6. Nonito Donaire — 2012: 4-0 (2)
Although the 2012 Fighter of the Year award has yet to be bestowed as of this writing, Donaire’s deeds are worthy of this ranking. During a time when the top fighters risk their standing only twice a year – and usually against hand-picked opposition – Donaire went against the grain by fighting four times against either well-known or well-regarded competition.
Donaire entered 2012 as the WBC/WBO bantamweight titlist and on Feb. 4 he stepped up to 122 to fight Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. for the vacant WBO title. Vazquez had held the same belt from February 2010 until May 2011 when he shockingly lost it to Jorge Arce by 12th round TKO. After a third-round KO over faded former minimumweight titlist Roberto Leyva in October, Vazquez was back in the title chase against Donaire. Though the bout had several moments of two-way action Donaire appeared in control throughout as he hurt Vazquez badly in round three and scored a knockdown in the ninth en route to a split decision that many believe should have been unanimous.
Most other fighters in his position would have taken a tune-up but Donaire chose to unify on July 7 against IBF titlist Jeffrey Mathebula, a towering South African who personified the term “high-risk, low-reward.” Although Donaire scored a fourth-round knockdown, the lanky “Mongoose” controlled large portions of the fight with his busy jab and prolifically light combinations. With the fight seemingly still in the balance after 10 rounds, Donaire’s superior power turned the fight in the 11th when a looping blow broke Mathebula’s jaw. From that point on Mathebula went into survival mode and Donaire went on to capture a startlingly wide unanimous decision (119-108, 118-109, 117-110).
Donaire had hoped to unify further but the IBF stripped him after the fighter refused to take part in the mandatory weight-check the morning of his Oct. 13 showdown with longtime WBC titlist Toshiaki Nishioka. The Japanese veteran had his own issues with the sanctioning bodies because he was “elevated to champion emeritus” for his one-year layoff following his defense against Rafael Marquez. As a result, he had no belt to defend because Abner Mares won Nishioka’s “vacated” title by decisioning Eric Morel in April.
Politics aside, Donaire regained his impressive form by dropping Nishioka in round six before putting him away in the ninth. At the time of the TKO Donaire led 79-72 on two cards and 80-71 on the third.
Donaire’s final outing of 2012 came against 69-fight action hero Jorge Arce, who, since late 2010, was in the midst of an inspired career revival. After stopping Vazquez Jr. to gain the WBO super bantamweight belt, he avenged a previous loss to Simphiwe Nongqayi via fourth-round knockout and notched wins over Lorenzo Parra, and Mauricio Martinez along with a two-round no-contest against Jesus M. Rojas.
In the end, the 33-year-old Arce was no match for Donaire’s speed and power. He suffered knockdowns in rounds two and three as well as only the second KO defeat since his 1999 setback to Carbajal in Carbajal’s final fight. Seeing the writing on the wall, Arce announced his retirement immediately after the bout.