By Jake Donovan
Drop the name ‘Omar Narvaez’ to the casual boxing fan and that’s most likely response you’ll get. Don’t be surprised if even several among the sport’s hardcore base gives you a double take before they may or may not give you an informed opinion on the subject.
For all of his accomplishments as a pro and amateur, that has sadly been the story of the hard-nosed Argentinean throughout his boxing life.
He remains every bit as anonymous heading into this weekend’s showcase bout, where he has become known as merely ‘that guy who’s fighting Nonito Donaire’ at Madison Square Garden’s The Theatre (Saturday, HBO 10:30PM ET).
It doesn’t help that he hasn’t been involved in any part of the promotion for this weekend’s show, be it conference calls, press conferences or even available for the occasional quote.
The fight marks a several amount of firsts for Narvaez (35-0-2, 19KO). It’s his first fight at bantamweight, after having amassed a record of 20-0-1 in title fights at flyweight and super flyweight over the past nine years.
It’s also his first appearance on HBO, with his exposure to American boxing audiences limited mostly to showcase fights on Argentinean-based TyC network or after-the-fact YouTube viewings.
Finally, it’s his first trip to the United States in his 11-year career, after having spent most of his career in his native Argentina, but with the occasional European vacation if the challenge warranted the road trip.
Sadly, all of those matters figure to be one and done – and few will seem to notice.
All of which begs the question – just who the hell is Omar Narvaez?
A two-time member of Argentina’s Olympic boxing squad, Narvaez proved to be a highly decorated amateur, having won the Gold medal at the 1999 Pan Am games, and the Silver medal in the World Amateur Championships that same year.
His trips to the Summer Olympics in 1996 and 2000 both ended in similar fashion – opening round win before bowing out in the second round of competition. Despite not sticking around very far, he to this day can take great pride in becoming the last fighter - pro or amateur – to hang a loss on Joan Guzman, outpoining the future two-division titlist in the opening round of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
Two years after turning pro, the squat Argentinean became the first among any Olympic boxer from the 2000 Summer Games to win an alphabet title, scoring a landslide decision over Adonis Rivas. The win kicked off a seven-year title reign, racking up 16 defenses along the way. The tally is only second to Pongsaklek Wonjongkam for the most in division history.
The problems with the longtime run are a plenty. They both reigned at the same time, with Wonjongkam serving as the division’s lineal champ (having lost and regained it over the course of Narvaez’ own run). The fact that they were able to simultaneously enjoy such lengthy title reigns left many to wonder why they never met in the ring.
As is often the case with any other fight that doesn’t get made, it came down to money and comfort level. Both are big enough draws in the home land to where it’s not always advantageous to stray far from the nest. There were never any attempts for Narvaez to unify alphabet titles with Wonjongkam.
The closest he came to notoriety beyond home came in 2007, when a proposed showdown with then-uneaten Vic Darchinyan began to gain traction. Those plans hit the crapper the moment Darchinyan’s title reign ended – fittingly enough, at the hands of Donaire.
It was back to the drawing board for Narvaez, who also never saw talks with Lorenzo Parra of Venezuela advance beyond talk. It was a subject for which he somehow managed to absorb most of the blame since Parra had developed a reputation as a road warrior.
Fittingly enough, Parra’s reign ended in Japan just nine days after Narvaez scored his own road win in dominating Brahim Asloum of France. The bout was a highly anticipated clash between members of the 2000 Olympic Games, and given the location and interest was supposed to serve as Asloum’s coronation.
Instead, it became what served at the time as a career defining win for Narvaez, who dominated enough of the early action to get away with coasting down the stretch and still managing a sizeable points win on the road.
His performance in that fight – which included an early round knockdown – told another side of Narvaez, and also a reason why his chances in this weekend’s showdown with Donaire shouldn’t be so quickly discounted. The win showcased his ability to effortlessly transition between brawler and boxer over the course of a fight, without sacrificing skill.
Simply put, Narvaez is the type that needs to be challenged in order to rise to the occasion.
There are plenty of fights among his seven year title reign that reek of going through the motions, but any champion will grow complacent when not properly challenged. Just ask his opponent this weekend, as Donaire has taken both his current promoter (Top Rank) and former (Gary Shaw) to task when he felt like his career wasn’t heading in the right direction.
Proof that such applies to Narvaez exists in the best wins of his career – dominant points wins over Rivas, Asloum and Carlos Tamara, as well as his snatching the “0” from young, rising contenders Rayonta Whitfield and Cesar Seda. The latter two were heavily hyped going in and boasted advantages in youth and size. They both went home empty handed.
The win over Whitfield was perhaps the highest profile fight in Narvaez’ career, and represents some hope that he stands a chance at scoring an upset on Saturday, even if some of the comparisons are a bit of a stretch.
Whitfield entered their February ’09 clash as a highly touted American challenger with a rich amateur pedigree. He was assumed to pose a major threat based on his fight background as well as being younger (six years), taller (four inches) and with a wider wingspan than the 5’3” Argentinean, whom many speculated was beginning to decline.
Instead, Narvaez made it look easy, pitching a virtual shutout before stopping Whitfield in the 10th round. The win pushed him one title defense past the legendary Carlos Monzon for the most in the history of any Argentina-based fighter at the championship level.
The celebration didn’t last very long, nor was it particularly loud. Narvaez was back in the ring four months later, having since won six more fights. Four of those fights have come in his current super flyweight title reign, which came after vacating his flyweight belt last year.
Narvez’ stay at super flyweight is the second straight division in which he and Donaire had simultaneously served as titlists, yet it took for his moving up to bantamweight in order to secure the one fight that will finally garner worldwide attention.
Take all of the aforementioned credentials and apply it to any given fighter regularly showcased on American airwaves, and phrases such as “legendary”, “Hall-of-Fame bound” and “pound-for-pound” are to be found in any given write-up.
For the other side of this weekend’s headlining act in the marketing capital of the world, “who?” remains the most common phrase in describing that guy facing Nonito Donaire.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .