one big shot."
Gassiev was looking to do just that as he attacked the fading "KO Doctor" with abandon, forcing him to the ropes and blasting away. Gassiev connected with a right hand and then another devastating right hand that knocked Dorticos through the ropes and nearly all the way out of the ring with only eight seconds left in the fight for a dramatic title unification victory.
"[Referee] Eddie Claudio keeping a close eye on the proceedings -- and [Dorticos] is knocked through the ropes," McIntosh exclaimed. "Eddie Claudio calls it off immediately! Murat Gassiev is the new unified cruiserweight champion of the world, having scored a dramatic 12th-round knockout over 'The KO Doctor'! 'The KO Doctor' has been given a dose of his own medicine from the furious, unrelenting fists of Murat Gassiev!"
Those fists indeed were unrelenting, as Dorticos had been punched between the second and third ring ropes. He fell backward onto the ring apron while his legs, from the knees down, hung over the ropes inside the ring like a dish rag.
Other sweet shots: 2. Teofimo Lopez Jr. KO1 Mason Menard; 3. Dillian Whyte KO11 Dereck Chisora II; 4. Alexander Povetkin KO5 David Price; 5. Oleksandr Usyk TKO8 Tony Bellew; 6. Deontay Wilder KO10 Luis "King Kong" Ortiz; 7. Roman Gonzalez KO5 Moises Fuentes; 8. Keita Obara TKO2 Alvin Lagumbay I; 9. Jermall Charlo KO2 Hugo Centeno Jr.; 10. Naoya Inoue KO1 Juan Carlos Payano; 11. Dillian Whyte KO6 Lucas Browne; 12. Harlem Eubank KO2 Petar Alexandrov
Round of the Year: Alex Saucedo-Lenny Zappavigna (4th)
On paper, junior welterweights Alex Saucedo and Lenny Zappavigna were expected to deliver an action-packed fight when they met June 30 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Saucedo's hometown of Oklahoma City. And they did just that.
It was a rock-'em, sock-'em bloodbath from the opening bell until Saucedo, in need of a win to secure a world title shot, earned a seventh-round stoppage when Zappavigna's corner threw in the towel.
No round was more violent, more intense and more exhilarating than the fourth. It was the 2018 ESPN.com Round of the Year.
Zappavigna, with facial cuts, had been down in the third round but stormed back in the fourth round to rock Saucedo with a powerful left hook and open a gaping cut over his right eye. He was going for the knockout, but Saucedo, with blood pouring from his cut so badly that it covered Zappavigna's back, somehow stood his ground and fired clean shots in return.
"Can you believe this fight?" ESPN's Joe Tessitore cried with 90 seconds to go in the round.
They continued to pound each other, and the flying blood was evident as red blotches covered the TV camera lens.
As they finished off the time-capsule round, an excited Tessitore might as well have been Nostradamus: "You can take your list of round of the year and put it in big marker right now!"
How right he was.
Other scorchers: 2. Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury (12th); 3. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai-Juan Francisco Estrada (12th); 4. Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez-Jesse Hart II (12th); 5. Deontay Wilder-Luis Ortiz (7th); 6. Kosei Tanaka-Sho Kimura (2nd); 7. Jose Ramirez-Antonio Orozco (1st); 8. Jarrett Hurd-Erislandy Lara (10th); 9. Murat Gassiev-Yunier Dorticos (10th); 10. Leo Santa Cruz-Abner Mares II (12th)