Boxing's best of 2022: The knockouts, fights and fighters of the year

Light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol, left, defeated Canelo Alvarez, right, in 2022. Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE

2022 featured the breakout of many boxers, the retirement of others -- some of them short-lived -- and a few new undisputed champions. The year also included plenty of upsets, disappointing performances, and of course, controversies.

What fight will be remembered as the best of 2022? Who did we select as Fighter of the Year? Mike Coppinger, Ben Baby and Michael Rothstein hand out the hardware.

Men's fighter of the year: Dmitry Bivol

Coppinger: Bivol is the slam-dunk choice -- how could he not be? As a 4-1 underdog, Bivol routed the consensus pound-for-pound king, Canelo Alvarez.

Forget the silly 115-113 scorecards. Bivol won 9 or 10 rounds with a brilliant display of boxing. Also forget any talk that tries to tone down Bivol's incredible effort with regard to weight. Sure, Alvarez's best weight is at 168 pounds, but he had already scored a spectacular knockout of Sergey Kovalev to win a light heavyweight title. Bivol wasn't just bigger, he was far better.

Bivol often boxed off the backfoot during his light heavyweight championship reign that began in 2017. In the win over Alvarez, Bivol often stood right in front of the Mexican and delivered five- and six-punch combinations.

That May victory alone might have been enough to capture fighter-of-the-year honors, but Bivol punctuated his breakout campaign with an equally lopsided victory over Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez in November in Abu Dhabi.

Once again, Bivol pressed the action and displayed his excellent jab and defensive skills by making Ramirez miss -- and pay. At 31, Bivol appears to be reaching his peak and there's only one fight out there who matters for Bivol: a battle against crushing puncher Artur Beterbiev for the undisputed light heavyweight championship.

If Beterbiev can retain his three 175-pound titles on Jan. 28 vs. Anthony Yarde, as expected, talks should resume for the bout against Bivol. If Bivol can defeat Beterbiev in similar fashion to the way he dispensed of Alvarez and Ramirez, we could have a repeat winner for boxing's highest annual honor.

Runner-up: Devin Haney

Devin Haney defends belts, beats Kambosos via unanimous decisions

Devin Haney successfully defends his belts in dominant fashion, crushing George Kambosos in all facets of the game in a unanimous-decision victory.

Haney traveled to Australia in June and won virtually every round as he wrested the undisputed championship from George Kambosos Jr.. For an encore, the American again visited his opponent's backyard and used his pinpoint jab and movement to retain all four lightweight titles.

Haney is in talks to fight Vasiliy Lomachenko, but the timing of the bout could jeopardize efforts. The 23-year-old is a practicing Muslim, and Ramadan extends from March 22 to April 21, during which Haney will be fasting. He tweeted on Tuesday that he expressed to Top Rank his desire to fight Loma before the period of observance.

Either way, Haney could have only one more fight at 135 pounds before he moves up to 140. Hopefully that bout comes against Lomachenko.

Honorable mention: Jesse "Bam" Rodriguez, Naoya Inoue

Women's fighter of the year: Claressa Shields

Shields pours on the punches early en route to victory

On her way to becoming the undisputed champ, Claressa Shields unleashes a flurry of punches in Round 1.

With the growth in women's boxing in 2022 and the multitude of high-level fights across weight divisions, this was perhaps the best year ever for the sport. Which made this decision difficult. But in a close decision (more on that below) it made sense that Shields would get the nod over all the rest.

Shields, currently ESPN's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, beat the only person who had beaten her in a boxing ring, amateur or professional, when she defeated Savannah Marshall in October in England (Watch this fight on ESPN+). She made another young, undefeated fighter, Ema Kozin, look entirely overmatched in her first fight of the year.

And moreover, Shields continued to make history. In beating Marshall, she became the undisputed middleweight champion for a second time. How she beat Marshall -- by implementing a style she'd been working on, being more patient with her shots while working with her superior timing and defense -- helped create an even more refined fighter who is just hitting her prime.

At age 27, Shields has already been a world champion in three divisions and undisputed champion in two. She headlined the first all-women's card in the United Kingdom when she fought Marshall. She's also been one of the biggest advocates for equality within the sport -- from pay to television exposure to promotion.

And in a year where women in boxing started to grab more headlines, Shields once again became the top fighter of them all.

Runner-up: Natasha Jonas

Natasha Jonas couldn't have expected any of this. A year ago, she was fighting at lightweight and junior welterweight, not getting a ton of career traction. She lost two chances at titles -- a draw at junior lightweight against Terri Harper and a unanimous decision loss to Katie Taylor at lightweight. She didn't know when, or if, that opportunity would come again.

Opportunity, though, gave her an unexpected chance. A move up to junior middleweight and maybe get another shot. By the end of the year, along with a shift from Matchroom to BOXXER, it was the move that made the 38-year-old's career.

Jonas said when the idea of moving to junior middleweight was presented to her by promoter Ben Shalom, it was met with hesitation because they didn't think she'd go for the idea because of the drastic weight change.

"Little did he know that I would," Jonas said.

Shields moved up to middleweight, vacating junior middleweight titles along the way. The openings led to three fights and three titles won. Now, she's one of the brightest stars in the sport. Stepping into the ring for the first time at 154 pounds this year was a little bit different -- and she knew doing it would be her last chance at a title. She beat Chris Namus for the WBO title in February, Patricia Berghult for the WBC title in September and Marie-Eve Dicaire for the IBF crown in November.

"We didn't plan the year to be like that," Jonas said. "It's just that all the opportunities, you've got to take your opportunities in boxing when they're there because you may never get them opportunities again."

And it's set up for a potentially massive 2023 for her. She could have an undisputed title fight against WBA champion Terri Harper. Or maybe face Shields, the undisputed middleweight champion, too. A long way from the last-chance thoughts she was having just one year ago.

Honorable mention: Katie Taylor, Chantelle Cameron, Yokasta Valle, Alycia Baumgardner.

Men's fight of the year: Leigh Wood TKO 12 Michael Conlan, March 12

Coppinger: The unforgettable featherweight title fight between Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan truly had it all. Nonstop action, ebbs and flows, and both fighters on the canvas amid a raucous atmosphere in Nottingham, England. Those traits alone are usually enough to win this honor.

But Wood-Conlan reached a new level toward the end of their thrilling fight. Conlan scored a knockdown in the closing seconds of the opening round with a single overhand left.

When the bell rang to start Round 2, Wood was still reeling. Conlan tried to finish him off as Wood attempted to survive. The Englishman then cut Conlan over the left eye in a wild follow-up round that featured plenty of violent exchanges.

As the rounds tolled on, Wood and Conlan continued to unload power punches with ferocity in a fast-paced 126-pound bout with a crowd filled with supporters for both boxers.

Wood continued to hammer Conlan's midsection in Round 10, but the Belfast native was firing shots in Round 11 in a battle that was clearly up for grabs. Seconds before the bell to end Round 11, Wood dropped Conlan with a left hook. Conlan jumped right up and protested that he slipped.

There was no doubt about the next knockdown. Conlan was ahead 104-103, 105-102 and 104-103 on the scorecards heading into the final round. Wood needed to win the round to pull out the draw to retain his WBA "regular" title.

Wood picked up where he left off in Round 12 and was pouring punches on Conlan, who backed up to the ropes. Suddenly, Conlan's body went stiff as a combination sent him crumbling through the ropes and outside the ring for the dramatic, come-from-behind victory by Wood.

Wood was elevated to "super" champion by the WBA this week after Leo Santa Cruz finally vacated his title. Conlan, meanwhile, scored a first-round KO of Karim Guerfi on Saturday and could fight Luis Alberto Lopez for the IBF title next year.

Just maybe, Wood and Conlan will meet again next year, but this time, in a rematch for two 126-pound titles.

Runner-up: Sivenathi Nontshinga UD 12 Hector Flores (Sept. 3)

Nontshinga traveled from South Africa to Mexico and captured the vacant IBF flyweight title in an exceptional fight. Nontshinga floored Flores in Round 2. The Mexican rebounded to stun Nontshinga in Round 4. The pace didn't slow from there in a bout where both boxers were hurt. Nontshinga won the tight contest via scores of 114-113, 115-112 and 116-111.

Honorable mention: Jermell Charlo KO 10 Brian Castano (May 14)

Women's fight of the Year: Katie Taylor vs. Amanda Serrano, April 30

Rothstein: It was hyped as the biggest fight in the history of women's boxing -- two female fighters headlining the main arena of Madison Square Garden, two of the top three fighters in the sport willing to face one another and Taylor's undisputed lightweight championship on the line.

There was risk involved. If the fight didn't live up to expectations, it could have set back growth in the sport. It could have damaged more than just the careers and legacies of Taylor and Serrano. Instead, the fight did what so few that are promoted to that magnitude do: It exceeded expectations.

Taylor beat Serrano by split decision in front of a sold-out MSG that night, a crowd as loud as any other major title fight.

"The people that tuned in to watch the fight, it was not only boxing fans," Serrano told ESPN recently. "But it was celebrities outside of boxing that knew who we were, what we were doing, making history.

"It was just altogether, the week leading up to the fight, the promotion, how Madison Square Garden was promoting the fight, it was just amazing."

It was as evenly-matched as it could possibly be. Neither fighter could argue if the result had gone either way or ended in a draw, a standing ovation during the final seconds of the 10th round where the only hope was for more, for it not to end.

"I think it actually exceeded everything that people were talking this week," Taylor said in the post-fight press conference in April. "Even walking out to the ring today, packed stadium. Unbelievable.

"It was absolutely, special, special moment. The best night of my career. For sure."

The fight created a groundswell of support for women's boxing and helped push women in the sport to another level. And immediately the first thing that was thought of was a potential rematch -- something Serrano said they are currently in negotiations for, perhaps in Taylor's home country of Ireland after the first fight happened in Serrano's hometown of New York City. "The rematch with me and Katie Taylor," Serrano said. "That's going to be the cherry on top."

Runner-up: Claressa Shields vs. Savannah Marshall, Oct. 15

It was a fight about revenge, a fight headlining a history-creating night in the United Kingdom and one with a decade's worth of intrigue surrounding it.

Marshall was the only person to beat Shields in a boxing ring, amateur or professional. Shields wanted to avenge that -- and along the way become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world for the second time.

Like Taylor-Serrano at the Garden in April, there was a lot of attention surrounding the fight -- including a postponement due to the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September. What Taylor-Serrano did in the United States, Shields-Marshall, and the all-female card beneath it including the Alycia Baumgardner-Mikaela Mayer fight, hoped to do in the UK.

And it did. The event sold out the O2 Arena. On television, over 2 million people tuned in to watch in the United Kingdom, too.

"It's not just a special moment for me, it's a special moment for women's boxing," Shields said in a postfight interview in the ring. "Savannah Marshall, Alycia Baumgardner, Mikaela Mayer, Caroline Dubois. I mean, women's boxing has been around for so many years and so many great stuff happened before us.

"But here we are, in front of 20,000 fans in London at O2 Arena, and I think that's fight of the year. I'm just so happy and it's an unbelievable moment right now." Inside the ring, the fight lived up to expectations, too. It was a close fight -- albeit one with a decisive winner in Shields. Each round was competitive. Both Shields and Marshall showed differing strategies and styles than they had before.

It was just a strong, good, fight, and similar to Taylor-Serrano, it exceeded the expectations and hype surrounding the lead-up.

Honorable mention: Alycia Baumgardner-Mikaela Mayer; Chantelle Cameron-Jessica McCaskill; Cherneka Johnson-Susie Ramadan.

KO of the year: Leigh Wood TKO 12 Conlan

Coppinger: It's a simple rule: When you send your opponent crashing through the ropes and outside the ring for the knockout, it's the KO of the Year. What truly could top that? Adding to the drama: Wood was down on all three scorecards entering the final round and needed a knockdown to win the fight.

Instead, he scored one of the best KOs you'll ever see in a callback to Oleg Maskayev's KO of Hasim Rahman in 1999 when the heavyweight was sent through the ropes.

Honorable mention: Caleb Plant KO 9 Anthony Dirrell (Oct. 15), Joe Cordina KO 2 Kenichi Ogawa (June 4); Deontay Wilder KO 1 Robert Helenius (Oct. 15); Terence Crawford KO 6 David Avanesyan (Dec. 10)

Men's prospect of the year: Keyshawn Davis

Note: To be eligible, boxers must have less than 20 pro fights and have never competed in a 12-rounder.

Coppinger: The Olympic silver medalist has the look of a no-doubt multiple-division champion following a banner campaign with three victories in eight-rounders.

Davis began his year with a sixth-round stoppage of Esteban Sanchez in April. The 23-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, followed up with a fifth-round TKO of Omar Tienda Bahena in September and punctuated his run with his best win yet, an eight-round unanimous decision over three-time title challenger Juan Carlos Burgos.

Burgos is well past his best days, with just two wins in seven fights entering the bout with Davis, but it was the manner in which Davis took care of him. Davis won every round on all three scorecards and once again showed off a ring IQ beyond his years, an excellent jab, smooth footwork and keen shot placement.

Under the guidance of trainer Brian McIntyre and Top Rank matchmaker Brad Goodman, Davis appears to be improving with every fight. With seven fights under his belt, Davis could be fast-tracked to a title shot at 135 pounds, perhaps even at the end of 2023 if Haney vacates his four belts before then as expected.

Runner-up: Diego Pachecho

Women's prospect of the year: Ellie Scotney

Rothstein: This is, for one of the first times, a really good problem for women's boxing to have because there are a ton of potential options. I eliminated any fighter who has already held a world title from contention, so Yamileth Mercado was ineligible. Still, the future of women's boxing is bright with potential up-and-comers.

But in a decision that included splitting the smallest of hairs between fighters like Gabriela Fundora, Caroline Dubois, Lauren Price, Taylah Robertson, Summer Lynn and Skye Nicolson, Scotney got the nod. In her first fight this year, she survived a cut over her eye to beat Jorgelina Guanini. Then she beat former IBF bantamweight champion Maria Cecilia Roman by a clear unanimous decision in May and took care of an experienced Mary Romero in October to get to 6-0.

The 24-year-old from London won the English national championships in 2017. She's fought only one fighter with a losing record -- and that was in her pro debut -- and could end up with a world title shot in 2023. Her rise has been fast, as she's already ESPN's No. 5 fighter at junior featherweight.

By this time next year Scotney, and some of the other women mentioned above, could end up with world titles of their own.

Moment of the year: Taylor vs. Serrano

Baby: The women showed the men how it's done in 2022. Taylor-Serrano was unquestionably the biggest fight of the year, regardless of gender. It was a big fight in a big venue between two of the pound-for-pound best.

There were other notable things that occurred throughout the year, both including Canelo Alvarez. Alvarez challenged for Dmitry Bivol's light heavyweight belt in an attempt that fell short. He then fought longtime rival Gennadiy Golovkin in a trilogy fight that failed to live up to the thrilling first two installments.

But in a year where many big-name fights didn't get made or some of the historic venues were inactive, Taylor and Serrano's clash at Madison Square Garden was something that not only captured the attention of boxing fans, but also had crossover appeal for casual sports fans. It was a moment that was impossible to ignore and showed what boxing looks like when done properly.

Trainer of the year: Derrick James

Coppinger: This award, in my view, should always go to a trainer who guided multiple fighters to big wins in title fights, and that's exactly what James did in 2022.

James, who trains fighters at his World Class Boxing Gym in Dallas, led Errol Spence Jr. to a third welterweight title in April with an impressive 10th-round TKO of Yordenis Ugas in a unification bout. The bout was Spence's first following surgery to repair a detached retina. It was also the first time Ugas had ever been stopped.

One month later, James coached Jermell Charlo to the undisputed junior middleweight championship with a 10th-round KO of Brian Castano in a rematch. James receives extra credit here because I thought Castano defeated Charlo in their 2021 draw.

The mark of a great trainer is the adjustments their fighters make, both during the bout and fight to fight, and that's what Charlo displayed in the rematch. Charlo handled Castano's pressure better and stayed off the ropes more to produce an emphatic KO to unify all four titles at 154 pounds.

James also trains Frank Martin, who scored KOs of Romero Duno, and more impressively, Jackson Marinez in July. With a victory over Michel Rivera on Saturday, Martin will be in line for a lightweight title shot.

With a potential future champion in Martin, a stoppage victory in a three-belt welterweight unification fight and a KO in a battle for the undisputed junior middleweight championship, James was the natural choice for trainer of the year.

Upset of the Year: Bivol UD 12 Alvarez, May 7

There were bigger upsets, according to betting odds, such as Hector Luis Garcia's February victory over Chris Colbert, but no result was more surprising nor had a bigger impact on boxing than Bivol's shocking win over Alvarez.

After all, Alvarez is by far the biggest star in boxing, and he'd been on an incredible run. He hadn't lost since 2013 against Floyd Mayweather and was coming off back-to-back KOs over Billy Joe Saunders and Caleb Plant to unify all four 168-pound titles. Seemingly, Alvarez was invincible, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who gave Bivol much of a chance.

It wasn't just that Bivol won, but the manner in which he defeated Alvarez that was so surprising. Canelo was never truly in the fight. I scored just two rounds for him.

Canelo insists he wants to fight Bivol again next year, possibly in September, so he could have his shot at revenge, perhaps even at 168 pounds for his undisputed championship.

Runner-up: Hector Luis Garcia UD 12 Chris Colbert