By Thomas Gerbasi
Saturday is coronation night for Nonito Donaire.
Pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao can’t fight forever, so the road has been paved and the stage set for a new star to ascend to the throne that will be vacated when the “Pac Man” leaves boxing. And with charisma, talent, and power, Donaire, a former flyweight and super flyweight champion, is ready to become the next idol of the boxing-rich nation of the Philippines.
The only one standing in the way of the 28-year old this weekend at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas is 31-year old Fernando Montiel.
It should bother the fighting pride of Los Mochis, Mexico that he’s an underdog to Donaire, but if it does, he’s not letting it show. It should annoy him that after 14+ years in the pro game that it’s taken this long for him to get a real taste of life outside of being a hardcore fan favorite, but he’s not worried about such matters. In fact, if not for the reality that he and Donaire will be punching each other in the body and face for 12 rounds or less tomorrow, you could call the two friends. Montiel does, and he will continue to do so after the fight is over.
“Outside of the ring we are friendly and are going to be friends,” he said in a recent media teleconference. “We have a lot of respect for each other. But inside the ring everything changes. We are very competitive. We both want to win. We both want to do our best. No mercy. You go in to win the fight and forget about everything else. When the fight is over you become friends again.”
It’s the mantra of a Mexican warrior, a source of pride for all fighters from another of the world’s boxing-rich nations. No mercy. War. Battle. They are all words or phrases that you must carry in your gloves and in your chest if you’re going to survive in this sport. One that isn’t thrown around too much though is adaptability. In this game, if you don’t change what’s not working, you’ll be run over and run out.
In Montiel’s case, he came out of the gate as one of the sport’s most technically gifted fighters, a mini-Juan Manuel Marquez with the type of variety in his offensive attack that made him a joy to watch. With the exception of an eight months stretch from 2003 to 2004 when he lost his WBO title to Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, he owned the 115-pound division for six years (2000 to 2006) and even went back after losing his belt a second time (to Jhonny Gonzalez) to reign for another year and a half.
Yet there was something missing when it came to Montiel crossing over to the mainstream and the next level of his career. There could have been any number of reasons for that. Maybe the death of Pedro Alcazar after their 2002 bout took the speed off his fastball like it did for fighters like Ezzard Charles and Gabriel Ruelas. Maybe the modern mainstream sports fan had no interest in fighters in the super flyweight division. Or perhaps premium cable execs just didn’t think viewers wanted to consistently see the craftsman in short shorts. His less than stellar performance against Gonzalez in 2006 didn’t do him any favors either.
“That first fight against Gonzalez I think was a question of styles,” he said. “We just couldn’t get together. His style and my style could never match that night. It was a difficult fight for both of us and we each wanted to show something and it wasn’t possible.”
Following the bout, Montiel took the boos he received in California that night to heart. Not only is he unbeaten in his last 12 fights (11 wins and one technical draw), but he’s scored nine knockouts. He’s not feasting on cupcakes either, as his ledger since February of 2007 includes highly-touted Z Gorres (W12), Martin Castillo (KO4), Luis Maldonado (TKO3), Diego Silva (KO3), Ciso Morales (TKO1), Hozumi Hasegawa (TKO4), and Rafael Concepcion (KO3).
“After the (Gonzalez) fight I heard the criticism and thought I needed to do something about it and I did,” he said. “I changed my style and became more aggressive. I wanted to give people a better show – a better fight. I think I have done that. My style is better and it has shown in my fights. Now I get another opportunity on HBO and I’m not going to mess it up – I’m going to do real well.”
31-year old bantamweights at the top of their game are as rare as Bigfoot sightings. To hold two major sanctioning body belts (WBC and WBO) at the same age is even more amazing. Adding in that he did it while switching to a more physically punishing style adds to the feat. This wasn’t Marco Antonio Barrera going from brawler to boxer to add more longevity to his career. This is a fighter who, in essence, is saying, ‘well, I’m getting older, so I’m going to plant my feet and force you to knock me out of this sport.’ It worked for Marquez, and now it’s working for Montiel. The finish of Hasegawa last April was the icing on the cake and earned “Cochulito” some well-deserved votes for 2010 Fighter of the Year.
“I always believed that I was that level type of fighter,” he said. “One of the elite fighters, but I never had the opportunity to fight one of those type fighters…that opportunity was there and I took it. I showed the level that I was at. It was one of those wins that puts you at another level.”
On Saturday, after two more quick KO victories, Montiel will meet his Waterloo or he will finally receive the respect he’s deserved for all these years. Donaire is just three years younger than the champion, but he has a lot less wear on him. Some believe he hasn’t even reached his prime yet, and impressive notation considering that the names Vic Darchinyan, Raul Martinez, Hernan Marquez, and Wladimir Sidorenko already dot his victims list.
“He is obviously a fighter that has a lot of speed,” said Montiel of his foe. “He moves around the ring and is an intelligent fighter. The question to me is what is going to happen when he fights a guy that is just as intelligent, just as strong and just as good as he is. That is the question – when he fights someone that is equal to him. I think it’s the first time he will find a fighter that is just as good as he is.”
The anticipation leading up to this bout is reminiscent of the lead-up to the bouts between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, and stylistically, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to suggest that Montiel and Donaire can deliver the same kind of intense action. Of course, given the disappointment of last month’s highly-anticipated Superfight between Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander, containing your excitement level has become a necessary requirement of being a boxing fan these days. Montiel says not to worry, because he’s bringing it, and he’s willing to take all the risks necessary to beat his foe.
“You have to fight smart but I am here to entertain too,” he said. “I want people to go in there and say that is a fight that they will remember for a long time. If we need to break into a war, let’s do a war if that’s what needs to be done. But it is certainly not going to be a boring fight.”
“I am ready to risk getting knocked down and getting back up and knocking him down and him getting back up,” Montiel continues. “I want it to be a great fight so everybody can remember, so maybe we cannot do only one but maybe two or three.”
Risk. War. Battle. No Mercy. Adaptation. They are the words that not only guarantee your survival in the sport, but they’re the ones that take you to a place where the mere mention of your name produces a respectful nod of the head and a story or two about when you dug deep and went to places most fighters don’t want to go. The oddsmakers believe that a younger and faster Donaire has enough in his bag of tricks to beat Montiel without going to such a place. Montiel disagrees because only he knows how far he can dig in search of not only victory, but of eternal fistic glory.
“The people that come up to me are just like you guys,” said Montiel when talking to the worldwide media. “They think it is a very tough fight and it’s up for grabs. Either guy can win and a lot of people think I can lose this fight and I’m the underdog. But to me that’s not a problem. I believe I’m going to win this fight and that’s what I’m going to do.”