By Cliff Rold
Nonito Donaire has been around long enough to almost be forgotten.
When it was announced the now 35-year old Donaire (38-4, 25 KO) would be facing 31-year old former unified Jr. featherweight and featherweight titlist Carl Frampton (24-1, 14 KO), it felt as much like a reminder as a pleasant surprise.
Nonito Donaire isn’t done yet.
After fighting only once in 2017 following a 2016 WBO title loss to Jesse Magdaleno at 122 lbs., Donaire is traveling to Belfast, Northern Ireland to face Frampton on his home court. This feels like a fight that could have headlined on Showtime or HBO a couple of years ago. Instead, this weekend it will be free to all in the US on YouTube beginning at 2:15 EST.
Will fans tune in to see the end of a great career or a dramatic revival?
It wasn’t that long ago Donaire was considered among the best fighters in the world at any weight. It’s been long enough for that to be long past mattering. The struggles since a loss to Guillermo Rigondeaux in 2013 have been a bigger story than the wins. Donaire is 7-3 since the start of 2013, a respectable mark.
It doesn’t tell the whole story.
He barely got by Vic Darchinyan in their long awaited rematch, bailed out by his power in a fight where he was being outboxed and fell well behind on the scorecards. A late 2015 gem with Cesar Juarez provided thrills, and victory, but also raised questions. Those go along with a loss to Nicholas Walters at featherweight, the lone stoppage defeat of his career, and the clear decision defeat to Magdaleno.
It’s been a steady decline for a fighter who should surely one day enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
The credentials are hard to argue with and looking back at them tells how much time has passed. His breakthrough knockout win in the first Darchinyan fight came in July 2007, almost eleven years ago. From 2007 through 2012, he won additional titles at bantamweight and Jr. featherweight with an interim strap at Jr. bantamweight. Impressively, he held partly unified versions of the crowns at the two higher divisions. Even after the Rigondeuax loss, he won a major belt at featherweight and then one more at Jr. featherweight after that.
Despite the accomplishments, Donaire didn’t always meet the expectations some had after that first Darchinyan win. That night, and in his bantamweight wins over Wladimir Sidorenko and Fernando Montiel, Donaire looked like one of the special talents of his generation.
Then there were nights like Rafael Concepcion, Omar Narvaez, and Wilfredo Vasquez Jr. He won them all but his flaws and limits were expressed. Donaire could sometimes be one dimensional in his approach, struggling to make adjustments when his power and athleticism didn’t overwhelm.
It says a lot about how high he could set the bar on his best nights that his tougher ones could feel like a letdown to watch. If he fell a little short of enduring greatness, it’s still more career than most could ever dream of. Donaire has given plenty of thrills along the way and his imperfections were just part of the package.
All fighters have imperfections. Few have them alongside the lethal combination of speed and power, and size in the years below Jr. featherweight, Donaire did.
Here is one more chance, maybe Donaire’s last best chance, to remind everyone why he has been a compelling figure in boxing for more than a decade.
This weekend is a chance to add something to his ledger of value. While it’s not for a title, Frampton is a name that still means something at featherweight. The Irishman’s only defeat came in a rematch with Leo Santa Cruz after Frampton won their excellent first encounter. In Belfast, Frampton is wildly popular and the atmosphere should come through whatever screen fans are watching on.
Donaire may be past his best but he’s not appeared shot yet. A win here would still have merit for Frampton and be a source of pride for his fans.
For Donaire, this fight will have to be everything. A loss takes him away from contention and at his age the clock is ticking fast. Donaire’s admirable stance against PED use in his career may be most evident in the way he’s aged. Many fighters in the lower weight classes, especially fighters who win their first titles at flyweight, have shorter shelf lives. Donaire lost a step as he kept moving up in weight, and as the calendar turned. Past 30 years old, he wasn’t the same fighter.
30 used to be considered getting old in just about any weight class.
If he can go into Belfast and add one more big name, a final title shot is likely to develop and Donaire will have a chance to write a better finish than the loss to Magdaleno and fade from relevance since afforded him.
And if he can’t, at least for one more night Donaire will have been in a fight that makes the boxing world stop and look, even if ultimately to give a last tip of the cap.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]