Don't go filling out those fight of the year ballots just yet, because there is a late entry: Friday night's Nonito Donaire-Cesar Juarez all-out slugfest.
Donaire dropped Juarez twice in the fourth round and went on to win a unanimous decision to reclaim a junior featherweight world title he once owned, but he withstood a big Juarez rally in a hellacious war of attrition before a rowdy crowd of 8,133 at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"The guy was amazing," Donaire said, sporting dark sunglasses in the dressing room after the fight to cover his damaged face. "The guy was strong. I give it to him. I think that was the toughest fight I've ever been in in my life. It was an amazing fight."
Donaire, already a world titleholder in four weight classes -- five if you count interim titles -- won his seventh full title, but it came at a great physical toll.
By the time the fight was over, Donaire's left eye was swollen, his right eye was cut and he had a twisted left ankle that hampered him for the second half of the fight. Although Donaire dominated on the scorecards, winning 117-109, 116-110 and 116-110, this was a grueling battle.
"It was a hard, tremendous fight," Juarez said. "We're both warriors."
ESPN.com also scored the fight 116-110 for Donaire, the 2012 consensus fighter of the year, who won his third fight in a row this year since returning to the 122-pound weight class. He dropped down in weight following a sixth-round knockout loss to Nicholas Walters that cost him his featherweight world title in October 2014.
Donaire, 33, a Philippines native who fights out of San Mateo, California, looked like he might make it an easy night against the much slower Juarez, 24, of Mexico.
Early on, Donaire (36-3, 23 KOs) lashed Juarez (17-4, 13 KOs) with sharp right hands to the head and also attacked his body. Juarez was very wide with his shots, which Donaire was able to see and easily avoid.
In the fourth round, Donaire had Juarez all but out. He landed a big right hand on Juarez's chin to knock him down 30 seconds into the round. Then he hurt him with a left hook, Donaire's best punch, and was teeing off on him.
Still with a minute to go in the round, Donaire creamed him with a left hook for the second knockdown and continued to punish Juarez with combinations and uppercuts for the rest of the round.
Juarez showed enormous heart to stay in the fight even though he was being outclassed and nailed by an avalanche of punches. He landed a few hard shots of his own, however, and Donaire's left eye was swelling by the fifth round. In the sixth round, Donaire slipped to the canvas during an exchange and hurt his left ankle.
"I feel amazing. We did what we did in the early rounds," Donaire said. "We were very smart, very precise. There was a part in the middle rounds that I was limited (because of the ankle injury). The power wasn't like it was in the early rounds because I had to lift my leg up to throw. It was all arms rather than like the early rounds where I had everything. It was a weird slip."
With Donaire slowing down, Juarez attacked for the remainder of the bout. He did damage in the eighth round and cut Donaire over the right eye. He had Donaire on the ropes in the ninth round and was landing punches. Donaire, however, was in superb condition and withstood his relentless attack.
Donaire landed a shot in the 10th round that caught Juarez on the nose, which erupted with blood. But Donaire also caught a break in the round when Juarez landed a left hand to the head and Donaire went down. Referee Ramon Pena ruled it a slip.
But Donaire was so far ahead on the scorecards that the point for a knockdown would not have helped Juarez. He obviously knew he needed to stop Donaire, who had a big 12th round against an ultra-aggressive Juarez. Donaire stunned him with an uppercut and rocked him with the same punch later in the round to close a sensational fight.
"I will definitely give him a rematch," Donaire said. "I'm not taking anything away from him."
Said Juarez: "If I had more time to train and more experience, I would have won. The judges were not fair. It was much closer, like a one- or two-point fight. But I do think Donaire won."
Donaire said he emptied his tank in the late going as he battled mentally as much as he did physically.
"I'm just blessed," he said. "I'm so thankful. We gave everything we got. (I have) the heart of a champion. I'm very accomplished in this game, but mentally a lot of guys would have said, 'Forget this, I'm done.' But I said, 'I'll never be done until you take me down.' I'm never gonna give up. I was going to keep pushing. It was such a blessing."
Verdejo crushes Dos Santos
Puerto Rican lightweight sensation Felix Verdejo, fighting in the main event because he was the local star who drew the packed house, gave his fans something to cheer about when he blew away Josenilson Dos Santos in a second-round knockout victory.
Verdejo (19-0, 14 KOs), 22, the 2014 ESPN.com prospect of the year and a 2012 Olympian, was coming off a six-month layoff and surgery to remove bone spurs from his left hand in June.
He was supposed to face Dos Santos, 30, of Brazil, on Oct. 31 but had to postpone the bout because his hand was still giving him trouble in training camp.
As it turned out, Verdejo did not need his powerful left hook to take Dos Santos out. Verdejo cruised through the first round and then unleashed a full-leverage overhand right in the second round that caught Dos Santos (27-4, 17 KOs) on the chin, dropping him to all fours.
Dos Santos beat the count, but he was wobbling all over the place and in no condition to continue, causing referee Roberto Ramirez Jr. to wave off the bout at 2 minutes, 21 seconds.