By Chris Robinson
On February 19th of last year, Fil-Am star Nonito Donaire delivered one of the year’s more telling knockouts when he vanquished Los Mochis’ Fernando Montiel inside of two rounds at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. The counter-left that first dropped Montiel was both chilling and calculated, the kind of punch that leaves those close to the sport talking for quite some time.
Speaking with Larry Merchant less than twenty-four hours after Donaire’s triumph, the veteran HBO analyst conceded that it was that particular performance that placed Nonito in a different class of fighter in his eyes and he seemed intrigued by what an eventual move up to the featherweight class could hold.
"I think it places him in the top level, in the elite level in the sport," Merchant would state of Donaire's victory over Montiel. "The question is, whether American viewers care about bantamweights. It's very rare that American fight fans have shown much interest in fighters in that weight class. He also showed that he has the kind of skill and strength that he could move up to the featherweight divisions."
A little over sixteen months later and Donaire is set for another high-profile showcase, as he will be putting his WBO junior featherweight belt on the line against South Africa’s Jeffrey Mathebula this Saturday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.
Merchant’s expectations of the ultra-talented Donaire still seem to be high, yet there is also a little curiosity sprinkled in as to whether or not he will be able to deliver the kind of virtuoso displays that the public is anticipating from him.
“The narrative now is, can he live up to certain expectations?” Merchant said during our conversation on Thursday night. “Because he had a sensational knockout. Can he move up in weight and be as effective or as explosive as [Manny] Pacquiao was when he moved up in weight? That’s a narrative that’s still unfolding.
“I don’t know that he’s convinced everybody that he’s a top, elite primetime fighter yet,” Merchant stated candidly. “It’s a process that’s ongoing and he’s the kind of fighter you want to watch. How high is his high and whether or not he can go up the ladder and, for example, become a crowd-pleasing featherweight, where there are some serious opponents.”
While a move up to 126 would create a special kind of buzz, Donaire has shown interest in first cleaning out his own division before going on such a brazen endeavor. There are no shortage of worthy challenges in the junior featherweight class, including the likes of Guillermo Rigondeaux, Toshiaki Nishioka, Abner Mares and even Mathebula, the man who will be staring Donaire straight in the eyes this weekend.
Hardcore enthusiasts run wild when thinking of such matchups yet Merchant can’t help but to ponder an eventual rise one division north, even admitting that it is the past achievements of Donaire’s countryman Manny Pacquiao, who went on a remarkable rise in weight late in his career, that factors into his though process.
“That’s intriguing about him,” said Merchant. “He has the body for it, he’s got the maturity for it, and if one of the reasons that there’s a lot of interest in him is because he comes from the same kind of heritage that Manny Pacquiao did, then there’s a natural curiousity about where can he go and does he add or inset more star quality into the featherweight divisions.”
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