'Underdog' Donaire Jr. fights to prove that he's still great
MANILA, Philippines - In the ninth round of his most recent fight, Nonito Donaire Jr. found himself in a scenario that he had never previously encountered in his long boxing career.
Donaire, down on the scorecards and with multiple fractures in his cheekbone, needed to knock out Vic Darchinyan or he'd lose by decision. This was in stark contrast to his first meeting with Darchinyan, when he knocked the Australia-based Armenian flat with one single hook in 2007.
"In the middle rounds all I could think is, 'Is this it for me? Am I done?,'" recalled Donaire Jr. (32-2, 21 knockouts) of his November rematch with Darchinyan. "This is the guy that I knocked out pretty easy the first fight so I was pushing myself. It's so much easier to roll over and just say 'forget it, why do I have to suffer more? Why do I have to feel like I can go another round? I can just stop it here right now. I will have an excuse because I have fractures in my face and I could just make it as an excuse.'"
The four-division champion from San Leandro, Calif. by way of Talibon, Bohol opted for the more forbidding road over the high road.
"But I realized that I have more balls than what I think I give myself credit for. I could not allow myself to do it," said Donaire, of the performance that resulted in a ninth-round knockout win.
The courageous performance salvaged Donaire's reputation among the top fighters of the lighter divisions and earned him a shot at IBF featherweight titleholder Simphiwe Vetyeka of South Africa on May 31 at the Venetian Resort in Macau.
Donaire, who arrived in the Philippines with wife Rachel and eight-month-old son Jarel on Monday to attend the 14th Gabriel "Flash" Elorde Awards at Sofitel in Pasay City, will train for the bout at the Elorde Boxing Gym in Paranaque City.
The bout is an opportunity for Donaire to win a title in his fifth division, earning him entrance into an exclusive club that includes Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard. But perhaps more importantly, it's an opportunity to show that he is still among the best fighters in boxing.
Donaire, who won the Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year Award for 2012, sustained a decision loss to Guillermo Rigondeaux last year before the rocky outing against Darchinyan. The back-to-back poor showings have raised doubts among boxing media about whether Donaire could compete against the best of the featherweight divisions.
A win over Vetyeka would go a long way towards disproving that belief. The 33-year-old Vetyeka (26-2, 12 KOs) is coming off a knockout victory over Indonesia's Chris John, who held the featherweight title for close to a decade.
"Some writers are saying that I'm going to be the underdog going into this fight. So you know the caliber of the guy in front of me."
Donaire hasn't been an underdog since the first Darchinyan fight, which earned him the IBF flyweight title and The Ring magazine's Knockout of the Year honor. As someone who had overcome asthma and bullying as a child, it's a position he's familiar with.
"I've spent my whole life as an underdog," said Donaire. "When you're the underdog, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You've just got to perform, do your best. No one is really giving too much of what you can achieve.
"There's not much pressure, that's why becoming a world champion and staying a world champion for a long time is the biggest challenge because there's just so many expectations from the people."
The 31-year-old Donaire admits that he had struggled to remain hungry as a fighter. In an effort to restore some of the circumstances that initially brought him success, Donaire Jr. reunited with his father Nonito Donaire Sr. as his day-to-day trainer shortly before the Darchinyan rematch. The pair had split in 2008 but have since reconciled their differences.
"To be able to use my head all over again," said Donaire when asked what his father brings to the table. "I had just gotten used to just going with the flow; this time around we're returning back to how we fought, using my head, becoming a better counterpuncher and a faster fighter and just an all-around type of fighter like I was before. That's something that is coming back, and it's a blessing that we have two months or more to work for the next fight."
If Donaire were to retire tomorrow, his legacy would be solid enough to earn him first-ballot entrance into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Still, Donaire feels he isn't yet done. As the bad taste of his most recent performances linger in his mouth, he's fighting to prove that he isn't just a good fighter still. He's fighting to prove that he's still a great fighter.
"There was diminishing of that (hunger)," admits Donaire. "But with everything now – the defeat, the family, the son, and knowing that I'm at the crossroads of whether I want to continue or not, whether I still the fire and knowing that, then the hunger becomes intensified better than before I was a world champion. I think that you'll see a much more hungrier fighter than ever.
"(The Darchinyan rematch) was actually the fight that woke me up. I realized that I do truly want to be here, that I want to be on top." - Rappler.com
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.