Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez has made up for lost time following the longest layoff of his career by carrying the sport on his broad shoulders.
In an era where many of the sport’s most notable boxers are content with fighting once a year (if even that often), Alvarez used his 2021 campaign to carry out a rate of activity he hasn’t enjoyed since 2011—his first year as a major titlist. Three wins came on the year, ending with an eleventh-round knockout of Caleb Plant last November 6 at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. It was almost to the day two years prior that Alvarez wrapped up his 2019 Fighter of the Year campaign, in that very same arena and where he became a three-division titlist.
The win over Plant saw Alvarez make history, becoming the first-ever undisputed super middleweight champion and the first-ever Mexican boxer to become undisputed champion in any division in the four-belt era. It was also enough to see him become just the third boxer in the 21st century to earn at least two Fighter of the Year awards, the latest as recognized by BoxingScene.com for the second time in the past three years.
“I am grateful for this great recognition of Boxer of the Year,” Alvarez told BoxingScene.com. “I have an incredible team that has gotten me this far, including Trainer of the Year, Eddy Reynoso.”
Alvarez (57-1-2, 39KOs) entered the year as a legitimate four-division titlist. The feat came in a December 2020 virtual shutout win over then-unbeaten Callum Smith to win the WBA “Super” and vacant WBC super middleweight titles. Alvarez already enjoyed lineal championship status at junior middleweight and middleweight, along a brief light heavyweight title reign following his November 2019 knockout win over Sergey Kovalev.
The win over Kovalev was the last fight for Alvarez for the next thirteen months, the combination of the pandemic and a very public feud with and subsequent split from Golden Boy Promotions leaving him with a career-long inactive stretch. Alvarez quickly made up for lost time beginning with the aforementioned win over Smith. The global superstar from Guadalajara, Mexico didn’t waste any time clearing the WBC mandatory obligation from his slate, forcing a third-round stoppage of Avni Yildirim just ten weeks later atop the February 27 DAZN show from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Ten weeks later came his third fight in less than five months, handing England’s Billy Joe Saunders (30-0 at the time) his first defeat along with a broken orbital bone and cheekbone in forcing a stoppage after eight rounds. Alvarez added the WBO title to his collection with the feat, which took place in front of a record-breaking paid crowd of 66,065 fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas—the most tickets ever sold for an indoor boxing event in the U.S.
With three belts in his possession, Alvarez then set his sights on unbeaten IBF champ Caleb Plant. Rumors swirled of a September 18 clash to crown the first-ever undisputed super middleweight division in its 40-plus year history. Talks stalled to the point of having to focus on a new date, with Alvarez forced to go six months between fights before landing on November 6 at MGM Grand.
The same venue hosted his eleventh-round knockout of Kovalev, with Alvarez joining Hall of Famers ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Mike McCallum as the fourth fighter in history to win titles at junior middleweight, middleweight and light heavyweight. It was also the site of Alvarez’s lone career defeat, a twelve-round points loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in their September 2013 superfight that set the record at the time for the highest grossing Pay-Per-View event in boxing history.
A reported attendance of 16,586 was on hand for Alvarez’s historic win over Plant which also marked his triumphant return to an exclusive PPV broadcast. The fight headlined a Showtime PPV card, following six straight fights on DAZN. Prior to signing a record-breaking contract with the sports streaming service, Alvarez emerged as the sport’s leading attraction in the post-Mayweather era, as he remains the last fighter to headline three consecutive PPVs in North America drawing 1,000,000 or more buys.
The win over Plant sold roughly 800,000 buys, with the event the talk of the town leading into and well beyond the history achieved in the ring. Alvarez solidified his place as the sport’s pound-for-pound and box-office king, though hardly looking to sit on his lead.
Reynoso made headlines of his own barely two weeks after Alvarez-Plant, making the bold request for Alvarez—who has fought just once above the super middleweight limit—to next challenge the winner of the January 29 clash between WBC cruiserweight champ Ilunga ‘Junior’ Makabu and Thabiso Mchunu. Should the fight happen, Alvarez—who plans to weigh roughly 180 pounds for such a title attempt—would position himself to become the first Mexican boxer in history to win titles in five weight divisions.
Alternatively, there have been talks of next facing unbeaten two-division titlist Jermall Charlo, the current WBC middleweight title claimant who would move up in weight for a rumored May clash. Former two-division titlist David Benavidez is also a targeted option, with the unbeaten Phoenix-based boxer fighting for an interim title with hopes of consolidating the belts with Alvarez later this year.
Any combination among those three options would leave Alvarez as a strong contender for his third Fighter of the Year award in four years.
“After a record-breaking 2021 and becoming Undisputed Champion of the world, we are even hungrier in 2022 to continue to make history in the sport,” vows Alvarez.
The runners-up for BoxingScene.com’s 2021 “Fighter of the Year” award are listed below, in alphabetical order.
Nonito Donaire: One of four past Fighter of the Year recipients (having won top honors in 2012), Donaire (42-6, 28KOs) rejoined the sport’s elite in unlikely fashion. The four-division titlist and future Hall of Famer broke his own record as the oldest fighter to hold a bantamweight title, scoring a shockingly one-sided fourth-round knockout of unbeaten WBC bantamweight titlist Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12KOs at the time) last May 29. The legendary Filipino made the first defense of his third title reign in similar fashion, halting unbeaten countryman Reymart Gaballo inside of four rounds last December 11. Donaire is gunning for a rematch with WBA/IBF champ Naoya Inoue in 2022, as well as a long-desired showdown with countryman and WBO titlist John Riel Casimero.
Stephen Fulton: The irony of Fulton losing out on a title fight in 2020 due to Covid was that it led to his enjoying a breakout year in 2021. The unbeaten Philly native became a unified titlist the hard way, bumping off two unbeaten title claimants. Fulton (20-0, 8KOs) soundly outpointed Angelo Leo (20-0, 9KOs at the time) on January 23 to win the WBO junior featherweight belt, adding the WBC title to his collection following a majority decision win over Brandon Figueroa (22-0-1, 17KOs) in their terrific November 27 title unification clash in Las Vegas.
Tyson Fury: The unbeaten heavyweight champion from Manchester, England lands in this category for the second straight year, both times on the strength of a single win on the year and versus Deontay Wilder. Nearly 20 months after handing Wilder his first defeat via seventh-round stoppage, Fury (31-0-1, 22KOs)—BoxingScene.com’s 2015 Fighter of the Year—repeated the fight in their October 9 trilogy bout in a memorable eleventh-round knockout. Fury survived two knockdowns to score three of his own, the last leaving Wilder down and out to defend his lineal and WBC heavyweight championship in an epic clash that served as BoxingScene.com’s 2021 Fight of the Year.
George Kambosos Jr.: The unbeaten Australian lightweight’s 2021 campaign was the epitome of good things coming to those who wait. A comedy of errors led to Triller Fight Club defaulting on his mandatory title challenge of WBA/IBF/WBO/WBC “Franchise” lightweight champ Teofimo Lopez Jr.—BoxingScene.com’s 2020 Fighter of the Year—along with leaving Kambosos out of the ring for nearly all of 2021. Matchroom Boxing and DAZN picked up the fight, with Kambosos (20-0, 10KOs) dropping Lopez in the opening round and surviving a tenth-round knockdown to finish strong and prevail by split decision to pull off the upset win and land atop the lightweight division.
Josh Taylor: One more win on the year likely would have given the unbeaten Scottish southpaw top honors in this category. As it was, Taylor presented a strong case in his twelve-round win over Jose Ramirez in their May 22 battle of unbeaten, unified junior welterweight titlists. Taylor (18-0, 13KOs) became just the fifth male boxer at the time to claim undisputed championship status in the four-belt era (since joined by Alvarez. The win was enough for Taylor to return to this category, earning honorable mention in 2019 when he defeated two unbeaten 140-pound titlists.
Oleksandr Usyk: The 2018 Fighter of the Year came dangerously close to challenging Alvarez for top honors in the past year. Having just one win on the year ultimately left him relegated to the Honorable Mention category, though what a win it was. Usyk (19-0, 13KOs) joined Evander Holyfield and David Haye on the short list of cruiserweight champions who went on to capture a heavyweight crown. The Ukrainian southpaw became a two-division champ in surprisingly dominant fashion, soundly outboxing Anthony Joshua to claim the WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO titles.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox