By Jack Sumner @Jack_Sumner_
It’s becoming a cliché, but in boxing rarely do the best fight the best anymore. Too often in recent years fights that should have materialised between the two standout competitors in a division have not, submerged under the weight of promotional rivalries, inflated egos and protected records.
But every once in a while those fights do materialise and above the confusion of fractured world titles an undisputed champion emerges. Every once in a while two rare talents shared the squared circle in an event that makes the boxing world stand still, a superfight, when a pair of great pugilists collide, captivate and divide opinion.
That’s what we have this Saturday at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, when WBO super bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs) meets WBA 122lb titleholder Guillermo Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs). It’s a unification battle that not only features the top two fighters in their division, but arguably two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.
Donaire’s position amongst the pound-for-pound elite certainly isn’t arguable. Already a three-weight world champion, in 2012 he stepped up from 118lbs to win his super bantamweight title against Wilfredo Vasquez Jr and followed with three successful defences of the crown before the end of the calendar year. After a comprehensive points victory over Jeffrey Mathebula and a ninth round TKO of the highly regarded Toshiaki Nishioka, the ‘Filipino Flash’ scored a stunning one punch knockout of Jorge Arce in December, cementing his position as the rightful recipient of Fighter of the Year honours.
Those victories took Donaire pretty close to cleaning up at 122lbs, with two exceptions in Abner Mares and the aforementioned Rigondeaux. Truthfully, Mares-Donaire never looked likely, falling victim to the ultimate promotional vendetta that is Golden Boy versus Top Rank and instead the Mexican vacated his WBC title to move up in weight, where he challenges countrymen Daniel Ponce De Leon for his featherweight strap in May.
In the eyes of some beholders the Rigondeaux fight was the Mares fight’s less attractive sister, an option that Donaire fans would settle for after being given the cold shoulder by the true object of their affection. But in the eyes of many others, Donaire-Rigondeaux has always been the real beauty in this division and this Saturday night she’ll take centre stage with her two marquee contenders on show.
Rigondeaux may have only had eleven professional fights but he’s already in the argument for pound-for-pound consideration, if not for what he has achieved in the paid ranks rather the way in which he has achieved it. He’s displayed some of the most sublime technique in the sport, dispatching opposition whilst barely getting out of second gear and won the interim WBA world title in only his seventh professional outing, the full world crown in his ninth.
It’s the amateur pedigree of Rigondeaux that has given him the grounding for such a meteoric rise. The 32-year-old Cuban is a two-time Olympic gold medallist, a double amateur world champion, a winner of Pan American Games gold, Central American and Caribbean Games gold and two boxing World Cups. In nearly 400 amateur fights he suffered only 12 defeats and went unbeaten for almost six years before defecting and turning pro. Perhaps most impressively, he was the Cuban national amateur champion at bantamweight for seven consecutive years, with some considering him to be the greatest Cuban amateur of all time. Given history’s great Cuban amateurs, that’s a pretty lofty accolade.
One man who holds Rigondeaux in particularly high esteem is Freddie Roach, who trained the defensive minded southpaw at the Wild Card Gym for a six-month stint. Roach went on record as saying that Rigondeaux was the best counter-puncher he’d ever seen and one of the greatest talents he’d ever seen, before adding, “Probably the greatest talent”.
With Rigondeaux’s extensive amateur background you can argue that his number of professional fights is irrelevant, but history has proven the pro game to be an entirely different discipline. Donaire has that top-level experience having fought at world title level since 2007’s fifth round knockout of Vic Darchinyan. The Cuban may have looked good in the pros thus far, but this is a big step up.
On the flipside, this will also be Donaire’s toughest test to date. He may have shared a professional ring with a long line of former champions and beaten them all, but nowhere in his resume is fighter as elusive and technically gifted as Rigondeaux. Still, he does have the edge in experience and in the quality of opposition he has faced going into this fight and, if anything, the better the opponent in front of him the more impressive he has looked.
Although both men can bang, it would appear as though Donaire also has the edge in power and the 30-year-old is the slightly taller, naturally bigger man, possessing a longer reach than Rigondeaux. Could Donaire ultimately be too big and too strong for his rival on the night? Though it was a flash knockdown, Rigondeaux was put on the canvas by Ricardo Cordoba and hurt by Roberto Marroquin in his last bout. Generally speaking though, he’s very difficult to hit and like Donaire seems to up his game against his better opponents. Rigondeaux’s game is too make you miss, then make you pay with sharp counters.
Donaire has good counter punching ability himself and often elects to play the back-foot fighter, which means there’s a possibility here that we could see a cagey, calculated affair with little action until someone takes the initiative. That will likely be Nonito, who’s equally as comfortable going forward and forcing the fight. A chameleon in the ring, Donaire is the much more versatile of the two and has shown the ability to adapt to almost any style.
A weakness in Donaire? He takes a lot of punches, something that Rigondeaux certainly has the tools to exploit, particularly if Nonito does press the action and become vulnerable to ‘El Chacal’s’ awesome counter left. The left hand of either fighter will be extremely significant on the night, naturally for Rigondeaux fighting out of the southpaw stance, but also for Donaire hoping to land his knockout left hook.
A great fight, a real ‘pick’ em’ affair, quite simply a treat for the boxing public, Donaire-Rigondeaux is an example of when boxing gets it right and fights between the best do materialise. There’s a lot at stake for both men with much to gain and plenty to lose, but there’s also a sure winner with this fight who can’t lose and that’s the fans.