by David P. Greisman
Nonito Donaire had belonged there in New York City, standing on the stage at the Capitale in Lower Manhattan, recognized last Thursday as the best fighter of 2012 by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
And he also belonged, two nights later, in a boxing ring set up on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, just north of Times Square, headlining a major boxing card and appearing in the main event of an HBO broadcast.
But being the best fighter in a given year does not necessarily make a boxer superior to his rivals. The award is based on accomplishments, on the résumé compiled within a 12-month span. It is an honor bestowed for what has happened in the past — not at all a promise of what is to come.
“You are only as good as your last fight.” It is a cliché, but many clichés are grounded in truth, idioms that become axioms.
Donaire was the best boxer last year. That meant little last Saturday, when Guillermo Rigondeaux proved himself to be far better.
That shouldn’t lead to a conclusion that Donaire had been overrated. He was deserving of his ranking — and in a sport where rankings mean little if those rated below you are of questionable quality, Donaire was also deserving of respect. His victories in 2012 did not come against great opponents, but they were good wins nonetheless.
In his four fights over a 10-month period, Donaire captured a vacant world title in his first bout at 122 pounds with a decision over Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., unified belts by beating Jeffrey Mathebula by decision, took out one of the other best junior featherweights by scoring a technical knockout over Toshiaki Nishioka, then finished the year with an easy knockout of Jorge Arce.
Yes, Arce was faded and outsized. Nishioka had not fought in a year and also was aging. Mathebula was good but otherwise unheralded to those who hadn’t followed his bouts overseas over the years. And Vazquez was just two fights removed from being stopped by the aforementioned Arce. These were quality wins that placed Donaire toward the top of the division.
He was one of the best. He just needed to show that against one of two other claimants: Abner Mares or Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Those imagining the action between Donaire and Mares were excited about the prospect but realistic about the possibility — or, rather, impossibility — of it happening. After all, Donaire is promoted by Top Rank and is featured on HBO, while Mares is promoted by rival company Golden Boy and is featured on Showtime.
Those picturing the matchup between Donaire and his promotional stablemate, Rigondeaux, were less excited but still intrigued, given the speed and talent of the two fighters. It was quite possible that it would be a chess match between two counter-punchers, but there also would be suspense in the air while those watching waited for a clean, heavy shot to land.
Rigondeaux’s 2012 wasn’t as strong on paper as that of Donaire; he had started the year with a knockout of unproven titleholder Rico Ramos, went on to demolish the often-entertaining but less-than-world-class Teon Kennedy, and then took a decision over Robert Marroquin. Yet this run was Rigondeaux biding his time, staying busy until another top fighter became available.
He looked like he had the proverbial goods. He had two gold medals from the Olympics in 2000 and 2004, had been an acclaimed amateur with an exemplary 400-fight career as part of the respected Cuban boxing program, and seemed to have the style and skills to ascend through the professional ranks.
Still, Rigondeaux had only fought 11 times as a pro before Saturday, dating back to his May 2009 debut. Donaire, meanwhile, had 32 pro bouts, including 11 since April 2009, many of those wins coming against higher quality opponents than those listed on Rigondeaux’s record.
That didn’t matter. Rigondeaux wasn’t just superior — he was superlative.
Donaire’s rise into stardom has come from his concussive power and sizzling speed. Rigondeaux easily negated both. Donaire had vowed to make the fight exciting, and he had spoken of going for a knockout. Yet he made a mistake in trying to make a fight out of a boxing match. Rigondeaux’s movement around the ring and under and away from punches frustrated Donaire. His hands were even faster than Donaire’s, and his ability to land accurate counter shots further stymied Donaire’s offensive output.
Donaire threw only 352 punches over the course of 12 rounds, according to CompuBox — an average of less than 30 punches per round. He landed just 82 of them, fewer than one in every four thrown, for an average of about 7 shots hitting their target each round — barely more than 2 per minute. In terms of power punches, Donaire was 64 of 214, landing an average of about five out of just 18 thrown per round.
Rigondeaux avoided Donaire’s dangerous power by limiting his own activity, sending out just 396 punches in total, landing 129, according to CompuBox. Rarely did he leave himself vulnerable by throwing power punches; he threw even less than Donaire, at 176 (about 15 per round) but landed slightly more than Donaire at 73 (about 6 per round). When he did throw for power, he often landed, connecting at a 41 percent rate.
He did get knocked down in the 10th round, though, caught with his hands low as Donaire extricated himself from a clinch. Donaire did land cleanly on other occasions, but this would be his only true highlight. Rigondeaux had won a majority of the rounds before then, and he would finish the fight with emphasis, landing a southpaw left cross in the 12th round that hit Donaire flush on the eye. The blow immediately had Donaire in danger, as he affixed his right glove to that part of his face in an attempt to ward off any further damage.
The fight made it to the final bell and went to the scorecards. Rigondeaux won by unanimous decision.
It had been the wrong fight, strategically, for Donaire. But it had been the right match at this point in his career.
No fighter wants to reach his limit, but not all boxers need to challenge themselves against the best in order to prove their place in the sport. Arturo Gatti didn’t need to face Floyd Mayweather, not when he was already respected for what he was (rather than for what he never could be).
The truly elite fighters, however — and those who, at the least, believe they are elite — should step up the level of competition at some point for the sake of personal pride and their greater legacy.
Donaire had done particularly well as a pro during the past five and a half years, beginning with his stunning stoppage of Vic Darchinyan in 2007, reemerging into the spotlight in early 2011 with his highlight-reel win over Fernando Montiel, and continuing on with the victories that earned him the “Fighter of the Year” award for 2012.
He belonged in any conversation regarding the best boxers at 122 pounds. He needed to earn that top spot, though, given that the debate also included other names.
Abner Mares has moved up to featherweight. So, too, will Donaire, according to what the defeated boxer said after his loss on Saturday.
Donaire met his match. Rigondeaux is the best junior featherweight in the world.
Canelo Alvarez, meanwhile, is in a similar (though far from identical) situation.
Alvarez’s fight this coming Saturday against Austin Trout will not end with one man being inarguably the best fighter at 154 pounds. But the bout brings a much-needed step up for Alvarez — one that he didn’t necessarily need to take just yet, but one he wanted to take anyway.
Alvarez is 41-0-1 with 30 knockouts and has held a world title for nearly two years and through four defenses. Not a single one of those wins came against an opponent currently ranked in the top 10 in ratings compiled by assorted boxing writers.
Nevertheless, Alvarez is a sensational attraction, bringing in massive ratings in his native Mexico and drawing sizable crowds to his bouts both in his home country and in the United States. He was reportedly in negotiations for a pay-per-view main event this coming September against Floyd Mayweather, though that fight has not yet been finalized.
Alvarez could have merely remained busy, remained away from danger and in contention for a match with Mayweather. Instead, he will meet Trout, a skilled junior middleweight who has also held a world title for about two years, and through four defenses, but had done so with far less fanfare until a win this past December over Miguel Cotto.
It is a risk for Alvarez, one that either will bring more respect and even greater rewards — or one that will end with him reaching his limit earlier than he hoped would happen.
The 10 Count will return next week.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org