2018 CBS Sports Boxer of the Year: Oleksandr Usyk earns the honor as incredible rise continues

Graphic by Michael Meredith

With the value of live sports on television only increasing in 2018, even the sport of boxing saw its rent ultimately get raised due to a series of broadcasting deals that helped raise the overall profile of the sweet science. Between ESPN extending its deal with Top Rank, Premier Boxing Champions splitting its content between Fox and Showtime and newcomer DAZN signing landmark deals with promoters Matchroom Sport and Golden Boy as longtime standard bearer HBO ceased its coverage after 45 years, there was plenty of money and opportunity for boxers looking to make a statement. 

Along the way, a handful of pugilists did their best to present themselves as worthy of singular adulation as boxing's best in 2018, with one champion standing out even brighter among his contemporaries. 

Let's take a closer look at CBS Sports' Boxer of the Year, as well as the remaining candidates who finished just outside of the pack in our panel voting. 

1. Oleksandyr Usyk (Cruiserweight): Usyk's worldwide conquering of the boxing landscape in 2018 was unique in the sense that the Ukrainian technician faced an uphill challenge each step of the way as the visiting and often less-experienced fighter. Despite entering the year with merely a baker's dozen of pro fights, Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs) capped it off by becoming the first undisputed cruiserweight champion in boxing history and just the fifth regardless of weight class in the four-belt era. 

The slick southpaw with the crazed glare and colorful personality also did well projecting himself as a future star-in-waiting despite the fact that his two most impressive performances in 2018 — victories in the semifinal and final of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament — didn't air on American television. When it came time to compare resumes of his pound-for-pound elite brethren, however, the fact that Usyk recorded all three of his victories in his opponent's backyard went a long way in helping him cement top honors. Usyk, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist at heavyweight, had such an incredible year at cruiserweight that he sets to leave the division in 2019 as one of the greatest 200-pound fighters in history. That's because of the drastic variety of skills he was forced to show in each one of his victories. 

The year began for Usyk in January when he claimed a majority decision over then-unbeaten champion Mairis Briedis in a fight-of-the-year contender from Latvia. Usyk, who unified his WBO title with Briedis' WBC strap, was forced to bite down on his mouthguard and absorb big punches in order to stand his ground in a back-and-forth bout which showcased his grit just as much as his technique. Six months later, in the WBSS final in Moscow, Usyk pitched a virtual shutout against unbeaten IBF and WBA champion Murat Gassiev to join Bernard Hopkins, Jermain Taylor, Terence Crawford and Cecila Braekhus as the only four-belt undisputed champions in history. Behind his stinging jab and sensational footwork, Usyk boxed circles around his frustrated Russian opponent and catapulted himself toward the top of the sport's pound-for-pound list. 

It was Usyk's final performance of 2018, however, which produced the most fanfare when he headlined a DAZN card from England against former two-division titleholder Tony Bellew and showcased his punching power in a spectacular knockout. Bellew, who moved down from heavyweight, put on a stubborn boxing performance in what proved to be the final bout of his career. Yet it was Usyk who adjusted to Bellew's style in the mid rounds and began breaking him down with left hands uncorked from a variety of angles until a sweeping left cross floored Bellew and finished him in Round 8. 

Usyk will begin the new year with his eyes set on heavyweight as the division continues its current renaissance, and he brings with him good size (6-foot-3) and a combination of speed and craft that is simply not seen among fighters that large. Regardless of what happens at heavyweight, the 31-year-old Usyk leaves behind a calendar year for the ages in which he launched himself from an unknown fighter to casual fans to a legitimate contender considered among the best in the world. 

2. Vasiliy Lomachenko (Lightweight): Usyk's amateur teammate and close friend moved up to a third division in 2018, claimed a world title in one of the best fights of the year and later unified 135-pound belts in a thrilling chess match. Not bad for a fighter with just 13 pro fights who is almost universally regarded as the P4P king. 

The best part of watching Lomachenko (12-0, 9 KOs) this year was noticing how he adjusted to the challenges that came with a move to a weight class that might be two divisions above his most natural and comfortable weight. Yet "Hi-Tech," a southpaw magician who is a master of footwork and angles, proved his mettle by getting up off the canvas against a determined Jorge Linares in May to finish him with an absurd combination that ended with a hook to the body. 

Lomachenko, 30, doesn't have the same punching power at 135 pounds that he held at featherweight, yet his breathtaking combinations continued to dazzle fans and opponents alike. His December decision win over the tricky Jose Pedraza featured a pair of 11th-round knockdowns as Lomachenko landed punches from seemingly every angle.

3. Canelo Alvarez (Middleweight): Despite the negative headlines associated with his failed drug tests in February which robbed fans of a scheduled May rematch against Gennady Golovkin, Alvarez rebounded to have one heck of a final three months to close the year. The Mexican star authored one of the year's best single performances in outpointing GGG in their September rematch by claiming a disputed decision in the fight of the year. Alvarez (51-1-2, 35 KOs), the biggest pay-per-view star in North America, then shocked the boxing world the following month by signing an 11-fight deal with DAZN that landed him the richest guaranteed contract in sports at $365 million. 

Alvarez, 28, returned to the ring exactly three months after his brutal win over Golovkin to headline New York's Madison Square Garden where he claimed a secondary super middleweight title by brutalizing an overmatched Rocky Fielding. 

4. Anthony Joshua (Heavyweight): About the only thing AJ, the hulking unified heavyweight champion, did wrong in 2018 was never following through on securing a fight against fellow unbeaten titleholder Deontay Wilder. The 2017 boxer of the year came back with another strong campaign that continued to build his brand as the biggest global star in the sport. 

Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), who regularly fights in front of stadium crowds upwards of 90,000, continued to evolve as a boxer in a pair of high-profile victories. The 29-year-old outpointed fellow unbeaten Joseph Parker in their March unification bout before defending all three of his titles in September by knocking out an aggressive Alexander Povetkin. 

5. Terence Crawford (Welterweight): It was a new division and that same old dominance for the 31-year-old fighter they call "Bud," who continues to stake his own claim as the P4P best. Crawford (34-0, 25 KOs) scored a pair of thrilling stoppages in 2018 over unbeaten opponents by squashing Jeff Horn to claim the WBO 147-pound title in June before patiently picking apart a stubborn Jose Benavidez Jr. in October. 

Honorable mentions: Tyson Fury, Jarrett Hurd, Claressa Shields, Deontay Wilder

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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