2012 will not go down as the year in which boxing developed a PEDs problem. But it will go down as the year in which boxing was forced to admit it has a problem.
This was the year in which the average fan's view of the average fighter shifted from a presumption of innocence to a presumption of guilt.
So it's only fitting that, as 2012 draws to a close, the topic of performance-enhancing drugs plays a major role in the discussion of who should be named boxer of the year.
With all due respect to solid candidates such as Danny Garcia, Brian Viloria and Robert Guerrero, the decision comes down to two fighters: Nonito Donaire (officially the ESPN.com Boxer of the Year) and Juan Manuel Marquez.
Donaire and Marquez put together very different campaigns, both in terms of their in-ring appearances and what they did between those appearances. Donaire was referred to recently by HBO's Jim Lampley as "the beacon of hope," because he's the only fighter submitting to year-round testing by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency. Marquez is the current poster boy for fighters whom it's suspected wouldn't do so well on those same VADA tests.
Who wins this debate, and whether it even is a debate for you, depends heavily on what your criteria are for determining the boxer of the year. Is it partially a sportsman of the year award, where ancillary factors -- such as a boxer's stance on drug testing -- matter? Or is it just about performance? And even if it's purely based on what happens between the ropes, how do you weight quantity and quality?
My personal criteria have always included a preference for fighters whose results exceed expectations. For example, in 2007 -- the last time there was really any debate over the award -- I voted for Kelly Pavlik, who knocked out both Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor as a betting underdog, over Floyd Mayweather Jr., who did what I expected him to do against Ricky Hatton and did less than I expected against Oscar De La Hoya.
I don't mean to denigrate Donaire's 2012 campaign in the least, but whereas quantity is clearly on his side -- he fought four times, something championship-level fighters almost never do anymore -- I'm not exactly blown away by his level of opposition, nor the manner in which he dispatched most of that opposition.
His ninth-round knockout of Toshiaki Nishioka was first-rate on both counts. But his bout with the aging Jorge Arce was a pointless mismatch, and everyone knew it. Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (who lost to Arce in 2011) and Jeffrey Mathebula were both fringe contenders, and "The Filipino Flash" certainly didn't exceed anyone's expectations with decision wins over the two of them. If anything, the boxing community was expressing mild disappointment with Donaire midway through his year.
Of Donaire's four showings in 2012, three were solid and one was outstanding. But that busy schedule, that number -- four -- was what set Donaire apart and has made him the most popular pick for the top fighter of 2012.
Marquez gets crushed in the quantity department, as he fought just twice this year (the same number as every ESPN.com Boxer of the Year since '06). And the first of his two victories was entirely forgettable, a decision win in April over little-known Sergiy Fedchenko.
But the other victory was, by a wide margin, the best win anyone in boxing scored all year. His right hand read Manny Pacquiao a bedtime story, propelling Marquez to the consensus knockout of the year in the consensus fight of the year over a three-time boxer of the year. Maybe two or three times a century, a fighter as legendary as Pacquiao gets iced like that within spitting distance of his prime.
Whatever your expectations of what Marquez was going to do in his fourth bout with Pacquiao, he exceeded them. Quality is on his side.
But again, quantity is on Donaire's. And so is the hot-button issue of the moment: boxing's PEDs problem. And that's where this debate gets a lot more complicated for those leaning toward Marquez, and a lot less complicated for those leaning toward Donaire.
Donaire is blazing a trail by volunteering himself for random testing in or out of training camp. He's the one and only fighter the public knows to be clean (unless you want to go hard-core on conspiracy theories and suggest that, with the help of infamous former BALCO head Victor Conte, he could be a cheater who is unfailingly confident that he can outrun the testers).
By contrast, while Donaire chose VADA, Marquez chose nada. His bout with Pacquiao required nothing beyond standard Nevada urine testing, which catches cheaters about as effectively as Mr. Miyagi's chopsticks caught flies.
That fact alone shouldn't subject Marquez to serious suspicion. Unfortunately, his conditioning coach is former BALCO chemist Angel Hernandez, and Marquez showed up for the Pacquiao fight looking like the Ultimate Warrior, minus the biceps tassels and face paint. In our new boxing world, in which everyone is presumed guilty, the insinuations and accusations flew at Marquez at a rate CompuBox couldn't possibly count.
It should be noted that Marquez reportedly spent four months in training camp honing his new physique, and also that his physical transformation began in 2011, when he brought an almost-as-eye-catching musculature into his third fight with Pacquiao. So this wasn't an overnight overhaul.
But there are those who simply take that to mean that Marquez was also juicing in 2011.
Nobody outside Team Marquez knows with certainty, one way or the other, what has or hasn't pumped through the fighter's veins. But just about everybody has their suspicions. And those suspicions might be enough to prevent some folks from naming him boxer of the year, even if they prefer his 2012 résumé to Donaire's.
In the year in which boxing's PEDs problem went from flicking us with a pesky jab to throwing haymakers below the belt, it seems appropriate that performance enhancers could serve as the decisive factor in the boxer of the year race.
If you pick Donaire, you do so as much for what he stands for as for how he fought.
If you pick Marquez, you do so either not caring what anyone stands for, or fully prepared to regret your pick if the suspicions surrounding him ever become more than just suspicions.