by David P. Greisman, photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank
Once again, a Filipino fighter is an early frontrunner for “Fighter of the Year.”
It’s definitely not Manny Pacquiao, though, not with his controversial split decision loss earlier this year against Timothy Bradley. That means this will be the third straight year with another boxer receiving the honor.
Pacquiao had quite a run, winning the award three times in four years, being recognized for his 2006 campaign (two wins over Erik Morales book-ending a victory over Oscar Larios), his 2008 ascendance (a close decision win over Juan Manuel Marquez at junior lightweight, then stellar stoppages of David Diaz at lightweight and Oscar De La Hoya) and his continued dominance in 2009 (a one-punch knockout of Ricky Hatton, then prolonged punishment delivered to Miguel Cotto).
Despite Pacquiao’s winning streak continuing through 2010 and 2011, other boxers had better years: Sergio Martinez captured the award after winning the legit, lineal middleweight championship from Kelly Pavlik, then defending it with an eye-opening one-punch knockout of Paul Williams; and Andre Ward outclassed the rest last year, taking decisions over Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch, completing his ascent to the top of the super middleweight division and making it look easy.
This isn’t about Pacquiao, though.
With 2012 not quite two-thirds of the way through — and with major boxing action not set to resume until September — one favorite for “Fighter of the Year” for the moment is Nonito Donaire.
Donaire, 29, continued his migration through the lower weight classes earlier this year by making his debut at junior featherweight, defeating Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. by a split decision that, in reality, should have been the clear Donaire victory reflected on the two other judges’ scorecards.
That victory in February won him a vacant title — the same belt that Vazquez Jr. had lost to Jorge Arce two bouts before. Five months later, Donaire unified two titles in the 122-pound division, taking a unanimous decision over Jeffrey Mathebula.
Those two wins alone shouldn’t be enough to put Donaire on the short list for “Fighter of the Year,” not when other boxers have significant wins over noteworthy opponents or will be in major matches later this year. Though the former 112-, 115- and 118-pounder has now picked up a pair of belts at junior featherweight, neither Vazquez Jr. nor Mathebula — nor the two victories taken together — mean enough to make Donaire the top guy for 2012.
Beating the top guy at 122 does, however.
Toshiaki Nishioka is rated No. 1 by “The Ring” magazine, No. 1 by BoxingScene.com and No. 2 by ESPN.com (which has Donaire in the top slot). He is 39-4-3, but those losses on his ledger are misleading; Nishioka has not suffered a defeat in more than eight years, two of his losses came very early in his career, and the other two came against Veeraphol Sahaprom, a bantamweight who BoxingScene’s resident historian Cliff Rold once described as “one of the finest Thai fighters of the last 20 years.” Two of Nishioka’s draws came against Sahaprom as well.
Donaire and Nishioka are scheduled to fight on Oct. 13 on an excellent card that also features Brandon Rios vs. Mike Alvarado. It is a card that caters both to those who want significant bouts (Donaire-Nishioka) and those who just want slugfests (Rios-Alvarado).
It is a card that could see Donaire cap off 2012 with his biggest win of the year.
Nishioka, at 36, is getting old for a boxer, never mind for a boxer in the lighter divisions, where fighters tend to age about as well as running backs. And by the time he steps into the ring against Donaire, he will have gone more than a year between fights; Nishioka’s last outing was Oct. 1, 2011, when he won a unanimous decision over Rafael Marquez.
That wouldn’t make a Donaire victory over Nishioka, should it happen, any less notable. Nishioka won an interim world title in the division in 2008, was elevated to a full world title status afterward and has defended it since. Many of those defenses came against opponents who weren’t top-rated and didn’t belong in the ring with Nishioka, though there also was a third-round technical knockout win over Jhonny Gonzalez in 2009.
Nevertheless, his success has been enough to earn him respect and ratings at or near the top of the division. Nishioka had held the WBC belt before that sanctioning body decided to make him its “champion emeritus.” Instead, Abner Mares won the newly (and dubiously) vacant title earlier this year when he beat Eric Morel. Were it not for that, Donaire-Nishioka would be for three world titles.
Still, “The Ring” magazine, which ranks Nishioka at No. 1 and Donaire at No. 3, has ruled that the two boxers’ match will be for its vacant championship, a decision that bypasses the No. 2 junior featherweight, Guillermo Rigondeaux (and a decision that this scribe doesn’t agree with. Full disclosure: I write a column for “The Ring.”)
Donaire topping Nishioka would give him three wins for 2012, wins that, were it not for boxing politics, would have left him with three world title belts and, depending on your stance, a claim of either the championship or the No. 1 spot at 122 pounds.
That also gives him a strong claim to “Fighter of the Year” honors. There are others, of course, who could also be in the running.
Nishioka, were he to beat Donaire, would have only one win for 2012, but it would be a major one. As we’ve seen in recent years, fewer fighters are fighting often, with most of them appearing just twice a year. That means one win can mean a lot when compared to others’ résumés, and it also means that fighters who spend the year facing two lesser opponents don’t have anything else to point to when it comes time to vote for the year’s best boxer.
That means no heavyweight will be “Fighter of the Year” for 2012.
There is, however, a potential for a light heavyweight to be.
Chad Dawson won the true light heavyweight championship in April by defeating Bernard Hopkins. Dawson is due to face Andre Ward in September — at super middleweight. Should Dawson beat Ward, he’d have won “The Ring” championships at 175 and 168 in the span of less than five months.
Ward, meanwhile, doesn’t seem likely to repeat last year’s honors, even if he beats Dawson. That’s because the fight against Dawson will be Ward’s first of 2012, and likely his only bout this year.
The man Ward last beat, Carl Froch, had a big win in May when he stopped Lucian Bute. Froch hasn’t yet signed for a second fight for the year, though even when he does it will not come against a significant enough opponent to make his 2012 that much better than that of others.
At middleweight, boxing math works in weird ways: Should Sergio Martinez beat Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in September, it will solely be a decent win in a decent year for him. But if Chavez tops Martinez to become the champion at 160 pounds, he will have beaten Marco Antonio Rubio, Andy Lee and the best fighter in his division, going from a decent year to a great one.
One dark horse candidate for “Fighter of the Year,” meanwhile, is a long shot — Josesito Lopez, who upset Victor Ortiz in June and now is looking to score an even bigger upset against an even bigger opponent on an even bigger stage, challenging 154-pound titleholder Canelo Alvarez on Mexican Independence Day this September.
Welterweight is still waiting for the returns of Timothy Bradley and Manny Pacquiao. Though Pacquiao is said to be facing one of three big names next — a rematch either with Bradley or Miguel Cotto or a fourth fight with Juan Manuel Marquez — all of those wins will do well for his career and his bank account, but not for this discussion.
Bradley, meanwhile, will likely be hamstrung by the highly controversial nature of his win over Pacquiao; had he won in another fashion, his name would be at the forefront. He still might be in the running anyway.
At junior welterweight, Danny Garcia is having a very good year, beating Erik Morales and then shocking the boxing world by stopping Amir Khan. Garcia will be facing Morales again this October — not quite the capstone to his 2012.
Still, it’s too tempting to try to pick apart others’ records right now, when there is still four months of major boxing action remaining in the year.
There is still so much that must be shaken out — and there is still so much that can be shaken up.
The 10 Count will return soon.
“Fighting Words" appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter at @fightingwords2 or send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org