Nonito Donaire sat next to Reymart Gaballo at their pre-fight press conference, no hangers on or dais between them as is customary in boxing. It would have been pointless to feign the necessity of barriers or restraint between two fighters who genuinely liked one another, and in Gaballo’s case, idolized his foe. As it turned out, there was a more practical reason for Donaire to sit next to Gaballo, as he wound up acting as a translator for Gaballo at one point. As Gaballo described what he needed to watch out for against Donaire, he looked to Donaire for the English translation of what he was saying.
“It’s more than just the left hook that I have to look out for, he’s saying that I also have other arsenal that I have to look out for,” said Donaire, translating for Gaballo.
It was a touching moment of humility from Donaire, a bona fide star and future Hall of Famer, helping his opponent communicate to the press. At 39 years of age, Donaire is old enough to have been an active fighter’s favorite fighter when Gaballo was growing up. With title reigns in three separate decades, one of nine men to hold that claim, Donaire has been a top-level fighter as full generations of boxers have come and gone.
“I was that little shy kid. Just very innocent and very shy, but when I came in here, I was hungry. I saw a little bit of that when we were in the press conference. He was a really nice kid, and I was like that,” said Donaire during media availability following the bout.
As kind and novel as Donaire’s translation pinch-hitting was, it also turned out to be him foreshadowing the end of the bout on his opponent’s behalf. On Saturday night, Donaire scored yet another sensational knockout victory, stopping Gaballo in four rounds to retain his WBC bantamweight title.
For the better part of four rounds, Donaire threw mostly right hands to the body and head of Gaballo. Donaire’s wife and trainer Rachel later admitted that Gaballo did a good job nullifying Nonito’s left hand in the early going. There were times visible in slow motion replay when it was obvious that Donaire was thinking about throwing his left, but opted to wait for a better opportunity.
In the closing moments of the fourth, he found the one he was looking for. With Gaballo along the ropes, he landed a left hook to the body that clearly caught Gaballo’s attention. Gaballo spun out to the center of the ring, and Donaire followed. Then, Donaire threw a perfect short left hook to the body mid-pivot for a right hand. Gaballo was already on his way down to the canvas in the fraction of a second it took for Donaire to throw the right hand behind it, and wouldn’t rise from the mat before the count of ten.
Donaire circled the ring in celebration as he has many times following a knockout, and jumped up onto the ropes to pose for the crowd. But then, seemingly with more urgency than he had for celebrating, he ran to the center of the ring to comfort Gaballo, who was still on the mat recovering from the body blow.
“I told him don't be disappointed. You did a great job, you're gonna be a champion, and whatever I can do to help you, I will help you, I can promise you that,” said Donaire.
Donaire is an atypical fighter in many ways, but his outward compassion for his opponents may be one of the rarer traits he possesses. Most fighters embrace in the ring following a bout, and some even become friends, as Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti did. In general, once a fight is over, fighters are able to see one another as human beings and not mere obstacles. For Donaire however, it seems to be front of mind. Offering to help and mentor an opponent seconds after knocking them out is several strides beyond sportsmanship, it’s uncommon generosity.
Perhaps at his advanced age, Donaire has softened a little and embraced his role as one of the sport’s wise elders. Bell to bell however, nothing has softened about Donaire at all. Donaire is the oldest bantamweight champion in history, a record of his that he broke when he defeated Nordine Oubaali for the WBC strap earlier this year. Generally speaking, fighters at 118 pounds peak early in their careers and either age out, move way up in weight or a combination of the two—29 is generally on the older end of the lighter weight classes, let alone 39.
There was a time not that long ago when it looked like Donaire had finally lost the battle to Father Time. In 2015, Donaire had an absolute war with the unheralded Cesar Juarez in which Donaire looked extremely tough, but far less mobile and more hittable than ever before. After flirting with 126 pounds once again for a handful of fights, Donaire did the unthinkable and went back down to 118, where he’s enjoyed one of the more impressive runs of his career, all things considered, and says he feels “better than he did in his 20s.”
“I don't ever look at the age. The guys I'm sparring with are younger than me and I'm doing a pretty good job with them,” said Donaire, referring to his main sparring partners Angelo Leo and Tomoki Kameda. “I don't see age. If I crack you with one punch and it's gonna hit, I don't care if I'm 50 years old, you're going down.”
What’s most impressive about Donaire’s performance at this age is his ability to use the same tools—reflexes, foot speed and power—to win fights as he did in his younger days. Every fighter gets a little smarter, a little wiser with each passing fight, but there generally reaches a point where their knowledge exceeds their ability to utilize it. Donaire is one of the lucky ones who is able to use the wisdom acquired through his golden years with a level of athleticism reminiscent of his prime athletic years. Not only that, he still feels he’s improving.
“We create the strategy looking at foot placement. That's what (Rachel) kept telling me. Nullify his foot, square him up, then look at the upper body and counter. So our tandem is really great, and that's something I didn't have in the fight with (Naoya) Inoue. That's something that will be a key factor this time around,” said Donaire.
Donaire’s audacious goals include a rematch with Inoue and also a potential move down to 115 pounds for bouts against Roman Gonzalez and Juan Francisco Estrada. Merely participating in those fights would add to a resume that has few peers amongst active fighters—victories in them could potentially make him peerless. If all active fighters retired today and were made Hall of Fame eligible, how many could you reasonably vote in on the first ballot ahead of Donaire? Canelo Alvarez may be the only active fighter with a comparable resume, and at 39, somehow, Donaire is not done adding to his.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @corey_erdman