When trying to decide between Nonito Donaire and Juan Manuel Marquez for Fighter of the Year, it comes down to a dilemma common to judging individual boxing matches: Do you like the man who did the consistent good work in superior volume, or do you like the man who made a stunning statement with that one big punch?
Marquez's Knockout of the Year against old rival Manny Pacquiao, one of the best few fighters in the business, made an earth-shaking impression. Marquez didn't just rock Pacquiao with that punch — he rocked the entire sport. What happened that December night stretched far beyond hardcore boxing fans into mainstream pop culture. It was historic.
But outside of that welterweight victory, Marquez's only other win was a mostly insiigficant defeat of Serhiy Fedchenko at junior welterweight. If the award was for "Win of the Year," then Marquez would have been hoisting the figurative trophy weeks ago.
Donaire fought an unheard of (for an elite fighter) four times in 2012, each win over top-10 caliber junior featherweights. Granted, none of them were marquee wins — if Donaire had fought and beaten Abner Mares or Guillermo Rigondeaux, he would have been a shoe-in. But he had one that was very nearly that caliber of elite victory, a technical knockout of #1-ranked Toshiaki Nishioka, which, by virtue of Donaire ranking #2, crowned a new lineal champion.
It was also his best performance of the year, lending credence to the notion that, for all his natural speed and power, he'll fight up or down to the competition. The win over Jorge Arce wasn't terribly impressive given that it was widely and correctly viewed as a mismatch, but that had more to do with Donaire's talent than anything to do with the admittedly fading Arce, and Donaire at least delivered a Knockout of the Year candidate with the victory. The Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. win was the most boring of his four bouts, but that mostly had to do with Vazquez, who ripped out a page from the Omar Narvaez playbook on Donaire, which is, avoid contact at all costs and try to land something every now and then and hope for the best. Jeffrey Mathebula borrowed it a bit, too, but Donaire was more aggressive against Mathebula, which meant he got hit more but also that he was more destructive in return; Mathebula had his jaw broken in two places.
Then there's what Donaire did out of the ring. I share these doubts about Donaire's affiliation with BALCO figure Victor Conte, but there simply is no fighter right now who can say he's doing more to prove he's clean, with 365/24/7 performance enhancing testing by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. it hasn't caught on yet with other fighters, but at least one alphabet sanctioning organization has expressed interest in following Donaire's lead to an extent, although we'll see if it follows through. Main point is, Donaire is in the vanguard of improved testing procedures for PEDs, and when his main competitor for Fighter of the Year is ALSO affiliated with a BALCO chemist but isn't doing the same kind of testing, it's an edge.
Donaire still isn't a complete or perfect fighter, as his occasional lackluster performances will attest, but then, how often do perfect fighters come along? And he still isn't a huge TV ratings draw, perhaps because of those lackluster performances. He can now, though, credibly called the best Filipino fighter on the planet, ironically with an assist from Marquez. He's also the 2012 Fighter of the Year.