By Cliff Rold
There will be some disappointed in Nonito Donaire’s inability to overwhelm Jeffrey Mathebula last Saturday. With pound-for-pound accolades come hollow expectations (something the always excellent David Greisman explored in his Monday column here at BoxingScene). For whatever reason, it’s not enough to just win.
Often forgotten is that performance is dictated in part by dance partner. When the partner has his own steps in mind, we get competition. That’s what we’re supposed to get. Nonito Donaire was able to dance better, but Jeffrey Mathebula made it a full night’s work.
When two of the top five fighters in a weight division face off, it’s what should happen. Boxing is about fights, not solos. Saturday was a fight and, in the increasingly lively Jr. Featherweight class, it won’t be the last.
Let’s go to the report cards.
Pre-Fight: Speed – Donaire A; Mathebula B+/Post: Same
Pre-Fight: Power – Donaire A; Mathebula B/Post: A; B-
Pre-Fight: Defense – Donaire B+; Mathebula A-/Post: Same
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Donaire B+; Mathebula B+/Post: Same
While Mathebula fell short of the upset predicted here, a lot of the reasoning for seeing his chances as strong was evident on Saturday. When he fought tall, Donaire had a hard time figuring out how to get to him. For long stretches, Mathebula took the left hook away with subtle, sustained glove and forearm defense. From rounds 7-10, Mathebula got well into the fight with that stick and his volume offense.
It wasn’t enough. Donaire showed something he hasn’t in his last two fights. He showed adaptability. Asked to find his jab, he did in the eleventh and pulled away, sealing the deal in a fight that was ultimately scored a hair to wide. Donaire also took advantage of Mathebula’s biggest defensive hole earlier in the night.
Mathebula sometimes throws the right hand lazy and leaves it hanging. It makes him a sucker for a well-timed counter left. In round four, the South African picked himself off the floor for the error. With more time left in the frame, perhaps the night ends early.
Instead, fans got a terse, often strategy-heavy affair. It was leathered chess and now the future beckons.
For all the talk of Donaire facing taller men in larger classes, Mathebula was hardly an example of what lies ahead. 5’10 122 lb. battlers are rare and a nightmare if they are capable. From here, the challenges shrink to within normal range.
Division leader Toshiaki Nishioka was stated as a ‘definite’ option by Donaire and is the best fight to be made in class. They are, after Donaire-Mathebula, the earned 1-2 in class in whatever order (Nishioka is still preferred for the top slot as of now). Nishioka is but an inch taller than Donaire, but a skilled boxer with surprising pop. If the fight is next, there should be no complaint.
And it should be next. Nishioka, at 35, should be faced while he still looks the part. Despite a layoff since last October for reported personal reasons, he’s shown no decline in the ring. Fighters can age rapidly in the lower weights though and the best possible Nishioka-Donaire fight is made now.
There will be complaint anyways if it is Nishioka. There are fans convinced Guillermo Rigondeaux is the man to beat Donaire and Donaire’s ‘maybe’ regard for the Cuban will fuel anticipation among the hardcore. Rigondeaux can make his case stronger with who he fights in the coming months. Mathebula would be a good test for the Cuban and a chance to play a game of comparison-shopping between he and Donaire. The South African need not be shunted to the side.
Also lingering at Jr. Featherweight is Abner Mares, a former Bantamweight titlist who picked up a hollow belt at 122 in his last fight. Donaire-Mares could be the biggest money fight in the class. In a perfect world, Donaire would go to him if, and after, he faced and defeated Nishioka. Donaire-Mares is fascinating stuff between two proven, prime warriors.
The only option that really shouldn’t get anyone excited is a showdown with weathered veteran Jorge Arce. Arce might make it fun for a moment, but he’s entirely outgunned and maintains his place largely through super careful matchmaking. Donaire-Arce might be a solid spectacle, but it’s not really all that competitive. Human sacrifice is best left to the “Temple of Doom.” Floyd Mayweather-Arturo Gatti II is of no interest here.
Report Card Picks 2012: 36-11
Heavyweight: Tony Thompson exits the ratings after a flaccid performance against the best fighter (literally) in the world. No shame in that, as Wladimir Klitschko remains in the zone, but there are fresh faces meriting regard. Kubrat Pulev enters the top ten and pushes past a Ruslan Chagaev who merits a demotion.
Super Middleweight: Kelly Pavlik was given consideration for entry, but the wins are not there yet at 168. Brand name is worth something, but in one of the game’s most stacked classes it’s not worth enough yet. Pavlik is likely to face a real threat in the fall. Ratings will follow if success is found.
Jr. Welterweight: Timothy Bradley exits the ratings having opted, as expected, to remain at Welterweight. Juan Manuel Marquez assumes full WBO honors at 140. Everyone below Bradley moves up a slot with Ajose Olusegun entering the top ten.
Jr. Featherweight: Beating Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. didn’t give Nonito much claim near the top of 122 lbs. but Mathebula was enough to move him into the #2 slot ahead of Guillermo Rigondeaux. Mathebula remains at four after a game but losing performance, if only because no one below him has done much of note recently in class to move up.
Bantamweight: With a lengthy winning streak, Hugo Ruiz gets a slight bump up.
Jr. Bantamweight: Overdue, Nobuo Nashiro and Tomas Rojas exit the ratings as they aren’t fighting at 115 anymore. Into the ratings come Marco Demecillo and Daniel Rosas.
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Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org