No Easy Calls In “Fighter Of The Year” Race

And you thought the elections were over. Nope. The award for Fighter of the Year is wide open.

Last year wasn’t easy either, and it really came down to Miguel Cotto, Kelly Pavlik and Floyd Mayweather. All were defensible, excellent choices. This year, though, even those with the strongest candidates, there’s cause for doubt about each.

How does one decide a thing like Fighter of the Year? It’s probably even more subjective than the pound-for-pound debates. The case for Pavlik last year, which I argued, was that he broke through into stardom, was in a candidate for the best fight of the year, and beat several high quality fighters. The case for Cotto was similar. The case for Mayweather, however, was very much focused on his defeat of two other top stars in the sport — as opposed to the quality of the wins or the fights themselves — along with the record-breaking numbers on his pay-per-view buys and the considerable attention he got in the mainstream.

My own evaluation focuses on wins over top-flight competition, the quality of the performances themselves and, somewhat, on the business/stardom side of things. Keep that in mind as you review the list below. It is roughly in my order of preference, but with some important conditions for the guy listed first and third.

The Top Contenders

Manny Pacquiao

Pros: If Pacquiao beats Oscar De La Hoya in December, I think he’s a shoe-in. His close decision victory over Juan Manuel Marquez, a top-5 pound-for-pound player, was one of the three best fights of the year, and made him the lineal Ring magazine 130-pound champ. He then jumped up to lightweight (135 lbs.) and obliterated alphabet title holder David Diaz in a stunningly effective performance that erased all doubt about who the best fighter on the planet was. Beating De La Hoya — a much larger man and still in many top-20 pound-for-pound lists — at 147 pounds would make for a pretty unbelievable year, and would turn him into a major, major star worldwide instead of just in his native Philippines.

Cons: Plenty of people, yours truly included, think Marquez won that fight, not Pacquiao. His performance against Diaz was incredible, but let’s not go overboard about it — Diaz was the weakest title-holder in the division. Overlooking those caveats is easier if Pacquiao beats De La Hoya, but beating De La Hoya is far from a sure thing. And De La Hoya’s age could take a little shine off that win. Despite all that, he’s my choice if he wins in December.

Antonio Margarito

Pros: Margarito started off the year by destroying Kermit Cintron, a top-10 welterweight (147 lbs.), in a fight many picked Cintron to win. Over the summer, he wore down and then knocked out Cotto as about a 3-1 underdog, cracking into the top five of many pound-for-pound lists after only scraping pound-for-pound glory before the year started. With the win — in what was a hell of a donnybrook — Margarito staked his claim as the top fighter in arguably boxing’s top division right now.

Cons: Given the way he tore up Cintron in their first fight, nobody should have been surprised to see him do it again; it looks like Margarito just has Cintron’s number. More importantly, he only fought twice in the year. Fighting and beating Joshua Clottey, a bout that ws discussed but that never happened, would have really helped his argument.

Joe Calzaghe

Pros: Among the top contenders for Fighter of the Year, Calzaghe has the win over the highest-rated pound-for-pound opponent, Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins was #3 to Calzaghe’s #2, on my list, as he was for others. Calzaghe became the lineal Ring magazine light heavyweight (175 lbs.) champ with that win. This weekend, he fights Roy Jones, Jr., the former top man in the sport and currently ranked #6 in the light heavyweight division, and Calzaghe is the favorite to pull out the victory.

Cons: His defeat of Hopkins was disputed by a sizable number of observers, no matter what the final scorecards read. Jones has yet to beat an opponent that could prove he was capable of knocking off Calzaghe, and at any rate, he’s a faded version of his old self. And Jones could win, obviously derailing any consideration of Calzaghe for the award.

Juan Manuel Marquez

Pros: Many observers think he beat Pacquiao in the aforementioned bout, which, had the judges seen in that way, would have given him a win over the man who now stands as the top fighter in the world. In a move up to lightweight, Marquez knocked out lineal Ring magazine champ Joel Casamayor, something that had never been done before in Casamayor’s amazing career. With the win, Marquez probably punched his ticket into the Hall of Fame, if there was any doubt before that. There was talk he might fight someone like Carlos Hernandez on the De La Hoya-Pacquiao undercard, and a win like that would be a feather in the cap of his candidacy.

Cons: Whether he deserved the win over Pacquiao or not, the record book still records it as a loss. A loss isn’t necessarily disqualifying, but if the only other thing on your resume is a knockout of a very old Casamayor — even if my thinking is that age wasn’t really relevant in evaluating that win — it’s harder to sell your Fighter of the Year credentials. And the talk of fighting on the De La Hoya-Pacquiao undercard has really faded.

Bernard Hopkins

Pros: In one of the most incredible athletic performances ever for a 43-year-old man, Hopkins thoroughly schooled hungry young top-10 pound-for-pounder Kelly Pavlik in a 170-pound fight. It was a bounceback from a fight some thought he deserved to win against Calzaghe, even if the judges saw it for Joe.

Cons: Hopkins’ year was one of extremes — sure, he had the amazing performance against Pavlik, but he looked gawdawful against Calzaghe. Like Marquez, that fight goes in the record books as a loss. That leaves the win over Pavlik as his only undisputable credential.

Contenders That Deserve At Least A Mention

Vic Darchinyan: He crushed Cristian Mijares, at the time the #1 junior bantamweight (115 lbs.) and, for some, a top-5 pound-for-pounder. He added Mijares’ two belts to the one he took from Dmitri Kirilov. Most people think he beat Z Gorres, but it was scored a draw. But the Kirilov win is decent, not exceptional, and there’s the old “what the scorecards said” argument on the Gorres fight.

Chad Dawson: He beat two of the best light heavyweights of the past five years, Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, the former spectacularly and the latter in an exciting brawl. In the process, like Darchinyan, he made it hard to leave him out of the top-10 pound-for-pound lists, and he looked like a star in the making. But both of his opponents were really, really old, even if neither of them fought much like it.

Roy Jones, Jr.: Beating Calzaghe would be huge, and the pay-per-view numbers for his trouncing of Felix Trinidad were astounding. But few think he will actually beat Calzaghe, and nobody thinks that the Trinidad win was too terribly impressive, given the size differential and the fact that Trinidad was semi-retired.

Wladimir Klitschko
: He unified two heavyweight title belts for the first time in nearly a decade, defended one of them against a top-10 opponent and is set to fight once more in December against Hasim Rahman. But he looked terrible in the first two fights of the year and Rahman should be a pushover.

Ricky Hatton
: Paulie Malignaggi, his opponent for later in the month, is the #2 man in the junior welterweight (140 lbs.) division he currently rules. Juan Lazcano, whom Hatton beat earlier in the year, was also top-10 ranked. But Lazcano was rusty, Hatton looked bad in the win and could very well lose to Malignaggi.

Cristian Mijares: He unified two titles in the junior bantamweight division when he defeated Alexander Munoz, then defended the belts in a showcase-style fight. Earlier in the year, he defeated top contender Jose Navarro. But he got absolutely blown out by Darchinyan.

(Tip o’ the pen to Eric, who helped inspire this blog entry)

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.