By Jake Donovan
To not accept Nonito Donaire as the runaway favorite for 2012’s Fighter of the Year is to expect too much from a fighter who spent the entire year constantly going above and beyond the call of duty.
If that’s the case, then you have to ask the same questions of the fighters who ultimately received your vote.
The Fil-Am star was for 10 months a leading contender in the 2011 Fighter of the Year race, in large part due to his 2nd round knockout win over Fernando Montiel. He would eventually lose out to fellow Bay Area product Andre Ward, in part to the latter’s year-ending win over Carl Froch, but also due to his own inactive stretch and uninspiring points win over Omar Narvaez once returning to the ring.
There would be no lapses in activity in 2012. Donaire fought four times, all coming against consensus Top 10 competition. The run came in a new weight class, moving up to 122 lb. a year after establishing himself as the best bantamweight in the world.
Twelve months and four wins later, Donaire has now established himself as the best super bantamweight in the world.
The run began in February with a vacant title win over Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. The win itself wasn’t that spectacular, neither in status nor in the performance itself. Donaire was expected to win against the former titlist, with the evening’s only surprise coming in the final outcome. The verdict was a split decision, in a fight Donaire appeared to win handily.
Most revealing of the evening, however, was a hand injury that Donaire has been forced to fight through for all of 2012. Despite the injury, he still soldiered on, taking no breaks in activity or in competition level. Next up was Jeffrey Mathebula, an alphabet titlist from South Africa who presented Donaire with a different look – an opponent with a massive height and reach advantage.
Neither proved much of a factor, as Donaire scored a wide points win, flooring Mathebula for the first time in his career along the way.
The win made Donaire a unified titlist at 122 lb., though it was hardly the most noteworthy feat to come of the evening. One day after the fight was officially in the books, Donaire became the first U.S.-based fighter in the sport to voluntarily subject himself to 24/7/365 random drug testing.
That’s when the Fighter of the Year talks officially took shape.
Donaire’s stance on the subject was a rare breath of fresh air, in a year where performance enhancing drug (PED) use had run rampant in our sport. Several notable fighters were already busted in the first half of the year, including Andre Berto and Lamont Peterson, both suffering fight cancellations after getting popped during random pre-fight testing conducted by Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA).
The very same organization, whose headquarters are in Nevada but with representatives around the world, was about to forever put Donaire under its microscope. He was fine with it.
“I’ve always decided to do something (to show) that everything I’ve done and that I’ve accomplished has come from working hard,” Donaire stated at the time of the announcement of agreeing to year-round testing. “I wanted to show honesty to my fans. I want to show that everything I have, I’ve got it on my own after starting with nothing.
“Hopefully everybody feels the need to show that they’re legit. But I’m doing it for myself and my fans.”
Three months and several tests later, Donaire – indisputably the cleanest fighter in the sport – added to his already eye-popping resume the lineal 122 lb. championship, by virtue of battering Toshiaki Nishioka into retirement.
Nishioka hadn’t lost in eight years and – to that point – had established himself as the best 122 lb. fighter in the world. Donaire didn’t seem to care, as he had his way with the streaking fighter, winning nearly every round and flooring him twice before forcing a stoppage midway through the ninth round.
The only flaw in Donaire’s performance that night was its timing. The championship bout was preceded by an HBO televised co-feature whose seven rounds of sheer brutality was deemed by many as the leading candidate for Fight of the Year.
Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado lived up to expectations of – and public demand for – an all-out brawl, beating on one another before Rios eventually prevailed in a savagely beautiful battle of unbeaten 140 lb. contenders.
By the end of the night, most fans were still talking about Rios-Alvarado. But the thing about greatness personified is that it always survives the test of time.
The next several weeks would boast other Fight of the Year entries. The most recent candidate – Juan Manuel Marquez’ sixth round knockout of Manny Pacquiao – is believed to have the best chance of topping Rios-Alvarado come awards time.
Several other Fighter of the Year candidates would emerge in the weeks that followed Donaire’s win over Toshiaki Nishioka. In fact, all of the seven remaining fighters nominated in Boxingscene.com’s awards registered big wins in that span.
Danny Garcia scored his third win of the year just one week later, knocking out Erik Morales in four rounds. Consecutive weeks in November saw Carl Froch, Wladimir Klitschko, Brian Viloria, Adrien Broner and Robert Guerrero offer the types of performances befitting of this category.
Then of course there was Marquez entering the mix on the strength of his one-punch knockout of Pacquiao.
At best, Garcia and Marquez brought enough to the table to make it a debate. The advantage Donaire enjoyed was the fact that he had the last fight scheduled among any viable candidate. Unlike the anti-climactic ending that came of his 2011 campaign, Donaire had one last chance to either reclaim his lead or add to it, depending on your viewpoint.
A mere 63 days after his last win – with most of that span spent further rehabbing his oft-injured hands – Donaire appeared in the ring for a fourth time in 2012. For a fourth time in 2012, his opponent – in this instance, former four-division champ Jorge Arce - was deemed notable enough for HBO to allow him on its airwaves.
For the fourth time in 2012, a Top 10 rated fighter within the 122 lb. division he just entered earlier in the year fell way short of handing him a second career loss.
Donaire struck early and often against Arce, disallowing any chance of Mexico gaining any more bragging rights in its growing in-ring rivalry with the Philippines. A week after Marquez drilled Pacquiao and Miguel Vazquez humiliated previously unbeaten Mercito Gesta, Donaire thrice floored Arce before forcing a third round stoppage.
Prior to the fight, it was revealed that Arce was working out with Angel Heredia, the same strength and conditioning coach who joined Marquez over a year ago, Marquez’ notably improved physique carried the label of guilt by association. He had the chance to clear the air, insisting that he’d take any test asked of him. The move was perhaps genuine; maybe it was a bluff, knowing that Pacquiao wouldn’t dare ask for random drug testing given his past stance on the subject.
Offering to take any test and actually subjecting himself to such voluntary testing are two different matters entirely. It continues to remain the difference between Donaire and any of his opponents. Donaire is all the way on board to make himself available for random testing. The same options are offered to his opponents, but not mandatory.
Donaire has twice fought since agreeing to 24/7/365 drug testing with VADA. Neither of his opponents – Nishioka or Arce – accepted the offer to also participate in random drug testing during their respective fights. It wasn’t going to stop Donaire from fighting either of them. In fact, nothing drug-related would have kept him out of the ring.
“I don’t force anybody to do it. If they don’t that’s up to them,” Donaire insists. “I invite them to do it, but it’s not necessary for them (to contractually do it), I’m always willing to fight even if they’re positive. I’m here to prove that I’m better than you.”
Nonito Donaire proved that he was better than everyone else in the sport over the course of the past 12 months. With that comes the reward of being recognized as 2012’s Fighter of the Year.
ALSO RECEIVING VOTES
Danny Garcia (Three (3) first-place votes received) – The unbeaten Philly boxer began his 2012 campaign by unseating 140 lb. titlist Erik Morales and ended it by destroying the Mexican legend in four rounds. Wedged in between is the fight that truly put him on the map, however; rallying from behind to score three knockdowns and an eventual 4th round stoppage of Amir Khan. Garcia may have now found a new boxing home in the process; his second win over Morales came at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which also plays host to his Feb. 9 showdown with Zab Judah.
Juan Manuel Marquez (Two (2) first-place votes received) – Prior to December 8, Marquez’ name wasn’t in any year-end conversation. That’s how big his knockout win was over Manny Pacquiao in their epic fourth fight. A points win over Sergey Fedchenko earlier in the year was forgettable enough to limit the future Hall of Famer to honorable mention status, a shame as at age 39 this could be his last ever shot at Fighter of the Year honors. He’ll instead have to settle for possible Fight of the Year honors, though if nothing else boasts honors of owning the year’s most memorable moment.
HONORABLE MENTION (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Adrien Broner – The flashy Cincinnati native scored three knockouts in as many ring appearances in 2012, including a belt in a second weight class. A stoppage win over previously unbeaten Eloy Perez marked his last days as a super featherweight, which officially ended at the scales prior to his rout of Vicente Escobedo in July. Broner announced his lightweight arrival with authority, destroying Antonio DeMarco to win a lightweight belt and transitioning from rising talent to household name.
Carl Froch – The Brit is without rival in terms of level of competition over the past four years. Further proof of his being combat ready came in May, when he destroyed previously unbeaten Lucian Bute (TKO5) to the point where little interest has been generated in a contractually obligated rematch that continues to get pushed back in favor of other fights. A 3rd round knockout of Yusaf Mack in Nov. marked Froch’s lone (and well-deserved) soft touch in years. The next 12 months are all about avenging past defeats – a rematch with Mikkel Kessler is already in the works, and Froch continues to chase a sequel with lineal 168 lb. king Andre Ward.
Robert Guerrero – Twelve months ago, Guerrero’s team had the audacity to demand a Floyd Mayweather fight while the Bay Area fighter was inactive, brought little financially to the table and had never before fought at welterweight. Simply put, he needed to prove his worth before calling for such a fight. Guerrero did just that, returning in July after a 15-month absence to top previously unbeaten Selcuk Aydin, before wowing fans with his two-knockdown, 12-round win over Andre Berto in their Nov. thriller that remains among the year’s best fights and landed him as the frontrunner for Mayweather’s opponent on May 4.
Wladimir Klitschko – The heavyweight division continues to be devoid of talent, which is why the younger Klitschko lands in the honorable mention section of this category rather than as its winner. Still, barely losing a round in three separate defenses of his lineal crown is impressive any way you slice it. Klitschko scored knockout wins over Jean-Marc Mormeck and Tony Thompson, but had to settle for a 12-round shutout against tough-as-nails Mariusz Wach in a November fight dedicated to his late trainer Emanuel Steward, who passed away just two weeks prior.
Brian Viloria – Three separate fighters laid claim to the lineal flyweight championship in 2012, but Viloria has proven be the division’s best fighter. A knockout win over Omar Nino Romero in May helped avenge a six-year old defeat (the first of his career), but it was his three-knockdown, 10th round stoppage of Hernan ‘Tyson’ Marquez that ultimately landed Viloria land in the honorable mention section of this category for a second straight year. Not bad for a fighter who just two years ago was written off as finished at the top level.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox