It might sound strange, but no, Manny Pacquiao was not the best fighter from the Philippines in 2012. That honor goes to "The Filipino Flash," junior featherweight titlist Nonito Donaire, who had a year for the ages.
Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs) began the year having vacated his bantamweight belts and preparing to move up to junior featherweight. Four fights later, in an exceptionally busy year by modern standards for an elite champion, the quick-fisted and powerful Donaire stands atop the 122-pound division and was the easy pick for 2012 ESPN.com Boxer of the Year.
Donaire, 30, easily handled the move up in weight, winning all four of his fights in dominant fashion. He dropped each of his foes -- scoring seven knockdowns in all -- won twice by knockout and collected two world titles. Add to that his trailblazing approach to drug testing: He is the only fighter in the world who has signed on with the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association for random urine and blood testing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. This in an era when every great performance unfortunately comes under the suspicion of possible performance-enhancing drug use -- except, of course, Donaire's.
His attitude is refreshing.
"I don't mind it. I think it's a good for the sport and I am going to do it," Donaire said. "It's a good idea. I have nothing to hide. I would love for all fighters to follow me, but not everybody is like me."
In February, Donaire moved up in weight to face former titleholder Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. of Puerto Rico. He dropped Vazquez in the ninth round and rolled to a decision to win a vacant title.
In July, Donaire faced South Africa's Jeffrey Mathebula and dropped him in the fourth round, broke his jaw and won a lopsided decision to unify two belts.
Donaire vacated one of the titles but returned in October to face well-respected former titleholder Toshiaki Nishioka of Japan, who didn't have a title only because he had relinquished it. Donaire scored knockdowns in the sixth and ninth rounds en route to a lopsided ninth-round knockout.
And then, given the opportunity for a rare fourth fight in a year, Donaire, despite a bad left hand that had given him problems all year, squared off with former titlist Jorge Arce of Mexico. The result was Donaire's best showing of 2012: He dropped Arce in the second round, then twice more in the third, including landing a pulverizing left hook to the chin that knocked the challenger out cold.
It was the exclamation point on a year in which Donaire seized the mantle from Pacquiao, his idol, as the Philippines' best boxer and continued to assert himself as one of the best fighters in the world, period.
And you know what's scary?
After drilling Arce, Donaire said, "I believe I am still getting better."
Juan Manuel Marquez: The Mexican star is here for one reason and one reason only: For landing the shot heard 'round the world -- the sick right hand to Manny Pacquiao's face that knocked him out cold and face-first to the canvas with one second left in the sixth round on Dec. 8. In the most stunning scene of the year, Marquez (55-6-1, 40 KOs) earned the first definitive result in his epic four-fight series with Pacquiao. Marquez, 39, may trail the all-time series 2-1-1, but the knockout in their welterweight fight is the most memorable moment from the four fights, and one of the most significant moments in boxing in recent years. For good measure, Marquez also pitched a near-shutout of Sergey Fedchenko in April to win a vacant interim junior welterweight belt. Marquez was later elevated to a full titleholder, giving him world titles in four divisions.
Danny Garcia: In 2012, Garcia (25-0, 16 KOs) rose from good contender to serious world champion with a 3-0 campaign in three world title fights, including two impressive knockouts. The 24-year-old from Philadelphia began in March when he pounded his way to a unanimous decision against Mexican legend Erik Morales, whom he dropped in the 11th round to win a vacant junior welterweight title. In July, Garcia unified titles in upset fashion when he rallied to knock down Amir Khan in the third round and then stop him in the fourth for the biggest win his career. And in October, he gave Morales the rematch he contractually owed him and thrashed him en route to a savage knockout on one of the cleanest, prettiest left hooks of the year.
Robert Guerrero: "The Ghost" had won titles at featherweight, junior lightweight and the interim variety at lightweight, but he really wanted a big fight and began calling out Floyd Mayweather Jr. There were snickers, but no one is laughing after Guerrero's 2012 results. Guerrero (31-1-1, 18 KOs), 29, came off a 15-month layoff prompted by serious rotator cuff surgery, moved up two divisions to welterweight and looked strong in taking apart two quality opponents, making him the likely candidate to land a Mayweather fight in 2013. In July, Guerrero won a hard-fought decision against powerful and dangerous Selcuk Aydin to claim a vacant interim belt and make believers out of those who didn't think he could compete at 147 pounds. In November, he delivered again, dropping former two-time titlist Andre Berto twice en route to a clear decision in an outstanding fight.
Leo Santa Cruz: Throwing tons of punches in fight after fight, Santa Cruz (23-0-1, 13 KOs), 24, ripped off five wins in 2012 and emerged as one of the most exciting young titleholders in boxing. In his second fight of the year, he outpunched Vusi Malinga to win a vacant bantamweight title, which he defended three times in knockouts of Eric Morel in September and Victor Zaleta in November, followed by a clear decision against Alberto Guevara on Dec. 15 in the fight that marked the return of live boxing to CBS for the first time in 15 years.
Andre Ward: Super middleweight champion Ward, the 2011 fighter of the year, fought only once in 2012, partly because of injuries -- but what a win it was. Ward (26-0, 14 KOs), 28, followed up last year's coronation to conclude the Super Six World Boxing Classic by meeting light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson in September. Dawson dropped down in weight but was no match as Ward dropped him three times en route to a dominant 10th-round knockout.
Brian Viloria: "The Hawaiian Punch" scored knockouts against quality opponents in both of his 2012 fights. In May, Viloria (32-3, 19 KOs), 32, retained his flyweight title by stopping Omar Nino in the ninth round to exact revenge from a previous loss and no-contest. In November, in an exceptional fight, Viloria stopped Hernan "Tyson" Marquez to unify 112-pound titles.
Carl Froch: England's Froch (30-2, 22 KOs), 35, ended 2011 by losing a decision to Andre Ward in the Super Six final, but he rebounded big-time in 2012. As an underdog in his hometown, Froch wrecked Lucian Bute, knocking him out in the fifth round of a stellar performance to win a super middleweight title for the third time. For an encore, he drilled fringe contender Yusaf Mack in the third round in November.