by Cliff Rold
If only it were always this easy.
Nonito Donaire wins a belt at 122 lbs. in February. Jeffrey Mathebula wins one in March. In search of opponents, they turn to each other.
In a division without a true champion since Israel Vazquez vacated his crown, the road to unification begins and, maybe, the beginning of another memorable era at Jr. featherweight does as well.
The pieces are in place. The division leader in absentia, Toshiaki Nishioka, will be at ringside to challenge the winner. While Nishioka was forced to give up his WBC belt due to a layoff (of less than a year), his wins over Jhonny Gonzalez and Rafael Marquez are not forgotten.
Also not forgotten is a supporting cast that includes Abner Mares (now with that WBC belt), WBA titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux, and likely to rise WBA bantamweight titlist Anselmo Moreno. Nishioka and Mathebula are the most veteran of the crew, but neither are past peak. These men, and others rising around them, can be mixed and matched for a couple of years and make every round count.
In the same week where the U.S. celebrated the Fourth of July, what Jr. Featherweight needs are fireworks to set a pace for the field. Will we get them on Saturday?
Let’s go to the report cards.
Previous Titles: IBF Flyweight (2007-09, 3 Defenses); WBC/WBO Bantamweight (2011, 1 Defense); WBO Super Bantamweight (2012-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Height: 5’5 ½
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 117.7 lbs.
Hails from: San Leandro, California
Record: 28-1, 18 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #3 at Jr. Featherweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 7-0, 5 KO (9-0, 6 KO including interim title fights)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 7 (Vic Darchinyan, Moruti Mthalane, Hernan Marquez, Wladimir Sidorenko, Fernando Montiel, Omar Narvaez, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.)
Titles: IBF Super Bantamweight (2012-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: None
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 121.35 lbs.
Hails from: Brakpan, Gauteng, South Africa
Record: 26-3-2, 14 KO, 1 KOBY
BoxingScene Rank: #4 at Jr. Featherweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 1-2
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated or Drawn: 2 (Takalani Ndlovu, Malcolm Klassen)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced in Defeat: 2 (Celestino Caballero, Takalani Ndlovu)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Donaire A; Mathebula B+
Pre-Fight: Power – Donaire A; Mathebula B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Donaire B+; Mathebula A-
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Donaire B+; Mathebula B+
Donaire has taken some criticism in spots during recent years for his choice of opposition, much of it unwarranted. Mathebula marks his sixth straight current, former, or future champion and answers skeptics who have questioned the size of men like Tyson Marquez and Omar Narvaez. Mathebula has been at or around 122 since his pro debut in 2001 and has fought as high as Featherweight. Standing 5’10, long and lean, he presents a physical match unlike anything Donaire has seen in the title ranks.
One wonders if punching up could take something off Donaire’s vaunted power, but then Mathebula might make that easier. The South African is capable of keeping a fight at range, and can pop a distracting jab when he fights tall. He often chooses to go inside instead, choosing a volume attack and relying on deft head and upper body movement to elude harm. It often works, but he can be carelessly tagged.
What makes it all work for Mathebula is that he is punching from so many angles an opponent can’t get set to fire hard. Donaire is the sort of explosive offensive fighter who can, and surely will in spots. Mathebula can also sometimes push his right as a lead, and it lingers like a meat Jr. High curveball. Donaire’s opening for the left hook will be there if the mistake is made.
Some of the intrigue here is in the corners. Donaire has the hot Robert Garcia, a once excellent Jr. Lightweight who is building quite a stable. Mathebula has one of the global scene’s best in Nick Durandt, and this is Durandt’s second big bite at the Donaire apple.
Of all the fighters Donaire has faced since winning his first title versus Vic Darchinyan in 2007, Durandt seconded the man who was giving him his toughest fight. Moruti Mthalane and Donaire had a quality contest going with Mthalane battling to almost even terms in the ring through five. A flukish cut suffered in the sixth, caused when a Donaire jab sent Mthalane glove across the eyelid, stopped matters just as they were getting interesting.
Mthalane’s success was predicated on getting his jab going and Durandt will surely have Mathebula seeking to do that same. If he can force Donaire to play aggressor, Mathebula’s ability to work the ring with his legs before letting loose awkward combinations could make this a strategic war.
Mathebula has less power, and isn’t quite as quick for a single shot, but his hands pick up speed on second and third fires. His reach could let him land at range without needing to hold an edge in speed. Mathebula is more polished defensively, and integrates his offense and defense well, but Donaire doesn’t need a ton of chances.
In terms of chin, the edge lies with Donaire. Mathebula has been stopped, even if not since 2003, and without an equalizer he has to win rounds while Donaire can retain hope in winning the fight even if he falls behind. Where Donaire earns questions is if his early game plan isn’t working. Against Narvaez and Vazquez, he’s shown adaptability problems akin to the sort once seen from Oscar De La Hoya. Those men, while losing wide, made him look ordinary and occasionally confused in spots
Donaire has a ton of talent, but if Mathebula makes him think can he solve the riddle? And let’s not discount the opportunity factor. For Mathebula, this is everything. He’s not talking about what’s next. He knows what it’s like to lose fights he had every reason to think he won (the first Ndlovu fight and Caballero were both well debatable) and knows he’ll need the best of everything he can do Saturday night.
Put it all together, and this looks like a real fight on HBO Boxing After Dark.
Mathebula will have to be able to handle the early offense, and that's always the biggest risk with Donaire. His speed and pop can catch anyone off guard. Factor in the sometimes pushing right of Mathebula, and he looks like a counter left victim waiting to happen. The thinking here is Durandt will have Mathebula as focused as he has ever been, he avoids the big early power shots...and then we get into what happens in a long fight? To summarize: Mathebula is at least a few inches taller, has longer arms, and is very quick in combination. He's also a heavy volume puncher with good head and upper body movement who can fight off the back or front foot. He's been at 122 for his whole career, hasn't been stopped since 2003, and probably should have gotten the nod in two debatable decision losses to Caballero and Ndlovu. At 33, he has a chance to validate his whole career against a fighter who sometimes looks lost when he doesn't get guys out of there. The pick here is the man who can improvise better, and that's Mathebula with a strong second half in the bout. Mathebula by decision.
Report Card Picks 2012: 35-10
Cliff’s Notes…Donaire-Mathebula isn’t the only big fight on tap this weekend. World Heavyweight Champion Wladimir Klitschko (57-3, 50 KO) has a rematch with Tony Thompson (36-2, 24 KO). Thompson gave him a real fight the first time before being stopped in eleven. This mandatory doesn’t look like a moment of drama unfolding. Looking for Klitschko to end it earlier the second time around, say around the ninth.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]