By Ryan Mayer
(CBSNewYork/CBS Local) — Another year is in the books, and 2018 was chock full of good fights. Boxing is still capable of creating moments that make sports fans stop and watch. From Errol Spence’s dominance atop the welterweight division, to Oleksander Usyk’s breakout campaign to Wilder vs. Fury, 2018 was a strong year for the sport. With the calendar turned to 2019, we caught up with Showtime Sports boxing analyst Paulie Malignaggi to get his thoughts on the past year and the year ahead in boxing.
CBS Local Sports: Paulie, another year in the books, what was the most surprising thing to you in the boxing world in 2018?
Paulie Malignaggi: You can never be totally surprised. Anything’s possible. But last year there were some pleasant surprises. There were some good fights. Every year you hope that boxing can provide some of the best fights possible. I think 2018 was one of the better years for boxing. A lot of good matchups were made, and a lot of tickets were sold.
CBS Local Sports: Which fight stood out to you the most?
Paulie Malignaggi: I think Hurd and Lara was a good fight. I think Valdez and Quigg was a good fight. At the end of the year, I think Wilder and Fury brought a lot of intrigue. I don’t know if you can pick just one.
CBS Local Sports: The Wilder vs. Fury fight garnered plenty of attention for the sport. Do you think it has brought the heavyweight division back to prominence in terms of national attention?
Paulie Malignaggi: I hope so. I think the fight brought enough unexpected moments. You never could tell who was going to win all the way until the very end. You want all the skills and determination and will to be shown. I think the fight showed a lot of those qualities in both fighters.
Sometimes people say that the bad decisions are a bad thing, because boxing gets a black eye, so to speak. But at the same time, it has kept people talking more about the fight. I guess we’ll see next year how much interest the rematch drums up, if, in fact, they’re able to make it.
CBS Local Sports: Wilder vs. Fury may have been the most talked about fight, but which boxer do you think had the best year in 2018?
Paulie Malignaggi: I think Oleksandr Usyk made a bigger name for himself and really stuck out. He closed out the Boxing Super Series in style, beating a very tough Murat Gassiev. And he beat him in a pretty one-sided fight, which I totally didn’t see coming and didn’t expect. And then he went to England and probably took on an easier opponent, but an opponent with a lot of veteran craftiness and cleverness. It was a tricky fight, while it lasted. There were some unsteady moments, trying to figure out the puzzle that was Tony Bellew. But he was actually able to figure it out and get the knockout in front of Bellew’s crowd.
So I think this year Oleksandr Usyk really made a big step. He was always expected to be a big deal, but he started to make good on that promise.
CBS Local Sports: As we look ahead to 2019, do you think he continues on his upward trajectory?
They talk about him going to the heavyweight division. I’ve seen him in person, he’s not a small guy. He’s about 6’2″ or 6’3″, so maybe he can fill out for the heavyweight division a little bit. He’ll never be a big big heavyweight. But I think he can turn into a decent size heavyweight and compete. You’ll probably want to match him against some heavyweights who are a little on the smaller side but are still pretty good. Maybe like a Fres Oquendo or Carlos Takam or someone like that. Based on how he looks in those fights, and if he’s able to win, and if he’s able to win looking good or if he struggles, you judge if he’s going to be a heavyweight or if he goes back to cruiserweight.
CBS Local Sports: Who are some of the other guys you’re watching, to see what they do come the new year?
Paulie Malignaggi: I think Errol Spence is a guy who’s on the verge of cementing some more stardom. He’s always had the potential, he’s always been a big deal. And he’s always been a phenomenal fighter. I think this is a year, if he’s able to make good on the Mikey Garcia fight, who’s a bit smaller, but a tremendous fighter, and I expect Errol to come through that fight… If Errol is able to get the quality wins against the recognizable opponents, I think Errol can start cementing himself as one of the major stars in boxing as well. It’s just a matter of him getting access to certain people and doing the job that he does. But I think, just like Usyk was able to burst through in 2018, Errol’s ready to burst through in 2019.
CBS Local Sports: The fight that Errol has coming up is one of the biggest for the new year. Is there another, outside of the Wilder-Fury rematch, which you’re looking forward to?
Paulie Malignaggi: I look forward to seeing things like the return of Keith Thurman. Broner-Pacquiao could be a car wreck. We’ll come into the new year hoping and expecting that the schedule gives us some big fights. I think the first half of the year is going to be used to set the wheels in motion for the second half of the year, when all the big major players can get in the ring with each other. That’s the plan, judging from what I see on the early fight schedule. There’s some tricky ones in there, because Tony Harrison seems to be a tricky opponent, but Jermell Charlo just beat him. And I think Julian Williams against Jarrett Hurd is the same kind of fight. People expect Hurd to come through, but Julian Williams is no cupcake picnic for any championship fighter. And I think Julian presents a certain kind of danger the way Tony Harrison presented a danger, in that he’s an unexpected danger. You run the risk of overlooking a guy like that.