By Cliff Rold
It’s fitting that, during Halloween week, Nonito Donaire (38-5, 24 KO) will be fighting the demons of time trying to pull his career into the abyss as much as WBA bantamweight titlist Ryan Burnett (19-0, 9 KO).
Saturday (DAZN, 3 PM EST), the now 35-year old is in a position many an aging battler could relate to. His name has value, his body has miles, and the lure of what once tricks the older man into coming down the scale.
Boxing’s elder statesmen almost always take a last big loss to a young tiger, emboldened by the stories of those who came up with another big win or two before they did. It’s worth the risk, and the check, to try to be the exception before the rule kicks in.
The challenge is rarely steeper than when a fighter returns to a weight class long since abandoned. Terry Norris-Sugar Ray Leonard, Manny Pacquiao-Oscar-De La Hoya, and Jose Napoles-Emile Griffith are just a few examples. Those are all fights that would have been tough had the older man been in their primes. Coming back down the scale past those primes made it a fool’s errand. Making weight is hard work. Bodies change.
Some old clothes aren’t meant to be worn again.
This weekend, Donaire will head back to bantamweight for the first time since an October 2011 win over Omar Narvaez. His short stint in the class was memorable, featuring two devastating wins over Wladimir Sidorenko and Fernando Montiel, the latter for a unified portion of the crown.
It might have been his defining class if he’d stayed. Money talked and there was more money above 118 lbs. Donaire still got plenty done north of there, partially unifying titles at 122 and winning a belt at 126 lbs. There have been losses but for a fighter who won his first title at flyweight, it’s been more than enough for a Hall of Fame ledger.
If he can do what so few have, dropping back down the scale with success late in his career, he’ll further those credentials. Donaire isn’t back at bantamweight just for a night. The goal is to win three times and emerge the underdog winner of the World Boxing Super Series with a chance to add three more alphabet titles.
It won’t be an easy road from the start. Burnett could easily still have two belts but he gave up the IBF belt that is also part of the field on the other side of the brackets. Burnett isn’t a huge puncher but he’s tough, crafty, and young. The 26-year old has home court Saturday in Glasgow and the biggest name opponent of his career to date. It doesn’t matter that Donaire has lost two of his last three. Donaire is still dangerous enough to sound credible and famous enough to be motivating.
But what if Donaire is more than ‘sounds’ dangerous? What if this does end up being one of those great twilight runs?
The pieces are in place. For Donaire to win the WBSS, he’ll have to beat Burnett, Zolani Tete in the semi-finals, and the winner of Naoya Inoue-Emanuel Rodriguez in the final. Tete is the oldest available foe left in the field at 30. This would be a tough run of foes at any point in anyone’s career.
For a 35 year old fighting at a weight he hasn’t seen in seven years, it’s more than tough. It’s the sort of run that would be career redefining. Donaire, who didn’t stay long enough at bantamweight to make a case as a great one in the class, might be able to recast his place in the 118 lb. annals. He’d do it against multiple styles and, if it ended with Inoue, against a fighter seen as perhaps even more offensively devastating than Donaire once was.
It would mean a lot because so little is expected. Most folks probably figure Donaire to lose this weekend. If he doesn’t, he’ll stay the underdog in each preceding round. An older fighter scoring a big upset isn’t impossible. Scoring three of them in a row feels like it might be.
It all adds together to make Donaire-Burnett one of the more interesting quarterfinal matches in any of the WBSS fields so far. History says Donaire is probably at the end, his name providing some extra pizzazz to another generation. The possibility that Donaire could make one last run of it would be a history all its own.
Burnett-Donaire is part of what should be a really good card. The last WBSS quarterfinal at Jr. welterweight, Josh Taylor-Ryan Martin, could be a show stealer…The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best binge shows in a long time. Just marvelous stuff…ESPN+ has a gem Saturday as well. Miguel Berchelt-Mickey Roman is going to be violent until it’s done. Berchelt doesn’t get the acclaim he probably should and continues to improve. Roman is the sort of veteran who could bring something extra out of him…Fres Oquendo turning down a WBA title fight after all the things that have gone on over the years to fulfill his obligatory shot (while he hasn’t had to get in the ring at all) might be the best combination of awesome and absurd in the sport this year.
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]