When Top Rank first put together its Dec. 4 pay-per-view card at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., Julio Cesar Chavez was supposed to headline. But when he came down with the flu and dropped out a week before the show the lineup was suddenly shuffled.
Top Rank moved Nonito Donaire's bantamweight fight with Wladimir Sidorenko into the main event slot, but the lineup was changed again at the last minute. Because of international television contract considerations, Donaire-Sidorenko was moved to the co-feature slot and the undercard fight between lightweight titlist Humberto Soto and Urbano Antillon was bumped up to top the bill.
By the time Soto and Antillon had finished a brutal, back-and-forth slugfest, it was clear they had not only waged a fight more than worthy of being a main event, they had produced the 2010 ESPN.com fight of the year.
Sure, the card had lost the star power of Chavez, but the 3,253 who decided to keep their tickets, and those who anted up for the pay-per-view, more than got their money's worth as Soto and Antillon put on a scorching fight for all 12 rounds.
Soto eked out a unanimous decision -- 115-112, 114-113, 114-113 -- to retain his 135-pound belt for the third time, but the result almost didn't matter, as both fighters raised their stock in a tremendous battle.
The blueprint for how the fight was going to go was set almost immediately, as Antillon, more brawler than boxer, went right at Soto to try to drag him into a war. Soto, the more skilled fighter, would have preferred a bit of a chess match, but Antillon set a furious pace. He was all over Soto with power punches and body shots. Soto had no choice but to stand his ground and fight back.
The opening stanza was not even half over and the action was already intense.
"This is a sizzling first round," said broadcaster Rich Marotta, unaware that virtually every round was going to be just as sizzling.
They sustained the action in the second round, and in the third round, one of the best of 2010, the fight boiled over into a pier-sixer. Antillon, exerting massive pressure, was firing head shots and body blows and Soto was answering with counter shots and uppercuts.
"Somewhere up there Diego Corrales is looking down on this fight and smiling," Marotta said, invoking the name of the late, great action star who was known for being in hard-hitting fights.
When the terrific third round ended, blow-by-blow man Nick Charles was dead on with his assessment: "There is no letup from either man through three rounds. Nine sensational minutes!"
Rafael's fights of the year
And it would only get better.
Referee Ray Corona, who had little to do for the most part other than watch the searing action as they pulverized each other, did get into the act in the fourth round when he warned Antillon for a low blow and then docked him a critical point in the fifth round for a borderline low blow.
What's a great fight without some blood? We got that too as an accidental head-butt opened a cut over Antillon's right eye in the sixth round.
But blood be damned. They continued to tear into each other. Mexico's Soto crushed Antillon, a fellow Mexican living in Maywood, Calif., with uppercuts, but Antillon walked through them to land thudding body shots. There were so many heated exchanges, it looked like a video game at times.
The ebb and flow was wonderful. The fight was nip and tuck all the way.
When Antillon hammered a tiring Soto at the end of the 11th after rallying from some tough moments earlier in the round, Marotta was in awe.
"There's blood dripping from Antillon's eye! What a fight, man! This is what it's all about," he exclaimed.
The fight appeared on the table in the 12th round and they fought like it, finishing the final few seconds in the middle of the ring, teeing off on each other.
"Fight to the finish," Charles said when the final bell sounded. "That was really a thrilling fight."
After the fight, the fighters knew they had just been in a special one.
"I think tonight the winners here were the fans," Soto said. "I think it was a great fight. Both of us [fought] our hearts out."
Said Antillon: "The crowd is pretty happy with the fight, so we're all winners here."
Top Rank promoter Bob Arum gave his guys credit. "We knew going in this would be a great fight and both guys proved to be tremendous warriors," he said.
So tremendous that a rematch is in the works for May. Fight of the year 2011, anyone?
Amir Khan W12 Marcos Maidana (Dec. 11 at Las Vegas): Could Khan, the British star with the reputation for a poor chin, take the thunderous power of Argentina's Maidana, the knockout artist? We'd find out, as Khan defended his junior welterweight belt in a much anticipated fight that turned out to be even better than the lofty pre-fight hype. With a horn-blowing, pro-Khan crowd cheering the entire way, the fighters put on a tremendous action battle filled with drama and lots of hard punching at a breakneck pace. It was the kind of fight that left spectators sweating when it was over. It was that good. Khan, however, nearly ended it in the first round when he sunk a left hook into Maidana's liver and he went down. But Maidana was in tip-top condition. He gingerly made it to his feet and survived the final few seconds of the round. While Maidana charged at Khan throughout the fight, winging punches, Khan used his superb speed, skills and athleticism to outbox the determined challenger while peppering him with his own shots. It had already been a highly entertaining and thoroughly engrossing fight when it took a dramatic turn in the 10th round, which is, so far, the defining moment of Khan's career. Khan was in control for the first minute, but then Maidana blasted him with a right hand that rocked Khan's world and had him doing a brief chicken dance. He was badly hurt and spent the final two minutes trying to stay on his feet, as Maidana battered him around the ring, hurting him multiple times. It was incredible that Khan didn't go down as he tried to run out the clock of the round. He made it to the bell, staggered back to his corner and was able to hang on for the last rounds, as he won a brave, unanimous-decision victory in a memorable barnburner.
Giovani Segura KO8 Ivan "Iron Boy" Calderon (Aug. 28 at Guaynabo, Puerto Rico): You couldn't have asked for a more perfectly matched fight in this classic Mexico-Puerto Rico rivalry match for high stakes. Mexico's young and hungry Segura was the brawling gunslinger with huge power and a relentless style. Lineal junior flyweight champion Calderon, fighting at home in Puerto Rico, was the aging veteran and consummate technician and one of the best pure boxers in modern history. Their styles meshed exquisitely when they met in the main event of an Integrated Sports pay-per-view card to unify alphabet belts and for 108-pound supremacy. Calderon's handlers got him a 24-foot ring to work in, which allowed him to move to his heart's content, which he did. He fired shots and moved away as he outboxed Segura in the early going. It was fun to watch because Segura chased Calderon all over the ring at a torrid pace. Segura made the commitment to pressure Calderon non-stop, figuring he would eventually track Calderon down and overwhelm him with power. "What a fight this is folks. You don't like the little guys? You can't ask for better action than this," announcer Col. Bob Sheridan told the HBO PPV audience at the end of the third round. That was only the start of the excitement. In the fourth, the best round of the fight, Segura finally cornered Calderon and landed some heavy body blows. The tide seemed to finally turn to Segura in the fifth and they produced another stellar round in the all-action sixth. However, Calderon could not take the breakneck pace Segura had set and it caught up with him in the eighth round, when Segura launched a withering body attack. He cornered Calderon and hammered him with about a dozen body shots until he finally dropped to a knee, his arm resting on the bottom ring rope and his head down as he was counted out. He just could not take any more of the pressure, bringing an end to a fabulous fight and Calderon's 10-year undefeated run.
Juan Manuel Marquez TKO9 Michael Katsidis (Nov. 27 at Las Vegas): When you have two warriors known for being in great fights, one a counter-puncher at heart (Marquez) and the other a straight brawler (Katsidis), how can you not have a terrific battle? Expectations for a fight of the year candidate were high, and we got one alright, as Marquez defended the lightweight championship against a legitimate No. 1 contender in a rousing battle. Marquez, of course, has been knocked down many times but has always found a way to survive. So when Katsidis badly hurt him and dropped him with a left hook in the third round, the action was just heating up. Naturally, Marquez persevered and even rallied at the end of the all-action round, which is the ESPN.com round of the year. Marquez was ahead on the cards because of his pinpoint accuracy, but Katsidis, whose face showed the wear of the combat, never stopped coming forward as they fought on the inside and swapped dozens of punches at a fast pace. "This is the kind of fight we expected," HBO's Larry Merchant said as the sixth round ended. His partner, Jim Lampley, added, "Intense, fought in close quarters, both fighters showing marvelous craft. This is for the lightweight championship of the world and fully legit." That summed up the fight, which continued until the ninth round, when Marquez finally landed a brutal left uppercut that shook Katsidis. Marquez continued to pour it on, and Katsidis started coming apart. He stayed on his feet until referee Kenny Bayless finally stepped in to bring the curtain down on a first-class slugfest.
Ricky Burns W12 Roman Martinez (Sept. 4 at Glasgow, Scotland): The last time Puerto Rico's Martinez fought in the United Kingdom, he easily knocked out Nicky Cook in the fourth round to win a junior lightweight title in March 2009. After two successful defenses, the heavily favored Martinez returned to face Burns in his hometown in a mandatory defense but left without the belt after a bruising battle and huge upset fought in front of a frenzied, singing, cheering, pro-Burns crowd. Burns and Martinez fought the best fight of the year in Britain -- a real cracker, as they say across the pond -- even though it began like it was going to be a Martinez wipeout. He floored Burns with a straight right hand late in the first round, but after that it morphed into a thrilling firefight during which each man had big moments. Ultimately, it was Burns who did enough to legitimately take the belt after a fight filled with sustained, toe-to-toe exchanges. Burns had Martinez in trouble in the fifth when he unloaded an eight-punch flurry and then knocked him off balance with a right hand at the end of the round. It was a grueling fight, which Sky broadcaster Adam Smith recognized in the sixth round was "fast turning into a battle of attrition. Who wants it more? Who's prepared harder? Who will survive the storm?" It turned out to be Burns, who despite being hurt in the seventh round, came on strong down the stretch as Martinez began to fade. "Good body shot from Burns in this compelling clash which will be right up there in fight of the year of 2010. I have no doubt about that," Smith roared during the 10th round. He couldn't have been more right.
Mikkel Kessler W12 Carl Froch (April 24 at Herning, Denmark): High stakes, high drama and a helluva fight in Group Stage 2 of the Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic. It was the best fight of the tournament heading into the semifinals. Kessler, bidding to regain a super middleweight belt he once held, was desperate for a win. He had lost a title the previous fall to Andre Ward but had the hometown advantage against Froch, the titleholder from England. The fight was close all the way and pretty darn exciting to boot. What was great about this fight was that they fought at a high-skill level while the action built over time. They began at a controlled and deliberate pace, but round after round the intensity increased until it reached a glorious crescendo in the championship rounds. By the time they got to the fantastic 11th round and the sensational 12th round, the fight had become a raging slugfest. Throughout the bout, they traded hard shots, especially right hands. Froch bloodied Kessler's nose in the fourth. Kessler was rocked with a right hand in the eighth round and cut on his nose. In the 10th, Froch tore open a wide and deep cut over Kessler's left eye. And in the 12th round, one of the best of the year, Kessler busted open a cut over Froch's left eye. Just one of those hard-hitting, bad-ass fights that make boxing great.
Abner Mares W12 Vic Darchinyan (Dec. 11 at Tacoma, Wash.): With a convergence of talent at 118 pounds, we are in something of a Golden Age of bantamweights. Mares, the young rising contender with all-around skills and heart, and Darchinyan, the former junior bantamweight champ and aggressive brawler with the same heart, are two of the most exciting guys in the loaded division. Their fight, the first semifinal of Showtime's four-man bantamweight tournament, was a can't-miss match on paper and delivered in spades while setting a high standard for the remaining bouts in the tourney. This fight featured everything -- knockdowns, blood, lots of clean punching and a dramatic ebb and flow -- resulting in a split decision. Mares got off to a rough start when an accidental head-butt in the first round opened a terrible gash on the left side of his hairline. It bled, sometimes profusely, for the rest of the fight. In the second round, Mares got knocked down for the first time in his career. In the third, Mares' cut got worse and his face was covered in blood. And in the fourth, he lost a point for a low blow. But Mares showed maturity and never lost his cool. Instead, he kept counter punching Darchinyan and hammering him to the body in a seesaw affair. Mares knocked Darchinyan down in the seventh round, one of several outstanding rounds that had the crowd cheering. "Terrific action throughout. A lot of back and forth," Showtime's Steve Albert rightly said of the fight during the eighth round. In the ninth round, Albert said just what all the viewers must have been thinking: "The first semifinal in Showtime's bantamweight tournament living up to its billing."
Antonio Escalante W10 Miguel Roman (Feb. 26 at El Paso, Texas): Escalante and Roman had once thrown down in a street fight as kids in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, their hometown. Now Escalante lives across the border in El Paso, Texas, and had the crowd cheering for him throughout this featherweight rumble that was competitive and highly entertaining the entire way. The all-Mexican slugfest was easily the best fight of the year on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights." It was a fun-filled fight, as both fighters displayed good chins, great determination and unwillingness to take steps backward. ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore knew he was seeing a good one as they went to the seventh. "A very good main event for the fans here in El Paso," he said. "Antonio Escalante and Micky Roman. Power shot after power shot. Pressure fighting from Roman, sharpshooting and pride from Escalante." Escalante finally broke through in the eighth round when he dropped Roman with a flurry late in the round. Roman's nose was bloody and he was a bit dazed, but the round was coming to a close and he survived. Roman rallied in the ninth as the exhausted Escalante held on. In the 10th round, Escalante had his wind back and sent Roman reeling again. When it was over, Tessitore summed it up perfectly: "They opened up with action. It continued steadily through. In the eighth, Escalante scored the knockdown and they took it home the way pros are supposed to."
Yonnhy Perez D12 Abner Mares (May 22 at Los Angeles): Showtime's main event that night -– the fourth fight between storied rivals Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez -– was supposed to be the thriller, but it turned out to be a forgettable coda to the fighters' series while being utterly upstaged by the undercard fight, which featured Perez barely retaining his bantamweight belt in his first defense against Mares in a pitched battle. Pals outside the ring, Perez and Mares acted like mortal enemies inside it,as they fought to a dead heat in a fight for which a draw seemed to be quite a reasonable outcome. The action was fast and furious throughout, especially for the first few rounds. Mares fought well early as he seemed to build a lead. But Perez is a determined fighter and the bigger puncher, and he slowed Mares down as the grueling fight wore on. But the younger Mares found a second wind and closed strong as he staggered Perez in the final seconds of the fight with a right hand. When they went to the scorecards, it was anyone's guess who was going to get the nod. It turned out to be a tie and was such a good fight that it helped plant the seed with Showtime to stage its four-man tournament later in the year, with Perez and Mares obviously invited to participate.
Juan Manuel Lopez TKO8 Rafael Marquez (Nov. 6 at Las Vegas): Puerto Rican star Lopez has been in several excellent fights. Marquez is famous for his four-fight series with Vazquez. These guys are all about exhilarating fights that thrill fans, and it was no different than when they met for Lopez's featherweight belt in a fight that was part of boxing's greatest rivalry: Puerto Rico against Mexico. Marquez, the former bantamweight and junior featherweight champ with big power, was clearly the biggest obstacle of Lopez's career. Lopez knew it, saying before the Showtime fight, "As long as it lasts, it's going to be a war." Lopez got the battle he knew he'd get and overcame Marquez, but not without a scare in a high-octane scrap. Lopez sent Marquez reeling in the third round, which was filled with exciting two-way action. Marquez rebounded to stagger Lopez in the fourth round, but Lopez caught a break when, after multiple warnings from referee Tony Weeks for pushing down Marquez's head, Weeks docked him a point. The break in the action to deduct the point gave Lopez some much-needed time to recover from Marquez's onslaught. Lopez recovered and hurt Marquez in the seventh, and finally, after the eighth round, Marquez retired on his stool with a shoulder injury, an unfortunate ending to an otherwise terrific fight.
Hozumi Hasegawa W12 Juan Carlos Burgos (Nov. 26 at Nagoya, Japan): Hasegawa, a quick southpaw and a long-reigning bantamweight titlist, had been stopped by Fernando Montiel in a unification fight earlier in 2010 and made his return by jumping two weight classes to face Mexico's underrated (and unbeaten) Burgos for a vacant featherweight belt. They produced a surprisingly outstanding fight, battling tooth and nail in a fight in which men had big moments. Hasegawa led early, but Burgos mounted a comeback and staggered Hasegawa with a left uppercut in the seventh round, just one of several rounds that featured tons of furious punching and back and forth action. Hasegawa was cut by an accidental head clash in the eighth round while Burgos's right eye was swollen. He relentlessly pressured Hasegawa over the final four rounds and had him in a bit of trouble, but Hasegawa hung on for the unanimous decision. Hasegawa, with a big heart, wasn't going to be denied. He was fighting just two months after his mother's death.
Ramsey Luna W4 Rene Luna (May 21 at Laredo, Texas): This was an absolute gem of a fight and utterly unexpected treat. The junior lightweights (who aren't related) put on a mind-blowing brawl in a swing bout on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" that featured sheer action from start to finish. And get this: They were making their pro debuts. But they fought with as much character and spirit as veteran champions and pummeled each other with abandon. Ramsey, 18, who had defeated 20-year-old Rene months earlier in an amateur fight, scored a knockdown in the first minute with a right hand during a massive toe-to-toe exchange in a wild first round that set the stage for the rest of the thriller. "Back and forth they go, the two youngsters in their pro debut putting on a show here," ESPN's Joe Tessitore exclaimed during the opening round. Analyst Teddy Atlas responded, "I feel like I'm working an EA Sports video game." It was like that all the way. The CompuBox stats were ridiculous for a four-rounder. The fighters combined to land 262 of the 762 punches thrown. These guys are not famous and we may never see or hear from them again, but for four blazing rounds they put on an awesome, unrelenting fight.
Roman Karmazin KO10 Dionisio Miranda (Jan. 8 at Glendale, Calif.): This was one heck of a way to kick of the 2010 season of ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights." Karmazin, a former junior middleweight titlist, was in desperate need of a victory to keep his career going when he met Miranda in a middleweight title eliminator. It was an exciting fight that concluded in stunning fashion. Karmazin found himself in all kinds of trouble when Miranda badly hurt him in the third round. A crude fighter, Miranda did not have the skills to finish the more experienced Karmazin, but he was still winning the fight as it wore on. Miranda had Karmazin in big trouble again and on shaky legs in the ninth round before knocking him down with a booming right hand. Karmazin, with a big heart, willed himself to survive and came up with the out-of-nowhere, home run blast in the 10th round, knocking Miranda out with a series of blows to the end a tumultuous fight in comeback fashion.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.