By Jake Donovan
It was a year to forget almost as much as the previous year was one he will always remember. The 12 months that followed Nonito Donaire’s 2012 Fight of the Year campaign saw the Fil-Am fighter lose his 122 lb. championship and then go life and death with a faded version of a former champion he obliterated years ago to announce his arrival on the championship stage.
So it became as a surprise to many when his first fight of 2014 comes against an opponent who is anything but an easy out, and in a weight in which he has yet to fully establish himself. On Saturday night in Macau, Donaire will find out if he has what it takes to hang in the featherweight division, or if defending champion Simpiwe Vetyeka is too much to handle.
The bout headlines an eight fight card at The Venetian Macao, a show which includes two more featherweight title fights that both promise plenty of action.
In other words, Donaire can’t just simply win his fight to announce he’s back; he needs to do something to convince the masses that he is closer to the fighter who tore through the lower weight classes in recent years than the version who in 2013 appeared to have hit a wall as he continues to move up in weight.
“This is a new beginning for me,” Donaire said Thursday to the assembled media for the final pre-fight press conference. “This fight is a statement to see if I still have it or not.
“I still have it.”
Donaire (32-2, 21KO) appeared to have it like few others in the sport as recent as 17 months ago. The run began way back in 2007, when a then 24-year enjoyed a breakthrough moment in his career with a sensational one-punch 5th round knockout of then unbeaten flyweight champ Vic Darchinyan.
From there, the only thing that could slow down the lower-weight knockout artist… was himself. Contractual disputes, familial issues and injuries slowed him down just enough to seem human, but there was no stopping Donaire whenever he stepped through the ropes.
A reminder of his brilliance and dominance came in his HBO-televised debut in Feb. 2011, scoring a highlight-reel 2nd round knockout of Fernando Montiel. The win, coupled with a 4th round stoppage of former titlist Vladimir Sidirenko just two months prior, helped Donaire quickly establish himself as the best bantamweight on the planet, and one of the very best fighters in the world.
His momentum was stalled only by a mid-year pause, as an attempt was made to jump ship from Top Rank to Golden Boy. After further consideration, Donaire stayed put, wrapping up his 2011 campaign with a ugly but sound points win over longtime 115 lb. titlist Omar Narvaez, who moved up in weight only to stink out the joint in their Oct. ’11 bantamweight waltz at Madison Square Garden.
Then came 2012, which was easily the greatest full year of Donaire’s career. Four wins came of a Fight of the Year campaign, including adding two more titles to his collection, both in the 122 lb. division.
By the time Donaire tore through Jorge Arce in Dec. ’12, he had established a remarkable run of wins over eight straight past, present or future champions. The four he racked up in 2012 were good enough to claim honors as the year’s best fighter, an achievement further magnified by his then-willingness to undergo year-round random drug testing, becoming the poster child for everything that was right in a sport on the verge of losing the war against performance-enhancing drugs.
Just two days shy of his HBO-televised World 122 lb. championship showdown with Guillermo Rigondeaux, Donaire was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America during its annual awards ceremony. The reception was his final award granted from an unforgettable campaign.
It would also serve as the last reminder of the incredible fighter he was.
“It was a year, I’d say a year that was covered in darkness,” Donaire admits of a 2013 campaign to forget.
Donaire would lose his lineal 122 lb. crown two nights after being formally honored as the Fighter of the Year, a 10th round knockdown his lone bright spot in an otherwise schooling at the fast hands of the unbeaten Rigondeaux. It was a devastating loss in more ways than one; Top Rank had to figure out how to rebrand Donaire, while also stuck with a new champion whose fighting style isn’t immediately appealing to the general boxing fan base.
The bout was Donaire’s last at 122 lb., with both his title reign and 30-fight win streak –dating all the way back to his 3rd pro fight – coming to an end. A move up in scales was supposed to mark a fresh start, but Donaire looked anything but in falling behind versus a resurgent Darchinyan. A bailout knockout came in the 9th round of their rematch last September, a fight in which Darchinyan himself admits that carelessly going for a knockout after he was easily winning ultimately cost him the victory.
For Donaire, the bailout stoppage spared him the embarrassment of two straight losses. As the saying goes, win today, look good the next time. It was enough to position him for another title shot, and also a high enough footnote to end an otherwise forgettable in-ring campaign, following such a brilliant run.
“That’s how life is, there is a yin and yang,” Donaire theorizes of the ups and downs he’s endured. “There is darkness and negativity, but it’s there so you can appreciate the positivity in life.”
The in-ring results were less than desirable, but the positivity Donaire can gain from 2013 comes on a personal level. The former three-division champ and his wife Rachel celebrated the birth of their first child last summer, which preceded his intended comeback run with the Darchinyan rematch.
With the worst year of his career behind him, Donaire is anxious for a fresh start. His first fight of 2014 comes five full months into the year, but his rejuvenated attitude tells the tale of a fighter who needed and welcomed the break.
“I feel great. I’m grateful to have another opportunity to fight for a world title.”
Given his star power, however, there’s no guarantee that the opportunities will keep falling in his lap.
“It’s definitely a must-win,” Donaire says of Saturday’s showdown with Vetyeka, for which he came in right at the 126 lb. featherweight limit, the heaviest weight of his career to date. “From this point on, every fight is a must-win.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox