Pacquiao is ESPN.com's fighter of the year

When we will see junior lightweight buzz saw Manny Pacquiao in the ring in 2007 is unclear, given the nasty tug of war between Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank over his promotional rights.

Far clearer, however, is that the Filipino icon had a remarkable 2006, going 3-0, scoring two emphatic knockouts of his greatest rival, Erik Morales, and thrilling millions of fans around the world, especially those who proudly worship him in the Philippines.

The fans are why Pacquiao fights.

"I do feel like I'm fighting for the people of the Philippines," Pacquiao said before his finale with Morales. "I fight to make my country proud. My country is very important to me. I want all the people that love boxing to be happy, especially the Filipino people."

Indeed, Pacquiao made those who love boxing very happy with three exciting fights, and for his magnificent year, he is the 2006 ESPN.com Fighter of the Year.

The Pac Man began the year in grand style, avenging a March 2005 decision loss to Morales with a 10th-round, come-from-behind knockout on Jan. 21. Although Morales dominated the first several rounds of the slugfest – what Pacquiao match isn't? – Pacquiao rallied and became the only fighter ever to stop the future Hall of Famer.

Although Morales picked up his contractual option for a rubber match, Pacquiao had time to squeeze in a long-awaited homecoming fight in the Philippines, where he is as famous as Tiger Woods, Britney Spears and Tom Cruise are in America, all rolled into one.

Pacquiao returned to Quezon City in suburban Manila to face former junior featherweight champ Oscar Larios on July 2 at the packed Araneta Coliseum, the famed arena where Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier waged their epic third battle.

Although Pacquaio was hurt by Larios early in the fight, he shook it off, dropping Larios twice and dominating him en route a crowd-pleasing unanimous decision, one that set the stage for the rubber match with Morales.

The fierce rivals met for the third time Nov. 18 in front of an electric crowd of 18,276 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The fans had come for another brawl, and the fighters didn't disappoint.

Although it was short, it was sweet for Pacquiao, who crushed Morales and delivered a third-round knockout for his fans. Pacquiao dropped him three times, the final knockdown leaving a dazed Morales sitting on the canvas shaking his head "no," a beaten man who allowed himself to be counted out.

Before the fight, Pacquiao, who fights with a smile on his face and a sense of joy all while trying to tear his opponent's head off, had vowed to put on another great show.

"All my fights are really fun for me," he said. "I do my best because I want to make people, the fans, happy about the fight, so that's why I train hard. I want to make a lot of action in the boxing ring."

Pacquiao did just that, proving emphatically that he was the better man than Morales, and clearly the fighter of the year.

Other contenders:

Also coming this week: awards for knockout, prospect, round and fight of the year

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.