This Saturday night from the historic Radio City Music Hall in New York, a pair of top super bantamweights (122 lbs) will meet in a world title unification fight, airing live on HBO at 11:00 p.m. ET.
Nonito Donaire of the Bay Area by way of the Philippines will take on Guillermo Rigondeaux of Cuba, now living in Miami, with the WBO (Donaire) and WBA (Rigondeaux) belts on the line. It is a fight that fans have wanted to see for months now, since Donaire, a former flyweight and bantamweight titlist (with an interim belt at super flyweight), moved up to 122 in 2012.
The A-Side: Nonito Donaire
The 30-year-old Donaire is the reigning Fighter of the Year for pretty much every notable boxing outlet with awards and that sort of thing, after a 2012 in which he went 4-0, with wins over Wilfredo Vazquez Jr, Jeffrey Mathebula, Toshiaki Nishioka, and Jorge Arce. He was favored in each bout, but all of the fights were against legitimate contenders, though the Arce fight especially was tailor-made for him stylistically.
With Manny Pacquiao entering the back-end of his glorious career, it may be up to Donaire to carry the flag for Filipino boxing for the time being. Pacquiao isn't done yet, and is certainly the much bigger star, but HBO has shown a serious dedication to Donaire that is uncommon for fighters of his size.
In general, HBO has not often showcased fighters below the featherweight (126 lbs) division. Donaire, however, is a special case. A charismatic, likeable fighter, and exciting when he's got the right matchup, Donaire has been on a torrid run since 2007, when he shockingly knocked out then-dominant flyweight titlist Vic Darchinyan on Showtime.
Darchinyan, a trash-talking Armenian fighter, had already beaten Nonito's older brother, Glenn Donaire, and Nonito entered the fight figured by observers to be just another opponent for the "Raging Bull," though one with at least some sort of storyline for the fight. Donaire was an unknown at the time, a 24-year-old with no really notable wins, who had lost his second professional bout back in 2001.
Instead, Nonito picked Darchinyan apart, before scoring a highlight-reel knockout on a gorgeous counter left hook. It would be a stretch to say he became an "instant star," but he became instantly known to serious fight fans, at any rate.
Since then, Donaire has had a somewhat turbulent career outside of the ring, but a highly successful journey inside the squared circle. He's changed his promoter, going from Gary Shaw to Top Rank in a split that was anything but amicable, and then in 2011, Donaire attempted to jump ship to Top Rank's bitter rival, Golden Boy Promotions. Top Rank claimed their contract with Donaire remained valid, and after an arbitration that followed some nasty comments from Top Rank's Bob Arum (including criticisms of the way Donaire's wife dresses), it was resolved: Top Rank still had promotional rights, and Donaire wasn't going to Golden Boy.
In time, the beef was squashed, and Top Rank put renewed vigor into their promotional push of the "Filipino Flash." When he made the jump to HBO, he was getting a golden opportunity, and it wasn't long before he became one of the key main event talents at the network, a big thing in a world that now sees HBO and Showtime dug in with rival promoters, going to TV war. With rising popularity both in the Philippines and United States, Donaire has become one of the bigger stars in boxing, fighting the old stereotypes that nobody cares about the little guys, who, as any serious boxing fan will tell you, often put on the best fights.
The B-Side: Guillermo Rigondeaux
When talk of a Donaire-Rigondeaux fight started banging around more seriously among fans and media in mid-2012, Donaire (31-1, 20 KO) sort of oddly distanced himself from the talk. Rigondeaux, an absolute legend in the amateur ranks, and a standout of the famed Cuban program, had defected in 2009 to start a pro career, leaving his family and friends behind to set out on a new journey.
Donaire said Rigondeaux needed more wins, mixed with complaints that Rigondeaux wasn't worth enough money. Donaire is reportedly being paid a $1.32 million purse for this fight, so the money worked out. And HBO wanted the fight, which made that possible. There was some feeling that Nonito didn't want anything to do with Rigondeaux -- not that he was scared, but that the style matchup didn't benefit him, and he knew it. But he's taken the bout, and in all pre-fight interviews and media appearances, looks and sounds exactly like he always does: Calm, cool, collected, and very confident.
Rigondeaux has the opportunity he has dreamed of with this matchup. Many Cuban fighters become lazy after they get into the pro ranks, and the vast majority of them fail to live up to their hype. Rigondeaux, arguably the most hyped Cuban defector ever, has thus far been as close to advertised as one could hope.
A brilliant counter-puncher and a technically excellent boxer, the 32-year-old southpaw has run up a record of 11-0 (8 KO). While he's been subject to some criticism for an often safety-first, unexciting style, Rigondeaux gets the job done, and has the power to make a difference. He is also, when he's totally on his game, a pinpoint accurate puncher, a fighter capable of frustrating and then demolishing inferior opponents.
Donaire, though, is considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, up there with Mayweather, Andre Ward, Sergio Martinez, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Pacquiao. Though Rigondeaux is an incredibly impressive tactician, he has not faced a fighter near Donaire's level as a professional. The likes of Ricardo Cordoba, Teon Kennedy, and Robert Marroquin simply aren't in that league.
Stylistically, this matchup does run the risk of being a bit of a chess match, and that's not for everyone. Though Rigondeaux promises to be more aggressive than usual, it's hard to imagine a veteran fighter like this, who has so honed his craft the way that Rigondeaux has, changing anything up when approaching the biggest fight of his life. For Rigondeaux, this is a massive opportunity -- he doesn't sell tickets, he doesn't have a big fan base, and yet if he wins this fight, he's the ruler in a competitive, interesting division. HBO has shown serious interest in his career, and beating Donaire would do nothing but supercharge their hype of him.
Both fighters are natural counter-punchers. Donaire has a reputation for excitement bigger than his actual history of providing thrilling fights. He has notched nasty knockouts against Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel, but those are aggressive, come-forward power punchers who leave openings for a skilled and powerful guy like Donaire. When Nonito gets a chance to land his counter left hook, it can be lights out in a hurry. He's deadly with that punch, and for signature shots in today's game, Donaire's left hook might be the best punch in the world, pound-for-pound.
Rigondeaux is much closer to Omar Narvaez than he is to Montiel or Darchinyan, or an overmatched guy like Wladimir Sidorenko, a Ukrainian fighter Donaire so thoroughly trounced in 2010 that he has not fought since. Narvaez, a crafty, smaller fighter from Argentina, had been an undefeated fighter, largely protected in his native country against second-tier (at best) opponents, defending flyweight and super flyweight titles for years.
For whatever reason, Top Rank and HBO put together a fight for October 2011, pitting Donaire against Narvaez at bantamweight. Anyone who was familiar with Narvaez -- which isn't a lot of the American audience, to be fair -- knew what to expect. Narvaez would avoid conflict, and probably cruise to a wide decision loss where he didn't get beaten up and didn't lose much value back home, all while getting a big payday. That's what we got, and it was a pretty miserable fight. Narvaez, a skilled fighter but physically overmatched against Donaire, didn't try to do much, but he was able to effectively neutralize some of Donaire's explosiveness, and he gave Nonito little to do with counter opportunities.
Rigondeaux has talent that eclipses that of Narvaez, and his team has likely studied the patches of minor success that Narvaez did have, and the subtleties of a largely forgotten performance from a fan perspective, that a trainer like Pedro Diaz may have been able to use to Team Rigondeaux's advantage in training camp.
It would be hard for Rigondeaux to win a decision against Donaire with an exact replica of Narvaez's game plan. He'll have to throw more punches than that, and that gives Donaire more chances to land the big blows that can either end the fight, or keep him in the judges' favor. Boxing's judges, the derided bunch that they are, tend to favor aggression in the United States, and if the fight is as bad to watch as some fear, that is probably going to favor Donaire, who has the bigger name and is, for all intents and purposes, "the house fighter." To get a decision win over Nonito in a truly dull fight, Rigondeaux would have to so obviously keep Donaire from doing much of anything that judges would have no choice but to score 10-9 rounds in his favor.
If, however, the fight really does open up some, and the fighters are more aggressive than some expect, all bets are off. These are two guys who excel at landing significant blows when opponents don't see them coming, and both have more than enough power to knock the other man out. There are some concerns about Rigondeaux's punch resistance, which if valid, could be a big tip in Donaire's favor.
Being honest, there aren't many major fights that feel like they're 50-50 on paper, or even close to that. Floyd Mayweather's mega-events always have him installed as a massive favorite, and the same can be said for fights involving Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, Manny Pacquiao (except when he faces Juan Manuel Marquez), and, usually, Donaire. This fight is legitimately debatable, but it's also one where those who think Donaire will win again are supremely confident in their pick, as are those who think Rigondeaux slams the brakes on Nonito's tear through boxing's lower weight classes.
It's a significant bout, as with Abner Mares having moved up to featherweight (and, being a Golden Boy fighter, impossible for either of these guys to fight anyway), the winner will leave the ring on Saturday night as the true king of the 122-pound division. Will Donaire charge through another respected foe, or will Rigondeaux begin to establish a real legacy that stretches beyond his phenomenal amateur career?
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