2016 ESPN.com fighter of the year: Carl Frampton

Carl Frampton reacts after winning a featherweight title from Leo Santa Cruz in July. Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

When Carl Frampton was a lad growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he lived near a boxing gym.

"It was two minutes from my front door, and out of curiosity me and group of friends were interested in it. And my mom brought us down to try it out one day and I fell in love with boxing," Frampton said.

"I was 7 and I got the bug. I was a quiet kid, but I was beating them up in the ring. It just happened. I was quiet kid, not getting in trouble. But I was curious about boxing and fell in love with it."

Frampton, 29, had the most memorable year of his career in 2016, winning two huge fights -- both on the road against undefeated opponents -- and adding two more world title belts to his collection. He also added another honor to his résumé: 2016 ESPN.com fighter of the year.

In February, Frampton (23-0, 14 KOs) traveled to Scott Quigg's home turf in Manchester, England, for their long-awaited junior featherweight world title unification bout. Although it was by no means the classic fight many expected, Frampton broke Quigg's jaw and took home the well-deserved split decision and a second title belt.

In July, Frampton moved up to featherweight and traveled to Brooklyn, New York, where he challenged Leo Santa Cruz for his belt. Frampton, the underdog, and Santa Cruz put on a hellacious battle and Frampton won by majority decision that should have been unanimous in his favor.

It was a glorious victory that made Frampton the first fighter from his country to win titles in two weight classes and the second Irishman to do it, joining Steve Collins of Ireland.

No other fighter in 2016 scored such an impressive combination of victories in high-profile bouts against elite opponents -- in multiple divisions, on the road -- with one of them a contender for fight of the year.

"It's been a great year for myself," said Frampton, who is trained by Shane McGuigan and managed by Hall of Fame former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan, Shane's father. "I've fought on the road twice against two good fighters.

"The biggest win for me was the Leo Santa Cruz fight. He was a three-weight world champion and most of the press and bookies picked him to win. You can see the difference in how I reacted at the end of both fights. I knew I was a better fighter than Quigg, but the Santa Cruz victory was the one I got more pleasure from.

"Being even considered as a fighter of the year is a huge honor for me and very humbling. But the thing is, I'm kicking off 2017 with a bang and it has the potential to be even better than '16."

On Jan. 28, Frampton will face Santa Cruz in a rematch, hoping to get quick start on 2017 fighter of the year honors.

"Looking back, it's the stuff of dreams in 2016," Barry McGuigan said. "It's been enormously gratifying for me as his manager, especially as there have been some fantastic fighters and performances."

Other contenders

2. Vasyl Lomachenko: The two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine continued to display his otherworldly talents. Lomachenko (7-1, 5 KOs) moved up to junior lightweight and spectacularly knocked out Roman "Rocky" Martinez in the fifth round in June, setting a record by needing just seven pro fights to win world titles in two weight divisions. (He won a featherweight belt in 2014 in his third pro bout, which tied the record for fewest fights to win a world title.) Lomachenko returned in November for his first defense and routed then-undefeated former featherweight titlist Nicholas Walters, making him quit in the seventh round.

3. Terence Crawford: The 2014 fighter of the year smashed Hank Lundy in a fifth-round knockout win in February to retain his junior welterweight belt. In July, Crawford (30-0, 21 KOs) scored two knockdowns and dominated Viktor Postol, widely considered No. 2 in the division behind Crawford, to unify world titles in a superb performance. He closed the year in December with an eighth-round knockout of John Molina.

4. Manny Pacquiao: Pacquiao (59-6-2, 38 KOs), the ESPN.com fighter of the year in 2006, '08 and '09, rebounded from his 2015 loss to Floyd Mayweather for a big year. In April, Pacquiao decisively outpointed Timothy Bradley Jr. in their third fight. In November, coming out of a brief retirement, he dropped Jessie Vargas and cruised to another one-sided decision to win yet another welterweight world title.

5. Joe Smith Jr.: A union laborer by trade, Smith (23-1, 19 KOs) had a year dreams are made of, winning his three bouts by knockout, including two massive upsets. In April, he scored a second-round knockout of Fabiano Pena, but that was small potatoes. Smith's coming-out party was in June, when he scored a shocking first-round KO of heavily favored light heavyweight contender Andrzej Fonfara on network TV in prime time. To cap off the year, he returned in December as the hand-picked farewell opponent for retiring legend Bernard Hopkins and sent him out with the worst loss of his career. All Smith did was knock the future Hall of Famer clean out of the ring for a decisive eighth-round TKO.

6. Andre Ward: The former super middleweight champion fought at least twice in a year for the first time since 2011, and three times in a year for the first time since 2009. Moving up to light heavyweight, Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) easily outpointed contender Sullivan Barrera in March and shut out Alexander Brand in August in a pair of warm-up bouts for the big one, which took place in November. That's when Ward narrowly outpointed Sergey Kovalev in debatable fashion to claim his three world title belts in one of the most significant fights of the year.

7. Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez: Gonzalez (46-0, 38 KOs), boxing's pound-for-pound king, retained the flyweight world title in April in a near-shutout decision against quality contender McWilliams Arroyo. In September, Gonzalez moved up to junior bantamweight and outpointed then-undefeated Carlos Cuadras to win a title in his fourth weight class, bettering the accomplishment of his Nicaraguan countryman and hero, Hall of Famer Alexis Arguello.