Commentary

Pacquiao is ESPN.com's Fighter of the Year

Manny Pacquiao's monumental achievement in 2008 makes him the obvious choice for ESPN.com's Fighter of the Year, writes Dan Rafael.

Updated: December 25, 2008, 2:08 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Manny PacquiaoJewel Samad/AFP/Getty ImagesNever mind Fighter of the Year, Dan Rafael thinks Manny Pacquiao should be athlete of the year.

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.

Rafael's Fighters of the Year
Year Fighter
2008 Manny Pacquiao
2007 Floyd Mayweather Jr.
2006 Manny Pacquiao
2005 Ricky Hatton
2004 Glen Johnson
2003 James Toney
2002 Vernon Forrest
2001 Bernard Hopkins
2000 Felix Trinidad

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:

Joe Calzaghe
[+] EnlargeJoe Calzaghe
Al Bello/Getty ImagesJoe Calzaghe, right, went out on top with his bout against Roy Jones Jr.

At 36, Calzaghe talked a lot in 2008 about retiring, especially in the wake of his two giant victories. If he does indeed call it a day, Wales' favorite son will have gone out with a bang after registering two significant wins and preserving his perfect 46-0 record. After reigning as a super middleweight champion for more than 10 years and making 21 title defenses, Calzaghe moved up to light heavyweight, where he claimed the word championship from Bernard Hopkins in April. Although Calzaghe was knocked down in the first round, he rallied to win a tight split decision, a victory that looks even better after Hopkins rebounded from the loss with a dominant upset decision victory against Kelly Pavlik. Not only had Calzaghe successfully moved up in weight to claim another title; he did it in Las Vegas, the first time he had ever fought in the United States. He followed that victory by adding another legendary fight to his résumé when, despite again being dropped in the first round, he easily outpointed Roy Jones Jr. in November in New York.

"It's not just beating two legends in the ring; it's coming from Britain and choosing to come to the States and, in both fights, going down in the first round and still winning," Calzaghe said. "I'm really proud of that. That's what I wanted to do this year. … What a fantastic way to finish off my career. I say I wanted to go out on top, and it doesn't get much bigger than that, does it?"

Antonio Margarito
Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesAntonio Margarito, right, took it to Miguel Cotto in a classic slugfest.

For years, Margarito -- the "Tijuana Tornado" -- has searched for wide acclaim and big fights. He got both in a tremendous year. Fighting on a Miguel Cotto undercard in April, Margarito, 30, destroyed Kermit Cintron in five punishing rounds to claim a welterweight title in a rematch of Margarito's similarly one-sided win against him in 2005. That victory set up one of the most anticipated fights of the year: a showdown with the undefeated Cotto. Margarito gave up his 147-pound belt in order to facilitate the fight, and they met in July in Las Vegas in what turned out to be one of the best fights of the year. It also turned out to be the defining night of Margarito's 15-year professional career. Being outboxed and trailing on the scorecards, Margarito came roaring back late in the fight and stopped Cotto in the 11th round of an exhilarating bout to win another title. Top Rank promoter Bob Arum made the perfect analogy after the fight, comparing Margarito to a freight train going downhill until he finally ran Cotto over.

Bernard Hopkins
[+] EnlargeBernard Hopkins
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesIn his fight against Kelly Pavlik, Bernard Hopkins, left, showed age is not a barrier.

Hopkins is simply a freak of nature. At 43 and with 20 years as a professional fighter under his belt, he's still boxing at an extraordinarily high level. Two years after pulling a massive upset against Antonio Tarver to win the light heavyweight championship, Hopkins was still at it after a brief retirement. He fought fellow pound-for-pound entrant Calzaghe in April, and although Hopkins lost a split decision and the title, the bout was extremely close and many believed Hopkins, who had scored a first-round knockdown, deserved the close decision. Electing to continue his career, Hopkins faced undefeated middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in a 170-pound catch weight fight in October. Hopkins entered as a heavy underdog against a man 17 years his junior and ran roughshod over him to score a punishing, lopsided decision win in one of the most amazing performances in boxing history. The win surely sealed Hopkins' place as the greatest over-40 fighter in boxing history.

Vic Darchinyan
[+] EnlargeVic Darchinyan
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokVic Darchinyan dominated his battle with Cristian Mijares.

After losing a flyweight title in 2007, Darchinyan, the Australian-based, Armenian-born "Raging Bull," emerged as the king at junior bantamweight, where he became the first fighter in 115-pound-division history to unify three major titles. In February, the 32-year-old was held to a controversial draw against Z Gorres on Gorres' turf in the Philippines in a fight many believed Darchinyan won. But what made the year so big for him was the two fights that followed. In August, he demolished Dimitri Kirilov in five rounds to claim a world title. That set the stage for his November showdown with unified titleholder Cristian Mijares, the pound-for-pound top-10 entrant who had been on a tear and was heavily favored. In fact, in a poll of 32 media members, 26 picked Mijares to win. But the brash Darchinyan, who insisted he would break Mijares in half and knock him out, ignored the critics by turning in a brutally efficient performance en route to a booming ninth-round knockout.

Wladimir Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko and Tony Thompson
Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty ImagesWladimir Klitschko was all over Tony Thompson.

Sure, the heavyweight division is not what it once was, or even close, but Klitschko is the best of the bunch, and he continued to separate himself from the pack in 2008. In February, Klitschko, 32, toyed with overmatched Sultan Ibragimov for a near-shutout decision in the division's first unification fight since Lennox Lewis became undisputed champion by outpointing Evander Holyfield in their 1999 rematch. In July, Klitschko dominated Tony Thompson before disposing of him via a one-punch knockout in the 11th round. Dr. Steelhammer closed his year in December by smashing former champion Hasim Rahman for seven one-sided rounds. That made Klitschko 3-for-3 for the year while barely losing a round.

Tomasz Adamek
Tomasz Adamek and Steve Cunningham
Al Bello/Getty ImagesTomasz Adamek, left, capped a busy year with a terrific performance against Steve Cunningham.

After losing a light-heavyweight title to Chad Dawson in early 2007, Poland's Adamek, 32, moved up to cruiserweight and was reborn. In 2008, he went 3-0 and scored two significant victories. In April, he dropped former undisputed champ O'Neil Bell in the first round, dominated the fight and forced him to quit on his stool after the seventh round. That win earned Adamek a title shot against Steve Cunningham, but first Adamek stayed busy with a seven-round drubbing of Gary Gomez. Then came the shot against Cunningham in December, and Adamek turned in a terrific performance in a fight of the year candidate. He dropped Cunningham three times and claimed a deserved split decision to take Cunningham's alphabet title as well as the vacant Ring magazine championship.

Juan Manuel Lopez
[+] EnlargeJuan Manuel Lopez
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesJuan Manuel Lopez, right, got on a roll in 2008, finishing off Sergio Medina in his last fight of the year.

Puerto Rico's brightest young star had a breakout year. The 25-year-old power-punching southpaw started with a third-round blowout of Jonathan Oquendo in February. Little did we know at the time that the fight would be long by Lopez's standards. As an encore, he blew out Daniel Ponce de Leon in the first round in a June upset to win a junior featherweight title in a sensational performance. Then Lopez checked off two more first-round knockouts for good measure in his first two title defenses, blitzing Cesar Figueroa in October and Sergio Medina in December to set himself up for big fights in '09.

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

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.