The collapse of USA Boxing—specifically the men’s program, which went without a medal in 2012, the first time in history the U.S. has been shut out—has led to a dearth of quality American pro prospects. Once, elite fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather were regularly produced by U.S. teams. In recent years only Andre Ward (2004) and Deontay Wilder (2008) have successfully made the transition.
Enter Errol Spence Jr., a welterweight out of the ’12 Olympics class. Like the rest of Team USA, Spence struggled in London, bowing out in the quarterfinals. But three years into his pro career, Spence (19–0) has the look of an elite prospect. Powerful (16 knockouts), with slick defense and a lightning-fast left hand, Spence has destroyed weak-chinned opponents—his last six fights have ended in knockouts—and proven he can go the distance, as he did in a 10-round decision against the rugged Ronald Cruz.
Stories about Spence in sparring have only boosted his profile. He gave Mayweather a black eye. He knocked down Adrien Broner. Mayweather has already tabbed Spence as boxing’s next big thing and says he is ready for a world title fight, citing Keith Thurman as a preferred opponent. For those reasons and more, Spence is SI.com’s 2015 Prospect of the Year.
Finally, we'll hand out the rest of SI's annual boxing awards...
Fight of the Year: Takashi Miura vs. Francisco Vargas
Action? Check. Knockdowns? Check. A dramatic finish? Check, check, check. Miura-Vargas, tapped as the lead-in fight to Miguel Cotto-Canelo Alvarez in November, was, on paper, a showdown only the diehards could appreciate. Not anymore. Vargas took control early, rocking Miura in the first round. Miura rallied in the fourth, dropping Vargas with a left hand and continuing to swell his face with combinations in the fifth. In the eighth, Miura ripped a right hand that buckled Vargas at the end of the round. Down on the scorecards and with his right eye nearly closed, Vargas looked finished. Instead, he came out in the ninth round, dropped Miura with a vicious combination and finished him with a flurry that forced the referee to stop the fight. With the win Vargas claimed a 140-pound title—and the respect of everyone watching at home.
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Upset of the Year: Tyson Fury UD Wladimir Klitschko
Klitschko, 39, has ruled the heavyweight division for nearly a decade. Fury, despite being considerably younger (27) and equally as tall (generously listed at 6'9"), was not supposed to be the man that ended that rule. That’s exactly what he did last month, outboxing Klitschko to win a unanimous decision and three pieces of the heavyweight title. It was far from an inspired performance; neither Klitschko nor Fury threw many punches, but Fury landed his jab when he needed to and frustrated Klitschko with his mobility and head movement throughout the fight. Most experts were more stunned by Klitschko’s struggles than Fury’s effectiveness—not that Fury cares. He scored the biggest win of his career, one that set up a lucrative rematch with Klitschko sometime next year.
Round of the Year: Daniel Jacobs vs. Sergio Mora (Round 1)
That Jacobs was involved in an exciting round is not surprising; he’s a heavy-handed volume puncher who has been in several fun fights. That his best was against Mora was surprising. Mora, who rose to fame on the boxing reality show The Contender, has a reputation as a defensive-minded fighter who likes to muck it up. He ditched that rep last August, when Mora came into this middleweight showdown looking to brawl. He looked to be in trouble less than two minutes into the round, when a Jacobs right hand connected cleanly, dropping him to the mat. Mora rallied less than 30 seconds later, sending Jacobs down with a left hand of his own. It was tremendous action between two solid middleweight prospects.
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Promoter of the Year: Oscar De La Hoya
For the second year in a row De La Hoya nabs this award, and the reason is simple: He says he wants to make big fights, then goes out and actually makes them. It wasn’t a perfect year for Golden Boy Promotions, which saw Lucas Matthysse exit the ranks of the elite and David Lemieux lose his title to Gennady Golovkin. But Matthysse won an entertaining slugfest with the oft-avoided Ruslan Provodnikov last April before falling to Viktor Postol in October and Golovkin-Lemieux was one of the biggest fights of the year. De La Hoya’s biggest star, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, won an anticipated showdown with Miguel Cotto and last week Luis Ortiz stopped Bryant Jennings, giving Golden Boy a legitimate heavyweight prospect in its stable. In a climate where meaningless fights dominate an oversaturated market, De La Hoya’s approach is exactly what boxing needs.
Breakthrough Performance: Roman Gonzalez TKO2 Edgar Sosa
To boxing’s base, Gonzalez is a known commodity. The world’s preeminent flyweight, “Chocolatito” has been a pint-sized wrecking ball, flattening opponents between the 108- and 112-pound weight class. Bigger has long been better for television networks, an ethos that has kept fighters like Gonzalez off U.S. airwaves. That changed last May, when HBO slipped Gonzalez onto the undercard of a Golovkin title defense. Gonzalez made short work of Sosa, dropping him three times in the second round en route to a stoppage. A subsequent knockout win over Brian Viloria further enhanced Gonzalez’s profile. Expect Chocolatito to headline an HBO broadcast in 2016.
Knockout of the Year: Gabriel Bracero KO1 Danny O’Connor
Bracero is an unlikely candidate to land this award. At 34, he has only five knockouts on his résumé, none of any particular note. That changed in October against O’Connor, in a rematch of a 2011 decision win for Bracero. Less than a minute into the first round Bracero caught O’Connor with a savage right hand that put O’Connor out before his body hit the canvas. It was a perfect punch that breathed new life into Bracero’s flagging career.
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Comeback Fighter of the Year: Badou Jack
It wasn’t that 2014 was an especially bad one for Jack; he went 2–1, with a first-round knockout loss to journeyman Derek Edwards. At 32, and without a signature win on his résumé, Jack looked like yet another average fighter in Mayweather’s stable. That changed last May, when Jack won a majority decision—and a 168-pound title—against Anthony Dirrell. Jack was more impressive in his first defense, outpointing former title challenger George Groves. Andre Ward’s decision to move up to 175-pounds has opened up the super middleweight division, and Jack will have plenty of appealing opponents to choose from in 2016.