The year 2023 breathed new life into boxing, a campaign in which the sport was able to deliver several super fights that had long eluded fight fans.
It was also the year many fighters truly broke out, like David Benavidez and Tim Tszyu. Other boxers, like Crawford and Naoya Inoue, solidified their greatness with rousing performances.
And then there were boxers like Devin Haney, who moved up the pound-for-pound list and proved they’re simply getting started.
The year kicked off with a bang when Artur Beterbiev stopped Anthony Yarde in London and ended with Inoue’s second undisputed championship win in 12 months.
In between, there were plenty of unforgettable action fighters, impressive prospects, shocking upsets and devastating KOs. With boxing’s 2023 schedule coming to a close, ESPN hands out awards for the sport’s best of the year.
Men’s fighter of the year: Naoya Inoue
The award for the sport’s most outstanding men’s boxer goes to none other than “The Monster,” a generational talent whose irrepressible talent isn’t bound by weight.
Inoue closed out 2022 with a KO victory over Paul Butler to become undisputed at 118 pounds. For an encore, the Japanese star raised his level of competition considerably, jumped up one division and was equally dominant. That’s undeniable greatness.
Stephen Fulton was ESPN’s No. 1 boxer at 122 pounds and was on the cusp of pound-for-pound recognition. The consensus: Fulton presented Inoue’s toughest challenge yet.
What did Inoue do? Won every second, scored a vicious knockdown and then finished off Fulton moments later in Round 8 to become unified champion in his 122-pound debut.
Following that July victory, Inoue met Marlon Tapales on Dec. 26 in Tokyo and gave the Filipino similar treatment. Tapales won his two titles by defeating Murodjon Akhmadaliev in April and showed off a snappy jab in the upset victory.
Tapales found more success than Fulton against Inoue, but he, too, lost his titles inside the distance. Inoue dropped him in Round 4 and busted him up with combination punching, incredible balance and a fierce jab to become undisputed at 122 pounds, where plans to settle in for the foreseeable future.
Runner-up: Devin Haney
It was a tough call, but just like last year when Dmitry Bivol claimed the award, Haney brushed up against someone who did something uniquely special. And at 25, Haney will have many more opportunities to be crowned fighter of the year.
What the American accomplished in 2023 was extraordinary. He defeated future Hall of Famer Vasiliy Lomachenko in May to retain his undisputed lightweight championship in a firefight.
Honorable mention: Terence Crawford; David Benavidez.
Men’s fight of the year: Jaime Munguia UD12 Sergiy Derevyanchenko
Munguia entered the ring a heavy favorite in what shaped up as his toughest challenge to date, and he needed to drop Derevyanchenko in Round 12 to pull out the victory. That’s exactly what Munguia did, capping off an incredible action fight that featured multiple ebbs and flows.
The Mexican and Ukrainian engaged in a phone-booth exchange round after round to the delight of the fans, unloading heavy punches with reckless abandon.
Derevyanchenko appeared well past his best days heading into the bout, but proved he was still capable by standing up to Munguia’s thudding shots. If Derevyanchenko stood on his feet for the final round, the bout would have been ruled a draw.
Instead, Munguia escaped with the close decision victory and heads into a far tougher fight (on paper) against John Ryder on Jan. 27. Derevyanchenko returns on the undercard against an unheralded opponent. That’s boxing.
Runner-up: Luis Nery KO11 Azat Hovhannisyan.
Honorable mention: Joe Cordina SD12 Shavkat Rakhimov; Haney UD12 Lomachenko.
Women’s fighter of the year: Katie Taylor
The Irish star finally fought at home in 2023 with two major events in Dublin.
Taylor, who was the undisputed lightweight champion, moved up to 140 pounds in May but dropped a majority decision in a close fight with Chantelle Cameron in a bid to become undisputed champion at junior welterweight.
In the November rematch, Taylor made good on her opportunity to exact revenge with a thrilling majority decision win over Cameron in one of the best fights of 2023.
But even with a defeat this year, Taylor topped her banner 2022 when she eked by Amanda Serrano in perhaps the biggest fight in women’s history. How? By bringing two massive events to Ireland, showing she can adjust in the rematch and become undisputed in a second weight class.
Runner-up: Amanda Serrano
Serrano became undisputed champion at featherweight with a unanimous decision against Erika Cruz in February to start the year. It was a terrific back-and-forth fight filled with non-stop action. Serrano was the aggressor, but Cruz kept coming back, and it was like that for all 10 rounds.
Serrano added decision victories over her Brooklyn rival Heather Hardy in August, and Danila Ramos in October, but that fight against Ramos was more important than any other for Serrano — and for women’s boxing.
That matchup was the first unified women’s title fight contested at 12 three-minute rounds, unlike the usual 10 two-minute rounds reserved for title fights in women’s boxing. To prove it was the right decision, Serrano and Ramos threw almost 2,000 punches combined in a very entertaining fight. And it was in those two extra rounds where Serrano showed her best, almost finishing Ramos while fans were chanting her name. Serrano finished the year 3-0 and as part of one of the biggest moments in boxing in 2023.
Honorable mention: Yesica Nery Plata.
Women’s fight of the year: Katie Taylor MD10 Chantelle Cameron 2
Taylor was fighting for relevance, her legacy and to remain on top of the sport after her May setback. The Olympic gold medalist did just that with her wildly entertaining win over Cameron in the November rematch, a blood-and-guts affair from bell to bell.
Taylor proved, if there was any doubt, how resilient and tough she is, but also that she could solve a tricky opponent in a rematch.
The close, competitive nature of the two meetings begs for a rubber match, one boxing will hopefully deliver in 2024.
Runner-up: Serrano UD10 Cruz; Nery Plata UD10 Kim Clavel.
Men’s KO of the year: Junto Nakatani KO12 Andrew Moloney
Japan’s Nakatani announced his arrival in the U.S. with a bone-shattering KO, an overhand left that folded Moloney in a heap.
The Australian was flat on his back as Nakatani put the punctuation mark on a dominant performance to become a two-division champion.
The southpaw is one of the sport’s elite fighters and should continue his march toward pound-for-pound recognition when he challenges Alexandro Santiago in February for the WBC bantamweight title.
Honorable mention: David Morrell KO1 Yamaguchi Falcao; Mark Magsayo KO3 Isaac Avelar.
Upset of the year: Rafael Espinoza MD12 Robeisy Ramirez
Ramirez, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was riding high heading into what appeared to be a routine homecoming title defense against Espinoza, who was in only his second fight in the U.S.
Instead, Ramirez suffered the second upset defeat of his career, only there was nothing fluky about this setback.
Espinoza was a 6-1 underdog and was virtually unknown in the U.S. He’d never faced an opponent of note while fighting exclusively in Mexico, but in the biggest fight of his life, he used his 6-foot-1 frame and determination to lift himself to the title victory.
It was a thrilling and grueling fight. Espinoza was dropped in Round 4 but rallied and scored a knockdown in Round 12 that was the difference on the scorecards.
Now, we’ll see what Espinoza does for a follow-up, but a rematch makes plenty of sense.
Runner-up: Brian Mendoza KO7 Sebastian Fundora.
Honorable mention: Joseph Parker UD12 Deontay Wilder.
Men’s prospect of the year: Bruce “Shu-Shu” Carrington
Carrington, a 26-year-old from Brooklyn, fought five times in 2023 and scored victories inside the distance in all but two.
“Shu-Shu” ended the year with his best performance yet, a second-round TKO of Jason Sanchez. Carrington floored the veteran with a massive overhand right and then dropped him in the closing seconds with a left hook.
Carrington has tremendous size for the featherweight division at 5-foot-8, he can box, and he’s also shown a killer instinct. Heading into 2024, Carrington is clearly ready for far bigger fights in the loaded 126-pound division, where promoter Top Rank is stacked with talent.
Perhaps Carrington will even land a title shot before the year is over.
Honorable mention: Andy Cruz; Floyd Schofield.
Women’s prospect of the year: Caroline Dubois
Dubois fought three times in 2023, all victories, and non more impressive than her unanimous-decision victory over Magali Rodriguez in September.
“Sweet Caroline” Dubois, 22, a southpaw counterpuncher from London, withheld Rodriguez’s aggression during the first few rounds and dropped her in Round 6 with a nice combination, punctuated by a right hand to the chin. Dubois dropped Rodriguez again in Round 9 with a perfectly timed right counter to win comfortable in the scorecards.
It was a great performance where Dubois showed an array of combinations, a great jab, good body work, a tough chin and the willingness to engage when pressured. The experience of being in that non-stop action fight will serve her well when she fights for a title, probably by the end of 2024.
Dubois, the younger sister of heavyweight contender Daniel Dubois, also had a decision win over Yanina del Carmen Lescano in June, and a third-round TKO of Feriche Mashaury in February to take her unbeaten record to 8-0 with 5 KOs.
Honorable mention: Skye Nicolson.