By Thomas Gerbasi
For a while there, Nonito Donaire was assumed to be the next Manny Pacquiao. He had the titles, the style, and the charisma to pick up the mantle of Filipino icon once the Pac Man decided to walk off into the sunset.
But the Talibon native wasn’t going to fill those shoes. Instead, he’s done one better. Despite losing his titles and the air of invincibility he built up during a 30 fight winning streak from 2001 up until his defeat at the hands of Guillermo Rigondeaux in April, the 30-year-old has seemingly decided that being the first Nonito Donaire is good enough for him.
That meant taking time off after the Rigondeaux fight to not just get his injured shoulder taken care of, but to be there for the birth of his first son, be with his family, and even reconcile with his estranged father. In other words, he’s used his time away from the ring to fall in love with it again. And now as he prepares to make his return against Vic Darchinyan on Saturday in a rematch of their 2007 bout, he’s back as a far different fighter than he was earlier this year.
“I just realized that, hey, this is where I want to be,” he said on a recent media teleconference. “I want to box. The fight with Arce (in December of 2012), I thought I was pretty much done after the fight. Then after the loss I realized that I want to be in this game for as long as I can. I want to be in the boxing world. I love the boxing world. I love the boxing scene. This is where I want to be.”
After Donaire blasted out Arce in three rounds, the “Filipino Flash” had a secure spot on the pound-for-pound list, and after tearing through every weight class from 112 through 122 pounds, motivation was coming through in smaller and smaller increments as the press began focusing on everything but what he was doing in the ring. Call it Pacquiao-esque, albeit it on a smaller scale, but what was evident is that there is only one Pacquiao when it comes to excelling in the midst of chaos. Donaire is not that guy, so when he was matched up with Cuba’s Rigondeaux, all the signs were there for a disastrous night.
And it was just that, as Rigondeaux took the decision and the WBO title from Donaire, with the media pouncing on the now ex-champion as a one-dimensional brawler, something far from the case. What happened that night is what has happened and what will happen to a lot of fighters who step into the ring with Rigondeaux: he will make them look bad. There’s really no shame in that because the Cuban is a master boxer. Yet Donaire may just be on the way to becoming a master fighter, something he needed to realize in the aftermath of his first loss since his second pro fight in 2001.
“I have been just trying to recall how I became world champion and the process of it,” he said. “The mentality and the desire – we are trying to bring all that out. Trying to bring youth back into my boxing style, trying to change the whole thing, but it starts with the mental part, to be excited and we are very excited about this fight.”
There’s good reason to be, and let’s not mince words: this is the perfect vehicle to start rebuilding the buzz around Donaire. Darchinyan was 28-0 and arguably in his prime when the two met in July of 2007. Donaire, then 17-1, halted the “Raging Bull” in five rounds to win the IBF flyweight title and put his name on the world boxing map.
“I wasn’t even known in the Philippines at that time,” he said. “I was more known in the amateurs in the U.S. That fight definitely put my name on the map in terms of exciting fighters and it jump-started my career.”
More than six years later, Darchinyan is 37 years old, fighting 14 pounds north at featherweight, where his punch is far from as potent as it was at 112 pounds, and he’s lost two of his last four. Now he’s no Arce in terms of being shopworn, but he’s not close to being the guy he was in 2007. Donaire, on the other hand, is still in his prime, the move to 126 pounds might be a huge benefit for him, and he still has the speed and power to give Darchinyan fits. This one certainly has the potential to end poorly for the Australian, and very well for Donaire.
“I feel good working out and sparring at this weight class because I am actually training to win the fight not to lose the weight,” said Donaire of his new division. “We are working on lots of game plans and not to cut down the weight, and my speed is coming back, so we are very excited about that.”
Of course, Darchinyan has other plans, as well as other thoughts about Donaire’s former lofty spot on the pound-for-pound list.
“I think he was exposed in his loss to Rigondeaux,” said Darchinyan of Donaire. “He had a good year and was voted Fighter of the Year, but inside me I know – personally he is a good guy, but about skills and power – he should not be pound-for-pound. I want to show all the people that what happened six years ago, three months after that I became world champion – I beat [Federico] Catubay, [Jorge] Arce, [Tomas] Rojas - all of them. I beat them all. I will prove it. I will stalk him. It is not about him. It is about me. I have more skills and I have more power. If I am motivated against someone – all of my title fights – I am getting prepared for me. I am not getting prepared for my opponent. I am getting prepared for myself. I have prepared mentally. I know everything that he is going to do and I know everything that I am going to do. I just want to come and demolish him, that’s what I want. He can say he’s ready for me but I want to prove I have been ready for this fight for a long time. I am very motivated.”
So is Donaire. For the first time in a long time. That’s a scary prospect for Darchinyan and anyone else at 126 pounds. And at least now, Donaire can fight for himself. Not for his country, and not to replace an icon in the hearts of his countrymen, but for all the right reasons. As for the future after Saturday night, he’s not being too picky.
“It doesn’t matter - it could be anybody,” he said. “I am very excited for the fight and trying to bring that youth mentality back in. With me, I am always ready for anything and anyone.”