Top 10 boxing stories of 2011
Floyd Mayweather improved to No. 1 in the P4P ratings -- and got a jail sentence
Manny Pacquiao showed early signs of decline in a pair of uninspiring victories
Bernard Hopkins became as the oldest fighter to win a major world championship
1. Floyd Mayweather enthralls and frustrates with equal measure. Mayweather remains as dazzling as he's ever been in the ring -- and as exasperating as he's ever been out of it. Such is the maddening duality of the welterweight champion who has never been in serious trouble in any fight, much less been defeated. He outclassed Victor Ortiz in a September title bout -- the best 147-pounder in the world not named Manny Pacquiao -- badly mistreating him with right-hand leads for three rounds before Ortiz saw red and committed a heinous foul. That's when Mayweather took rugged individualism to a new level and flattened his opponent with a one-two combination that Ortiz never saw coming. A cheap shot, but a legal punch. Fans cried foul, but the dearth of protest from within boxing was telling. The Mayweather enigma took a dark turn in December, when he was sentenced to 90 days in jail following his guilty plea on a 2010 domestic violence charge. Who knows what the next 12 months will bring, but we'll be watching.
2. Manny Pacquiao's crown slips. Stock in Manny Pacquiao, Inc., was booming entering 2011. He'd just captured a major sanctioning-body title in a record eighth different weight class, within a year of being named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and winning election to Congress in the Philippines. Yet he underwhelmed in a points victory over a shopworn Shane Mosley in May and barely nicked a split-decision victory over 8-to-1 underdog Juan Manuel Marquez in November -- a fight many at ringside had the Mexican winning outright. Pacquiao cramped up early in both outings, prompting longtime observers to wonder if the 32-year-old was past his physical peak. A renewed marketing strategy under Top Rank marketing phenom Lucia McKelvey indicates Pacquiao's popularity may never be higher, but most outlets -- including SI.com -- had downgraded him to No. 2 in the mythical pound-for-pound ratings by year's end.
3. Bernard Hopkins makes history. Hopkins' first bid to supplant George Foreman as the oldest fighter to hold a major world title was denied in December 2010 when he fought to a controversial majority draw against WBC and Ring light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal -- an opponent 18 years his junior. But the 46-year-old made an even more compelling case in the May rematch in Montreal, thoroughly dominating the homestanding Pascal despite not one but two potentially fatal missed knockdown calls by the referee. Hopkins was 192 days older than Foreman, who was 45 years and 10 months when he knocked out Michael Moorer for the heavyweight title in 1994. "I'm going to keep fighting like this until I leave this game," a beaming Hopkins said afterward, "and trust me, I will not be punch drunk, beat up or broke,"
4. Andre Ward wins the Super Six tournament. The last American fighter to win Olympic gold (at Athens 2004) made his biggest professional breakthrough yet in 2011, beating Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch to win Showtime's Super Six super middleweight tournament and consolidate power in one of boxing's most talent-rich divisions. With 25 wins in 25 pro fights, the understated, workmanlike Oakland, Calif., native is up to No. 6 (and rising) in SI.com's pound-for-pound ratings. A much-fancied 168-pound showdown with fellow unbeaten Lucien Bute is one of 2012's most anticipated fights.
5. Wladimir Klitschko's legend grows. The much-anticipated title unification match between Klitschko and David Haye had been widely regarded as the most significant bout in the heavyweight division in nearly a decade. Ever since the he'd worn the severed heads of the Klitschko brothers on a T-shirt in 2008, the brash Haye had sworn to depose Wladimir -- "the most boring heavyweight in history" -- and bring a new energy to the division. But when it came down to it, Haye turned in one of the most limpid and cynical championship-fight performances in recent memory, several times crumbling to the canvas upon the slightest incidental contact from Klitschko like a striker flopping in the penalty area. Yet the most dubious moment came moments after the lopsided decision was announced, when Haye offered up the alibi of a broken pinkie toe on his right foot suffered during training. (Even tweeting a photo of the toe in question shortly after.) Still, it was the 10th straight title defense for Klitschko, who added Haye's WBA strap to his IBO, IBF, WBO and Ring titles. It's been seven years since he lost a fight.
6. Joe Frazier passes away. In a year that saw the departure of such fistic luminaries as Ron Lyle, Sir Henry Cooper, Genaro Hernandez and Bennie Briscoe, no passing made as far-reaching an impact as Frazier. The legendary heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist died in November of liver cancer, just months after celebrating the 40th anniversary of his unforgettable victory over Muhammad Ali in the "Fight of the Century" at Madison Square Garden. "The world has lost a great champion. I will always remember Joe with respect and admiration," Ali said in a short statement. "My sympathy goes out to his family and loved ones."
7. James Kirkland rumbles back. Kirkland was 25-0 and considered one of boxing fastest rising stars when he went to jail for two years on a firearm charge back in 2009. Whatever buzz remained was dampened after Kirkland split with longtime trainer Ann Wolfe and suffered a shocking first-round knockout loss to the unheralded Nobuhiro Ishida in April. Fast forward to November, when the 154-pounder traveled to Mexico for a crossroads fight with Alfredo "Perro" Angulo. After an action-packed opening round that saw both fighters hit the deck -- and nearly part with consciousness -- it was Kirkland who managed to take control en route to a career-revitalizing sixth-round TKO victory.
8. Miguel Cotto gets his revenge. The stench that lingered over Cotto's gruesome defeat to Antonio Margarito in 2008 was impossible to ignore, not after Margarito was caught attempted to used loaded gloves ahead of his next fight with Shane Mosley. The genuine rancor made December's rematch a promotional cakewalk, with a crowd of 21,239 packing the renovated Madison Square Garden to see Cotto put a four-year blood feud to rest with a 10th-round TKO of the faded Mexican warrior. For the classy Puerto Rico champion, it was a cathartic performance. "I felt extra motivation," he said afterward. "I was vindicated. You can see my face now and how I got out of ring in 2008. Draw your own conclusions."
9. Old dogs toil onward. Advances in nutrition and science are helping fighters extend their careers beyond what was previously thought possible. Take 42-year-old Antonio Tarver, who jump-started his career with a knockout of Danny Green for a cruiserweight title in July. But for every Hopkins or Tarver or Glen Johnson, there are a dozen old pugs who don't know when to quit. Here's hoping Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr. -- who both had two listless fights apiece in 2011 -- have the wherewithal to hang it up sooner than later.
10. The clamor for Mayweather-Pacquiao persists. It's never good when the most talked-about fight of the year is one that seems destined to never happen. Just when it seemed like the fighters' teams might be ready to agree to terms on what would certainly be the richest prizefight in history, Mayweather was slapped with a three-month jail sentence that immediately ruled out a rumored May 5 meeting. Optimists now look to November 2012 for the potential megafight -- a fight the public made years ago -- but Mayweather will be 35 when he gets out of jail. The clock is ticking.