In the history of boxing, 2012 will go down as a terrific year. There were champion versus champion showdowns like Andre Ward's TKO of Chad Dawson and Brian Viloria's stoppage of Hernan Marquez. We saw epic wars like Robert Guerrero versus Andre Berto and Brandon Rios versus Mike Alvarado.
Young Lion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. finally stepped up to challenge middleweight kingpin Sergio Martinez, and although he was thoroughly out-boxed for 11 rounds, he nearly pulled off the upset of the year when he dropped Maravilla in the closing frame.
And in December, Mexican superstar Juan Manuel Marquez put the ultimate exclamation point on the year when he stopped Manny Pacquiao cold with, perhaps, the greatest right-hand counter in boxing history, making the fourth installment of their classic rivalry the most exciting one yet.
Midway through March 2013, the sport has showed no sign of slowing down. With Rios-Alvarado II waiting on deck at the end of the month and Nonito Donaire-Guillermo Rigondeaux right after it in April, boxing fans have good reason to be giddy with anticipation.
And the still-new year has already been filled with thrilling action. What follows are my selections for the best five fights of 2013 so far.
This is one of those fights that makes me wonder why the competitors in the smallest divisions can't get more love in the United States. Fighters at flyweight and below consistently put on bouts filled with nonstop action, and this WBO junior flyweight title fight was a classic example.
Mexican Moises Fuentes entered this one as the WBO minimum weight champion, moving up to 108 to challenge Donnie Nietes in the Philippines. Although he was moving up in weight, Fuentes looked like the bigger man in the ring, and he stalked Nietes relentlessly.
Nietes used his traditional quick movement to move in and out of range, scoring with counterpunches and making it extremely hard for the challenger to cut the ring off. The 105-pound champion scored more consistently with heavier punches, but both men worked at an incredible rate.
Evgeny Gradovich entered this Friday Night Fights matchup with a perfect 15-0 record, eight of his wins coming by stoppage. But IBF featherweight champion Billy Dibs (35-1, 21 KOs) represented a major step up in competition.
The Australian Dibs was one of the prize signings for Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's new promotional organization last year, and the celebrity rapper accompanied his fighter to the ring, treating the Foxwood Resorts crowd to a live performance.
But Gradovich has a stellar amateur background, and even more important than that, he has been mentored in the professional game by Robert Garcia, currently the top trainer in the sport. The Siberian native demonstrated that his time at Garcia's famed Boxing Academy has been well spent, and his nickname "The Mexican Russian" well-earned.
By the end of the night, yet one more world title was headed back to Oxnard, Calif.
This was a bruising, physical fight, with both men docked a point in the eighth for holding. But it was hardly a wrestling match. Both fighters delivered high-volume punching in every round.
But Gradovich consistently had the better timing, finding the spaces between Dib's punches to land more consistently with his own shots. While every round was hard-fought and competitive, I feel like the judge who scored for Dibs clearly got the fight wrong.
Gradovich emerges from this fight as a young champion to watch.
In February, undefeated Jonathan Romero (23-0, 12) of Columbia traveled to Mexico to fight Alejandro Lopez (24-3, 7 KOs) for the vacant IBF super bantamweight title.
While this was not a brutal war of attrition in the Gatti-Ward model, it was a highly entertaining, action-packed scrap, with a rare combination of high-volume punching and stellar defense on display by both fighters.
This was naturally a very competitive fight, but I do feel like the judge who scored for Lopez had to have been a bit of a homer. Both fighters had their moments, but Romero had better footwork and head movement, and on my card, won eight rounds to four.
On paper, Romero would seem like a potential candidate for the winner of Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux, who will be fighting to unify the WBA and WBO 122-pound belts in April. But Romero is still an unknown in the States, so that's clearly not going to happen.
However, he would make a great opponent for a future scrap with IBF bantamweight champion and budding superstar Leon Santa Cruz.
I have to give full credit to Bad Left Hook for getting this one on my radar. Shoji Kawase (30-5-5, 18 KOs) is a veteran Japanese lightweight journeyman who has never fought outside of his native country. Shuhei Tsuchiya entered (14-1, 12 KOs) their Tokyo showdown as an undefeated, hard-punching prospect.
Tsuchiya came out strong and dropped Kawase in the first. Kawase climbed off the canvas and proceeded to go to war.
During an action-packed battle of attrition Kawase's experience slowly began to turn the tide in his advantage. Both men were firing away, but Kawase consistently did a better job of controlling the distance and getting angles to attack.
It's doubtful either of these two will ever make much of a splash in the U.S. boxing scene. But this highly entertaining fight demonstrates what a vibrant international sport boxing truly is.
If you had told most boxing fans last year, or even last week, that on St. Patrick's Day of 2013 the clear early front-runner for Fight of the Year would have included Timothy Bradley, you would frankly have been met with cynical snorts of derisive laughter. Even the sort of fans who appreciate his rugged, technical style would have been highly skeptical.
As the many empty seats in the Carson, Calif., Home Depot Center testified last night, the undefeated Bradley (30-0, 12 KOs) just hasn't consistently demonstrated a fan-pleasing style.
But after last night, boxing people are going to have to start looking at Desert Storm a little bit differently. Because his tilt with Rusland Provodnikov (22-2, 15 KOs) last night wasn't just the best fight so far in 2013, it was among the most compelling fights to take place in recent years.
Naturally Provodnikov deserves a large amount of the credit. Making his debut at 147, the Russian presented Bradley with a rare challenge, an opponent able to match him in physical strength.
When I interviewed Bradley in the final weeks before the fight, he told me he had been trying to develop more punching power during his training camp for this fight, and he made no secret in any of his pre-fight interviews that he wanted to knock the challenger out and send a message to the boxing world.
So he came out aggressively from the opening bell last night. It almost cost him the fight.
Provodnikov hurt Bradley badly in both of the first two rounds; the fact that Bradley even survived them is a testament to his other-worldly durability and heart. He finished both frames looking like he was out on his feet.
But Bradley came back strong in the third and appeared to take control of the fight. While the action was non-stop and relentless, the WBO champion continually controlled distance and angles and slowed Provodnikov down with a brutal body attack.
While his punches upstairs never seemed to badly hurt Provodnikov, they caused significant swelling around both his eyes and opened up a brutal cut on his left eyelid.
Still, Provodnikov showed that his nickname, the Russian Rocky, is well-deserved, as he continued to come forward relentlessly. In the sixth, he touched up Bradley again, prompting Bradley's trainer, Joel Diaz, to threaten to stop the fight.
After 10 rounds, Bradley appeared to have compiled at least a 7-3 lead. Provodnikov's trainer Freddy Roach told the Russian "We need a knockout to win and if you don't show me you can do it this round, I'm going to stop the fight."
Provodnikov proceeded to go out in the 11th and hurt Bradley again. Then, in the final frame, he pulled out all the stops and dropped Bradley inside the final 10 seconds of the fight. Bradley barely made it back to his feet before the final bell.
The last-second knockdown pulled Provodnikov to within a point, 114-113, on two of the three judges' cards. If a first-round slip that replays revealed to be a clear knockdown had been ruled correctly, the fight would have been a majority draw.
It was the type of fight that will enhance both men's standing with the paying public, though it was also the type of war that takes a heavy physical toll.
Bradley spent the second half of last year hoping in vain for a rematch with Manny Pacquiao. But Pac wasn't interested in giving it to him, and the public expressed little interest in seeing it.
After last night, a rematch with Provodnikov could be one of the most anticipated fights for the second half of 2013. And the next time around, it's a safe bet that there will be a whole lot fewer empty seats.