Pacquiao is ESPN.com's fighter of the year

Originally Published: December 26, 2006
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

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.

Manny Pacquiao
Eric Jamison/AP PhotoPacquiao made an emphatic statement with his third-round knockout of Erik Morales on Nov. 18 in Las Vegas.
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.

Rafael's Fighters of the Year
Year Fighter
2006 Manny Pacquiao
2005 Ricky Hatton
2004 Glen Johnson
2003 James Toney
2002 Vernon Forrest
2001 Bernard Hopkins
2000 Felix Trinidad

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:

Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Mayweather Jr., right, and Carlos Baldomir.
AP Photo/Eric JamisonMayweather rocked Carlos Baldomir and took the welterweight title Nov. 4 in Las Vegas.
The pound-for-pound king continued his stranglehold on that lofty perch with a pair of impressive victories in 2006. First up was an April showdown with onetime buddy Zab Judah. Mayweather needed a few rounds to get going, but once he figured the speedy Judah out, it was all "Pretty Boy," who won a lopsided unanimous decision despite a 10th-round melee incited by a Judah foul which had Roger Mayweather, Floyd's uncle and trainer, subsequently storming the ring in anger.

In his November encore, Mayweather claimed the welterweight world championship with ease as he shut out Carlos Baldomir in stunningly easy fashion, despite an injured hand, to set the stage for a much-anticipated May 5 showdown with Oscar De La Hoya. The winner will have an early lead for 2007 fighter of the year honors.

Wladimir Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko
John Marshall Mantel/AP PhotoKlitschko KO'd Calvin Brock at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 11.
Written off by many after a stunning knockout loss to Lamon Brewster in 2004, Klitschko slowly has regained his status as the best heavyweight in the world. It began in late 2005 with his victory against Samuel Peter, but 2006 was a breakout year as he cemented his position as the heavyweight to beat.

First, Klitschko claimed a world title by bludgeoning Chris Byrd – the longest-reigning of the various belt holders at the time – for seven destructive rounds in April. In his first defense in November, Klitschko scored a devastating one-punch knockout of previously undefeated top American contender Calvin Brock, hammering him with a powerful right hand in the seventh round. Now, Klitschko is seeking a unification fight with any of the other champions.

Bernard Hopkins
Bernard Hopkins
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHopkins, left, went out a winner against Antonio Tarver for the light heavyweight title on June 10 in Atlantic City, only to talk comeback a few months later.
Although Hopkins fought just once, his June 10 victory was impressive and historically significant. The former undisputed middleweight champion tried his hand at light heavyweight, taking on division ruler Antonio Tarver.

Hopkins, announcing ahead of time that he would retire after the fight, bulked up from 160 pounds to 175 with the help of famed fitness guru Mackie Shilstone. Hopkins looked terrific at the weight, and although an underdog, he put on a flawless display, knocking Tarver down in the fifth round and cruising to a shockingly easy decision victory.

With the win, Hopkins became one of the few former middleweight champions to also claim the recognized light heavyweight championship.

Joe Calzaghe
Joe Calzaghe
AP/Jon SuperCalzaghe's dominance of Jeff Lacy on March 4 was one of the year's best highlights.
In the ninth year of his super middleweight title reign, Calzaghe finally got the big fight he had yearned for and turned in a masterpiece. Although an underdog, at least according to the American press corps, the Welsh star put on a dazzling display as he thoroughly outclassed fellow titleholder Jeff Lacy in their March unification fight in London.

Calzaghe scarcely lost a single second of the fight in hammering Lacy all night, including a cherry-on-top 12th-round knockdown. Calzaghe followed that with an easy unanimous decision win against Sakio Bika in October to set up a spring fight with Peter Manfredo Jr. and a possible clash with middleweight champ Jermain Taylor or unretiring light heavyweight king Bernard Hopkins later in 2007.

Carlos Baldomir
Zab Judah/Carlos Baldomir
TOM CASINO/ShowtimeBaldomir shocked Judah in January for the welterweight belt, but lost it to Mayweather 10 months later.
Had Baldomir defeated Floyd Mayweather in their November fight, he surely would have been fighter of the year. But even though he lost in lopsided fashion, Argentina's "Cinderella Man" still deserves honorable mention for what he accomplished in his previous two bouts.

The former feather-duster street salesman pulled off a pair of gargantuan upsets in the year's feel-good story. In January, the obscure mandatory challenger almost knocked out Zab Judah and went on to win a decision to claim the welterweight championship in Judah's hometown of New York. Six months later, Baldomir was the underdog again as he invaded popular Arturo Gatti's Atlantic City, N.J., turf and knocked him out in nine dominant rounds to set the stage for the Mayweather bout.

Miguel Cotto
Miguel Cotto
Tim Larsen/AP PhotoCotto, left, scored a fifth-round knockout of Carlos Quintana to claim a vacant welterweight belt on Dec. 2.
It was a year of transition from junior welterweight to welterweight for the Puerto Rican star, but one thing didn't change – he kept on winning.

After two junior welterweight title defenses – an eighth-round knockout of Gianluca Branco in March followed by an action-packed decision victory against Paulie Malignaggi in June – Cotto successfully moved up to welterweight in December. In his new division, he won a vacant belt with a crushing fifth-round body-shot knockout of countryman Carlos Quintana, who was favored by many to win.

Shane Mosley
Sugar Shane Mosley v Fernando Vargas
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMosley connected often against Fernando Vargas during their July 15 junior middleweight rematch fight in Las Vegas, scoring a TKO in the sixth round.
After two losses to Winky Wright in 2004 and two fairly low-profile wins in 2005, Mosley re-emerged in 2006 with a pair of decisive victories against former junior middleweight champ Fernando Vargas.

Mosley, who spent '05 at welterweight, moved back up to junior middleweight to face Vargas in February. He pounded on Vargas until the fight was stopped in the 10th round because of grotesque swelling over Vargas' eye. In the July rematch, Mosley was even more dominant, blowing out Vargas in six lopsided rounds.

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

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.

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