On Saturday night, February 4, 2012 The Ring's fourth-ranked pound-for-pound fighter Nonito Donaire, 27(18)-1, will meet Wilfredo Vazquez Jr, 21(18)-1(1)-1, for the vacant WBO super bantamweight title at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
This is a co-main event with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. defending his WBC middleweight title against Marco Antonio Rubio. Promoted by Top Rank and broadcast on HBO, this will be the first truly big boxing card of 2012.
2012 has the potential to be a very big year for Donaire, the only of The Ring's top five pound-for-pound fighters younger than 30. A step up in weight class and a steady diet of top contenders should provide him with the opportunity to cement his legacy in the sport.
First he will have to get through a tough night's work with Vasquez, who The Ring ranks eighth overall at 122 pounds.
During the promotional build up to Donaire's East Coast debut against the previously undefeated Argentinian Omar Narvaez, 35(19)-1-2, in Madison Square Garden last October, Top Rank's Bob Arum told a media call that I participated in that his goal for Nonito Donaire was to develop him into a "pay-per-view draw."
In other words, Arum believes Donaire can be the kind of fighter that fans will shell out an extra $50 to $60 to watch, over and above what they are already paying to get fights on basic cable, Showtime and HBO. That's a select group indeed in today's sporting world.
The fight with Donaire didn't exactly derail that train, but it sure didn't advance it any further down the tracks, either. Narvaez, who was moving up in weight, was much smaller and much slower than Donaire. He discovered in the early rounds that he wasn't quick enough to effectively counterpunch on Donaire and spent the rest of the night using his considerable defensive abilities to avoid being hurt.
It made for a less than thrilling fight and a frustrated Donaire ended the fight still trying to force the action as he listened to the unappreciative Garden crowd chant "This is Bull Sh--!"
Frankly, I see this more as a miscue by the Top Rank matchmaking department than I do as a blemish on Donaire' resume. Narvaez was a 36-year-old veteran who could see as clearly as anybody else that he was overmatched, with no hope of winning. Rather than recklessly swinging for the fences and guaranteeing that he would go out on his shield, he stubbornly insisted on at the very least protecting himself from absorbing significant head trauma.
Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. will be a different story entirely. This is a hungry 27-year-old former world champion looking to get his strap back. He doesn't see himself as just one more name on the resume of the great Nonito Donaire, he sees himself as the guy who is going to knock Donaire back down to earth as he ascends to the heights.
This is a fight with two extremely talented young boxers looking to show the world that this is their time. Together they have a combined 36 knockouts in 50 fights and I expect to see them both going for another one on Saturday night.
Wilfredo Vazquez Sr., 56(41)-9(4)-2, was one of the most exciting Puerto Rican champions of the 1980's and 90's, a three-division belt holder. As the link here demonstrates, when he moved up a last time gunning for No. 4 he ended up overmatched by the bigger, more explosive Naseem Hamed. Even here he put on the kind of courageous performance that made boxing fans love him.
Vazquez Jr. has so far in his career demonstrated that he's a chip off the old block. Donaire is clearly the headliner in this matchup, but Vazquez is the kind of fighter who can get a certain number of boxing fans to tune in on his own name.
In October, Donaire was visibly frustrated by his performance against Narvaez. In the post-fight, in-ring interview with HBO he apologized to the fans while criticizing his opponent for refusing to engage with him.
He elaborated on the subject when addressing press row afterwards, telling us he was willing to accept the crowd's criticism. "This is entertainment, too," he stated, demonstrating that he has a good understanding of the business side of the sport.
At one point during his post-fight meet and greet with the press he commandeered a microphone and conducted his own impromptu interview with his promoter, Bob Arum. "How about a fight between Nonito Donaire and Jorge Arce?" he asked, provocatively. Arum characteristically demurred, stating simply that he looked forward to promoting many exciting fights with Donaire.
Instead of Arce, Donaire has been given Vazquez, whose sole career loss was a TKO in Round 12 against Arce last May. An upset against Donaire on Saturday night would do a lot to off-set that blemish for Vazquez, and would almost certainly position him nicely for a rematch with Arce.
Vazquez is a talented young fighter with a lot to gain by winning, so don't expect him to turtle up the way Narvaez did. Donaire wanted an opponent who would be willing to stand and exchange with him, giving him an opening to do something spectacular. Vazquez should be the kind of fighter who gives him that chance.
In other words, expect entertainment on Saturday night.
You will read and hear a lot about Nonito Donaire's left hook during the coming week's promotion of this fight. If you are not up to speed on the subject, the Cliff Note version is simple enough: It's a freaking awesome punch.
Click the linked video and see him unloading it on Fernando Montiel, a world-class talent who Donaire dispatched with ease.
That a 118-pound fighter like Donaire is able to generate that much power with his hook is absolutely amazing. And it's not like he sits back and waits with the punch, looking to unload it like a heavyweight might. Donaire attacks ferociously with the brutal punch, using it to tenderize an opponent's body while setting up the attack upstairs.
He sets the hook up with a stiff and effective straight right. Donaire is a dangerous puncher with either fist, but he's is a natural lefty fighting in an orthodox stance and his lead hook is the sort of punch young boxing fans now will still be talking about decades from now when they are old.
Donaire's explosive punching power has made him one of the sport's most high profile stars. Extremely quick hands are a big part of the equation, but what really separates Donaire from other very talented fighters is his ability to see openings in the heat of battle.
This is a point Donaire's trainer Roberto Garcia emphasized during a media call I was on last October. "He sees things even other elite fighters don't see," said Garcia, one of the sport's top trainers and a man who knows a thing or two about working with elite talent.
Great in-ring vision is one of the most important and most overlooked skills that a fighter has. It is the single edge that has allowed Juan Manuel Marquez to give the quicker and stronger Manny Pacquiao fits.
It is the factor that has allowed Nonito Donaire to at times make A-level fighters look extremely ordinary.
Ideally, you always want to see world-class athletic talent matched up with world-class coaching. And in Roberto Garcia, Donaire has a trainer worthy of his immense talent.
In my book, Garcia was 2011's "Trainer of the Year" and he's on the short list for the best trainer in the game. In addition to Donaire, he trains lightweight champion Brandon Rios and his younger brother, featherweight stand out Mickey Garcia. He trains junior middleweight contender and two-time pay-per-view headliner Antonio Margarito.
Garcia is in the process of cementing his claim on enshrinement in Canastota. His work training Nonito Donaire will be cited during his induction ceremony.
The 122-pound weight class has already seen the most significant changes of any division in 2012. On January 20th, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Guillermo Rigonadeaux, 9(7)-0, knocked off the previously undefeated WBA champion, Rico Ramos, in commanding fashion, dropping him once in the first and finishing him with a brutal body shot in the sixth.
While the Cuban defector Rigonadeaux is short on professional experience, he made it clear in his post-fight interview that he is hungry to make up for lost time. Now that he's got a world championship belt around his waist, I doubt he'd turn down a major fight like Donaire. He'd go in expecting to win.
Rigondeaux is a crafty southpaw, which can spell trouble for anybody. Against Ramos, a world-class talent, Rigondeaux presented a clinic on why, in the words of Rocky Balboa himself, "nobody wants to fight no southpaws." Rigondeaux was able to slip right and negate Ramos' hook and jab all night long, allowing him to fight from relative safety while waiting for the right opening.
The other big name at 122 is the Japanese star Toshiaki Nishioka. Nishioka won a unanimous decision over the always tough Rafael Marquez last October in Las Vegas. It was his first fight in North America in over two years, his first time in Vegas in five.
As a boxing writer, I am hopefully interpreting his return to the west as an interest in fighting Donaire, now that the Filipino-American has moved up to his weight.
Donaire didn't exactly clean out the bantamweight division before moving up. He fought only three times at 118 pounds.
For this reason, there is still an entire list of elite bantamweight fighters who would love an opportunity to move up and finally challenge Donaire.
At the top of this list has got to be No. 1-ranked 118-pounder Anselmo Moreno. Moreno is coming off from a one-sided unanimous decision over Vic Darchinyan last December. In an ideal boxing universe Moreno would meet Abner Mares, 23(13)-0-1, to decide the No. 1 man at bantamweight and the winner would go up to meet Donaire some time after that.
In is inevitable that the shadow of the sport's current top star, Manny Pacquiao, should hang over Nonito Donaire. Like Pacquiao, Donaire was born in General Santos City, South Cotabato, Philippines. They attended the same school.
Donaire, however, moved to the United States at 10 years of age. Unlike Pacman, who turned pro as a teenager to earn grocery money for his fatherless home, Donaire had the advantage of an extensive amateur career, with his father training him and working his corner. He won three national titles before turning professional and had a record of 68-8.
In-ring comparisons between the two are equally imprecise. Though both fighters fought for world titles at 112 pounds and have shown the kind of punching power that thrills fans and sells tickets, they are hardly carbon images of each other.
There's one case, though, where Donaire would love to emulate Pacquiao, and that's as a pay-per-view attraction.
As long as Donaire is being unfairly compared to the great Pacquiao, it is natural to wonder how high he will be able to climb up through the weight classes. It is unrealistic to imagine him ascending to welterweight like Pacman, but I could imagine him winning belts at about 130 pounds, which is what he told the press he weighed on the night of his fight with Narvaez last October.
If Donaire can win on Saturday night against Vazquez, then follow up by beating a top 122-pound champion like Rigondeaux, there will be a lot of interest in seeing him move up to featherweight to challenge somebody like Juan Manuel Lopez, provided Lopez can win his rematch with Orlando Salido in March.
I'll be honest, a Donaire-Lopez showdown is something I'm provisionally looking forward to in a couple of years' time.
Boxing is a tough sport where nothing is guaranteed. Nevertheless, Donaire has a track history of thrilling victories and it's hard to imagine the streak ending any time soon.