The fights we want to see in 2018

This is the traditional time of the year for optimistic thoughts, a season in which we gather together to reassure ourselves that spring will surely come. Yet regardless of how well or badly the previous 12 months have been, it's only human nature to wish the next 12 would be better.

Boxing fans are no different. Expectations are always high, anticipation often sweeter than the fights themselves. But after a horrible 2016, when the sport seemed to be eating itself alive, boxing scraped itself off the canvas in 2017 and rallied to have a good year.

In terms of making the matches fans wanted see, 2017 delivered in a big way. What stopped it from being a great year was that of the three most-anticipated fights, only Anthony Joshua's TKO of Wladimir Klitschko delivered exhilarating action.

Gennady Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez was pretty much a wash -- a match that promised much but never really took off. Most of the fireworks came after the final bell when the draw verdict was announced. That's never a good thing.

Vasiliy Lomachenko-Guillermo Rigondeaux was worse. The reluctant Cuban turned it into a stinker and then quit. We ought to have known better.

Now that boxing is moving away from premium cable and pay-per-view to more accessible platforms, the sport will reach a significantly larger audience. It's an opportune time to hook the casuals and intrigue the tenderfoots by putting on nothing but action fights.

It's with this in mind, particular attention was paid to matchmaking's oldest cliché when making this year's selections. Styles still make fights.

All political and financial considerations have been put aside. After all, this is a new beginning -- a small window of time, full of New Year's cheer and blind faith. Probably followed by a punch the nose when least expecting it. Protect yourself at all times.

Anthony Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder, world heavyweight championship

All roads to heavyweight glory lead to London where Joshua reigns supreme as boxing's biggest ticket-seller. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist attracted a combine total of approximately 160,000 customers to his two most recent fights, a heady number even for the boxing crazy United Kingdom.

It's not Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali in 1971, not even close. But, like Frazier and Ali, Joshua and Wilder are undefeated and need to fight each other to gain universal recognition as champion. Both are punchers with aggressive attitudes, an approach that frequently leads to the sort of gratifying mayhem everybody enjoys.

Two enormous and talented young athletes primed to knock the other's block off. What's not to like?

Anthony Joshua vs. Tyson Fury, world heavyweight championship

Now that Fury is back in training and has been cleared to fight, he automatically becomes the division gadfly. The "Gypsy King" was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world when he became unhinged and retired amid a swirling scandal involving a failed PED test, cocaine and unabashed gluttony.

That being said, if Fury can regain the form he had on the night he finagled Klitschko out of the championship, he'll be a major player again. It's a big "if," of course, but it should be fun watching him try.

An in-shape and motivated Fury is a handful -- a huge man with quick hands who moves around the ring like a skittish giraffe. But behind the bluster, there is a canny boxer who believes in himself -- a quality that should never be underestimated.

Gennady Golovkin vs. Billy Joe Saunders, middleweight title unification

If their first fight is any indication, the thought of a Golovkin-Canelo Alvarez rematch isn't particularly appealing. Been there, done that, and it wasn't exactly enthralling.

Sure, the decision sucked, but there's no guarantee the judges would do any better in a return bout. And even with a rematch looming for Cinco de Mayo weekend, it's time for something new.

Saunders had never looked as brilliant as he did outclassing David Lemieux in December. Admittedly, the Canadian slugger proved a rather accommodating foil, seemingly lost without a stationary target to hit. Thankfully, Saunders' superb defensive technique is not of the run-and-grab ilk.

It's about footwork, angles and crisp, clean punches. It's unlikely he could befuddle Golovkin as thoroughly as he did Lemieux, but it's a fascinating match.

Maybe this selection is overly optimistic, but with little bit of luck it could turn out to be everything Golovkin-Canelo wasn't.

Canelo Alvarez vs. Daniel Jacobs, middleweight title

A consolation match between two outstanding middleweights who fought Gennady Golovkin and came out second-best by wafer thin margins.

Golovkin-Canelo, of course, was officially a draw, but most objective viewers believed "GGG" deserved to have his arm raised. A reasonable argument can also be made that the judges gave Jacobs short shrift when he fought Golovkin.

Regardless of how you scored those two fights, Jacobs and Alvarez remain, along with Golovkin and Saunders, today's middleweight elite. Providing it's a good fight and ends in a clear-cut manner, the victor would make a helluva match with the Golovkin-Saunders winner.

Terence Crawford vs. Keith Thurman, welterweight title fight

Top Rank had Crawford, the 2017 ESPN Fighter of the Year, penciled in to face Jeff Horn, but the Australian's team is beginning to play hardball, so there is some doubt about the fight happening. Meanwhile, Thurman has an April date with Jesse Vargas scheduled.

But those matches won't settle welterweight supremacy. They're designed to keep the A-sides active and in the public eye.

Thurman-Crawford could easily be the best fight in the welterweight division. Crawford, 30, and Thurman, 29, are peaking -- a consummate, old-school pro and a slashing stylist, respectively. Both have mean streaks that serve them well, and it's difficult to imagine anything other than a splendid fight between them.

Crawford-Thurman needs to get busy before it's too late. It won't be long before Errol Spence Jr. is breathing down their necks.

The Errol Spence Jr.-Lamont Peterson winner vs. Shawn Porter, welterweight title fight

Spence has made remarkable progress since turning pro in November 2012, taking a welterweight belt away from Kell Brook in his most recent bout. But Brook was damaged goods, having suffered a fracture right eye socket in his previous fight, against Gennady Golovkin.

The more experienced and sturdier Peterson (4-2 in previous world title fights) should give Spence his most demanding test to date. And if Spence passes, Porter would be the perfect adversary to see how well the Texas-based wunderkind responds to the sort of heat "Showtime Shawn" brings.

Not everybody appreciates Porter's brawling, headfirst style, but there's seldom a dull moment when he's in the ring. His relentless, take-no-prisoners approach has carried him to impressive victories over Andre Berto, Adrien Broner and Paul Malignaggi. Even Porter's decision loss to Keith Thurman was close, with all three judges scoring it 115-113.

Vasiliy Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia, catch-weight super fight

Yes, Lomachenko is fighting as a junior lightweight and Garcia is stepping up to junior welter against Sergey Lipinets in February. But why let a 10-pound differential get in the way of a match between two of today's finest fighters? If the money is right, surely they could agree to meet somewhere in between.

Lomachenko is simply too good to waste his time fighting ordinary opponents. There are good fighters in the junior lightweight and lightweight classes, but nobody who stands out as having much of a chance against the spellbinding Ukrainian.

Garcia, however, has always had the makings of a special fighter, but a lengthy layoff during a protracted contract dispute stalled his momentum. He's back now and wants the big money. A victory over Lomachenko would make up for lost time and propel him to the forefront.

The Srisaket Sor Rungvisai-Juan Francisco Estrada winner vs. Naoya Inoue, junior bantamweight title fight

Sor Rungvisai rocketed into prominence last March with a stunning upset of previously undefeated Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, who was No. 1 on ESPN.com's pound-for-pound ratings going in. The decision was controversial, but the vicious-punching Thai proved the victory was no fluke by knocking out Gonzalez in a September rematch.

Estrada is coming off an exciting 12-round decision over fellow Mexican Carlos Cuadras and gave the then-unbeaten Gonzalez the most demanding fight of his career before "Chocolatito" came a cropper against Sor Rungvisai.

So far the undefeated Inoue has lived up to his "Monster" nickname. In his most recent bout, he knocked out Yoan Boyeaux in the third round on Dec. 30 in Yokohama. Regardless of who prevails between Sor Rungvisai and Estrada, a match with Inoue would be a treat for fans that enjoy the sort of high-octane action the lower weight classes almost always provide.

Other Matches: Leo Santa Cruz vs. Gary Russell Jr., featherweight; Segrey Kovalev vs. Adonis Stevenson, light heavyweight; Alberto Machado vs. Gervonta Davis, junior lightweight; Gilberto Ramirez vs. Jesse Hart II, super middleweight; Erislandy Lara vs. Jarrett Hurd, super middleweight; Jason Sosa vs. Miguel Roman, junior lightweight; Donnie Nietes vs. Kazuto Ioka, flyweight; Carl Frampton vs. Lee Selby, featherweight.