Not to be too controversial, but I’d personally say that 2020 was a pretty weird year, and I don’t just mean in boxing, but, y’know, overall. Not to get too wild here, but it was a little different, in my opinion! Kinda unique. Had some negative aspects to it.
Boxing faced a lot of challenges in 2020, and while there are certainly things to complain about — PBC putting basically every half-interesting matchup they would make on pay-per-view, for instance — there was also some good stuff. And in all honesty, on the whole, I think the boxing industry pulled it together pretty well in 2020 after three months with the sport pretty much completely sidelined.
Along with some big names and big fights down the stretch of 2020, we saw the rise of some unlikely fan favorites — blue collar scrappers, underdogs, reappearing ex-prospects, weirdos. Here are some of the unexpected stars of boxing’s pandemic period in 2020, fighters who didn’t pull the big dollars or headline the major cards, but were big pieces in keeping the sport fun in a strange time.
While U.S. boxing found its own folk hero and we’ll talk about him in a moment, the United Kingdom also had one in the form of 30-year-old Croatian heavyweight Alen Babic, who fought on Matchroom’s Aug. 22, Oct. 4, and Nov. 21 shows.
Babic (6-0, 6 KO) is something of a novice fighter, really — those three wins are over pros, but they’re all lower-level guys. Babic is also interesting in that he’s really small for a modern heavyweight, standing six feet even and weighing anywhere from 199 to 220 in his six pro bouts. This year, we saw him at 205, 199, and 213. But he’s all action, a real colorful interview, and says fun things with a lot of confidence but not a ton of ego. Everyone seems to genuinely like him. He’s called out fellow Croatian Filip Hrgovic — a former Olympian and serious contender — but Hrgovic does not seem interested, and that’s understandable. Even if this little run is the highlight of Babic’s career when all is said and done, it’s been a good time.
Another weirdo, the 30-year-old Bolotniks, hailing from Riga, Latvia, was brought on for MTK Global’s “Golden Contract” light heavyweight tournament in late 2019. He scored something of an upset over Steven Ward in Dec. 2019 in the opening round, stopping Ward in the first round, but COVID shut the tournament down until September of this year.
When it resumed, Bolotniks (18-5-1, 8 KO) got home field in Riga against Hosea Burton, and won again, this time by wide decision. For the tournament final on Dec. 2, Bolotniks out-fought the favored Serge Michel, stopping the 32-year-old “Bavarian Sniper” in the 10th and final round. He was absolutely not favored or expected to win this tournament; when he was signed up, he kinda just felt like someone they brought on because they had to fill eight slots.
But Bolotniks, even with a not-so-spiffy W-L record, might be worth watching out for at 175. He’s got a great engine, and when he gets on a roll, he’s dangerous. He’s gone 7-0 overall since moving back to 175 in 2018 following a stint as a cruiserweight. And he’s also just incredibly likable.
The great folk hero of Top Rank’s “Bubble” run at the MGM Grand, the former UFC fighter — who still has plans for MMA with PFL in 2021 — put together a hugely entertaining 2020, and it all started even before the COVID lockdown put boxing down from March until June.
In January, Collard fought at 147 pounds in Cincinnati and won a decision over previously unbeaten Quashawn Toler, but Toler is no big prospect or anything. Raymond Guajardo, however, was a hyped PBC prospect, and Collard jumped up to 160 pounds a month after the Toler fight, stopping the teenager in a two-round firefight that saw both men on the canvas in the first round.
When boxing returned, Top Rank brought Collard in as an opponent for another teenage middleweight prospect in David Kaminsky. Collard dished out big punishment in a six-round brawl, winning a split decision for another upset (and it was clear that Collard won, by the way; Patricia Morse Jarman’s card for Kaminsky was absurd).
By that point, Collard, 27, had started attracting a little bit of buzz from the diehards and prelim watchers. Top Rank read the situation and used it to put some heat on their shows. Collard was back on July 14 to stop LT Nelson in two, and he did the same to Maurice Williams on Aug. 22.
The fun came to an end on Dec. 12 in Top Rank’s 2020 finale, as Collard lost an eight-round decision to Quincy LaVallais, a rematch from a 2019 draw where LaVallais had home field in New Orleans. Being honest, Collard (9-3-3, 4 KO) seemed a little tired and a little like he’d sort of hit the wall in his sixth fight of the year, and LaVallais took advantage and got a nice televised win.
Despite what any of the crazies might have suggested, Collard never projected to become a contender or anything, but he gave us something organically enjoyable to root for and watch during a tough period. His everyman attitude — in and out of the ring — was an easy thing to enjoy. The loss was inevitable, but it doesn’t mar a really enjoyable run.
A veteran scrapper who’d fallen short in chances at the 130-pound British title in 2017 and 2018, Hughes was inked to face Jono Carroll on Aug. 12 in a lightweight bout. Carroll was taking a lightweight fight to tune up and get sharp, following a really impressive win in March over Scott Quigg at junior lightweight.
Carroll figured to win handily against Hughes. And that’s why we fight the fights. Sometimes, it just does not go as imagined. Hughes (22-5-2, 4 KO) took a deserved decision over Carroll, scoring the biggest win of his career at age 30.
MTK Global moved quickly to sign the veteran who had just upset their guy, and then sent him to Dubai to face unbeaten Kazakh prospect Viktor Kotochigov on Oct. 9. Once again, Hughes got the upset win, taking a decision that once again he fully deserved.
To say this must have been a marvelous holiday season for Hughes has to be putting it lightly. It’s the biggest year of his career by far, with arguably his two best wins coming back-to-back just eight weeks apart. Hughes isn’t exactly in contention for the top of a good lightweight division or anything, but all he can do is fight and try to keep winning, and maybe he gets that big call at some point.
We just mentioned Pasillas in a look at the best fights coming in January, as he’s set to face Raeese Aleem on a Showtime bill on Jan. 23, but let’s talk about him again. Now 28, Pasillas (16-0, 9 KO) is the guy on this list who has the highest ceiling, probably, and the one most likely to keep rolling through 2021.
The California southpaw turned pro back in 2011, deep on the Pacquiao-Marquez 3 undercard in Las Vegas, and was an amateur standout, with wins over the likes of Jose Ramirez and Joseph Diaz Jr, future U.S. Olympians who now hold world titles at 140 and 130, respectively.
Pasillas is focusing on 122 pounds for now, but has goals for the future at 126 and 130, too. He stole the show on an FS1 card in September, absolutely thrashing Ranfis Encarnacion before a merciful sixth round stoppage. The fight sort of announced his return to the radar; he’s had years of promotional issues that have derailed his career, and at one point he was out of the sport from Aug. 2015 until Jan. 2018, a brutal lost period. But Pasillas has major league skill. Whether it will translate against better opponents remains to b eseen, but this was once a hyped prospect, and he may be ready to bust through.