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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.