By Thomas Gerbasi
If you weren’t paying attention, you might have thought that New York fans were paying their hard earned money to watch rising star Nonito Donaire shadowbox in the ring alone at the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden this Saturday night. That’s how much attention has been paid to his real live opponent, Omar Narvaez, despite the Argentine’s stellar 35-0-2 record and status as a two-division world champion.
In fact, Narvaez has had a title belt strapped around his waist for much of the last nine years, and when he won the WBO flyweight championship by decisioning Adonis Rivas in July of 2002, Donaire was 4-1 as a pro and far removed from his current status as the next Manny Pacquiao and a proud member of the pound-for-pound list.
For “The Filipino Flash,” fight week in New York has been a coming out party, with open media workouts, a visit to the Philippines Consulate, talks regarding Filipino-American History month, and all the trappings that go with being the next big thing.
And that’s probably okay with the 36-year old Narvaez, though we can’t know for sure since he’s been so quiet. Yet the reason why we can deduce his acceptance of his role as the unknown soldier is because Narvaez and his countrymen are pretty used to this deal by now. They come over to the United States for the big fights with amazing records, no US TV appearances, and an anonymity that doesn’t intrigue, but just makes you assume that the record was built up on a steady diet of easy marks and that they’re just coming here to pick up a paycheck, make a killing on the exchange rate back home and go back to business as usual.
Then the bell rings on fight night, and while it doesn’t always happen, in many instances, the gasps are audible and the looks of concern on the faces of the “name” fighter, his trainer, and his promoter are visible when they realize that not only did the guy from Argentina come to fight, but he can fight. And he can fight damn good.
Just look through some of the names for proof…
Jorge Rodrigo Barrios with Acelino Freitas
Omar Weis with Hector Camacho Jr.
Carlos Baldomir with Zab Judah
Juan Roldan with Marvin Hagler
Lucas Matthysse with Devon Alexander and Zab Judah
Sergio Martinez with Paul Williams and Kelly Pavlik
Marcos Maidana with Victor Ortiz
Not all of these fighters scored the jaw-dropping upset, and some even had some Stateside exposure before getting their marquee fight. But what they all have in common in addition to the blue and white flag with the sun in the middle is that they all virtually came out of nowhere to stun heavily favored foes either with amazing wins or performances that guaranteed that it wasn’t going to be the last you saw of them.
Another common trait you could always count on was that they were going to be tough guys who weren’t going to surrender, and if they did lose, it wasn’t without letting you know that you were in a fight. It’s almost like the time a few years back where Ghanaian fighters like the Clottey brothers, Ben Tackie, and Ike Quartey gained notoriety for their tough as nails, come forward styles. But fighters from Argentina always had that rugged toughness, whether it was the great middleweight champion Carlos Monzon, light heavyweight boss Victor Galindez, flyweight Hall of Famer Pascual Perez, 70’s heavyweight contender Oscar Bonavena, or even “The Wild Bull of The Pampas” himself, Luis Angel Firpo, best remembered for getting up from seven first round knockdowns to knock Jack Dempsey out of the ring in their 1923 heavyweight title bout. Dempsey would get back in the ring and finish matters in the next round, but Firpo’s effort has gained an almost mythical status over the years.
Of course, the crude brawler reputation attached to Argentine boxers has faded a bit over the years, with Weis, and then a few years later, Martinez and Narvaez showing the ability to box or bang.
The toughness remains though. Just look at Martinez battling through various cuts and a broken nose in some of his wins for a prime example. But it may have been Baldomir who truly captured the imagination of the fight world in January of 2006 (ironically in the same ring Narvaez will fight Donaire in this weekend) when he upset the heavily favored Judah. For the then 34-year old Baldomir, who entered the bout with a 41-9-6 record that had him completely marked as a “rugged journeyman,” the fight was a life changer, and the story of his sudden rise to prominence was a feel-good tale anyone could get behind because here was a guy who came up the hard way, never got the breaks someone like Judah got, and on top of that, who could forget the story of him selling featherdusters to make ends meet.
And that was while he was fighting professionally. As he told me before his next victory, a ninth round TKO of Arturo Gatti in July of 2006, “The money just wasn’t there. I was making $100 a fight, and after the fight I would have to go to the street and sell my items because the purse wasn’t enough to support the family.”
If that doesn’t harden you as a fighter and make you dig that much deeper to win, what will? So if you notice one thing about the country’s fighters, when they do get that shot to come perform in front of US crowds and get that valuable premium cable exposure, it’s not with a 15-0 record.
These guys fight and they fight often, and they’re hungry. You don’t see one of them getting 10 soft touches, a few mid-level journeymen, then it’s TV or title shot time. They’re scrapping early and often, learning on the job, and while they may not be in with world-class opposition, when you’re fighting for the win that will get you another payday, an easy fight can often turn into a life or death struggle. As Baldomir noted, “I needed to win because I knew that with each win, more money was coming. After one win, I got more money, second win, more money, third win, more money, and I liked that. (Laughs)”
Ortiz found out the hard way how hungry a kid like Maidana was in their 2009 bout, as he lifted himself off the deck Firpo-style three times to finish off the heir apparent to the junior welterweight title in the sixth round. And Ortiz can make all the noise he wants about wanting to fight him again; that’s all it is – noise. You walk through hell against one of these sky blue and white wearing monsters and you don’t want to do it again.
Maybe that’s why they’re brought to the big leagues only when necessary, only when they can’t possibly be ignored anymore. And by then, it’s too late for those forced to fight them. It’s why Nonito Donaire, for all his talent and upside, and for all the right comments about not looking past his opponent, can’t take Narvaez for granted.
Yes, Narvaez is 36, bad news for a lighter weight fighter, and he’s making his bantamweight debut against one of the baddest young fighters out there, one who is fresh from a blistering second round TKO of Fernando Montiel. But Narvaez is from Argentina, and when you wear those colors, all bets are off the moment the fists start flying.