By Jake Donovan, photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank
Nonito Donaire hits New York City in a big way. The Fil-Am boxing star enters this weekend’s showdown with Guillermo Rigondeaux on the heels of a Fighter of the Year campaign in 2012, for which he will be officially honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America on Thursday evening.
A win on Saturday - which airs live on HBO from Radio City Music Hall in New York City (Saturday, 11PM ET) would go a long way towards strengthening his credentials as one of the very best fighters in the world, regardless of any weight class. A spectacular win would go a long way towards making everyone forget about his last trip to New York City.
“I think there will be fireworks this time,” Donaire (31-1, 20KO) promises. “It may be a chess match. We are both defensive because we can see the punches coming, but when it comes down to the fight we are both aggressive and offensive guys so I don’t think it will be anything near that fight [with Omar Narvaez] and the people in New York and the people watching on HBO will have a treat.”
Donaire hit New York in October 2011, eight months removed from among the biggest wins in his career when he drilled Fernando Montiel in two rounds. Out-of-the ring drama and politics (mostly his own doing) led to an extended inactive period prior to returning to the ring against Narvaez, an unbeaten 115 lb. titlist moving up in weight, at Madison Square Garden’s The Theatre.
The fight turned out to be a stinker, in large part due to Narvaez’ unwillingness to engage. Donaire shared some of the blame, showing an inability to cut off the ring and preventing his opponent from moving all evening.
Four big wins followed in 2012, allowing Donaire to put his lone trip to New York very far in the rearview mirror. Now he’s forced to return near the scene of the crime, with the weekend’s show taking place at Radio City Music Hall.
Whether he’s able to win this weekend’s tough bout by knockout or decision isn’t anywhere nearly important as winning those over in attendance.
“I am thankful for the fans so I want to give them the best treat that I can and that’s why I am not afraid to get hit or to take hits,” states Donaire. “I am there to give as much excitement as I can. “The fans are there for me and I am thankful for them for supporting me throughout this time and to me that’s important.”
Historically, Donaire has proven to be at his best when the stakes are highest. A three-division champ, Donaire took on the very best at that weight class rather than attempt to nibble around the edges in an era of multiple belts.
The win that officially put the California-based fighter on the map was his upset knockout win over Vic Darchinyan way back in July ’07. It lands directly in the middle of a current 30-fight win streak, with his lone loss coming in his second pro fight. Prior to facing Darchinyan, Donaire was an obscure flyweight, with a couple of televised performances on ESPN2 and Shobox that didn’t leave much of an impression on the boxing world.
Knocking out Darchinyan – an unbeaten flyweight champ at the time – certainly registered with the masses. So, too, did his explosive 2nd round knockout win over then-unified bantamweight titlist Fernando Montiel two years ago in Las Vegas, as did – to a certain degree – last October’s 9th round stoppage win over Toshiaki Nishioka to lay claim as the lineal super bantamweight champion.
For all of the great performances against great fighters, there have also come nights where winning would have to be settled for, in place of looking spectacular.
The question heading into this weekend is how he will look against Rigondeaux, a 32-year old Cuban southpaw once regarded as the greatest amateur in the world. His talents carried over into the pro ranks, winning an alphabet belt in just his ninth pro fight (capturing an interim belt two fights prior) and already boxing his way to among the best in the super bantamweight division.
What many wonder regarding this weekend is how Donaire will solve the general counterpunching style of Rigondeaux without delivering his second straight Big Apple stinker.
“it is impossible to say what I will do because I am a fighter who is given a situation and reacts to that situation and whatever that may be I know I have the power and weapons,” Donaire explains. “It may be the left or it may be the right. I know I have power in both hands and that’s what makes me scary. I have power from all angles and the overhands or I have the straight punches.
“Rigondeaux has the same thing, power in both hands. But it’s going to be a great fight. To set things in motion I have to put the energy out there to make him engage or do whatever I want him to do.”
Rigondeaux (11-0, 8KO) undoubtedly comes in with stellar credentials, but the fight wasn’t Donaire’s first choice as an opponent for his first fight of 2013 following a Fighter of the Year campaign. The boxing world clamored for a showdown with unbeaten Abner Mares, who has been chasing a showdown with Donaire since the days when both ranked as the best two bantamweights in the world.
The ‘Cold War’ between Top Rank (Donaire’s promoter) and Golden Boy Promotions (Mares’ promoter) prevented that fight from becoming a reality, but all parties involved in this weekend’s show are content with the alternative.
“He’s an incredible fighter,” Donaire believes of Rigondeaux. “Having only 11 fights and becoming world champion – he’s an elite fighter. That’s why after Mares fell through he was the next guy in line. We want to fight the best. We want to clean up this division – that is the goal my team has.”
The fight was on the table for a while, but one that never quite piqued Donaire’s interest, despite the ease in which it could have been made. Rigondeaux became an official 122 lb. titlist last January with an emphatic one-sided stoppage win over Rico Ramos, one month before Donaire arrived in the division with a decision win over former titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.
Donaire would win three more fights in the 122 lb. division, all taking place in 2012. A points win over Jeffrey Mathebula allowed the 30-year old the distinction of becoming a unified titlist, while stopping Nishioka crowned him as the division’s best.
By comparison, the rest of Rigondeaux’ year wasn’t as spectacular, but enough to convince the boxing world that he’s as tough an out as they come. Wins over Teon Kennedy and Robert Marroquin hardly rated in the grand scheme of things. They were enough to regard the southpaw as among the division’s best and even develop a cult following.
Once a showdown with Mares was off the table, the progress of the next best guy in line was enough to convince Donaire that was the direction in which he needed to head.
“In the beginning when I followed Rigondeaux, I wasn’t impressed with the Ricardo Cordoba fight, but the more that I watched him fight I realized he is more worthy of it,” Donaire admits. “But first things first, I wanted to go Abner Mares first then Rigondeaux but that fight didn’t happen and now that I have been watching Rigondeaux the more formidable I see him.
“When you do this for a while, like I have, you tend to be motivated by having a good fighter in front of you and that is why I disregarded Rigondeaux in the beginning because of the Cordoba fight, so when the fight with Mares didn’t happen, Rigondeaux was the next guy in line. The more that I watched him fight, the more excited I got about the fight. He has a lot of talent and that’s why I am training hard for this fight.”
The final piece of the puzzle in making this fight happen was getting the Cuban to agree to random drug testing. A factor in the majority of media outlets hailing Donaire as Fighter of the Year was his stance on drugs in sports, specifically in boxing. With that came the mid-summer announcement subjecting himself to true random drug testing every day of the year at any given time.
With nothing else standing in the way and the fighters days away from their highly anticipated showdown, all that’s left to prove is why he serves as the reigning Fighter of the Year – and perhaps further convincing to his fans in New York who didn’t go home quite as satisfied as expected the last time he hit town.
“I think, and you know me as a fighter, I want people to have fun and I will always go for the knockout if given the opportunity,” Donaire promises.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board, Yahoo Boxing Ratings Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox