Handicapping an award like Fighter of the Year in the middle of February is a little bit of a fool's errand. There are just too many potential dark horses in the field.
How many people this time last year would have predicted Juan Manuel Marquez would take the award in 2012? Similarly, I don't think a lot of people would have predicted Glen Johnson was going to win it headed into 2004, or that James Toney would snag the honors in 2003.
Still, in most years, the potential favorites are clear going in. We always know which fighters are in the position to win the two or three major fights necessary to separate themselves from their peers.
What follows are my eight favorites, taking into account what has happened in the year to date, what has already been scheduled, and what can be realistically foreseen. I have given heavy preference to young fighters who have a track record of staying busy (and successful) against high level competition.
Prior to Juan Manuel Marquez's historical knockout of Manny Pacquiao on December 8, Donaire had already entrenched himself as the consensus choice for 2012. While The Ring ultimately made Marquez their choice instead, plenty of fight writers continued to feel Donaire had the overall better year.
Donaire went 4-0 with two stoppages, fighting only top 5-10 talent in 2012. In February he debuted at 122 pounds and beat Wilfredo Vazquez, knocking him down in the ninth round and capturing his WBO belt by split decision. Judge Ruben Garcia's 115-112 card for Vazquez was the most outrageously bad scorecard in a year full of outrageously bad scorecards.
In July Donaire added the IBF strap to his collection when he won a wide unanimous decision against the nearly six foot tall Jeffrey Mathebula. Again Donaire dropped his opponent during the fight.
In October Donaire met Toshiaki Nishioka, The Ring's number one rated fighter at 122. Donaire had his most impressive performance of the year, winning in nine by TKO.
Donaire then closed out 2012 by KOing future Hall-of-Famer Jorge Arce in three. Honestly, Arce was made for Donaire, and I personally heard the Filipino Flash calling for the veteran Mexican as long ago as October of 2011, when he addressed the press after his unfortunately boring fight against Omar Narvaez.
Still, Jorge Arce is a big name on a resume no matter how you look at it, and if he is going to be regarded as the least impressive of Donaire's FOUR opponents for the year, than that has to be viewed as pretty remarkable work, especially considering the highlight reel stoppage Donaire added to his already extensive library.
The year ended with the boxing world clamoring for a showdown between Donaire and WBC super bantamweight champion Abner Mares. Unfortunately, as is too often the case in the sport these days, the Golden Boy-Top Rank cold war continued to refuse to show any signs of a thaw.
Eventually Mares decided to vacate his own belt and move to featherweight.
Still, Donaire is left with an opponent who may be even better. In April he will face two-time Olympic gold medalist and WBA title holder Guillermo Rigondeaux. While the Cuban exile will only be fighting for the twelfth time as a professional, he is regarded as among the greatest amateur fighters of all time and most fans and writers accept him as a legitimate opponent for a fighter of Donaire's stature.
Should Donaire triumph against the former amateur star, his only logical next step would be a move to 126. This is where things get tricky for him. The number one fighter in the world now at featherweight is Mikey Garcia.
As in, kid brother to Robert Garcia, Nonito Donaire's trainer.
Not only is Garcia standing at the top of the food chain in what will be Donaire's new weight at some point this year, but he also just knocked off Orlando Salido, leaving the pickings after that somewhat sparse.
Donaire could certainly challenge somebody like Billy Dibs, or he could put on an entertaining war against somebody like the twice beaten Juan Manuel Lopez or the wily veteran, Daniel Ponce De Leon. But those aren't the sort of fights that would earn Donaire Fighter of the Year honors, no matter how flashy he looked winning.
At this point, the expectations for him are set too high.
In order to really stand out in 2013, he needs to do something sudden and unexpected. Perhaps he will have the star power to lure unbeaten, longtime WBA featherweight champion Chris John from Indonesia to Las Vegas for a showdown that would draw major interest across the South Pacific and Asia.
Another option could be for him to jump straight to 130 and take on Yuri Gamboa. This would be a dangerous fight for Donaire, who has already had to adjust to being the smaller man now that he is fighting at 122.
Still, he has far better balance and vision than Gamboa, and if he could avoid the Cuban's explosive power, he would definitely have the skills to pick Gamboa apart and possibly take him out.
So basically, the best path to Fighter of the Year honors for Donaire is to beat up a couple of very tough Cubans.
If Guillermo Rigondeaux can beat Nonito Donaire when they clash in April, the former Cuban amateur star will go flying up the pound-for-pound rankings and will be better than halfway home for Fighter of the Year honors.
If Rigondeaux should beat Donaire, fans and boxing media will immediately start calling for a fight with current featherweight champion Mikey Garcia. I would probably be slightly inclined to pick Rigondeaux in that fight now, and if he shows he can beat Donaire in April, I would see him as a clear favorite going forward against Garcia.
In escaping from Cuba, Rigondeaux has already lived a life like an action movie. If he should claim number one status at both 122 and 126 pounds during 2013 he will be a front-runner for Fighter of the Year.
Few fighters in the sport have taken on a steadier diet of tough competition than Mares has during the past three years. He has used his willingness to fight anybody and his enthusiasm for aggressive brawling to emerge as one of the sport's popular young stars.
There was a lot of hopeful chatter late last year and early this year that maybe Mares-Donaire could be the bout that might at least temporarily end the Top Rank and Golden Boy cold war.
While that has proven not to be the case for the short term, if Donaire wins against Rigondeaux in April he will probably need to rejoin Mares at featherweight, and the call will be renewed for a showdown between these two exciting champions in their prime.
Of course, Space Aliens might land, too.
Even without Donaire, Mares will be able to line up tough, exciting fights at 126. And if he runs out of options there, don't be surprised to see the super-tough Nacho Beristain pupil move up further, to 130.
With 2013 still young, Mikey Garcia would have to be regarded as the early front runner for Fighter of the Year. In January he thoroughly outclassed tough veteran Orlando Salido, who had entered the bout ranked inside the top 20 on many pound-for-pound lists.
Garcia called out Yuri Gamboa in the ring when being interviewed after the fight. If he gets that fight and wins it, he will be the obvious breakout superstar of the year and very likely have the most compelling case for Fighter of the Year honors.
That fight is probably unlikely, though. Even without it, Garcia has a number of quality opponents out there at 126. If he can beat two or three more the way he did Orlando Salido, he could end up Fighter of the Year.
Adrien Broner is fresh off from a round five TKO of former 140-pound world title holder Galvin Rees of Wales. I think most people expected Broner to stop Rees, the Vegas odds on the fight were some of the craziest I've ever seen.
But still, as is always the case with Broner, just because he goes out and does what you expect him to do, that doesn't make it any less impressive when he does it. Broner is already talking about moving to 140 pounds if he can't fight Scotland's Ricky Burns next.
At 140 pounds Broner will find the potential fights that will make him a superstar: opponents like Lucas Matthysse, Danny Garcia and Lamont Peterson. If he gets one or two this year and handles them anything like he has all of his fights so far, he'll be another leading candidate for Fighter of the Year.
Danny Garcia emerged as a new young superstar in 2012 and was definitely near the top of any list of Fighter of the Year also-rans. He captured his WBC junior welterweight title by stopping future Hall of Famer Erik Morales in March.
In July he shocked the boxing world when he stopped Amir Khan in four and added the WBA belt to his collection. He delivered one of the most dramatic KOs of the year against Morales in a November rematch, launching a lead left hook that spun Morales nearly completely around as he crashed to the canvas.
Garcia is set to face Zab Judah in April. The fight will sell well in Brooklyn, but won't exactly drive up Garcia's stock much further, no matter how impressively he wins. No matter what Judah brings to the table in name recognition, he is still the guy who got pounded down by the guy Garcia pounded down.
The one fight everybody really wants to see at 140 pounds is Garcia versus Lucas Matthysse. If Garcia were to take that fight and win it later in the year, he would put himself in strong position to emerge as 2013's Fighter of the Year.
The only two losses of Lucas Matthysse's career are hotly contested split decisions, against Devon Alexander and Zab Judah. While it is always unfortunate to see a fighter tagged with an L he didn't deserved, the raw deal on the scorecards has merely added the the rugged Argentinian's mystique, giving him an added underdog edge that fight fans always respond to.
Judging from my comments sections alone, I have to view Matthysse as a fighter on the rise in popularity. And he delivers the kind of consistent performances that cable programmers like to see.
So he will get the opportunity for more big time fights in 2013. Ideally, one of them would be against Danny Garcia, the current number one ranked fighter at 140 pounds.
Beyond Garcia, the division is loaded with talent. Matthysse against the winner of the Rios-Alvarado rematch would be a highly entertaining war. Matthysse against Lamont Peterson or Kendall Holt would still add value to Matthysse''s resume at this point.
Matthysse is also likely strong enough to campaign at full welterweight if he can't get the fights to satisfy him at 140.
On December 1 2012, Austin Trout emerged from relative obscurity to shock superstar Miguel Cotto in front of a wildly partisan crowd in Madison Square Garden, beating the future Hall of Famer by wide margins on all three cards.
Now Trout has managed to successfully campaign himself into the big fight he wanted next: 22-year-old Mexican superstar Saul Alvarez. The two undefeated champions will square off on May 4, in what should be one of he biggest boxing event of the first half of the year.
This should be a competitive fight and a stiff test for both young stars. If Trout can pull off the victory, it would be a good first step towards Fighter of the Year honors.
I spoke to Trout at a Friday Night Fights card last month and he sounded like he very much wanted to stick around 154 long enough to unify the titles. "That should be the goal, in my opinion," he said. "First winning a championship, than unifying them."
If Trout can knock off the hottest young star in the sport (a very big "if") and then somehow further solidify the title picture at junior middleweight by year's end, he will be in a strong position to earn Fighter of the Year honors.
Of course, if Trout wins in May, there is a good chance he gets Floyd Mayweather by year's end.