Pacquiao is ESPN.com's Fighter of the Year

Never mind Fighter of the Year, Dan Rafael thinks Manny Pacquiao should be athlete of the year. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Not only did pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao have an incredible year, he had one for the ages.

The Filipino icon's fabulous year harkened back to a time 70 years ago when the great Hall of Famer Henry Armstrong claimed, in order, the world featherweight, welterweight and lightweight championships -- when there were only eight total divisions, instead of today's 17 -- during a 10-month period from October 1937 to August 1938.

What Pacquiao did was about as close as anyone likely will come to that monumental achievement, which is why he was the obvious choice as 2008 ESPN.com Fighter of the Year.

Frankly, with apologies to Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, Pacquiao should be in the conversation for athlete of the year, regardless of sport.

In claiming his second fighter of the year nod in three years, Pacquiao added to his all-time great résumé and surpassed his accomplishments of 2006. That's when Pacquiao, 30, fought three times as a junior lightweight, twice knocking out rival Erik Morales in their second and third bouts and outpointing Oscar Larios in a homecoming bout in the Philippines.

That was a hell of a year, to be sure, but Pacquiao's 2008 was even better.

In a fantastic fight in March, Pacquiao edged rival Juan Manuel Marquez via split decision in a rematch of their 2004 draw to win the junior lightweight world championship.

Then Pacquiao -- who began his career at 106 pounds and had already won titles at flyweight, junior featherweight, featherweight and junior lightweight -- jumped from 130 to 135 pounds and crushed David Diaz over nine brutally one-sided rounds to win a lightweight belt.

The truly audacious move followed as Pacquiao, backed by the overwhelming confidence of trainer Freddie Roach, jumped up two divisions to welterweight to face icon and former six-division titleholder Oscar De La Hoya -- who just 1½ years earlier had dropped a tight split decision to then-pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather -- in the biggest fight of the year.

Although Pacquiao was the clear underdog, he laid waste to the Golden Boy in a stunningly lopsided destruction. Pacquiao won every second of the fight, battering De La Hoya until De la Hoya retired on his stool after the eighth round.

It was Pacquiao's third significant victory in his third weight division in the same year.

It was Armstrong-like stuff.

And Pacquiao did it all with a sense of humility and graciousness outside the ring, where he'd rather talk about his country than himself and give away money and food to the less fortunate rather than flaunt his increasing wealth.

"It's a big accomplishment if I win this fight. It's going to be boxing history and a big honor to my country," a humble Pacquiao said days before defeating De La Hoya. "To fight in three divisions in one year, that's amazing. To win the fight is really good for me and a really big honor to my country."

As great as 2008 was for Pacquiao, he has a chance for more greatness in 2009. If he wins a likely May 2 match against world junior welterweight champion Ricky Hatton, Pacquiao would secure a fourth significant victory in four divisions (and his third title in three divisions) in four consecutive fights in a little over a year.

Not even Armstrong did that.

"Well, what's most important to me after my boxing career, 30 or 40 years from now, people, they'll always remember me as a good fighter," Pacquiao said.

That's Pacquiao being humble once more, because no: They'll remember him as a great fighter. In large part, it will be because of what he did in 2008.

Other contenders:

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

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.