By Ryan Songalia
Brooklyn, New York - If there were any concerns that Nonito Donaire Jr.'s popularity would not be unable to transcend his bantamweight classification, one need only take note of the sizable turnout at his public workout at Gleason's Gym on Saturday afternoon.
Nearly 200 fans came out to see the bantamweight world champion Donaire, 28, as he entertained fans at the legendary boxing gym in Brooklyn, N.Y. ahead of his clash with undefeated super flyweight champ Omar Narvaez, 36, this Saturday, October 22 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
"It was an amazing time, there was much love out here," said Donaire, after signing autographs and taking pictures with each fan who waited in line, some for more than an hour.
The 26-1 (19 KO) Donaire of San Leandro, Calif. by way of Talibon, Bohol, Philippines felt right at home at Gleason's, which was the Wild Card Gym of the 20th Century, having been the training center for boxing legends Roberto Duran, Jake LaMotta, and at one point Muhammad Ali.
As he took the stage in center ring, Donaire's open workout was half boxing exhibition, half variety show.
Donaire, accompanied by assistant trainer Morris East, who himself was a Filipino boxing champ in the early '90s, showed off the versatility of "The Filipino Flash," throwing hard combinations on the punch mitts from his typical orthodox and southpaw stances with equal faculty. "You're killing me," said an exhausted East after Donaire implored him to keep up with his breakneck punching speed.
If Donaire is at all compromised by his well-publicized difficulties with making weight, it wasn't apparent on Saturday afternoon.
His performance drew high praise from Gleason's head trainer Hector Rocha, who came to prominence in the mid-90s with Arturo Gatti and worked the opposing corner against Donaire when Donaire fought Rafael Concepcion in 2009. Rocha likened Donaire to Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard, who are both considered to be among the top ten greatest boxers in history.
"I think Donaire has everything to be a great boxer. He fights when he has to fight and boxes when he has to box," said Rocha.
"Right now, the public is very occupied with [Manny] Pacquiao, but I think Nonito has more style."
Then Donaire showed off his singing chops, performing the Philippine national anthem for the captive audience, before introducing the two winners of his national anthem singing contest. Both winners Lianah Sta. Ana, 11, and Tiffany Viray, 14, live minutes apart in New Jersey and are friends. The two girls sang their renditions of The Star Spangled Banner and Lupang Hinirang with amazing form. The next time they perform live will be in the middle of the ring on fight night.
There was also Donaire's comedy act, as he asked fans to shout out boxers whose style they wanted him to imitate while shadowboxing, like Roy Jones Jr., Winky Wright and even Ricardo Mayorga. And if that went over observers heads, he also does a mean Robert DeNiro "You talkin' to me?"
Still Donaire, who is the first reigning Filipino boxing champ to fight in New York City since Gabriel "Flash" Elorde made several appearances at The Garden in the 1960s, says he has some weight to drop still, and is looking forward to moving up in weight in his next bout. Whispers around the gym suggest that his next bout could be as early as January.
"Being at 118 is good, but I think I'll feel better at 122," said Donaire, who is dedicating this fight to his wife Rachel's late grandmother, as well as the Keep-A-Breast Foundation, which raises awareness for breast cancer. "The power is there, it came in today. The speed came in today. That's aside from cutting all that weight."
Donaire's opponent Narvaez, 35-0-2 (19 KO) of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a prohibitive underdog, but also a two-division world champion that Donaire says he isn't overlooking despite the opportunities that abound at the higher weight classes.
"I did in the beginning because they were talking about, 'Oh, [Yuriorkis] Gamboa this and JuanMa [Lopez] that,' but I just got my mind set on that I need to get past this guy," said Donaire, who previously held titles at 112 and 115 pounds. "Every guy that comes in that ring is gonna be a tough guy, so you gotta work hard because they're gonna try to gun for your belt, which I've worked for for so many years. I'm not letting it go that easy."
Donaire's next public appearance will be Monday at 4 p.m. EST, as he speaks to students from the The Filipino School of New York & New Jersey about Filipino American History Month at the Jersey City Free Public Library, Greenville Branch Auditorium, located at 1841 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City, N.J. The event is open to the public.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.