Getting It Right: Nonito Donaire vs. Toshiaki Nishioka

By Matt McGrain on October 11, 2012
Getting It Right: Nonito Donaire vs. Toshiaki Nishioka
“I don't like it when he drops his hands and plays around, but he’s just so confident."

If I’m wrong, and we wind up watching Donaire-Narvaez II, you’ve always got Rios and Alvarado to fall back on…

Boxing is abuzz with Fight of the Year predictions this week, but I think eyes are on the wrong match. Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado does have barnburner written all over it, but the co-main event to that attraction,  being boxed this weekend in Carson, California, pits the near undisputed #1 at super-bantamweight, Toshiaki Nishioka, against a pound-for-pounder determined to unseat him from that spot, Nonito Donaire. 

Bob Arum has his critics but he is to be commended for this one.

Nishioka was being painted in some quarters this week as a classic underdog, a man with “nothing to lose” coming to America on a wing and a prayer to be fed, in the twilight of his career, to the monster being groomed to replace Manny Pacquiao. This is a gross distortion of the truth.

There are reasons to be concerned. Nishioka’s absence from the ring during the past twelve months is the big one, but the reason for that absence is troubling too. What are vaguely being referred to as “personal problems” had better not create any distractions for the WBC emeritus champion (whatever that is) this Saturday night, and his training camp had better have been a good one—both lapses in concentration and excessive ring rust are likely to be brutally punished. But Nishioka, who enjoys a reputation as something of a Spartan in training, has plenty to lose, first and foremost his near universal recognition as the best super-bantamweight on the planet. 

“He is the number one fighter in his division,” says Donaire of his next opponent. “We both have power, we both have speed. Nishioka has something that can mirror me.”

Donaire is selling the fight of course, and Nishioka’s speed has never quite been in the Filipino’s class, but he is indeed quick and hard hitting. A modest KO percentage must be balanced against the fact that nine of his last twelve victories have come by the short route, including four of his last six—all of which were title fights. Nishioka is a fighter that has improved for almost as long as he has boxed and he is not recognizable as the man who dropped a decision to four-time opponent Veeraphol Sahaprom in 2004, also the last time that the Japanese fighter was beaten. He has grown into his title, his career, he has grown into a puncher—ask Jhonny Gonzalez, who in May of 2009 got to watch Nishioka climb off the canvas after being flashed by a left hook/straight right combination, box his way back into control with the use of a beautiful long jab to the body and lead left from the southpaw stance in the second before closing the blinds on Gonzalez with arguably the most spectacular knockout of the year in the third. It was one of the most destructive straight lefts I have ever seen; if he lands it on Donaire like he landed it on Gonzalez, the Philippines will be shifted on its axis.

But Nishioka has more than just a puncher’s chance. This is a fighter who, whilst not exceptional in any single category on the pound-for-pound scale, can do everything very well. Fast and powerful, he has evolved into a legitimate boxer-puncher and has the boxing IQ to make that style work. In what was meant to be his breakout fight for the US market against Rafael Marquez in October of last year, Nishioka’s widely ignored performance was hampered by a bad start that saw Marquez dominate the range with a superb left jab. Unable to place Marquez under the planned pressure and make him work, Nishioka went to his opponent’s body with snapping straight punches whilst trying to feint around the corner of Marquez’s left hand. By the fourth he was firmly in the fight, now snapping his own jab into the Mexican’s face from a variety of angles, gradually opening him up for the straight. By the sixth his small circular moves were bringing his fading opponent into that punch with a numbing regularity and in the final rounds he was hitting a befuddled Marquez almost at will. Marquez had been outfought by both Israel Vasquez and Juan Manuel Lopez at this point in his career, but Nishioka became the first man to outbox and outthink him. Some have voiced concerns about his inability to stop his veteran opponent, but those that have taken the time to watch the fight have seen a less-than-thrilling duel that was defined by Nishioka’s poise and control. Boxing his way out of a place where he was being controlled by the jab to a place where he was controlling the fight with a straight against a top-level technician was a final fulfillment of potential, something we are often deprived of in an era of lengthened careers comprised of fewer fights.

Although Donaire is no Marquez, he has had his problems. After blowing out Fernando Montiel in two rounds in February of 2011, Donaire was earmarked for greatness. Matched in sheer destructiveness only by his great countryman Manny Pacquiao, his job seemed only to be to wait for the P4P crown to slip from Manny’s head whereupon he could send out for the champagne for the coronation; he wouldn’t even have to leave his home country to pick up the scepter. A lot has happened since then. First of all, Manny has been surpassed in the eyes of most by Floyd Mayweather. Secondly, in spite of the fact that he has since moved up a division and hoovered up two new titles for himself, Donaire is no longer the man in the waiting room. That man is Andre Ward.

Just how did that happen?

I wasn’t surprised when in October of 2011 Omar Narvaez lasted the distance with Donaire at 118. Totally dominated, the underrated Argentine boxed to survive and like most world-class fighters with this as their singular goal, he was very difficult to get out of there. Still, for some Donaire’s cape slipped from his shoulders. When he moved up to 122 and was extended the distance once more by Wilfredo Vazquez, a fighter who had been stopped a few months previously by Jorge Arce, the whispers began in earnest—Donaire hadn’t brought his punch north with him, and worse, we might have overrated him to begin with.

“Overrated” is a dirty word for the boxing press. Writers and broadcasters can forgive themselves for underrating a fighter cos, heck, he just hadn’t proven it yet that’s all. But overrating a fighter? Seeing things that aren’t actually there and then putting your name to those things? The boxing press hates that with a passion—and often hates the fighter who, pardon the quotation marks here, “tricked” them. This is why both Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor were so viciously savaged in the media in the year after they finally came up short. You can be less-than-great guys; just don’t try to trick us into thinking you’re not. I got a sense that, regardless of the legitimate injury to his hand in the Vazquez fight, the knives were, if not quite out for Donaire, perhaps being quietly sharpened. Then, another decision win, this time against the lanky Jeffrey Mathebula. Mathebula, who had been stopped only once, years previously, toughed it out and Donaire took another lopsided decision win.

So, if Nishioka is old and rusty, and Donaire isn’t the destructive talent we thought he was, where are the fireworks coming from this Saturday night?

As far as Donaire is concerned, yes, possibly, he was a tad overestimated after his destruction of Montiel, but everyone that ever smashed up a close rival in such a fashion is. Donaire is still the force of nature he was named when he broke through. Whilst dominating Mathebula with what was, in terms of footwork, an educated pressure style, Donaire fired a series of beautiful lead uppercuts in in the fourth pushing his taller, rangier opponent backwards with sheer arrogance on offense. Hands low, he walked through one of the many shots his opponent landed on him in that round to deliver a picture perfect left hook that left Mathebula searching for breath on his haunches, his legs far from agreeing with their owner regarding strategy when he regained them at the bell. That punch landed fifty seconds earlier would have meant end of the fight.

More than that, the explanation of Donaire and his team ring true to the ear. Manager, Cameron Dunkin:

“I don’t like it when he drops his hands and plays around, but he’s just so confident. He tells me he likes to try new things.”

Donaire himself:

“We’ve experimented with power, experimented with head movement…we’ve been trying to change things up to get different results.”

Now, as trainer Robert Garcia says, Nonito is going to “do it like he used to do it.” This means “picking them apart, little by little, then knocking them out…I am not pushing for the knockout but in training he has been doing the right thing.”

“Against Nishioka we can’t let our guard down,” adds Donaire, reassuringly giving us the news from his own lips. “[I’m] going back to the old Nonito Donaire style.”

This is a style that stresses patience and technique over aggression and nine times out of ten that can only be a good thing. Donaire may have avoided the trap that so many great athletes fall into in this sport, which is to fall in love with their own athleticism. The truth is, no boxer ever has a happy marriage with his physical abilities. But a good relationship with his boxing skill can last a lifetime. Ask Bernard Hopkins if you don’t believe me.

If he’s as good as his word, he should be favored. If Nishioka is rusty, it could be short and sweet. On the other hand, if Donaire is leading us a merry dance with all this talk of technique and traps, or, most of all, if Nishioka is on song, this fight could ignite.

My guess is that both fighters will deliver upon their side of the bargain. Toshiaki Nishioka is going to be ready and Nonito Donaire is going to box clever. I suspect that the Japanese will attempt to start conservatively and that this will not work for him. A slow burner will morph into a violent confrontation as a proud, long serving divisional number one takes the hard road where others have balked and makes himself available for Donaire’s right hand in attempting to force his own left upon the Filipino and take control of the fight. If Nishioka can then force Donaire out of his game plan to box-punch and bring out the aggressive, lunging puncher we’ve seen more recently, anything can happen. I suspect, though, that Donaire’s physical advantages in speed and power plus a tight leash in an excellent corner will see him triumph by knockout in the final third of the fight.

And if I’m wrong, and we wind up watching Donaire-Narvaez II, you’ve always got Rios and Alvarado to fall back on.

You see, when the sport’s promoters get it right, the fans just can’t lose.

Someone ought to make a note of that, really.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Nonito Donaire vs. Jeffrey Mathebula 720p

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Nonito Donaire vs Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. - Part 1 of 4

Nonito Donaire vs Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. - Part 2 of 4

Nonito Donaire vs Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. - Part 3 of 4

Nonito Donaire vs Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. - Part 4 of 4

Toshiaki Nishioka vs Rafael Marquez

Nonito Donaire v. Omar Narvaez

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  1. Ernesto 04:24am, 10/13/2012

    Rios is a nobody, the Cuban beat him badly, he was hit even under the tongue.

  2. bk don 09:57am, 10/12/2012

    I agree with the writer to a certain extent. The matchup featuring the most skilled participants is certainly Nonito vs Toshiaki. However, I think the most pleasing fight to watch will be Rios vs Alvarado. I think their approaches in the ring and their fighting styles just means there will be more action. With that said, It’s a very good card from top to bottom and it’s actually in the best place it should be, Home Depot. Kudos to Top Rank for that!

  3. Don from Prov 08:16am, 10/12/2012

    I don’t really think that Donaire was overrated—

    He just stopped growing as a fighter.  All the talk about going back to being himself implies a man wandering around looking for who he is.  Not good.

    Plus, he may not have brought his power up with him.  Hard to tell yet.
    And that at a time when he’s grown too dependent on that power.

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