By Jake Donovan
Earlier this month marked the 15th anniversary of the launching of HBO’s Boxing After Dark series. The idea was to provide an outlet for fighters not quite as known as those showcased on the network’s World Championship Boxing series, offering fan-friendly fights predominantly in the lower weight classes.
If the series happened to be created today with the same concept in mind, there’s no question that the fight HBO would have in mind for its premiere is this weekend’s bantamweight championship between friendly rivals Fernando Montiel and Nonito Donaire.
The very first main event took place four pounds north in a super bantamweight clash between then-unbeaten Marco Antonio Barrera and former champ Kennedy McKinney. Complete with multiple knockdowns and momentum shifts throughout, the bout became an instant classic and to this day remains one of the best fights in the series’ history.
It was a watershed moment for the network, which hadn’t dabbled very often in lower weight fights but regularly showcased the sport’s little big men in the years that followed.
Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas returns to that tradition, when HBO takes a rare peek into the bantamweight division.
Even if it’s not the norm, a matchup pitting a pair of bona fide pound-for-pound entrants is way too tempting for anyone to pass up.
“The Montiel-Donaire showdown features two of the most accomplished little men in the sport,” states Kery Davis, Senior Vice President of Programming for HBO Sports. “It’s as good as any match-up you will see in the smaller weight classes.”
It’s also as good as any Boxing After Dark fight that has been shown in recent – and perhaps even distant – memory, as none of the B.A.D. entrants from 2010 certainly measured up.
HBO had its share of Fight of the Year candidates, including the World Championship Boxing season finale between Amir Khan and Marcos Maidana. There was plenty of cause for alarm as far as its sister series went, however. The majority of the shows were showcase fights that served as either an investment into the future, or favors doled out to business associates.
Once the bell sounded to end the 12-round junior welterweight fight between Zab Judah and Lucas Matthysse last November, it was realized that the network needed to regroup and determine the best course of action to take for 2011.
HBO had to offer more than what Maxboxing.com senior writer Steve Kim often refers to as “the Groundhog Day speech,” where the network brass promises to offer better quality while spending less, only to eventually revert to recent form.
No such speech was offered this year. Instead, the network simply chose to allow its product to speak for itself.
The three-month gap between Boxing After Dark telecasts gave them time to build up this particular bantamweight contest, which comes at an ideal time. A separate four-man bantamweight tournament has been staged across the street, with the first round taking place last December.
Both Montiel and Donaire were invited to participate, but promoter Bob Arum declined the offer. At the time, he insisted that they were on a collision course to face each other, though most who know him best took a wait-and-see approach. Wolf tickets have been sold by the Hall of Fame promoter on many an occasion and most of the signs surrounding this matchup pointed towards it being placed on the back burner while attempting to maximize earning potential.
The greatest concern was how soon Montiel (44-2-2, 34KO) would recover from a motorcycle accident last year. Those fears were alleviated upon his ring return last December, steamrolling through late sub Jovanny Soto in two rounds in his native Mexico.
The level of opposition aside, Montiel showed no lingering effects from the wreck, and appeared ready for yet another fight against one of the sport’s best.
Montiel takes this fight less than a year removed from his upset knockout win over longtime bantamweight titleholder Hozumi Hasegawa. Perhaps even more impressive about the seemingly unlikely result was his traveling to Japan in order to accomplish the feat, gaining universal recognition as the best bantamweight in the world in the process.
The win over Hasegawa also served as instant validation for an otherwise erratic career, which included not one but two opportunities to shine on Boxing After Dark.
His last shot at fame on the Network of Champions came five years ago, when as a super flyweight he moved up in weight only to fall short against then-bantamweight titlist Jhonny Gonzalez in a surprisingly dull contest.
Five years later, he’s granted perhaps one last shot at a lasting impression.
“That fight against Gonzalez I think was a question of styles. We just couldn’t get together. His style and my style could never match that night. It was a difficult fight for both of us and we each wanted to show something and it wasn’t possible.”
What made the performance all the more unforgiving was the fact that it came three years after he stunk out the joint in a lethargic points loss against badly faded Mark Johnson.
The difference between the two fights is that Montiel took to heart what was said about him after losing to Gonzalez.
“After the fight I heard the criticism and thought I needed to do something about it and I did. I changed my style and became more aggressive. I wanted to give people a better show – a better fight. I think I have done that. My style is better and it has shown in my fights. Now I get another opportunity on HBO and I’m not going to mess it up – I’m going to do real well.”
How well he does is entirely up to how accommodating or troublesome the guy in the opposite corner proves to be.
It’s been nearly a decade since anyone has been able to do really well against Donaire (25-1, 17KO), whose lone loss came in his second pro fight and has since won 24 straight.
Several televised appearances have been granted to the transplanted Filipino, but it wasn’t until his shocking one-punch knockout of then-unbeaten flyweight champ Vic Darchinyan did the boxing world serve proper notice.
Unfortunately for Donaire, the win was possibly too much, too soon – for the industry, that is.
“Everybody was shocked,” Donaire recalls of the night that announced his arrival as one of the very best in the world. “The whole world was shocked. Promoters were shocked. People wondered if it was a fluke or not.”
Based on his continued success and his general demeanor, it’s safe to say that we saw the real Donaire on that July ’07 evening in Connecticut.
The problem is that far too many in the sport haven’t seen enough of him. All but two of his bouts since then have been staged on independent pay-per-view broadcasts.
He’s looked sensational in all of them, including his one-sided fourth-round knockout of former bantamweight champ Wladimir Sidirenko last December, enough to keep the world convinced that he belongs among the sport’s elite.
For the first time since he blitzed Darchinyan, Donaire is afforded the opportunity to verify that he’s every bit as good as advertised.
“I think Montiel is the most complete fighter I will have faced, the biggest fight of my career. This is the biggest opportunity I have gotten since I am on top and I am very grateful for it. Now I have to make it happen. I do have the talent and I make it exciting for everybody.”
Excitement is all that Boxing After Dark fans have ever asked for, with the caveat that it also comes in relevant fights. The winner of this weekend’s headliner boasts a strong claim as the best bantamweight in the world, just to underline the significance of the matchup.
“Both men are considered among the best pound for pound fighters in the sport,” Davis acknowledges. “There is no better way to kick off the new season of Boxing After Dark.”
There’s also no better way to return the series to the way things were.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .