When Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic began in late 2009, Mikkel Kessler was the favorite to win the tournament featuring six of the best super middleweights in the world. Arthur Abraham was widely considered the second choice, with Carl Froch also expected to do well.
Andre Ward, despite a 2004 Olympic gold medal and a winning streak that stretched back to 1996, when he was just 12, was not a popular pick.
Dan Rafael's fighters of the year
As Ward said, he was just a "young puppy" when the tournament began, even though he had high expectations for himself.
"I expected from the beginning to make it to the final," he said. "And slowly but surely we made believers out of a lot of people that doubted me."
Now, 26 months later, few doubt the Oakland, Calif., native, who stands alone atop the super middleweight mountain.
He was the only fighter to roll through the tournament undefeated, taking a title from Kessler with ease in an 11th-round technical decision in his opening bout and manhandling his 2010 opponents, Allan Green and Sakio Bika (in a fight outside the tournament), in lopsided decisions.
Those blowout victories set the stage for Ward's stellar 2011 campaign. This year he took apart Abraham for a no-doubt-about-it decision in the semifinals in May and then capped his tremendous tournament run in the Dec. 17 final, easily outpointing Froch in a masterpiece to unify two belts, win the vacant Ring magazine title and stamp himself as one of the best fighters on the planet.
Selecting Ward as the 2011 ESPN.com fighter of the year was an easy call. And it could be just the first of multiple such awards for Ward, 27, whose speed, skills, defense, smarts and fierce competitive spirit should make him a force for years to come.
"Andre is on a path for greatness," said Dan Goossen, who has promoted Ward for his entire professional career.
Going into the Super Six final, no clear-cut fighter of the year had emerged, but many viewed the winner of the tournament as the likely selection, which was made even easier when Ward beat Froch so easily.
When asked before he faced Froch about the possibility of being named fighter of the year, Ward said it was one of his career dreams.
"One of my goals has always been for me to be fighter of the year and to get my coach [Virgil Hunter] trainer of the year. It's been a long time coming, almost 15 years of grinding and toiling when no one is around patting you on the back and there are no lights, camera, action. The lights and the cameras have just been coming around the last five, six, seven years, but we've been grinding for many, many years. [Winning fighter of the year] would be icing on the cake for winning this tournament."
And after he shut Froch down and hoisted the Super Six championship trophy, Ward was asked about it again at his postfight news conference.
"I heard some rumblings about that before the fight," Ward said. "Obviously, that's not something I could focus on before this fight, but if that comes true, that's unbelievable. You don't set out to do that when the year starts. You just put your head down and put in the work, and then you look up and hopefully you win an award like that. So if we can get that award on top of everything else we won tonight, it would just be an unbelievable year."
Guess what, Andre? It was an unbelievable year, indeed.
The Puerto Rican star fought just once in 2010, winning a junior middleweight title from Yuri Foreman, but Cotto turned in a more memorable 2011 with a pair of knockout victories in action-packed defenses. In March, Cotto was a big favorite when he hooked up with Ricardo Mayorga, the faded former titleholder. As expected, it was an action fight that Cotto dominated. Cotto dropped him in the 12th round and then finished him moments later when Mayorga, who had suffered a severe thumb injury in the final round, quit while getting shellacked. But the real reason Cotto (37-2, 30 KOs) makes the list this year is the revenge he exacted on Antonio Margarito. Cotto had fumed for the past three years about his 11th-round TKO loss to Margarito in a 2008 welterweight title fight that was tainted because many believe Margarito wore loaded hand wraps in the fight. (The reason: Before his next bout, Margarito was caught trying to enter the ring with hand wraps containing illegal pads coated in a plasterlike substance.) Cotto took out all of his anger and frustration on Margarito, who had come into the fight with a bad right eye after being destroyed by Manny Pacquiao 13 months earlier. As promised, Cotto showed no mercy, targeting the surgically repaired eye -- which almost kept Margarito from being licensed in New York -- and did a number on it. With a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd of 21,239 mostly Puerto Ricans cheering him on, Cotto dominated Margarito, whose eye was busted up and swollen closed when the bout was stopped at the start of the 10th round. It was a glorious and memorable victory for Cotto, who has never had a more emotional victory.
Jorge Arce: At 32 and with numerous hard fights on his odometer, Arce was considered by many to be simply playing out the string of a fine career. Given his popularity in Mexico and all-action style, he certainly could milk a few more paydays. But a funny thing happened on the way to the retirement home: Arce (59-6-2, 45 KOs) had a resurgence and won belts at junior featherweight and bantamweight to become a four-division titlist (five, if you count the interim flyweight title he won). In 2011, Arce moved up two divisions from junior bantamweight to junior featherweight and made the most of a shot at then-undefeated titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. in May. Vazquez was favored to handle his older, smaller and slower opponent, but Arce pulled the upset in impressive fashion in a terrific fight on the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley undercard. Vazquez knocked Arce down in the fourth round, but Arce, with a cut over his left eye, stormed back to stop him in the 12th round. In a September defense, Arce avenged a 2009 decision loss to Simphiwe Nongqayi in a junior bantamweight title fight by knocking him out in the fourth round of the rematch. Arce finished his outstanding year in November by dropping down to bantamweight and winning a lopsided decision against Angky Angota to claim a vacant title in a rematch of a previous Arce victory.
Bernard Hopkins: Forget about Hopkins' miserable second-round no-decision against Chad Dawson in October, a bout that ended in Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KOs) suffering a dislocated shoulder when Dawson lifted him up and shoved him down to the canvas. The result was originally ruled a knockout win for Dawson but was later overturned to a no-decision, as it should have been. Hopkins makes the list instead for his historic victory against Jean Pascal on his Montreal turf in May. In a rematch of their disputed draw from last December, Hopkins claimed a unanimous decision -- during which he famously did a set of pushups between rounds -- to become the oldest fighter in boxing history, at age 46, to win a world championship, breaking former heavyweight champion George Foreman's record.
Lamont Peterson: The year didn't start out well for Peterson, who turned down a career-high payday of about $350,000 to travel to England for a junior welterweight title shot against Amir Khan because he was unhappy with the deal, including the terms of a rematch clause in the event he won. Instead, Peterson wound up taking a dangerous fight for $10,000 against Victor Cayo in July. Peterson (30-1-1, 15 KOs) looked terrific and knocked out Cayo with 14 seconds left in the bout, which was an eliminator, to become one of Khan's mandatory challengers. Peterson's rejection of the April offer looked mighty fine when he persuaded Khan to come to his hometown of Washington, D.C., for the fight on Dec. 10 -- and got Golden Boy, Khan's promoter, to pay him $650,000. It was an outstanding action battle and competitive all the way, but Peterson pulled the life-changing upset with a split-decision win, which went his way because of a pair of controversial point deductions from hometown referee Joe Cooper.
Nonito Donaire: The "Filipino Flash" was a dominant titleholder at flyweight and looked great in his brief stop at junior bantamweight, where he won an interim belt. But in 2011, Donaire (27-1, 18 KOs) rose another level toward stardom, as he rocketed up the pound-for-pound list by winning a pair of bantamweight titles in the most impressive way a fighter can: with an absolutely blistering knockout against a well-respected champion. In February, Donaire met Fernando Montiel, a three-division titleholder, and simply destroyed him in the second round with a massive left hook. Although Donaire then spent several months embroiled in a promotional dispute with Top Rank -- during which he tried to sign with rival Golden Boy and wound up missing a fight date because of the litigation -- the sides eventually settled, and he returned to action in October. Donaire met Omar Narvaez of Argentina, a long-reigning flyweight titlist who had won a junior bantamweight belt in 2010, defended it three times and then jumped up to bantamweight to challenge Donaire. It was a cakewalk, as Donaire pitched a clean 120-108 shutout on all three scorecards to embarrass Narvaez, who spent most of the fight petrified to engage.
Manny Pacquiao: The Filipino fighting congressman didn't have the kind of megayear he enjoyed when he won his three fighter of the year awards, but boxing's biggest star still had a fine campaign. In May, he dropped Shane Mosley in the third round and won a virtual shutout decision to retain his welterweight title. In November, Pacquiao (54-3-2, 38 KOs) finally hooked up with rival and fellow future Hall of Famer Juan Manuel Marquez, a three-division champion, for the third time. Once again, they waged a terrific fight. After fighting to a draw in their first meeting, Pacquiao won a split decision in the second fight. The third bout was another exciting and close fight that Pacquiao this time won via majority decision.
Brian Viloria: In 2010, Viloria lost his junior flyweight title by rough 12th-round knockout to Carlos Tamara in an upset and had to be briefly hospitalized after the fight. The "Hawaiian Punch" contemplated retirement but elected to carry on, and now those thoughts seem like a distant memory after his impressive 2011 campaign. In July, Viloria got a shot at flyweight titlist Julio Cesar Miranda. With a supportive crowd in Honolulu behind him, Viloria scored a first-round knockdown and won a comfortable decision to claim his third world title. In December, Viloria (30-3, 17 KOs) scored the biggest win of his career in a mild upset when he battered Giovani Segura, the junior flyweight world champion who had given up his title to move up in weight. Viloria swelled Segura's face near the temple area around his right eye, which grew larger and larger as the fight progressed, until the referee finally stopped it in the eighth round.
Hernan "Tyson" Marquez: Mexico's Marquez (32-2, 25 KOs) went to Panama in April and claimed a flyweight title with an 11th-round knockout of hometown fighter Luis Concepcion in an exceptional slugfest in which both men were knocked down. In July, Marquez impressively blew out Edrin Dapudong in his first title defense before hooking up with Concepcion again, this time in Mexico. With expectations running high for another great fight, Marquez nipped that in the bud by surprisingly dropping Concepcion three times in the first round for a stunning knockout victory.
Tuesday: Prospect of the year
Wednesday: Round of the year
Thursday: Knockout of the year
Friday: Fight of the year
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.