April 11, 2013

KO Digest Previews Nonito Donaire ~vs~ Guillermo Rigondeaux

By Gopal Rao — Ever since dismantling a flyweight Vic Darchinyan in 2007, Nonito Donaire has enjoyed a career arc reminiscent of Oscar De La Hoya. Like Oscar before him, Nonito has climbed through numerous weight classes and yet still appeared to be the bigger man in almost all the matchups. And like De La Hoya, Donaire has done it with the benefit of fast hands, a sturdy chin, and a beautiful left hook that has seemed at times like the only weapon he would ever need to demolish anybody in his way.

But the stardom he's achieved has brought a healthy serving of skepticism along with it, just as it did for De La Hoya in the late 90's and early 00's. There are still many fans and observers who insist that Donaire's success is the product of careful matchmaking and savvy marketing, and that the express train to stardom will be derailed as soon as he gets in the ring opposite a fighter in his prime with bona fide pound-for-pound credentials.

With that comparison in mind, former Cuban Olympic gold medalist Guillermo "The Jackal" Rigondeaux stands poised to propel himself to stardom at Donaire's expense by upsetting the applecart in the same way that fighters like Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins once did with De La Hoya.

Donaire vs Rigondeaux is one of the biggest fights of 2013 in terms of its potential to shake up the pound-for-pound rankings, and for its relative place within the storied history of the 122 lb division. So how do the fighters stack up against each other, and what should we look for in this WBO/WBA super bantamweight unification fight when the opening bell rings on April 13th at Radio City Music Hall in New York City?

Of the two, Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs) is the fighter more recognized for his punching power due to highlight reel knockouts scored in lower weight classes. And although Donaire has an admirable array of boxing skills, from bob-and-weave head movement to pinpoint counterpunching, it is Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs) who is considered the technical marvel, showing an uncommon level of ring savvy, throwing punches from all angles with both hands, and exhibiting incredibly quick and precise footwork. Yet there still seem to be persisting questions about Rigondeaux’s durability, and specifically, his ability to take a clean punch from an elite puncher like Donaire.

Donaire was not impressed with Rigondeaux against Cordoba
Rigondeaux’s coming out party was supposed to be a highly visible slot on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao vs Antonio Margarito in November of 2010. On that night, in only his seventh professional fight, he faced veteran Panamanian Ricardo Cordoba, a former world title holder, with a vacant title at stake.

That Rigondeaux had been fast tracked to a title shot came as little surprise to most observers. After all, none other than Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach had proclaimed Rigondeaux (reportedly 243-4 as an amateur) to be one of the best prospects he had ever worked with. However, after starting off quickly, flooring Cordoba with a body shot in round 4, Rigondeaux got clipped with a right to the face in round 6 that not only caused him to touch the canvas with his glove – an official knockdown - but it also sent him into defensive survival mode for the remainder of the fight, which he won by split decision.

“When you're doing this for quite a while, you tend to be motivated with the fighter in front of you, and that's the reason why I disregarded Rigondeaux in the beginning, because of the Cordoba fight that I saw,” said Donaire recently, when asked why he was reluctant to acknowledge the need to accept Rigondeaux as an opponent in the past.

Since that fight, Rigondeaux’s level of competition has plateaued, featuring high level prospects like Roberto Marroquin and Teon Kennedy, and second tier belt-holders like Rico Ramos. It is worth noting that Marroquin also managed to stagger Rigondeaux with left hooks on several occasions, but was otherwise dominated.

Donaire wanted Mares first then Rigo
Those subsequent performances of Rigondeaux's must have made an impression on Donaire at some point, however, as he eventually came around to the idea of making the fight happen when a more sought-after fight with Abner Mares could not be made. “When the fight with Mares didn't happen, then of course, Rigondeaux was the next guy in line, and the more that I'm watching, the more that I'm getting excited to fight. The more I'm seeing that the guy has a lot of quality, a lot of talent,” said Donaire.

“I think it's his ability to see punches, and his ability to be intelligent in there, and of course he has the speed and power like I do. I think that it's going to be fireworks between us, as much as it might be a chess match, because we're both offensive fighters,” said Donaire about how the matchup appears to him now.

Although it's possible to envision Rigondeaux putting on a clinic of counter-punching, defense and ring generalship, it seems as though the boxing public is adamant that both men must throw caution to the wind at some point. “For this fight, I will try to engage a lot more than I have in the past,” promised Rigondeaux.

If he's serious about that however, then there also remains the question of what will happen when he gets hit on the chin by a clean shot from Donaire, who echoed Rigondeaux's comments, saying that he owes New York City a good fight because of his lackluster showing against Argentinian Omar Narvaez at Madison Square Garden in 2011. “I'm thankful for the fans, so I want to give them the best fight that I can, and that's why I'm not afraid to get hit or to take a hit. I'm there to bring excitement as much as I can,” Donaire emphasized.

Similarly, Donaire's next fight, against former belt-holder Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., was anything but smooth sailing. By all rights, Donaire was expected to run right through his vulnerable and relatively unproven opponent. Instead, what he got was an awkward and oddly paced fight that drew audible boos from the live crowd, and a split decision victory from the judges. In the aftermath of this appearance, it was revealed that Donaire had injured his vaunted left hand. Although the injury never escalated into a major concern for Donaire, it appeared to be a factor in his hard fought victory over South African Jeffrey Mathebula, whom he floored once, and hurt badly, but could not stop en route to a unanimous decision. But Mathebula, like Vazquez Jr., was a relatively unknown quantity to American audiences, even though he had fought world class opponents in previous fights.

Donaire shows the effects of hitting and getting hit
Donaire emerged from both the Mathebula and Vazquez Jr. fights with visible swelling around both eyes, and various marks on his face. He seemed in control of both fights from start to finish, but he was clearly getting hit cleanly along the way, and the effects were plain to see. Although Donaire dominated subsequent fights against Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce, it was hard to miss the fact that neither opponent appeared to be in his prime on fight night, and both fought with extreme caution at the opening bell.

In 32-year-old Guillermo Rigondeaux, the 30-year-old Donaire is faced with an opponent that is still ostensibly in his physical prime, and whose technical skills are every bit as honed and polished as his own, if not more so. Rigondeaux is very difficult to hit cleanly, and almost impossible to hit twice in row, but he does seem to get shaken up by a solid shot.

Though Donaire takes a clean shot well, and delivers one even better, he is prone to getting touched up in between. Still it seems hard to imagine that Donaire will not land cleanly at some point against Rigondeaux. After all, if the towering but awkward Cordoba and the relatively inexperienced Marroquin were able to do it, then so too will the ultra-talented Donaire. However, Rigondeaux was able to overcome those setbacks and turn those fights back in his favor in short order. And although there were shaky moments that included a flash knockdown, at no point in either fight did Rigondeaux appear to be seriously in danger of being stopped.

On the other hand, Donaire will almost certainly be available to be hit by Rigondeaux as well, and the southpaw Guillermo has a stunningly wide array of punches at his disposal to oblige him with. Rigondeaux’s body punching in particular seems to be a concern, and it’s anybody’s guess how well Donaire will react to the kind of body shot that Rigondeaux stopped Rico Ramos or floored Ricardo Cordoba with. Still, it seems as though the fight with Donaire represents an extremely ambitious step up in class for Rigondeaux, who despite legendary amateur status, has only had eleven professional fights.

The most daunting possibility, of course, is that very little of anything happens over the first half of the fight, with neither fighter willing to take any real risks. This sort of fight would appear to be more difficult for Donaire, who craves the exchange of punches at a fast pace, than on Rigondeaux, whose style is built on being patient and methodical. However, given the climate of the pre-fight buildup, and the pressure on both fighters to not just win, but perform, both fighters will likely feel a powerful urge to go for the decisive win if at all possible.

Donaire KO's Montiel in the 2nd round
Another possibility is that the critical moment of the fight happens early and unexpectedly, with a lightning fast exchange taking place in the blink of an eye and settling matters then and there for the remainder of the fight.

This is what happened when Donaire fought Fernando Montiel at bantamweight in early 2011.  Obviously, frequent exchanges will favor Donaire, although one shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of Rigondeaux ending things with a withering body shot.

Both training camps have been relatively quiet as far as generating headlines or controversy. The only notable incidents that took place were Team Rigondeaux’s awkward last minute attempts to switch drug testing administrators from the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), which already randomly tests Nonito year round, to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), as well as the mid-camp revelation that Team Donaire had parted ways with controversial long time advisor Victor Conte.

Rigondeaux works with trainer Pedro Diaz
It’s also worth noting that Team Rigondeaux has retained the services of former Cuban National Team Coach Pedro Diaz in place of former head trainer Jorge Rubio. While a switch in lead trainers is potentially a moment of instability that can portend struggles in the short term, Diaz and Rigondeaux are already quite familiar with each other due to their work together in the past.

Neither revelation seems to be of any real consequence and reports have seemingly confirmed that VADA has indeed taken over the chore of administering drug tests for both fighters, and the split with Conte has apparently had little effect on the day to day operations of Team Donaire’s camp, which is overseen by trainer Brian Schwartz and conditioning coach Mike Bazzle, with Robert Garcia assuming the lead role on fight night.

Barring some hidden issue or last minute injury, it's reasonable to assume that both fighters will be entering the ring at some place close to their peak condition. With many of the two fighters’ best assets seemingly neutralizing each other, it would be hard therefore to pick against the boxer with greater experience fighting A-level competition as a professional, and that would be Donaire. Although Rigondeaux’s terrific skills and ring savvy have given him an insurmountable edge so far in his eleven professional fights, we have not seen how effective they are against the highest level of competition out there.

We have already seen Donaire match up against fellow pound-for-pound aspirants, albeit in lower weight classes, and we already know that even if his technique appears to be less polished and fluid than Rigondeaux’s, at least to the casual observer, he has gotten the job done so far against the best.

Both fighters are blessed with above average hand and foot speed, agility, reflexes and hand-eye coordination, and both men are considered thinking man's fighters as well. HBO analyst Roy Jones Jr. has even remarked on air that Nonito is the current fighter that reminds him most of himself during his dazzling prime as the consensus pound-for-pound kingpin of boxing.

For Rigondeaux to prove the experts wrong and beat Donaire, he would have to fight something close to the perfect fight, much as Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins did when they finally got their crack at Oscar De La Hoya in the previous decade. While this is not outside the realm of possibility given Rigondeaux's superlative technical skills, I see the margin for error being incredibly slim for him. 

The Filipino Flash wins again

OUTCOME: On April 13th in New York, we'll see Nonito Donaire overcome an early points deficit to take control in the middle rounds en route to a late stoppage victory over Guillermo Rigondeaux in a tense but controlled confrontation that sees Nonito continue uninterrupted on his path to a golden future.