By Mike Coppinger
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Nonito Donaire spun around the small ring at the venerable Gleason’s Gym in the high-scale end of Brooklyn, sporting a black shirt embroidered with the slogan “I heart boxing for bobbies “, a homage to Breast Cancer Awareness month. A gregarious character, he smiled and preened for onlookers as he worked the pads with Morris East.
Every so often, Donaire (26-1, 18 KOs) would imitate popular boxers – Ricardo Mayorga, Winky Wright and Floyd Mayweather – to name a few. “The Filipino Flash” appeared to be at such peace, you’d be surprised to find out he was headlining at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
The 28-year-old Donaire, considered the number four pound-for-pound fighter by most pundits, will be making just his second appearance on HBO later tonight, as he takes on undefeated Argentine Omar Navarez (35-0-2, 19 KOs), the No. 1 fighter in the world just three pound south at 115.
And while the 35-year-old Navarez is little-known Stateside, he is a star in his native Argentina, where he fights regularly, racking up win after win.
“He’s a legend in Argentina,” Donaire said of his southpaw opponent. “He’s been fighting, he knows how to win, he’s experienced. Definitely he has all the aces in his deck. He has a lot of tricks that we don’t want to overlook, so we’re prepared for everything from fighting dirty to fighting rough.
“It’s gonna be rough, especially a right hander to a lefty. The legs come across, the elbow comes across, the head comes across. We want to avoid every possible distraction and roughness.”
At times, though, it was easy for Donaire to look past Navarez, with talks of bouts with the likes of Juanma Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa swirling.
“It was Juanma this and Juanma that,” Donaire said. “I just got back into it and got my mindset that ‘I need to get past this guy’. And every guy that comes into that ring is always going to be a tough guy. You gotta’ work hard because they’re coming for your belt, whatever you worked for, for so many years that I worked for. I’m not letting it go that easy, so we’re working really hard for this fight.
Donaire, a resident of San Mateo, Calif., is delighted to fight in New York for the first time, as he hopes to grow his fan base with the strong Filipino contingent in the “City That Never Sleeps”.
“It’s a great honor to be fighting in the Garden with all those great fighters that have fought there before I did,” Donaire said. “The old school fights and stuff like that, it’s a great honor for me and we’re very excited for it.”
This figures to be Donaire’s last fight at bantamweight, as the Bohol, Philippines native eyes richer and higher profile bouts at 122 and above.
“I want to fight the best at 122. We definitely want to go with [Toshiaki] Nishioka and [Jorge] Arce for 122,” Donaire revealed. “And then at 126, Juanma and Gamboa.”
In fact, Donaire anticipates he could rise as high as 140 pounds.
“Right now I come in at 145, 143. I don’t even do pushups or weights,” Donaire said. “We might look at maybe 130, 135. I definitely have the height and if I can put some muscle on I can go as high as 135, 140.”
Donaire credits his rise through the boxing ranks to top-notch trainer Robert Garcia, who also counts Mikey Garcia, Antonio Margarito and Brandon Rios among his charges.
“One thing that Robert does, he gives a lot of confidence in myself because he believes in my ability,” Donaire said. “He’s good at looking into an opponent, putting a strategy together and telling me the rights things in that corner. Robert’s a great, great part of the team.”
Donaire crashed the boxing scene in 2007, when he authored The Ring Knockout of the Year and Upset of the Year with a devastating fourth round knockout of Vic Darchinyan.
Even after that jaw-dropping performance, it wasn’t until this year that he made his debut on HBO.
And he capitalized, dispatching of Fernando Montiel in just two rounds, another devastating knockout which is sure to grab votes for Knockout of the Year.
“[The Darchinyan knockout] was big, but it died down,” Donaire said. “I think the Montiel fight was the biggest fight. These people got to see what I got. At that time I was still the little guy. It was big, but at the time it was more like ‘I did what I did, I can quit now’, kind of like that. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I love boxing.”
Being on the shelf this summer while his promotional ties were sorted out in arbitration between powerhouses Top Rank and Golden Boy helped Donaire realize how much he loves the sport. Now he believes his relationship with Top Rank is healthier than ever, stating “They finally see the talent that I have”.
Finally, Donaire is getting the exposure and recognition deserving of a fighter of his ilk. And he is happy that he is able to put his talents on display for the world to see, as he climbs the ranks – and weight classes – in the sport of boxing.
“A lot of people believe little guys can’t do the things that I can – one punch knockout can end a fight with me,” Donaire said. “That’s what people want, like when [Mike] Tyson was around. It can end at any moment. With my power, if I hit the right spot, it can end any moment. I’m glad that everyone is able to see my talent. The power is coming up as I move up in weight.”
Mike Coppinger is a regular boxing freelancer for USA TODAY and Ring Magazine. He’s a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America, the Ring Ratings Advisory Panel and the Yahoo! Sports Boxing Panel. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger.