WHAT do the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire Jr. have in common? Well, believe it or not, they have all been recipients of the prestigious “Fighter of the Year” award from the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA).
A few weeks ago, the BWAA named Donaire its Fighter of the Year for 2012, making the reigning WBO super bantamweight king only the second Filipino after Pacquiao to collar the plum. You can say Donaire won the award uncontested. He went 4-0 with two knockouts last year, besting fighters who were either former or incumbent world champions. In February, he moved up in weight and won his third regular world title (after the IBF flyweight and WBO-WBC bantamweight titles) by knocking down and outpointing Puerto Rican Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. for the WBO super bantamweight (122 pounds) diadem. On July 7, Donaire added the IBF super bantamweight tiara to his collection by outclassing South African Jeffrey Mathebula. On October 13, Donaire relinquished the IBF belt but successfully defended the WBO crown by hammering Japanese Toshiaki Nishioka in nine rounds. Donaire ended the year with an explosive, three-round annihilation of Mexican Jorge Arce on December 15.
Before being named Fighter of the Year by the BWAA, Donaire earned the same accolade from ESPN, The Ring magazine and Sports Illustrated. The BWAA award, however, is the most prestigious, emanating from a group made up of people who regularly cover the sport in the United States. As they say, nothing beats being recognized by your peers.
The BWAA was originally established in 1926 as the Boxing Writers Association of Greater New York. In 1938, the BWAA presented its first Fighter of the Year award (then known as the Edward J. Neil Award, after the former Associated Press sportswriter who died in 1938 while serving as a war correspondent in the Spanish civil war) to former world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. The original purpose of the award was to recognize an individual (not necessarily an active boxer) who did the most for boxing during the previous year, and this explains why Dempsey was honored despite having retired in 1927.
Down the road, the award was renamed the Sugar Ray Robinson Award (after the former welterweight and middleweight champion) and strictly given to the boxer who enjoyed the most successful ring campaign for the year.
Former heavyweight champions Ali and Joe Frazier are the first boxers to win the award three times. Ali won it in 1965, 1974 and 1975 while Frazier pulled off the trick in 1969, 1971 and 1975. Ali and Frazier shared the award in 1975, the year they figured in what many consider as the greatest match in boxing history. In October of the same year, Ali successfully defended the world heavyweight title by repulsing a stubborn Frazier in 14 rounds before a jampacked Araneta Coliseum. The fight went down as the ‘Thrilla in Manila.’
Other three-time winners of the award are Sugar Ray Leonard (1976, 1979, 1981), Evander Holyfield (1990, 1996, 1997), and Pacquiao (2006, 2008, 2009). Leonard's award in 1976 was a rarity, as he won it as an amateur boxer. Leonard shared the award with four other members of the United States Olympic team who all captured gold medals in the 1976 Olympics - Howard Davis, Jr., Leo Randolph, Michael Spinks, and Leon Spinks. To this day, Leonard is the only fighter to win the BWAA award as an amateur and pro boxer. He won the award for the second time in 1979 after dominating Puerto Rican Wilfredo Benitez for the WBC welterweight title and for the third time in 1981 when he rallied to stop Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns in 14 rounds for the WBC-WBA welterweight titles.
In 2006, Pacquiao became the first Filipino and Asian fighter to win the BWAA award. When Pacquiao collared the award back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, he became only the third boxer to accomplish the feat since Ali (1974, 1975) and Holyfield (1996, 1997).
Donaire, 31-1 with 20 knockouts, now joins Pacquiao and other legendary champions in the honor roll of the BWAA. As he gears up for his first ring appearance this year – an April 13 showdown with WBA super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux – the ‘Filipino Flash’ is no doubt bent on picking up from where he left off in the hope of once again winning the award.