- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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If you are surprised by the pick for 2009 ESPN.com fighter of the year, well, you haven't paid attention to boxing for the past 12 months.
It's Manny Pacquiao, the biggest no-brainer selection since, well, 2008, when Pacquiao was also the obvious pick.
In fact, the pound-for-pound king and icon of the Philippines has claimed fighter of the year honors in three of the past four years, as he concluded yet another tremendous campaign in 2009.
In 2008, Pacquiao raced up the scale, winning titles at junior lightweight, with his tight decision against Juan Manuel Marquez, and at lightweight, with his battering of titleholder David Diaz, before going to welterweight and pounding Oscar De La Hoya into retirement.
Pacquiao's 2009 was just as impressive as he continued to electrify fans by winning both of his fights by dominant knockout. With decisive victories against Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto, both coming at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Pacquiao added championships in two more weight classes to give him titles in a record seven divisions -- flyweight, junior featherweight, featherweight, junior lightweight, lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight.
It was also the year in which Pacquiao, already on the fringe of all-time great status, put his name firmly into the discussion. Greatest southpaw. Greatest Asian fighter. Clear top 25 fighter of all-time.
His promoter, Top Rank's Bob Arum, calls him "the greatest fighter I've ever seen" in more than 40 years in the business. He compares Pacquiao's star power -- and fighting prowess -- to Muhammad Ali's, whom Arum also promoted.
Rafael's Fighters of the Year
Trainer Freddie Roach, who has been with Pacquiao since 2001, believes he could be in line for more fighter of the year nods, perhaps again in 2010 if the tentative March 13 summit meeting with Floyd Mayweather Jr. comes off and Pacquiao wins.
"The scary thing is we still have not seen the best of Manny Pacquiao," Roach said after the knockout of Cotto. "I have never trained an athlete like Manny, who after more than 50 fights is still willing to learn new techniques and is able to apply them. One of the reasons Manny is so hard to fight is because you never see the same Manny two times in a row. He always has a new style making him totally unpredictable and impossible to anticipate. Plus his conditioning is supreme to anyone in the sport. He is an athletic phenomenon.
"I get a lot of credit for his success, but it's Manny who does the work in the gym and does the fighting in the ring. He's incredible. His last five fights have been at four different weight divisions. He goes up in weight. He goes down in weight. He fights the best in each division."
After the stunningly easy upset win against De La Hoya to end 2008, Pacquiao (50-3-2, 38 KOs) dropped to junior welterweight in May to face Hatton, the champion who had never been beaten at 140 pounds.
Pacquiao ruthlessly took care of him in short order, blasting him out in two rounds with one of the most spectacular knockouts in recent memory. That gave Pacquiao a title in a sixth division, including a record fourth lineal championship.
That set the stage for the year's biggest fight as Pacquiao, who turned 31 on Dec. 17, moved back up to welterweight to challenge Cotto for his belt. Cotto was the biggest and strongest man Pacquiao had ever faced. While the bout began competitively, the tide turned to Pacquiao after a few rounds. From there, it was a landslide as Pacquiao stormed to a bloody, 12th-round knockout to win yet another title in a fight that also was the year's biggest commercial success as it generated 1.25 million pay-per-view buys.
Pacquiao's reaction to all the hoopla was typical: Humble and with his country on his mind.
"Nothing personal, just doing my job," Pacquiao said after the Cotto fight. "One of the biggest advantages I have is that every fight is an opportunity to give honor to the Philippines. The Filipino people don't just give me their support, they also give me their strength, their pride and their love. It's an awesome power and a big responsibility. This fight was about history. People will remember that the first man to win world titles in seven different weight divisions was a Filipino."
Vitali Klitschko: Klitschko had not fought since the end of 2004, forced into retirement the following year and into giving up his heavyweight title because of injuries. But after a nearly four-year layoff, the injuries healed and Klitschko made a triumphant return in late 2008 to punish Samuel Peter en route to an eighth-round knockout to reclaim his old belt. It wasn't just a cameo appearance. In 2009, Klitschko (39-2, 37 KOs) put a hammerlock on his title at age 38. While baby brother and fellow heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko fought just once in 2009 because of his own injuries, Vitali was busy. The Ukraine native made three defenses against quality opponents, winning each with overwhelmingly dominant performances in which he scarcely lost any of the 31 rounds. In March, Klitschko faced southpaw mandatory challenger Juan Carlos Gomez, a superb technician and former cruiserweight titleholder, and drilled him in the ninth round. In September, Klitschko, who makes Los Angeles his part-time home, faced Southern California native Cristobal Arreola in Los Angeles and shut him down with ease before forcing Arreola's corner to throw in the towel after 10 brutally one-sided rounds. Klitschko made a quick return in December to score a virtual shutout of American Kevin Johnson, who was so petrified that he only could land five power shots in 12 rounds.
Timothy Bradley Jr.: With Manny Pacquiao knocking out Ricky Hatton to win the junior welterweight championship in May and then leaving the division, and casting serious doubt on former champ Hatton's future, the 140-pound division was wide open for a new No. 1 fighter to emerge. That's Bradley (25-0, 11 KOs), who put together an excellent 2009 campaign to become the division's marked man. The 26-year-old from Palm Springs, Calif., got started in 2008 when he won a world title and made one defense. But Bradley really broke out in 2009. He began in April, taking a hard-fought decision against Kendall Holt to unify two belts, surviving knockdowns in the first and 12th rounds and pulling out the decision. Bradley returned to action in August for what many thought would be a difficult defense against former lightweight titlist Nate Campbell. But Bradley dominated until the fight was called off in the third round because Campbell was unable to continue due to a severe cut over his left eye. Bradley was originally awarded a TKO victory, but it was later changed to a no contest when the California commission correctly ruled that the cut had been caused by an accidental head-butt. Still, Bradley had dominated and looked good doing it. In December, Bradley made a mandatory defense against interim titlist Lamont Peterson, his pal from the amateur ranks. It was expected to be a difficult assignment, a toss-up fight in which folks were split as to who would win. But Bradley put the questions to bed quickly. He scored a third-round knockdown and dominated Peterson for a near-shutout victory in the best performance of his career.
Andre Ward: Big things were expected from Ward from the moment he stepped onto the podium to accept his 2004 Olympic gold medal, and in 2009 he delivered on those expectations. The 25-year-old from Oakland, Calif., moved from rising contender to top-notch titleholder by going 4-0 and establishing himself as the No. 1 super middleweight in a deep division. Ward opened his year in February with a dominant decision victory against Henry "Sugar Poo" Buchanan. That set the stage for Ward's first real step up in competition against dangerous puncher Edison Miranda. Ward (21-0, 13 KOs) easily dominated him en route to a lopsided decision. As a tune-up for his entrance into Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament, Ward blew out Shelby Pudwill in three rounds to set the stage for his title shot. Ward got it in November in his Super Six opener and not only beat Danish star Mikkel Kessler via 11th-round technical decision to win a title, he thoroughly dominated him in the upset. It was a stellar performance from Ward and a sensational way to cap a big year.
Hozumi Hasegawa: Japan's No. 1 fighter is a virtual unknown in the United States, but the southpaw bantamweight titleholder had a tremendous year. Known mostly as a skilled technician, Hasegawa (28-2, 12 KOs) rang up three defenses in 2009, winning each by crushing knockout to run his defense total to 10. Hasegawa, 29, kicked off the year with a first-round blowout of Vusi Malinga, a good mandatory challenger from South Africa, whom he dropped three times in the rout. Hasegawa followed by registering two knockdowns in another first-round destruction of Nestor Rocha in July. In his third defense of the year, Hasegawa scored yet another sweet knockout of Nicaragua's Alvaro Perez in the fourth round of a lopsided fight. Maybe you haven't heard of Hasegawa, but he's good. Very good.
Carl Froch: "The Cobra" oozes confidence, and it's easy to see why. The super middleweight titlist from England had claimed a vacant belt in a late 2008 slugfest with Jean Pascal and retained it twice in 2009 against quality opponents. In April, Froch came to America and defended his belt against former undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor. Taylor knocked him down for the first time in his career in the third round and was ahead when Froch (26-0, 20 KOs) rallied for a tremendous 12th-round knockout in a dramatic comeback. In October, Froch, 32, returned home to Nottingham and defended his title in the opening round of the Super Six World Boxing Classic by taking a tight split decision against slick American Andre Dirrell.
Also coming: awards for knockout, prospect, round and fight of the year
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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