- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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In 2006, Thai junior featherweight Somsak Sithchatchawal stopped France-based Iranian Mahyar Monshipour in the 10th round to win a junior featherweight title on the outskirts of Paris in a fight that was so good, was waged at such a high-octane pace and had so much ridiculous pulsating action that it eventually won fight of the year honors from a variety of outlets, including ESPN.com -- even though few had ever heard of the boxers before the fight or had any idea how to pronounce their names.
That all-time great fight -- on par with the now-legendary first bout between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo that took place a year earlier -- never would have registered worldwide if not for the Internet and, specifically, YouTube, where somebody uploaded the video shortly after the bout. It soon became a must-see sensation.
Rafael's fights of the year
In 2011, there were a lot of excellent fights but only one truly special fight: Japan's Akira Yaegashi against Pornsawan Porpramook of Thailand, which took place Oct. 24 in Tokyo and had much in common with Sithchatchawal-Monshipour.
A fighter from Thailand was involved. Their names are tough on the tongue. Both fights ended in the 10th round. Both were absolute slugfests that were televised in small regions but made available to the world thanks to the fine Fight Freaks, who posted them on YouTube shortly after they had taken place.
Sure, Yaegashi and Porpramook are little guys. They fight in the strawweight division -- 105 pounds -- which is boxing's smallest weight class. Combined, they weigh about as much as heavyweight contender Eddie Chambers.
Yet they produced the biggest action of the year.
It was an awe-inspiring throwdown of the highest order, easily the greatest fight in the history of the 24-year-old strawweight division and clearly the 2011 ESPN.com fight of the year.
Yaegashi won by a thrilling 10th-round knockout to claim a world title, but what came before referee Erkki Meronen stepped in to rescue Porpramook with 22 seconds left in the round was unrelenting, exhilarating and an unexpected treat for the ages.
Before the bout, Yaegashi (15-2, 8 KOs) and Porpramook (23-4-1, 16 KOs) were hardly well-known fighters. They still probably aren't. Neither had found much success at the highest level of boxing.
Yaegashi, 28, lost a 2007 strawweight title bout by lopsided decision. The 33-year-old Porpramook lost strawweight title shots in 2007 and 2008, was knocked out in the fourth round of a 2009 junior flyweight title bid and came up short in a draw in a 2010 strawweight title match. In July, in his fifth shot at a title, Porpramook pulled a mild upset via majority decision against Muhammad Rachman in Rachman's native Indonesia.
Porpramook was making his first defense against Yaegashi, and little did anyone know that it would turn into a raging inferno of a fight -- one of the supreme exhibitions of pure violence in recent boxing history.
This wasn't like Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns, which erupted as soon as the first-round bell rang. Yaegashi-Porpramook had more of a slow build. As each round went by, the bout gradually evolved from an exciting action fight with lots of contact to a wild war. It really heated up in the third round as they blasted away at each other, with the crowd really into it.
They are energetic small guys, and the number of punches the fighters threw was ridiculous. They stood toe-to-toe for long stretches, pummeling each other with both hands to the head and body without an iota of defensive responsibility and measuring each other with right hands. They each absorbed massive punishment but never stopped pressing the action. It was simply stunning.
By the time the seventh and eighth rounds -- two incredible rounds filled with nonstop flush punching, iron chins and great hearts -- had concluded, this fight was off the charts.
As brutal as the seventh round was, the eighth was unmitigated violence. Yaegashi looked as if he might finally seize control when he landed an overwhelming number of clean head shots and finally forced Porpramook to take a step back. But while Porpramook was taking a shellacking, he suddenly landed a huge right hand that buckled Yaegashi's knees and nearly knocked him down.
The nonstop action continued right up until the final moments of the fight, when Yaegashi -- who was leading on all three scorecards -- was emptying the tank late in the 10th round. He was hammering Porpramook when a devastating right hand connected. It sent Porpramook's eyes rolling up into his head and Meronen to his rescue, ending a classic.
Hernan "Tyson" Marquez TKO11 Luis Concepcion I (April 2 in Panama City, Panama): This all-action flyweight title bout had everything: sustained action, multiple round of the year candidates, massive ebb and flow, knockdowns, a raucous crowd and a mild upset. Mexico's Marquez ventured to Concepcion's home country to challenge for the belt as the underdog and came away with the title in a fight that was simply outstanding. They went straight into combat too. The first round was sheer wildness, as they fought at a breakneck pace from the outset and exchanged knockdowns. Concepcion dropped Marquez to his backside with a right hand, but Marquez recovered quickly and rocked Concepcion with a left. Concepcion rebounded to rock Marquez again but ate a left hand and went down a couple of seconds before the round ended. Whew! And this was just the first round! The second round featured more frenzied toe-to-toe action, minus the knockdowns. They saved those for the third round, when Marquez connected with a huge right hand seconds in to floor Concepcion. He almost went down again later in the round as they traded vicious shots in a violent war. They rocked and wobbled each other several times throughout the fight, and it appeared that either could win in the late going. In the 10th round, Marquez knocked Concepcion down for the third time with a right hand, although Concepcion rebounded to buckle him later in the round. Concepcion, however, had bad swelling and a cut around his left eye, which was nearly closed. As soon as the 11th round began, referee Luis Pabon called timeout to have the eye checked by the ringside doctor, who advised Pabon to stop the fight. The ending was a bit unsatisfying, but what an overall awesome fight. P.S.: Marquez knocked Concepcion out in the first round of the October rematch.
Delvin Rodriguez D10 Pawel Wolak I (July 15 in New York): Wolak has always been in good fights and was coming off his biggest win, a knockout of former junior middleweight titlist Yuri Foreman. Rodriguez has been a stalwart of exciting "Friday Night Fights" main events and was moving up to 154 pounds after a one-year layoff. On paper, it was a very good fight. In the ring, it was even better -- an instant classic and perhaps the best bout in FNF history. It was so good that ESPN2 reaired it one week later in an unprecedented move as part of the next FNF show. Rodriguez and Wolak battled nose to nose and chest to chest throughout a fight that had the New York crowd cheering throughout. They fought as if their careers were on the line in a rousing action battle loaded with clean punching and all kinds of guts from both guys. Wolak applied his typical pressure and Rodriguez tried to box, but Rodriguez couldn't help being dragged into a slugfest. He did damage, raising massive swelling over Wolak's right eye. It was as if Wolak's head had grown another head. From about the seventh round on, Wolak's eye was closed, but he is a warrior. He never stopped charging and refused to quit despite the grotesque injury. "We've got a thriller here in New York! Will the eye hold up? Will Rodriguez hold up to Wolak's pressure?" an excited Joe Tessitore roared. Referee Steve Smoger looked closely at the hematoma, as did the ringside doctor, but they allowed the bout to continue. Sure, it probably should have been stopped, but the fact that it wasn't made the fight that much more dramatic. "Absolute grotesque swelling around the right eye of Wolak, and he fights on," Tessitore said. "It's as if someone shoved a hand melon under his skin." Rodriguez looked as if he might have pulled out the close fight in the final two rounds, when it was clear Wolak couldn't see a thing out of the eye, but it was ruled a majority draw (one judge had it for Rodriguez). Five months later, they met again on the Miguel Cotto-Antonio Margarito undercard, and Rodriguez won a clear decision in another action fight.
Victor Ortiz W12 Andre Berto (April 16 in Mashantucket, Conn.): Berto had held a welterweight belt since mid-2008, but he was finally facing a dangerous opponent in Ortiz, who was moving up from junior welterweight. The match resulted in a memorable battle between the former ESPN.com prospects of the year. They both showed toughness and heart to get up from two knockdowns apiece in a fight so good that they will do it again Feb. 11. Although the fight slowed down a little in the second half, those first six rounds were blazing. Ortiz, who wound up winning a unanimous decision and the belt, dropped Berto in the first round with a solid right hook and an uppercut. Berto answered with a second-round knockdown on a counter right hand that forced a stunned Ortiz to touch his glove to the canvas. Although Berto didn't go down in the third round, he was clearly hurt by a nasty uppercut. The sixth round, a candidate for round of the year, featured both men hitting the deck in a wild scene. Berto rocked Ortiz with an uppercut, dropped him hard with a right hand and appeared on his way to winning a dominant round. But moments before it ended, Ortiz connected with a left hand and dropped Berto to send the crowd into a frenzy of excitement. "Jaws are dropping all around this theater in Foxwoods, Conn.," HBO's Jim Lampley told viewers. "People are dumbfounded at what they are seeing. The phrase 'fight of the year candidate' is perhaps a bit overused, but mark it down, baby. This is unreal." Mark it down, indeed.
Marcos Maidana W12 Erik Morales (April 9 in Las Vegas): Maidana, the huge favorite, won the toe-to-toe fight -- but only by majority decision, as it was way more competitive than most anyone thought it would be. Morales, the all-time great Mexican warrior, lost the fight but won the drama of the event as he was involved in another terrific fight on the long list of action battles he has taken part in during his glorious career. Going into the interim junior welterweight title bout, the aging Morales, who wasn't far removed from a 2½-year retirement, was considered fodder for the younger, fresher, more powerful Maidana. Frankly, most thought Morales would be slaughtered and that if he could last even a few rounds it should be considered an upset. As it turned out, the fight rocked. It not only featured sustained action and steady ebb and flow, there was also the improbable sight of Morales hanging with Maidana round after round in a slugfest and even getting the better of him at times. In the first round, Maidana swelled Morales' right eye, which got steadily worse, eventually closing and resembling a purple water balloon. Morales fought bravely despite the injury and might have won had he not been handicapped. Maidana won the early rounds before Morales got into a rhythm, and finally, Maidana closed strong. It was a terrific, physical fight featuring a ton of hard punching to go with the drama of Morales' apparent rebirth. "Just when you least expect it, when you don't even expect much from the fight, boxing gives you what no other sport can," HBO's Max Kellerman said as he wrapped up what he had just seen. "This was astounding tonight, and it reminds me why I love this game so much." He wasn't the only one.
Brandon Rios TKO10 Miguel Acosta (Feb. 26 in Las Vegas): Rios' reputation as one of boxing's most exciting action fighters blossomed because of this tremendous Showtime fight in which Rios claimed a lightweight belt. It didn't look good for him early on. He had lost the first four rounds on two judges' scorecards and three of the opening four rounds on the third card. Acosta was beating him easily, and it looked as if it might be only a matter of time before he stopped Rios, who had been hurt by a body shot in the third round and had taken a beating in the fourth. But Rios turned things around in dramatic fashion. In the sixth round, he knocked Acosta down for the first of three times and opened a cut under his right eye. In the eighth, Rios, now in a groove, dropped Acosta again on the end of a left hook (after messing up his right hand in the round). They went toe-to-toe for most of the thrilling ninth round before Rios ended it in the 10th. He backed Acosta into the corner and nailed him with a left hand and a right to the temple. After two more lefts and two more rights, Acosta was out. He sunk to the canvas against the corner post, and it was over. It was a violent conclusion to a rousing fight that gave boxing a new action star in Rios.
Francisco Arce W12 Hugo Ruiz I (May 14 in Los Mochis, Mexico): There's nothing like an old-fashioned neighborhood turf war. Arce, the brother of Jorge Arce, and Ruiz are both from Los Mochis and were fighting for city bragging rights in addition to an interim bantamweight title in a "Top Rank Live" main event loaded with action. The rivals laid it all on the line in a scintillating brawl that featured four knockdowns (two apiece), unrelenting action and blood. It started slowly but blew up in the third round, when Arce floored Ruiz with a clean left hook. Round after round, they traded power shots, but while Arce appeared to be getting the better of the action, Ruiz was credited with a knockdown in the fifth round (even though it looked like a slip). Early in the eighth round, Arce tagged Ruiz's chin and dropped him for the second time. Ruiz was in rough shape. His nose was bleeding and his face was a mess. The wildest moment came in the 11th round when Ruiz cracked Arce with a right hand; Arce fell between the ropes and clean out of the ring for a knockdown. Arce beat the count by making it back into the ring and finished the explosive fight. It was so good, they met in an October rematch, which Ruiz won via decisive fourth-round knockout.
James Kirkland TKO6 Alfredo Angulo (Nov. 5 in Cancun, Mexico): Anyone who follows boxing to any serious degree knew what to expect when this junior middleweight bout was made. Based on the fighters' histories, it was going to be a hard-hitting scrap. And it delivered in spades. The first incredible round was the round of the year. Angulo creamed Kirkland with a heavy right hand that landed on the button, knocking him down 30 seconds into the fight. Kirkland survived, took a pounding for much of the rest of the round and, after Angulo had punched himself out, rallied to drop Angulo for the first time in his career in a chaotic, all-time great round. Angulo was never quite the same the rest of the fight, and Kirkland dominated the HBO main event. But even though Angulo was losing, he hung in there. He showed a big heart and was throwing everything he had. Kirkland was doing the same thing, making this an exhilarating fight as they bashed the hell out of each other. Kirkland mixed in just enough movement, jabs and boxing that the slower, less skilled Angulo couldn't mount a comeback. Kirkland dished out a lot of punishment until referee Johnny Callas finally called it off. But what a terrific fight -- just as we expected.
Nathan Cleverly W12 Tony Bellew (Oct. 15 in Liverpool, England): The fighters were originally supposed to meet in May in a fight made on a couple of days' notice after Bellew was tapped to replace no-show Jürgen Brähmer. Cleverly and Bellew even got into a heated exchange at the news conference, but the fight was called off because Bellew couldn't make weight and was replaced. Finally meeting after the proper buildup in Bellew's hometown, they turned in Great Britain's best fight of 2011. Cleverly kept his light heavyweight belt via majority decision in the toughest fight he's ever had. They started quick, prompting BoxNation broadcaster John Rawling to say, "Styles of these two, you suspect, are going to blend to make an exciting fight." He couldn't have been more right. Virtually every round was exciting, as Cleverly and Bellew generally stood and exchanged hard punches for the full fight. Both men had their moments. Bellew rocked Cleverly in the second round. Cleverly marked up Bellew's face in the fifth, which was one of the best of the fight. They went back and forth, and the crowd roared throughout. Bellew landed a massive right hand in the 10th round -- a shot that probably would have knocked most guys out -- but Cleverly took it well. Cleverly closed the show with a big final round in a badass fight that deserves a rematch.
Lamont Peterson W12 Amir Khan (Dec. 10 in Washington, D.C.): Put aside the dodgy refereeing of Joe Cooper, whose two weak point deductions -- in the seventh and 12th rounds of a very close fight -- of Khan for pushing cost the Brit the fight and a pair of junior welterweight belts, turning what would have been a unanimous decision win into a split-decision loss. If you can do that, this was a whale of a fight between two young studs fighting at the highest level. They're outstanding boxers, but they also like to mix it up, which was much appreciated by HBO's viewers and the 8,647 who cheered throughout in Peterson's hometown. It was a fast-paced fight all the way, and Khan was credited with a questionable knockdown in the first round. When Peterson realized he couldn't outbox Khan, he turned to Plan B, which was to rough him up on the inside and go for broke. Khan was slightly ahead thanks to his movement and a steady flow of punches, but Peterson was relentless, pressuring Khan like a man possessed and not giving him room to breathe as he banged his body with abandon. There's talk of a rematch in May. Yes, please.
Orlando Salido TKO8 Juan Manuel Lopez (April 16 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico): This was supposed to be a routine title defense for Lopez in front of his home fans as Top Rank continued to build toward a Lopez-Yuriorkis Gamboa fight. It turned out to be anything but routine, as Mexico's Salido pulled the major upset in a memorable Showtime fight, dethroning Lopez in shocking fashion. Although Lopez was winning early, Salido cranked up his right hand and began smacking Lopez around. He dropped Lopez in the fifth round and had him in terrible shape. They took turns trading hard shots and rocking each other in the sixth round, and Salido had Lopez reeling in the eighth. He was groggy from eating several brutal shots and was half-heartedly throwing back when referee Roberto Ramirez Jr. surprisingly stepped in to stop it. It wasn't the best stoppage in the world, but that did nothing to diminish the exciting brawl we had just seen. As Ramirez stepped in, the excitable Gus Johnson did his thing: "That's it! What a fight! Orlando Salido comes into Puerto Rico and takes his second world championship!"
Antonio DeMarco TKO11 Jorge Linares (Oct. 15 in Los Angeles): This dramatic fight saved the show that was headlined by the ugly Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson two-round debacle. Linares, the former featherweight and junior lightweight titlist, is a far more talented fighter than DeMarco, and it showed through the first half of this fight for a vacant lightweight title. Linares looked like a superstar as he outboxed DeMarco, whose will to engage never wavered while he was being outclassed. In the sixth round, DeMarco broke though when he landed a flurry of punches and opened a bad cut on the bridge of Linares' nose. It bled heavily for the rest of the fight, as did a cut over Linares' right eye that opened in the eighth round. Although Linares was clearly beginning to fade, DeMarco looked fresh, despite being down by wide margins on all three scorecards. Before the 11th round, DeMarco's trainer, Romulo Quirarte, told him he needed a knockout to win, which set the stage for a huge rally to end a terrific fight in stunning fashion. DeMarco pressured Linares and caught him with several clean shots that sent the blood spraying at ringside. Linares was in trouble and retreating as DeMarco chased after him and landed several blows, forcing referee Raul Caiz Sr. to call it off.
Teon Kennedy W12 Jorge Diaz (March 26 in Atlantic City, N.J.): On paper, it looked like a can't-miss fight between junior featherweight prospects who like to bang it out. A regional rivalry between Philadelphia's Kennedy and Diaz, of New Brunswick, N.J., added flavor to the matchup, which, unfortunately, was on the untelevised portion of an HBO card. If you were lucky enough to be in attendance or see it on the Top Rank website stream, count yourself lucky, because it was a beauty. It was a high-energy slugfest from the start. Diaz started exceptionally fast, but Kennedy did a nice job of staying with him and not getting overwhelmed by his activity. Despite Diaz's aggression, it was Kennedy who scored a knockdown in the third round when he landed a left hook to the head. The action was hot and heavy enough in the ensuing rounds, but then came the exciting sixth round -- a round of the year honorable mention -- during which Kennedy landed a massive right hand to Diaz's head, dropping him to his knees. Although he was hurt, Diaz survived a beating in the round and continued to pursue Kennedy during the second half of the fight. When it ended, Diaz's face was swollen, Kennedy was cut over his right eye, and we had just witnessed a sweet dustup.
Jorge Arce TKO12 Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (May 7 in Las Vegas): Is Arce ever in a bad fight? The answer is no, and this was just another example of the kind of exciting fight he is usually in. He was the underdog when he moved up in weight and challenged Vazquez for his junior featherweight belt in a classic Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry fight. Mexico won this chapter, as Arce pulled the upset in the fight of the night on Top Rank's otherwise weak Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley Showtime PPV undercard. At least we got this dandy. Vazquez was in control early and knocked Arce down with a solid left hook to the jaw just as the fourth round ended. Arce was also cut over his left eye, but he rallied to storm back. He badly hurt Vazquez in the 11th round, and it seemed like only a matter of time until he would get Vazquez out of there. It happened less than a minute into the final round as Arce was walking Vazquez down and pinned him against the ropes before rocking him repeatedly. Vazquez was out on his feet when Vazquez's father and trainer, former three-division titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Sr., threw in the towel, and referee Joe Cortez stepped in to end the barnburner.
Dan Rafael is a boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.