Boxing Recap 2012: A Look Back at the Best of a Great Year Inside the Ropes
Say what you will about the state of boxing in the United States, which I've long contended is in dire need of an overhaul. 2012 gave us its share of great fighters and great fights.
From Nonito Donaire's war with Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. in February to Juan Manuel Marquez's electrifying knockout of Manny Pacquiao in December, the year may represent a changing of the guard in the sport as the younger names continue to establish themselves and the old standards begin to fade into the pages of history and a likely spot in Canastota in a few years time.
With the end of the year comes the look back at who made it great with my list of the best of the best in 2012.
Fighter of the Year: Nonito Donaire
For the first time in over a decade, it can be said that the best fighter to come out of The Phillipines is not Manny Pacquiao.
It's still an odd thing to realize, but 2012 will be the year the torch was passed to Nonito Donaire, and he earned it.
"The Filipino Flash" fought four times during the year, nearly twice the output of his contemporaries and he took on some A-level talent from start to finish. Starting with Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. on Feb. 4, Donaire took home the vacant WBO super bantamweight title by split decision, despite putting Vazquez down in the ninth and dominating late.
Five months later, he took the IBF title from South African Jeffrey Mathebula on Donaire's adopted home turf in California. Despite giving up nearly five inches in height to Mathebula, Donaire punished him all night long, sending him to the canvas in the fourth and home with a broken jaw after the unanimous decision was announced.
He came back just three months later and sent Japanese legend Toshiaki Nishioka into retirement with a ninth round TKO, claiming the vacant WBC belt. Crowning the year, Donaire had little trouble against Mexican legend Jorge Arce, dispatching him with a patented left hook in the third and sending Arce also into retirement.
Four fights in ten months with three of his four opponents rated in the Ring Magazine top 10 for the super bantamweight/junior flyweight division. Name me another marquis fighter willing to put in that kind of workload in this era, and you've got another contender for Fighter of the Year.
But it's more than what Donaire did in the ring that earns him the award. Outside of the showboating antics of Floyd Mayweather Jr., there is not another fighter who's brought awareness to the speculation of rampant PED use in the sport.
Nearly a month removed from Pacquiao/Marquez IV, there's still chatter that Marquez fought juiced in part because his strength coach, Angel Heredia, has ties to BALCO and suspended athletes in other sports. The tests have been reported as being negative, but draw your own conclusions.
With Donaire, there is no speculation to be made. After announcing he would undergo random drug testing with the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) in June, he earned not only credibility by not following other fighters who cling to antiquated state commission rules, but by putting his reputation on the line as a clean and honorable fighter.
No one else has been willing to do this in the sport. Not Mayweather. Not Pacquiao. Not Marquez. Not anyone. Donaire stands alone and for that, he also stands alone as the Fighter of the Year.
Fight of the Year: Pacquiao/Marquez IV
Truth be told, I was looking for another fight to consider better from top to bottom than this one. Robert Guerrero fought a war with Andre Berto for 12 brutal rounds in November. Andre Ward made a big statement as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world in dispatching Chad Dawson. Sergio Martinez proved age is no substitute for conditioning and experience in his win over Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.
But let's not kid ourselves. This was the Fight of the Year in 2012, because it did what fights these days rarely do anymore. It lived up to the hype and then it surpassed it.
Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez stepped into the ring at the MGM Grand on Dec. 8 and gave us a fight we will be talking about for decades. Both men came in wanting a definitive win after their first three fights were decided on the cards in controversial fashion. Pacquiao wanted a final gem to put on his crown as one of the all-time greats. Marquez came in on a mission to earn the victory he'd thought he'd been deprived of and from the opening bell it was clear what the outcome would be.
Somebody was going to get knocked out, but outside of the rampant Marquez contingent in Vegas that night, no one assumed it would be Pacquiao who would fall.
The first round, as expected, played like a chess match with both men trying to find angles and attack. Pacquiao was typically aggressive and Marquez looked for his patented counterpunching opportunities.
It wasn't until Marquez stunned Pacquiao with a massive right hand in the third that the fight reached an even higher pitch. It was the first time we'd seen the Filipino legend go down from a legitimate punch since in over a decade, despite the pounding he'd taken from guys like Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito on his way up the ladder.
To his credit, Pacquiao was up at four and finished strong in the round and then evened it up by making Marquez touch down in the fifth.
But no one, not a single person watching the fight expected to see what transpired at the end of round six when Marquez ended it, as he always had in his 19-year Hall of Fame career, with a bodacious right-hand counterpunch flush in the middle of Pacquiao's face.
Say what you will about the controversy surrounding Marquez's size and athleticism at age 39. He got the victory he'd been searching for his whole career and if he never puts on a pair of gloves again, which in some ways I hope he doesn't, he'll never have a greater success than he had in the 2012 Fight of the Year.
Knockout of the Year: Juan Manuel Marquez
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines a knockout as:
1: The act of knocking out: the condition of being knocked out. A blow that knocks out an opponent.
2: A sensationally striking, appealing, or attractive person or thing.
He knocked. Him. Out.
Marquez had always been portrayed as the villain in the rivalry with Pacquiao, though he never really lived up to that sort of billing. Because of that and the fanatic following Pacquiao had, it seemed easy for critics to discount the Mexican as being in the same class of fighter, especially since he both hadn't won and had never earned the stature of his peers Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
But having followed him since his first meeting with Pacquiao, and even with my own adoration for the Filipino aside, I'd be remiss if I didn't give Juan Manuel Marquez his due. The man is a great, great fighter.
Blessed with longevity, ring intelligence, a cast-iron chin, and the ability to throw systematic combinations and counterpunches as well as any fighter in any era in history, Marquez has shown he can take your best punch, get back up, then take you apart.
He did it long before Angel Heredia stepped into the picture, so in that respect, I will give him the benefit of the doubt. And when he met Pacquiao for the fourth time on Dec. 8, like many of my media cohorts, I thought he would lose and maybe go down by knockout.
Yet, despite a destroyed nose and being pummeled throughout the sixth round, Marquez did what he always has done. He took it and waited for the opening to come and when it did, he responded.
The result was a titanic right hand which not only gave him the one victory he's craved his entire career, it destroyed a legend along with it.
That, is the very epitome of the word knockout.
Round of the Year: Martinez/Chavez Jr., Round 12
With all the acclaim surrounding Pacquiao and Marquez, it's easy to overlook some of other great rounds to be had in 2012.
The final one between Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., on Sept. 15 was one of those rounds, because in a way, we knew it was coming.
The fight as a whole was considerably anti-climactic, with Martinez sing his elusive style to pepper the plodding Chavez all night. Still, being the son of a bona fide ring legend and also one of the most methodical fighters of all time, it was a question of what could happen if Chavez could get to him.
In round 12, we found out what happened when he did. About a minute in, with the two men in an exchange, Chavez unloaded a left hook which staggered Martinez back through the ropes. Two lefts and a right hand later, and Sergio was down...and he was hurt.
Unaware of the knee injury he suffered during the round, we watched Martinez struggle to get up, but rise he did and then he went back in for more. But considering the name and the memories of the St. Patrick's Day meeting with Meldrick Taylor fresh in everyone's mind, it looked like Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. would indeed follow his father's footsteps.
But Sergio Martinez would have none of it, meeting him punch for punch all the way to the closing bell.
Martinez would escape with the unanimous decision and Chavez would be given the first loss of his career, but to say it was an easy win would be a lie. For the first eleven rounds, Sergio owned the younger, stronger Chavez, but that's the reason why fights are not always decided on the scorecards.
The fight's not over until the last bell of the last round rings.
Predictions for 2013
2012 will go down as a banner year for the sport of boxing, with hotly contested fights around the world and the global reach of the sport reaching an apex we haven't seen in generations.
The best fighters in the world aren't coming from the United States anymore as we're seeing more and more names from the Pacific Rim and Europe stepping to the fore in most divisions.
That said, 2013 will see Floyd Mayweather back in the ring after his win over Miguel Cotto in May, and though his opponents have yet to be determined, he is still the gate attraction for American audiences until someone beats him or he retires for good.
Mayweather said he will fight twice in 2013, and at the age of 36 and the chances of the Pacquiao mega-fight gone for good, his days of being "The Man" are definitely numbered. The same can be said for Pacquiao, with speculation that he could retire to focus on his political career at the demand of his wife, following his loss to Marquez.
Marquez has said he may retire himself, with age 40 fast approaching, rather than risk a fifth fight with Pacquiao. He also said he may fight once more against a different opponent, but I think fans would rather see him exit on the high note he achieved.
Will we see Miguel Cotto continue to fight, even though his skills have begun to erode? With Andre Ward's meeting with Kelly Pavlik called off due to Ward's shoulder injury, how long will he be out and will it affect his position as arguably the best American fighter in the world?
Can Sergio Martinez come back from his knee injury and continue to dominate the middleweight division with a likely rematch with Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. on the horizon?
Will 2013 mark the end of the Klitschko Bros. reign atop the heavyweight division after a decade and will we ever see a dominant American heavyweight in the sport again?
There are a great many questions which will have to be answered over the next 365 days. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.