In 2013, lightweight Terence Crawford gave fight fans a glimpse of what was to come when he fearlessly moved up to junior welterweight to take an HBO-televised fight on short notice against dangerous puncher Breidis Prescott.
While there were some on Crawford's team concerned about the fight, his first scheduled 10-rounder and first significant television exposure against easily his best opponent, Crawford was cool as could be. And on fight night he delivered a dominating performance in a near-shutout decision win. He had announced his arrival and went on to win two more lopsided fights last year to move closer to the top of the 135-pound division.
As good of a year as he had in 2013, Crawford, known as "Bud" to his hometown fans in Omaha, Nebraska, had an even better 2014 campaign and established himself as the world's No. 1 lightweight. Back down at 135 pounds, he won all three of his fights in impressive fashion, beat three quality opponents, won a world title, engaged in a fight of the year candidate, became a bona fide ticket seller in Omaha and positioned himself for huge future business, including as a possible Manny Pacquiao opponent.
The 27-year-old Crawford truly arrived. For his tremendous campaign, he is the 2014 ESPN.com fighter of the year.
In March, Crawford (25-0, 17 KOs) did something very difficult as he went on the road to Glasgow, Scotland, the hometown of lightweight titleholder Ricky Burns, who received some close calls on home turf. But Crawford put on a dazzling performance and rolled to the clear decision and took Burns' world title.
Top Rank promoter Bob Arum fulfilled his promise to Crawford by putting on his first title defense in Omaha in June. A wild crowd of 10,943 turned out for the first world title fight in the city in 42 years, since Joe Frazier defended the world heavyweight title against Omaha's Ron Stander in 1972. And Crawford didn't face a low-level opponent as some fighters might do in a first defense, especially at home. Instead, Crawford faced a serious foe in undefeated former unified featherweight titleholder Yuriorkis Gamboa, the superfast 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist.
It turned out to be a fantastic and dramatic fight, but one that Crawford ultimately took over as he dropped Gamboa four times en route to a thrilling ninth-round knockout.
In November, Crawford once again defended the title in Omaha, this time in front of 11,127 as he took on worthy mandatory challenger Raymundo Beltran, who had gotten ripped off in a draw in Scotland against Burns in the fight before Crawford beat him. While some may have considered Beltran to be the uncrowned titleholder going into the fight with Crawford, there was no such discussion by the time it was over. Crawford put on a boxing master class in a virtual shutout decision.
Crawford, now firmly established as an HBO cornerstone fighter, is set to move up to junior welterweight in 2015, where big bouts await him. He had a helluva 2014 and had an idea he would be in the fighter of the year running.
"After the Gamboa fight people were saying, 'You just went over to Scotland and beat Ricky Burns and then you beat a tough opponent in Gamboa, and now you're taking on another tough opponent in Beltran,'" Crawford said before facing Beltran. "Some guys might take a smaller fight but I'm fighting good guys back-to-back-to-back and I had people telling me I'll be fighter of the year if I keep it up. It put a smile on my face but it's just talk."
2. Sergey Kovalev: Kovalev (26-0-1, 23 KOs), the 31-year-old Russian destroyer, made three dominant light heavyweight title defenses in 2014, all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There was a one-sided seventh-round destruction of previously undefeated Cedric Agnew in March followed by a second-round blowout of Blake Caparello in August, both relatively unknown opponents. But Kovalev is here because of what he did in his next fight in November. He was hoping to face world champion Adonis Stevenson, but Stevenson backed away from the fight, so Kovalev instead took on a legend in Bernard Hopkins, who was 49 but a unified titleholder and still one of the best in the business. In fact, many picked Hopkins to win in what was one of the most significant fights of the year. Kovalev, however, dominated Hopkins as nobody had ever done in his Hall of Fame-worthy career. He dropped Hopkins in the first round and battered him en route to a clean shutout decision for a huge victory.
3. Manny Pacquiao: The Filipino legend, boxing's only eight-division titleholder, fought just once in 2013, a lopsided decision against Brandon Rios as he made his comeback from the big knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez at the end of 2012. But despite the easy win against Rios, there were many who still questioned what Pacquiao (57-5-2, 38 KOs), 36, had left in the tank. He showed that it was still a lot in 2014 as he notched a pair of dominant wins and regained a welterweight world title. In April, he faced Timothy Bradley Jr. in a rematch of Bradley's massively controversial split-decision win that gave him Pacquiao's welterweight belt in 2012. The second time around Pacquiao dominated Bradley about as much as he appeared to the first time. The difference this time was the judges in Las Vegas gave him the clear decision victory. Pacquiao returned in November in Macau, China, to face junior welterweight titleholder Chris Algieri, who was moving up in weight one fight after claiming his belt from Ruslan Provodnikov. But Algieri proved to be no match at all as Pacquiao scored six knockdowns in as dominant a win as he could have had without recording a knockout.
4. Miguel Cotto: Cotto had lost both of his fights in 2012 and then rebounded to win his only fight of 2013, a third-round knockout of Delvin Rodriguez. Although Cotto looked great against Rodriguez in his first pairing with Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, he was not facing an A-level opponent. What would happen if Cotto faced an elite foe and did so moving up to middleweight? We found out in 2014 as Cotto took on perennial pound-for-pound-ranked Sergio Martinez, the legitimate middleweight world champion. Although Martinez had been dealing with injury issues, especially to his knee, Cotto's domination cannot be underestimated. They met in June in front of Cotto's crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden and Cotto (39-4, 32 KOs), 34, put on a brilliant performance in his lone outing of the year. He dropped Martinez three times in the first round and again in the ninth round en route to a one-sided 10th-round stoppage that made Cotto the first Puerto Rican fighter to win world titles in four weight classes. It was a performance as brilliant as it was historic.
5. Gennady Golovkin: Golovkin did not get a chance in 2014 to fight the elite opponents he so badly wants to, but that did not stop him from continuing to terrorize the middleweight division by destroying anyone willing to get into the ring with him. Three men did and they paid dearly as Golovkin (31-0, 28 KOs), 32, of Kazakhstan -- and now living in Los Angeles -- ran his knockout streak to 18 in a row and increased his knockout percentage to 90.3, the best among active titleholders. In February in Monte Carlo, he scored three knockdowns en route to a seventh-round knockout of Osumanu Adama. In July, he mowed down former world titleholder Daniel Geale, scoring two more knockdowns in a third-round destruction as he played the main arena at New York's Madison Square Garden for the first time. In October, Golovkin made a much-anticipated West Coast debut as he sold out the StubHub Center and authored a resounding second-round knockout of longtime contender Marco Antonio Rubio to add an interim belt to his collection.
6. Roman Gonzalez: Gonzalez had impressive title reigns at strawweight and junior flyweight before moving up to flyweight and winning the lineal championship in 2014. The 27-year-old former protégé of the late, great Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello won all four of his fights by knockout, beginning with a sixth-round stoppage of Juan Kantun in February in Mexico. In April, he blew out Juan Purisima in the third round in Japan. The reason the big-punching Gonzalez (41-0, 35 KOs), 27, of Nicaragua, is on the list, however, is for what he did in September. He went back to Japan and knocked out champion Akira Yaegashi in the ninth round of a tremendous performance. In November, also in Japan, Gonzalez made his first defense in a one-sided sixth-round knockout of Rocky Fuentes.