By Jake Donovan
Through a loss, Nonito Donaire’s career has come full circle.
The former three-division champion entered 2013 on the heels of his Fighter of the Year campaign, but barely had time to accept his award before suffering his first loss since 2001, in his second pro fight.
The points loss to Guillermo Rigondeaux affected Donaire’s previous ranking atop the 122 lb. division, but didn’t even slightly alter his good standing with cable giant HBO. His return was in the works long before the network even considered bringing Rigondeaux back on their airwaves.
Donaire can certainly relate to what his conqueror is going through, having experienced the same thing himself some six years ago. Ironically enough, Donaire’s long-ago plight came after the biggest win of his career at the time, which happened to come against the fighter he faces this weekend.
A sensational one-punch knockout of then-unbeaten flyweight champ Darchinyan served as a huge breakout moment in Donaire’s career. The Fil-Am boxer was on the rise at the time, but exploded on the boxing scene after scoring what was at the time considered a major upset.
The sky was thought to be the limit, but Donaire instead was treated as if he wasn’t meant to win the fight; only one fight followed – an 8th round stoppage of Luis Maldonando, buried on the opening leg of a tripleheader – before sitting out for 11 months, per the terms of a settlement reached in freeing himself of promoter Gary Shaw in favor of Top Rank, for whom he has fought since Nov. ’08.
Donaire has since watched his career take off to the stage on which he expected, racking up major title wins at bantamweight and super bantamweight, including four HBO-televised wins in a 2012 campaign that made him a near-unanimous choice as the year’s best fighter.
The loss to Rigondeaux helped put his career back into proper perspective. Injuries suffered during – and carried into – the fight prompted the 30-year old (who turns 31 later this month) to slow things down. Time spent with his family – including the birth of his son this past summer – allowed his mind and body to heal to where he’s ready to rediscover his swagger.
As luck would have it, a key signing along the way by Top Rank made the ring return that much smoother of a transition.
“What happened was, Frank Espinoza was entering a managerial contract with Vic,” Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum explains of how was able to piece together a rematch six years in the making. “He said Vic would like to Nonito. We talked to Cameron (Dunkin, Donaire’s future Hall-of-Fame manager), and he said Nonito would like to fight. It was simple as that.
“There was a lot of talk of a rematch over the years. The fact that the two managers wanted the fight – an attractive fight – is the story behind the fight.”
A lot has changed in the careers of both fighters since that July ’07 bout, which took place four weight classes ago at flyweight. Saturday’s bout will take place in the featherweight division, marking the first time either fighter will weigh that heavy for a pro bout.
“I feel good working out and sparring at this weight class,” Donaire (31-2, 20KO) said, revealing his plans to remain at the weight and more than likely never returning to the 122 lb. division. “We’re training to win the fight, not to lose the weight. My speed is coming back and we’re counting on that.”
A perfect blend of speed and power was key in their flyweight title fight all those years ago. Darchinyan managed to bounce back, enjoying a huge 2008 campaign that saw him rack up three major titles in the 115 lb. division. The now 37-year old has endured several highs and lows since then, but hasn’t managed a win at the championship level since 2010.
Still, Donaire is cognizant of the threat his opponent poses. Memories of his breakout win remain on his mind, but not to the point where he believes a win is guaranteed.
“I don’t look backwards, I look forward to what’s coming for this fight. We’ve grown so much since 2007,” Donaire acknowledges, both of his own skillset and the fighter Darchinyan has become since that night. “In terms of power and terms of style, we’ve grown so much. I can get a little bit of reference (from watching our first fight), but not pay attention to the result.”
Instead, the focus remains more on what he can fix in his own house. In addition to moving up in weight, Donaire has spent more time in camp with Robert Garcia, the reigning Trainer of the Year who will also have his younger brother, Mikey Garcia fighting on the same card.
The biggest adjustment in his corner – and life – however is something that was once in place before falling apart. Much like the successful surgery to repair his injuries, a little bit of TLC helped repair something that has been missing in Donaire’s life for far too long – his father, Nonito Sr.
“Things happen for a reason,” Donaire says of the reconciliation with his father, who was in is corner the night he knocked out Darchinyan. “When I had my kid, my dad was always there for me. The night I fought Darchinyan, it was my dad who was in my corner to keep me settled.
“Things worked out with my dad, and I’m glad it did.”
It worked out just in time, as the fighter admittedly didn’t believe he had much time left in the ring.
“I thought after my fight with Arce that I wasn’t going to fight anymore,” Donaire confesses. “But after the loss (to Rigondeaux), I realized that I love to box. I love the boxing scene, the overall landscape.
“This is who I want to be. It was just a matter of searching and I’ve believed I reached it. The motivation is definitely coming back.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox