They say the punching power is the last thing to go.
For the eternally youthful yet somehow 36(!) year old Nonito Donaire (40-5, 26 KO) this certainly holds true, though I’d argue his hairline may outlast his near mythically heavy hands. For all the effects that asshole father time has had on the aging Donaire’s seemingly endless skill set, the ability to render his opponents senseless remains untouched.
That’s not to say Donaire hasn’t seen his share of troubles of late. After losses to Guillermo Rigondeaux and Nicholas Walters in 2013 and 2014 respectively, Donaire’s career was seen as all but over. A sad, but not an uncommon end to the sensational run of one of boxing’s true good guys.
Further losses to Jesse Magdaleno in 2016 and to Carl Frampton a year ago helped throw more dirt on the grave but they were slightly offset by intermittent victories along the way. No longer the Filipino Flash who annihilated the boogeyman Vic Darchinyan a decade ago or who dented the head of Fernando Montiel, but also not the Filipino Flush some were making him out to be.
For fighters as exceptional as Nonito Donaire, the middle is a strange place to be. No longer able to switch to southpaw because he was bored or throw punches so unorthodox former HBO ringside judge Harold Lederman once described a particularly unconventional one as a “bullshit left hook”, Donaire never stopped endearing himself to fight fans. As his skills eroded he became somehow even more human. It’s nearly impossible not to root for Nonito Donaire and in this game that almost certainly leads to heartbreak.
When the bracket for World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament was released last fall, it was hard not to notice that Nonito Donaire’s name was on the opposite side of unholy Japanese terror, and pound for pound standout, Naoya “The Monster” Inoue.
A showdown between Inoue (17-0, 15 KO) and Nonito Donaire, a man ten years his senior, seemed unlikely at best given Donaire’s age and inconsistency in recent years, but no less irresistible from a storytelling perspective. This is the stuff movies are made of, albeit the kind where you roll your eyes and bemoan the lack of verisimilitude.
And yet here we are.
Inoue still has to win his fight against Emmanuel Rodriguez on May 18th but that seems a mere formality. Not that Rodriguez is an easy out by any stretch, but that just speaks to the otherworldly talent of Naoya Inoue. A victory secures him a showdown with Donaire, a fight viewed by many as one-sided as Chris Arreola versus his FitBit.
Some have lamented Donaire’s seemingly easy march to the finals after a knee injury to Ryan Burnett (19-1, 9 KO) in the quarterfinals resulted in a stoppage loss and last night’s original opponent, South African Zolani Tete (28-3, 21 KO), was forced to withdraw last week with a shoulder injury, prompting Stephon Young to step in on three day’s notice.
These are the same people though who point out that technically Happy Gilmore wouldn’t have been allowed to join the pro tour due to lack of licensing and hiccups in his insurance forms. Sometimes you just have to let the story supersede the facts. I think I’m inches away from drawing a parallel between Naoya Inoue and Shooter McGavin, so I’m just gonna pull the plug on this analogy now.
On Saturday night at the Cuban Dome in Lafayette, Louisiana on DAZN, Nonito Donaire would get his chance to further the narrative towards the unlikeliest of showdowns. The story was now in his hands.
And my god, what heavy hands they are.
As a late sub, Stephon Young (18-2-3, 7 KO) made his way to the ring wearing a hooded robe resembling a cross between Papa Smurf and Howard the Duck, he had the air of confidence that comes only from not having enough preparation time to develop a proper fear of your opponent.
When the two met at the center of the ring to start the first round, the two and a half inch height advantage for Donaire was readily apparent. This may not seem like much to us regular sized folk but to a 118 pounder he might as well have been on stilts.
As Donaire took his time to assess exactly what it was he had in front of him. Young went about his business of actually throwing and landing punches. A couple of decent hooks on the inside in the early rounds may have had him up. It wouldn’t matter for long but for twelve minutes or so, he was in the fight.
Throughout his career, Donaire has proven to be a master of distance. He will take a shot or two in service of finding his range, and once he does, the fight is all but over. As soon as he calculated precisely where to be when Stephon Young wound up to throw his left hook, Young was already dead. He just didn’t know it yet.
In the sixth round, Donaire decided to let him in on the secret.
As Young backed up after attempting to throw a straight left, Donaire uncorked a left-hand bomb of his own. Boom. Lights out. Young was gone before he hit the canvas. Another knockout for Donaire’s highlight reel.
There are few deficiencies in this game that punching power can’t overcome. The legs get a little heavier and the reflexes slow. The gears don’t turn quite as fast but if it’s a battering ram they’re guiding they might not have to.
Nonito Donaire’s “nicest guy in boxing” title has been well documented and well earned. As he prayed over his fallen opponent on Saturday night, his halo was practically visible. His grace and humility are as big a part of his legend as his power.
But it’s that power that keeps us tuning in every time he fights and he’ll need every ounce of it to contend with The Monster, Naoya Inoue in this increasingly unbelievable resurrection story.
Every fairy tale has a monster and every monster has a weakness. Does Nonito Donaire have the power to defeat this one?
Could be it’s right there in his hands.