By Jake Donovan, photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank
The worst thing for a fighter in his prime to hear is that it’s been a while since he has looked like his old self in the ring.
Nonito Donaire is far from red alert status in his still promising career. But the truth is that a lot of time has passed – nearly two years- since his sensational knockout win over Fernando Montiel.
Since then, the Fil-Am star has posted dominant wins over Omar Narvaez, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (final scorecards be damned) and Jeffrey Mathebula. None of the wins, however, carried the ‘wow’ factor that came with his 2nd round knockout over Montiel in his HBO debut.
The formula in place for this weekend isn’t exactly the ideal slump buster. A showdown with 122 lb. divisional-best Toshiaki Nishioka earns top billing this Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. Yet it’s the evening’s co-feature – a battle between unbeaten 140 lb. contenders Mike Alvarado and Brandon Rios – that has sent the sport abuzz.
Even Donaire himself admits that a generous portion of his dressing room warm-up time will be spent as a fan of the sport.
“I’ll be watching that fight. That’s going to be a great fight,” Donaire states, though perhaps his follow-up is the greater surprise. “My fights don’t need to be fight of the year. I just go out and do what I need to do. Rios and Alvarado will go out and do what they do and make it exciting for everybody but there is no pressure for me to out-do that fight.”
There is a bit of pressure, however, to do more than extend his win streak. The ‘win today, look good the next time’ slogan applies every so often, but Donaire is well beyond that point. The California-based unified titlist has proven his worth as among the most talented fighters in the world today.
What’s needed now is the type of showcase to prove that the Donaire of old can resurface.
“The last three fights were experimental,” Donaire insists. “This fight we are going back to boxing and being unexpected. We relied on the power in the last three fights but this fight we will come out throwing lots of punches.”
Donaire will need to bring out the full arsenal to beat the best 122 lb. fighter in the world. Fortunately, history is on his side. The resume he boasts accentuates his knack for rising to the challenge when faced with the threat of defeat. The win over Montiel is well-documented, but it was his eye-catching fifth round knockout over Vic Darchinyan which served as his breakout performance back in July ’07.
In between those fights came courtroom battles and placeholder wins over competition well above pedestrian status but nowhere near the sport’s elite.
Whispers have recently begun of how many opportunities he will be afforded – especially on HBO – without having to proving himself against the best of a particular division. There was disappointment over his bantamweight reign never pointing in the direction of fighters like Abner Mares, Anselmo Moreno or Joseph Agbeko.
Similar concern was expressed at 122 lb. Talks centered more around a possible showdown with faded Jorge Arce rather than any of the best fighters in the division upon his arrival earlier this year. That problem will be solved once the opening bell rings on Saturday.
Now it’s up to Donaire to solve the problem in front of him, if only to alleviate the fears of his handlers, none of whom were anxious to match him this tough.
“Nishioka is a great fighter and the best in the division,” points out red-hot head-trainer Robert Garcia, who has guided Donaire’s career since Dec. ‘10. “He is ranked as the best super bantamweight in the world. It’s going to be a really tough fight but Nonito has been training really hard and he has to come out and perform and do what he’s been doing so far.”
What Donaire has been doing “so far” is winning at the sport’s top level, a fact that seems to get lost among talks that he’s merely treading water. Title wins in three weight classes (four if you count his interim reign at 115 lb.) have proven his ability to adapt as he continues to rise in weight.
A win on Saturday will grant Donaire recognition as the 122 lb. king, which is why he was so anxious to sign on the dotted line the moment it was offered.
“This is a fight that Nonito has wanted for a very long time. Nishioka is a great fighter,” states Hall-of-Fame promoter Bob Arum. “This is the kind of fight that Nonito, who is one of the great fighters fighting today and also in history, these are the kinds of fights that you get excited about because this is really a historic fight.”
Like Donaire, Nishioka (39-4-3, 23KO) rides a lengthy win streak heading into this weekend. Donaire hasn’t lost since his second pro fight, which puts his winning ways at 28 fights over a span of more than 11 years.
Nishioka’s run doesn’t extend quite as deep, but there is plenty to admire of his eight-year, 16-fight win streak. Victories over Jhonny Gonzalez, Rendall Munroe and Rafael Marquez have validated his place as a championship-level fighter.
The drawbacks, however, are his advanced age (36 years old) and the fact that 54 weeks will have passed since his last fight, when he traveled to Vegas to beat Marquez in a hard-fought decision.
Still, Donaire only sees the opponent on paper and not any potential edge he can gain.
“I think that being older and being a veteran their record is never as bad as it is,” Donaire theorizes. “We have been training really hard for this fight. We don’t want to take any chances at all. I believe when we are at this level and at this age and even if he hasn’t fought in a while he can be very dangerous.”
The threat of defeat has almost always allowed Donaire to properly rise to the occasion and shine the brightest. That’s not to be interpreted as a guarantee of a win-at-all-cost performance this weekend. Rather, Donaire plans to show why he’s earned accolades as one of the sport’s very best fighters in the world.
“We have been fighting the fights and getting the victories and I think that’s what counts most,” Donaire believes. “These guys I have been fighting are world champions and they are at the top of their game. Sometimes you don’t get the results that people look for. People expect a lot from me.
“We have been trying to change things up to get different results. Against Nishioka we can’t let our guard down and going back to the old Nonito Donaire style of fighting smart.”
One of the smarter decisions he’s made is not looking beyond this Saturday. Quite often in the past, not only was a next opponent in mind but also the thought of jumping up in weight.
While there is an admission that his frame will one day fill a 126 lb. uniform, there is plenty of unfinished business which remains in his current division – and among his viewing public.
“Moving up to 126 pounds is another option that we have. We are looking to stay at 122 for a bit but I can work my body to be ready for 126. There are fighters at 122 that I have not faced yet and they know who they are and I am fine with facing any of them.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox