I’ve never been a Nonito Donaire cheerleader.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize his talents.
He’s clearly a world-class operator, obviously has world-class punching power and certainly has shared the ring with some world-class competition.
It’s just that I’ve never been quite as high on him as a lot of my colleagues.
A few years back, as he basked in the glow of a “Fighter of the Year” nod from the Boxing Writers Association of America, I told all who’d listen that Guillermo Rigondeaux was all wrong for him.
Twelve rounds later, all who’d voted for him saw how wrong it turned out.
And in subsequent years, though the masses tended to embellish wins over a faded Vic Darchinyan, an ordinary Zsolt Bedak and an injured Ryan Burnett, I reminded them that each time the “Filipino Flash” climbed in with anything resembling a healthy high-end foe – read: Nicholas Walters, Jessie Magdaleno and/or Carl Frampton – the results were more indicative of his true standing.
For those scoring at home, that’s a loss by TKO and two more by wide unanimous decisions.
Not exactly worthy of an association honor roll.
And when it comes to enshrinement in Canastota, let’s just say my needle doesn’t reach “automatic.”
But given the events of last week in Japan, it has inched a bit closer to “consideration.”
I’ll admit here that when Donaire’s match with Naoya Inoue for the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight championship was made, I worried more about the veteran’s safety than his strategy.
There was simply no way, I reasoned, that a nearly 37-year-old whose last worthwhile win at 118 pounds came in Barack Obama’s first term, could conceivably hang with a beastly 20-something who’d already laid waste to reigning champs in three weight classes.
So my pre-fight pick in this space echoed those sentiments:
“Donaire is unbeaten as a bantamweight. He’s got a long resume full of title-level success. But he’s in over his head here. Inoue is too young and too good. He’ll dominate. Inoue in 5 (100/0)”
Needless to say, it went a little differently than I’d expected.
Not only wasn’t Donaire beaten into submission in 15 minutes, he arrived to the fight’s midpoint having already cut and bloodied his much-heralded foe – then pushed the Japanese monster to the brink of extinction with punishing counter shots and lead right hands, forcing him to dig into a reservoir of grit left untapped by Jamie McDonnell (TKO 1), Juan Carlos Payano (KO 1) and Emmanuel Rodriguez (KO 2).
If I hadn’t seen it with my own sleep-deprived eyes, I’d have not believed it.
As I did, though, it reminded me of a much bigger fight.
Saitama’s Super Arena is roughly 8,000 miles from Wembley Stadium, but the old-vs-young contrast seemed similar to what Anthony Joshua was dragged through in London by a dogged Wladimir Klitschko – a stirring loss that pushed the Ukrainian’s stock higher than it had peaked in a dozen pedestrian wins.
Donaire, more than 120 pounds lighter, got his foil over in similarly herculean fashion.
And like Joshua down the stretch in 2017, a battered Inoue was able to pull a glove-clad rabbit from his hat this time around, shaking off significant facial injuries to drop the Filipino and pull away to a rugged, fight-of-the-year quality unanimous decision that was correctly scored 117-109, 116-111 and 114-113.
The young man was the deserving winner.
But the old man surely earned his own victory lap, too.
And assuming he never climbs through the ropes again, he finished far better than he’d started.
“I admire Donaire,” Inoue said. “He is a true champion.”
I couldn’t agree more, Naoya. I couldn’t agree more.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
IBO light heavyweight title – Halle an der Saale, Germany
Sven Fornling (champion/No. 28 IWBR) vs. Dominic Boesel (No. 11 IBO/No. 14 IWBR)
Fornling (15-1, 7 KO): First title defense; Five wins since lone career loss in 2016 (5-0, 1 KO)
Boesel (29-1, 11 KO): First title fight; Five wins since lone career loss in 2017 (5-0, 2 KO)
Fitzbitz says: There’s not a lot to separate these guys. Boxrec, in fact, has them ranked a spot apart. But one guy beat Karo Murat and the other was stopped by him. Tie broken. Fornling by decision (55/45)
Vacant IBO super featherweight title – London, United Kingdom
Francisco Fonseca (No. 27 IBO/Unranked IWBR) vs. Alex Dilmaghani (No. 37 IBO/No. 91 IWBR)
Fonseca (25-2-1, 19 KO): Third title fight (0-2); Lost tries for IBF’s 130-pound title in 2017 and 2018
Dilmaghani (19-1, 8 KO): First title fight; Third fight where official weight will be 130 or less (2-0, 2 KO)
Fitzbitz says: I typed a pick suggesting a Fonseca win, then erased it to correct the wording. And by the time I came back, I’d changed my mind. Remind me of that if he wins. Dilmaghani by decision (51/49)
WBA cruiserweight title – Paris, France
Arsen Goulamirian (champion/No. 8 IWBR) vs. Kane Watts (No. 11 WBA/No. 68 IWBR)
Goulamirian (24-0, 16 KO): First title defense; Four straight wins by KO/TKO (32 rounds, Average: 8)
Watts (21-3, 13 KO): First title fight; First fight outside of Australia
Fitzbitz says: It remains to be seen whether Goulamirian will be a dominant champion or a historical footnote, but there’s little reason to believe his undefeated record ends here. Goulamirian in 8 (85/15)
Last week's picks: 4-0 (WIN: Inoue, Oubaali, Herring, Saunders)
2019 picks record: 89-17 (83.9 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,100-360 (75.3 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.