As 2022 winds down, Sports Illustrated is looking back at the themes and teams, storylines and throughlines that shaped the year.
Transport back to April, to Madison Square Garden, to a 10th round that featured two champions standing inside a ring and never straying from each other, as if tethered to the moment and what it meant. The crowd rose and roared. Flurries were delivered without pause. The exchanges never stopped. A full 142 punches were doled out in that final two-minute stanza alone. And, when a bout of historical significance ended, there was a sense, already, that on this night, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano had engaged in far more than a slugfest.
Instead, they had delivered a performance that epic fairly describes, that those who were there—and those who watched on television—will remember for the rest of their lives. This was boxing at its best. Not women’s boxing. Boxing, period.
To that end, when it came to selecting boxing’s best fight of the last year, some parameters were established. Sports Illustrated did not pick the best female fight from 2022. We have factored in historical implications. We are aware Dmitry Bivol upset Canelo Alvarez and that Alvarez thumped Gennady Golovkin in the third, most decisive and most mundane bout of their excellent trilogy. But, given all those factors, one night stood far taller than the rest.
It was Taylor-Serrano, and it wasn’t particularly close. For more than 100 years, Madison Square Garden has staged some of the most momentous bouts in the rich history of boxing. Many would argue that no single venue has been as important to a particular sport. But until that magical night in April, two women had never headlined a card at MSG.
Taylor and Serrano didn’t just headline, either. Their enticing match-up netted more than 19,000 customers, a sellout for the arena configuration that night. Puerto Ricans came out for Serrano; Irish boxing die-hards descended for Taylor. Women’s boxing royalty—Christy Martin, Laila Ali, Rosie Perez—felt compelled to attend. There were chants. There was electricity. The setting elevated to match the stakes.
In the week leading up to that night, Taylor told reporters that the fight itself mattered as much as the billing and the history involved. It wouldn’t be enough to stage an unprecedented event. They needed the setting, the stakes and the action. Needed to entertain. To hit and hit back. To do what both had done as they climbed pound-for-pound lists and collected titles.
Taylor, 35, was the most accomplished boxer; Serrano, 33, was smaller but appeared to pack more wallop in her punches than her. Taylor was already a hero back home; she is a decorated amateur and flag bearer for Ireland at the 2012 London Olympics, where she won gold, while raising the profile of women’s boxing at home and all over the world. But she flopped at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, switched trainers and moved to Connecticut, where she trained in relative anonymity. She won a world title; then an undisputed world title, at 135 pounds; then she set her sights on the world’s other top female boxing champion.
Serrano was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Brooklyn. She became a female Manny Pacquaio, winning titles in seven different divisions, despite a relative lack of attention in both countries she called home. She didn’t begin boxing until age 18, and only then, almost by accident. She did n’t own a cell phone, even, and she fought in dingy arenas for little pay, until Jake Paul—yes, Jake Paul—became her promoter, signed her to his burgeoning stable and changed the trajectory of her life.
For years, they called out and circled each other. They nearly agreed to terms in 2020, before the global pandemic shut down most of sports. Serrano was like Marvin Hagler, from the welterweight heyday in the 1980s; Taylor, in that scenario, was Sugar Ray Leonard. The question, a familiar one in boxing, loomed every fight that either took: Would they ever clash on the same night?
Boy, did they. As mainstream sports fans tuned in, Taylor and Serrano stalked forward at the opening bell. As celebrities looked on, three relatively feel-out-y early rounds yielded to an old-fashioned brawl.
In Round 5, Serrano managed, through a steady application of pressure and pushing forward, to shift Taylor into a corner. Once there, Serrano released a series of thudding combinations. Taylor moved unsteadily from that point forward. No opponent had ever dropped Taylor in her pro career. Serrano came closest, but she never did knock Taylor down.
Instead, as the later rounds wore on, Taylor appeared to stabilize. She started to move more smoothly; her calves appeared to hold up, despite injury concerns borne from calf injuries in other recent bouts. By the seventh, Taylor was back to matching Serrano’s output. Taylor out-landed Serrano in rounds 8 and 9.
Social media all but exploded. Dozens of champions, in boxing and from the world of mixed martial arts, posted that Taylor-Serrano deserved fight of the year consideration. A handful of less-evolved types tried to dismiss the significance, citing women’s boxing, a gap between talent and enjoyment based on gender, all the usual tropes. They were wrong—and by how much was obvious.
This wasn’t an all-time women’s boxing classic. It was an instant classic, period. Conor McGregor was right when he tweeted that Taylor and Serrano should take a bow. Intrigue and impact lingered well beyond the announcement of the winner—a split decision in favor of Taylor—because of what this bout meant in the larger picture. “Look at what the hell we did,” Serrano said during her in-ring interview. “They say nobody wants to see women (boxing). This place is jam-packed.”
That’s part of why this bout was an easy fight of the year choice. It made for a natural rematch, not to mention an obvious trilogy. It continued a surge of long-overdue popularity in women’s boxing. It obliterated the unnecessary couching of female fighters, as somehow less than, less interesting, unworthy of the full billing assumed for and by male champions.
“Women can sell, can fight,” Serrano said that night. “We put on a hell of a show.”
Added Taylor, “The best moment of my career, for sure.”
Thus, the choice for YES’s Fight of the Year in 2022 was easy to determine. It was Taylor-Serrano, and it wasn’t particularly close.