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Donaire: STAR Athlete of the Year

MANILA, Philippines – He rises on the year of the Great Fall.

And for pulling off a shattering third knockout over Mexican Jorge Arce, Nonito “The Filipino Flash” Donaire Jr.’s fourth victory in the season would easily merit the sport’s highest accolade for the year.

But it was better appreciated and put into new perspective as the victory somehow overcame a national trauma over Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao’s shocker of a knockout at the hands of arch rival Juan Manuel Marquez.

That shining moment also restored Filipino pride that had for so long basked in the luster of Pacquiao’s luminous reign as pound-for-pound king but was tarnished that fateful Saturday evening in Las Vegas.

But seven days later in Houston, Texas, Donaire led Filipino fans from the depth of despair to a height of another triumph.

And for this, Donaire easily made the grade as The STAR’s Athlete of the Year.

In fact, the triumph and defeat in boxing best decribed Philippine sports in the year about to end.

The Smart Gilas national team putting the Philippines back into the Jones Cup throne, the continuing medal drought in the Olympics in London, Ateneo’s drive for five and San Beda’s roaring three-peat were four of the events that left an impact on Filipino diehards.

1. Donaire new Pinoy icon

It was a very busy and fruitful year for Nonito Donaire Jr. and the reigning WBO super-bantamweight champion can only wish it stays that way in the years up ahead.

For all the good reasons, he should be happy for 2012. He fought four times and won them all, putting himself in a very strong position to win the coveted Fighter of the Year award.

Donaire, 30, used to beg for the big fights. But in the year that’s about to end he got what he wanted, starting off with Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. then Jeffrey Mathebula, Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce.

While he didn’t impress against Vazquez and Mathebula, it was because the two challengers refused to engage. But against the likes of Nishioka and Arce,  Donaire’s power and skills were on display.

He knocked Nishioka and Arce out, and capped the year the way he always wanted.

“If I could do four fights in 2013 I would. I want to stay as busy inside the ring,” said Donaire, now hoping to land the bigger fights against fellow super-bantamweight champions Abner Mares or Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Donaire came home to a hero’s welcome last week and was treated like never before. People were all around him, and he was everywhere, appearing on TV shows, doing radio interviews and sitting down with the President.

He was treated like a rock star. Well, he is a rock star, and in one of his TV guestings he belted out a song that caught the eyes of many. He is also into movies.

Donaire was an instant hit to fight fans – new and old. And they all wished him well in his boxing career, his family life and everything else on the side.

2. Heartbreak in Vegas

After back-to-back losses inside the ring, including a devastating knockout at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez, Manny Pacquiao has left a lot of people asking the big question.

Will they ever see him back in the ring?

Pacquiao said he will, declaring just days after he was knocked out cold by Marquez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that he was “fine.”

The fighting congressman from Sarangani, who just turned 34, said he still got what it takes even if there are those who believe that he will never be the same again.

Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, and his promoter, Bob Arum, want him to take a long rest, and that the soonest he should fight is in September.

Pacquiao has cleared initial tests following the scary knockout, a CT scan in Las Vegas and an MRI at the Cardinal Santos hospital in the Philippines. But Arum said he wants a more extensive brain check for Pacquiao at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas before they even start talking of a next fight.

But Pacquiao is Pacquiao. He’s the boss. And he normally gets what he wishes for. He said just a couple of days ago he’ll be ready to fight again in April.

However, that’s easier said than done because as a result of his crushing defeat to Marquez, he was suspended for 120 days by the Nevada Athletic Commission.

It was the third time that Pacquiao has been knocked out but it was the first time in his distinguished career that he lost two in a row. He only fight twice in 2012 and lost both of them.

But he has done a lot for the sport, for his country, for his family. And even if he retires soon, he will always be remembered as perhaps the best of his generation.

3. Olympic debacle

With only 11 athletes making the grade, the Philippines sent its “leanest” delegation to the London Olympics since the 1996 batch in Atlanta. However, unlike the contingent 16 years ago who were led by silver medalist Onyok Velasco, the 2012 didn’t wallop a punch. One by one, the Pinoy bets fell faster than kids can sing “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Boxer Mark Anthony Barriga hurdled his first opponent but lost in the next round. Two others – cyclist Daniel Caluag and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz – also bombed out. This was the fourth consecutive Olympics that the Phl did not land a podium finish.

4. Viloria unifies flyweight belt

Bryan Viloria went two-for-two in a successful 2012 outing that saw him unify the WBO and WBA flyweight belts. The Hawaiian Punch settled his score with old rival Omar Nino Romero, hacking out a ninth round TKO at the Ynares Sports Arena to keep his WBO belt. He then took on WBA champion Hernan “Tyson” Marquez in a much-anticipated unification clash at LA Sports Arena and passed with flying colors.

5.  Gilas 2 wins Jones Cup 

The second version of Smart Gilas, this time handled by Chot Reyes and featuring mostly PBA players, got off the ground by winning the 2012 William Jones Cup in Taipei. LA Tenorio, the smallest man on the court, stood tallest in a 76-75 victory over a team from the US that secured Phl’s first title in the annual tourney since Tim Cone’s PBA Centennial Team ruled the roost in 1998. Tenorio banged in 20 points, including the go-ahead basket in the last 17 seconds to lead Gilas 2 to the come-from-behind win.

6. PBA’s 3 different champions 

It was a year when no team had a stranglehold on PBA glory. In the Philippine Cup, Talk n Text defeated Powerade, 4-1, to become only the third team and first since 2005 to defend all-Pinoy tourney. The Tropang Texters’ bid for back-to-back titles fizzled out, however, as the B-Meg Derby Ace beat them to the Commissioner’s Cup diadem, scoring a 4-3 victory that also handed multi-titled Tim Cone his first PBA crown for the franchise. Cone and the Llamados suffered the same fate as TNT as Rain or Shine denied them a second straight plum in the Governor’s Cup.

7. Ateneo’s successful drive for five

With behemoth Greg Slaughter and veterans like Nico Salva still around to complement the steady play of sophomore Kiefer Ravena, Ateneo was deemed the team to beat in the UAAP Season 75 basketball wars. The Eagles, handled by Norman Black in his final year, finished the elims No. 1 at 12-2 then turned back the La Salle Archers in the Final Four, 66-63, to meet the other semis winner University of Santo Tomas. Ateneo eventually prevailed in the tightly- fought series spiced up by a word war between Black and UST coach Pido Jarencio, 83-78 and 65-62, to be the most dominant team since UE won seven straight decades back. The post-Norman Black Eagles, though, fell short in defending their crown in the Philippine Collegiate Champions League, losing to the Tigers in three games.

8. San Beda 3-peat

San Beda similarly enjoyed a championship run in the NCAA Season 88, beating tough Letran in three games to complete a three-peat and win an all-time best 17th pennant. It was no easy campaign, though. The Lions took in a new coach in Ronnie Magsanoc and they started the season with only six eligible players as the rest were serving their suspensions. But the badly-depleted Lions hurdled that opening-game challenge, beating full-bodied Arellano, 82–75, to set the tone for their title bid. The top-seeded Lions nipped Perpetual in the Final Four, 56-52, to reach the finals. They took Game 1, 62–60 but Letran forced a rubber with a 64-55 win. The Lions, however, waylaid the Knights in Game 3, 67–39, to capture the crown. After steering SBC to a first title under him, Magsanoc resigned.

9. Azkals continue to take bite at history

Riding on the momentum of their gains the past two years, the Azkals continued trying to take a bite at history in 2012. Making their debut in the AFC Challenge Cup final round in Nepal, the Azkals posted big wins over former champions Tajikistan and India (both 2-0) to reach the Last-4. They dropped a close 1-2 loss to Turkmenistan in the semis but prevailed over Palestine in the bronze medal match, 4-3, for a rare podium finish. The Azkals then made the most out of the homefield edge to rule four-nation Philippine Football Peace Cup, giving Phl its first international football title in 99 years. The Pinoy booters then gave the country it’s all-time high position in the Fifa rankings at 143rd last November but ended the year at 147th. The Azkals’ Cinderella run appeared to continue in the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup as they got through to the semis for the second straight time. But after playing Singapore to a 0-0 draw in the first leg, the Azkals needed only a scoring draw to make a breakthrough finale but fell to the Lions, 0-1, to settle for the same finish.

10. Chessers prove worth in Olympiad

Despite its 21st place finish in the World Chess Olympiad, the Philippines still performed beyond expectations with the young Wesley So holding his ground against the world’s leading super GMs on the top board and the veteran Eugene Torre showing he still got what it takes to win big matches.

So emerged the lone undefeated Filipino with 6.5 points while Torre, 60, flashed vintage form, eking out victories over Hungary’s GM Ferenc Berkes and England’s GM Nigel Short. The Phl’s was on course to eclipsing its best finish of seventh place in Greece in 1988, when it zoomed to joint second after eight rounds with victories over fancied England and Bulgaria and a draw with Hungary. But losses to China and Romania and a draw with Vietnam dropped the team to a tie from 19th to 33rd place and eventually 21st overall after the tiebreak.

The STAR’s picks for honorable mention Cojuangco gains third term

Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr. won a third term as Philippine Olympic Committee president unopposed and carried with him his allies to a landslide victory. He immediately called for an increase in the pool of world-class national athletes and vowed to pursue the country’s dream of winning the elusive Olympic gold in his third term.

World titles for boxing’s Gabuco, poomsae’s Calamba

Lady boxer Josie Gabuco and youthful poomsae artist Mikaela Calamba provided glitter and a breath of fresh air to an otherwise gloomy amateur sports in 2012. Gabuco, a 25-year-old single mother of a six-year-old boy, outclassed Chinese Xu Shiqi, 10-9, to win the light-flyweight gold medal in the AIBA Women’s World Championships last May in Qinhuangdao, China. Only 15, Calamba made waves in the seventh World Taekwondo Poomsae Championships in Colombia as she captured the female individual freestyle gold medal with a dazzling showcase of unparalleled flexibility and balance.

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