- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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When Nonito Donaire was hunkered down in training camp last December preparing for his Feb. 19 shot at unified bantamweight champion Fernando Montiel, he swears he envisioned that he would win by knockout and that it would come in the second round.
"I told [trainer] Robert Garcia in camp before Christmas it would be a second-round knockout. I had a premonition," Donaire said after he nailed his prediction and claimed a pair of 118-pound titles at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Dan Rafael's knockouts of the year
He didn't just score any old knockout to seize those belts. Donaire orchestrated a sensational one, blowing Montiel away for the 2011 ESPN.com knockout of the year.
Donaire, the "Filipino Flash" with uncommon power for a small man, had been a top-notch flyweight titleholder and briefly fought at junior bantamweight, where he claimed an interim belt. In his first fight at bantamweight, Donaire would be facing fellow pound-for-pound-ranked Montiel of Mexico, a well-respected three-division titleholder who was viewed as the toughest opponent of his career.
Instead of grinding out a tough fight, Donaire, making his HBO debut, turned in a devastating performance capped by his memorable stoppage, which sent a jolt of energy through the arena.
The first round went to Donaire on all three scorecards as he opened a small cut on Montiel's left eyelid. In the second round, it was over.
Montiel landed a short right hand, but Donaire came over the top immediately with a pinpoint counter left hook to the side of the face. Montiel never saw it coming. As he was falling into Donaire on his way to the mat, Donaire got in a little window-dressing right hand to the head.
After Montiel hit the ground, his body was stretched out, and he looked like he was doing the backstroke. His legs were flailing, and his arms were fluttering over his head in an eerie scene.
Shockingly, Montiel, who had a blank look on his face, rolled over, got up, fell down and got to his feet on instinct to beat the count. Then, in a dereliction of duty, referee Russell Mora allowed the fight to continue.
Montiel hadn't responded to Mora's commands to take a step forward or given him his gloves to wipe off when asked. When the fight resumed, it was only briefly, because Donaire rushed Montiel. He got in a left and a right before Mora jumped in to stop it at 2 minutes, 25 seconds, with Montiel out on his feet against the ropes.
The coda after the knockdown should never have happened, but the star-making left hook -- essentially the knockout blow -- that Donaire landed announced his arrival at bantamweight, sent him shooting even higher up the pound-for-pound list and won't soon be forgotten.
Other sweet shots
Floyd Mayweather Jr. KO4 Victor Ortiz (Sept. 17 in Las Vegas): Regardless of the mild controversy that simmered afterward, the knockout itself was pretty. Mayweather connected with a textbook left hook followed by a right hand to Ortiz's chin. Ortiz went down in a corner as the round neared the end, and referee Joe Cortez counted him out as Mayweather regained a welterweight title. But it wasn't that simple. Mayweather was still clearly miffed from what had happened moments earlier, when Ortiz bulled him into the corner and intentionally head-butted him, cutting him on the inside and outside of his mouth. Cortez called timeout and docked a point from Ortiz for the obvious foul. Meanwhile, Ortiz was busy hugging and kissing Mayweather to apologize. When Cortez restarted the fight, Ortiz was still trying to touch gloves with Mayweather to apologize again. It was a mess. Cortez was looking away, Ortiz forgot the cardinal rule of boxing (protect yourself at all times), and Mayweather took a cheap, but perfectly legal, shot to score the knockout. "Ortiz was apologizing, and Mayweather was punching," said HBO analyst Larry Merchant. Broadcast partner Jim Lampley summed up the situation on the spot: "This isn't going to win [Mayweather] any more fans, but it was legal." A very memorable knockout.
Robert Helenius KO9 Samuel Peter (April 2 in Halle, Germany): Former heavyweight titlist Peter used to have an iron chin. No more, as his last two fights have shown. In November 2010, heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko knocked him cold in the 10th round. Returning to face rising contender Helenius, Peter suffered a similarly destructive knockout. Helenius was perhaps just cleaning up the remnants of what Klitschko had left, but it was still an impressive highlight-reel KO. First, Helenius landed a booming left hook out of nowhere that dropped Peter flat on his back. Peter was a bit dazed as he struggled to his feet at the count of eight. That's when Helenius landed a right hand followed by another heavy left hook that splattered Peter flat on his back again. He crashed his head to the canvas and was spread eagle in the center of the ring at 1 minute, 50 seconds with no prayer of beating the count. Frankly, referee Dave Parris, who didn't bother to finish the count, could have gone to 100.
Denis Lebedev KO10 Roy Jones Jr. (May 21 in Moscow): Years ago, it was Jones who was a regular author of knockout of the year candidates. That was when he was the untouchable pound-for-pound king. Sadly, he is now more often on the receiving end of brutal knockouts. At 42, Jones is a shot fighter with no chin who doesn't realize he shouldn't be fighting anymore. If getting knocked out the way he did against Lebedev in their cruiserweight bout won't convince him, probably nothing will. This was as sick and scary a knockout as you will ever see, coming with just two seconds left in the fight. Lebedev brutally finished Jones, landing a series of powerful shots -- a left followed by a big right and an uppercut -- that had Jones out on his feet, bent over with his back against the ropes and basically waiting to fall down. Referee Steve Smoger, usually one of the best in the business, should have stepped in right then, because Jones was already out. However, the ref hesitated and Lebedev took the wide-open free shot at the slumped-over Jones, obliterating him with a right hand the way a baseball player would hit a ball off a tee. Jones fell face-first on the canvas and was out cold for several minutes while receiving medical attention.
Lucian Bute KO4 Jean-Paul Mendy (July 9 in Bucharest, Romania): Bute is a big star in Montreal, his adopted hometown, but the super middleweight titlist had always wanted to have a pro fight in his native Romania. So promoter InterBox took the show on the road, and Bute faced Mendy in a mandatory 168-pound defense in what was widely considered the biggest boxing event in Romanian history. Not only did Bute put on a show for the home crowd, he closed it in rousing fashion. With the fight well in hand, Bute landed a short, chopping overhand left on Mendy's jaw. The challenger's body short-circuited, and he crashed to the canvas face-first without being able to even partially break his fall. The crowd went wild, Bute raised his arms, and referee Marlon Wright called it off with 12 seconds left in the round as Mendy was struggling to his knees.
Rico Ramos TKO7 Akifumi Shimoda (July 9 in Atlantic City, N.J.): Ramos' handlers made a deal for Japan's Shimoda to come to the United States to make his mandatory junior featherweight defense on HBO. Even though Ramos had all the advantages he could ask for, it didn't change the fact that he looked lost for the first six rounds as Shimoda outclassed him. Ramos, however, kept his cool. Finally, in the seventh round, he nailed Shimoda with a beautiful left hook that caught him on the chin and dropped him flat on his back. Shimoda made a valiant effort to get up, but he couldn't gain his footing and fell again as referee Benjy Esteves called it off with 14 seconds to go in the round, giving Ramos the improbable come-from-behind, title-winning knockout. "When it looked like the tide was rolling over him, he made a stand," HBO's Max Kellerman said. "He let his ability take over. He let his fighting heart come forward, and he just scored a sensational, one-punch knockout over a solid fighter in a fight he was probably losing. All sins forgiven for the first six rounds."
Pier-Olivier Cote KO2 Jorge Teron (Nov. 5 in Quebec City): In his American television debut on Showtime, Cote, a rising junior welterweight prospect, turned in a memorable performance and gave his hometown fans something to cheer about as he destroyed Teron, a former prospect. After dishing out a beating to Teron in the first round, Cote dusted him in the second. With the first punches he threw of the round, Cote floored Teron with a left-right combination that he never saw coming. His nose dripping blood, Teron was up quickly, but Cote ended the fight in style. He wiped out Teron with a sick left hook to the jaw that dropped him to his backside and into the ropes. As Teron, with blood spurting from his face, struggled to get up, referee Jean-Guy Brousseau called it off 33 seconds into the round. It was violent and exciting.
Michael Grant KO12 Francois Botha (Nov. 19 in Johannesburg, South Africa): The two old, long-faded former heavyweight title challengers -- Grant is 39 and Botha 43 -- still had some fight left in them and put on a decent show before Grant ended it spectacularly. He was way behind on all three scorecards and needed a knockout to win. Boy, did he get it. He had hurt Botha in the 11th round and continued to chip away against his smaller, slower and less-conditioned opponent in the final round. Finally, Grant reached back and fired a long right hand that nailed its target -- Botha's chin. Botha, whose hands were down, fell backward in a heap and came to rest in a corner, his body partially under the bottom ring rope and his left arm dangling off the apron. One of Botha's cornermen tried to push him back into the ring, but it was no use. Botha was done, and referee Ingo Barrabas counted him out with just 37 seconds left in a fight Botha would have won if he had made it to the end of the round.
Thomas Dulorme KO2 Harrison Cuello (April 16 in Mashantucket, Conn.): Dulorme, a 21-year-old Puerto Rican welterweight and one of the best prospects in boxing, showed off his undeniable power with this crushing knockout of Cuello on the Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto undercard. Cuello is an experienced journeyman who had gone the distance with several good fighters, but Dulorme ran roughshod over him in exciting fashion. Dulorme scored a flash knockdown in the second round before scoring the devastating fight-ender later in the same frame. He connected with a picture-perfect counter left hand that knocked Cuello out cold 87 seconds into the round. Referee John Callas probably could have counted for a week. The punch landed with such authority that it was audible in the arena in a way that sounded different than most knockout punches. Cuello had to be given oxygen, and he eventually was taken away on a stretcher and to the hospital for precautionary reasons.
Gary Russell Jr. KO1 Heriberto Ruiz (Nov. 26 in Cincinnati): When Dat Nguyen withdrew from the fight because of an injury, Ruiz took the bout with hot-shot prospect of the year Russell on short notice -- and probably wished he hadn't after the way it turned out. Russell, a featherweight and 2008 U.S. Olympian, has wicked speed that Ruiz had no answer for. When Russell landed a quick right to the body followed by a right hook the jaw, Ruiz never saw the blows coming. The shot to the jaw connected flush, and Ruiz went down like a sack of rocks, falling first to his side and then rolling over onto his back. His head was a couple of inches off the floor, but his mouth was open and he had a vacant look in his eyes as referee Randy Jarvis didn't bother to finish the count. The fight was scheduled for the untelevised portion of Adrien Broner's HBO fight against Vicente Rodriguez, but the knockout was so good that HBO showed the full 2-minute, 21-second fight on delay. Despite it being a mismatch, the fight was more than worthwhile to air because the knockout was simply sensational.
Ola Afolabi KO1 Terry Dunstan (July 2 in Hamburg, Germany): Fighting in the co-feature of heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko's one-sided win against David Haye, it was cruiserweight Afolabi, one of Klitschko's sparring partners, who turned in a vicious knockout. It was a concussive finish as Afolabi dusted Dunstan, the former European champion who was in the midst of trying to revive his career after a five-year layoff caused in part by a prison term. Afolabi peppered him with some hard shots, but they were nothing compared to when he dropped the hammer -- a thudding, flush right hand to the jaw that sent Dunstan's mouthpiece flying and sent him to the floor quite hard. He came to rest with his head partially under the bottom ring rope and had no chance of getting up. "Ohhhhh, what a punch that was! That's a finisher," roared Sky broadcaster Jim Watt. With 20 seconds left in the opening round, referee Stanley Christodoulou called it off without a count -- as if counting mattered after that point.
Gennady Golovkin KO1 Lajuan Simon (Dec. 9 in Düsseldorf, Germany): Simon, a tough fringe contender from Philadelphia, had never previously been stopped, including in two losses in Germany -- a middleweight title fight against powerful Arthur Abraham and against Sebastian Sylvester, who would later win a world title. But the third time was no charm for Simon, as Golovkin, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist from Kazakhstan, erased him with one shot to retain his version of the middleweight title. After a bit of a feeling-out process, Golovkin suddenly pivoted and landed a full-leverage left hook dead on Simon's chin. Simon went down flat on his back, and his legs were literally twitching as referee Jose Ignacio Martinez called it off with 43 seconds left in the round. Quick work for Golovkin and great fun for viewers.
Jessie Vargas KO2 Walter Estrada (July 8 in Primm, Nev.): Vargas was an undefeated junior welterweight prospect and Estrada a battle-tested journeyman when they met on Telefutura's "Solo Boxeo Tecate." Obviously, the reason for making the match was to give Vargas experience against a veteran and hope that he looked good getting it. Mission accomplished on both fronts, especially the looking good part. Vargas erased Estrada, drilling him in explosive fashion less than a minute into the second round. During an exchange, Vargas wobbled Estrada. Vargas then ripped the unsteady Estrada with a left hook to the chin. Estrada crumbled to the mat in an exaggerated fashion, slamming his head. His body was partially under the bottom rope and he wasn't moving, causing referee Joe Cortez to waive the fight off immediately and try to pull Estrada's mouthpiece out. It was a nasty, nasty knockout.
Roman Gonzalez KO2 Omar Soto (Oct. 1 in Las Vegas): Junior flyweight titlist Gonzalez is, pound for pound, one of the heaviest hitters in the sport, and this big knockout was a perfect illustration of the kind of damage he can do. Gonzalez was dictating the "Top Rank Live" fight when he unleashed a beautiful three-punch combination -- a left and a right followed by a lightning-fast flush uppercut underneath Soto's chin. Soto went down in a corner with his gloves covering his eyes. He tried to get to his side, but he spit out his mouthpiece and was done as referee Robert Byrd counted him out.
Eloy Perez KO2 Daniel Jimenez (Sept. 2 in Salinas, Calif.): Perez isn't known as much of a puncher, but the junior lightweight contender flashed some serious power in this "Solo Boxeo Tecate" main event, scoring a knockout that couldn't have looked prettier if it had been choreographed. Perez softened Jimenez up with two knockdowns in the first round and ruined him in the second round. He landed a sweeping left hand to the chin of Jimenez, whose body went limp as he crashed sideways through the ropes and momentarily balanced over the second ring rope, half inside the ring and half outside. Jimenez eventually tumbled back into the ring on to his rear end and, as referee Edward Collantes was waiving off the fight, fell back to the mat.
Dan Rafael is a boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
Nonito Donaire announced his superstardom in February with a smashing left hook that finished Fernando Montiel, pilfered a pair of bantamweight belts and earned ESPN.com's 2011 knockout of the year.