The fight between pound-for-pound stalwart Nonito Donaire and Japanese challenger Toshiaki Nishioka figured to be an elite, championship-level chess match.
Nishioka (39-5-3, 24 KO), who vacated his WBC super bantamweight title for the opportunity to fight Donaire (30-1, 19 KO), came into the bout riding a 16-fight unbeaten streak, including eight consecutive wins in title fights (with one victory in an interim title bout).
According to ESPN's Dan Rafael, Donaire vacated his IBF strap before the fight, meaning that only the WBO title was at stake for both fighters (Japan does not recognize the IBF). Still, given the credentials of both Donaire and Nishioka, unanimous pound-for-pound recognition and The Ring title were the major chips at stake in this fight.
The fight's first three rounds were certainly cagey, and Nishioka (especially) seemed overly cautious. Donaire, though he wasn't landing telling shots, easily swept the first three stanzas due to his sustained punch output.
Maddeningly concerned about Donaire's left hook, Nishioka, a southpaw, kept his lead right hand ridiculously high in anticipation of the blow. Nishioka often resorted to throwing single shots, and with Donaire getting outside position for his lead foot, Nishioka was unable to establish leverage for his straight left hand.
Donaire started to create an obvious advantage when he focused on throwing his straight right hand. This established openings for combinations, even if he wasn't able to hurt Nishioka through the first third of the fight.
Surprisingly, Nishioka seemed tight, and through five rounds, his highest punch output for a single stanza had been 21 punches. Nearing the halfway mark, it seemed that Nishioka was already in survival mode.
In Round 6, both fighters started to open up, and Nishioka, for the first time, began to put some combinations together. This newfound aggression, however, landed Nishioka on the canvas as Donaire connected with a sneaky left uppercut that split the Japanese fighter's high guard. Both fighters exchanged until the bell with Donaire getting the better of the action.
Round 7 proved uneventful other than a clash of heads, but the second half of the eighth stanza had solid action with Donaire punching in combinations and Nishioka loading up on his left hand, hoping to land a knockout punch.
Given the dearth of overall action, Round 9 ended up being unexpectedly decisive. After pushing Donaire to the canvas, Nishioka backed him up to the ropes and seemed to be gaining confidence as he threw a series of jabs and straight left hands. However, as Nishioka threw a telegraphed jab, Donaire landed a perfect counter right hand that floored his opponent.
Nishioka beat the count, but after eating one left uppercut, his corner elected to throw in the towel. While the stoppage seemed premature, it was a somewhat merciful end to what ultimately amounted to a plodding fight.
Donaire did show his class in adapting his game plan to what Nishioka gave him, and he held Nishioka to only 49 connected punches during the entire fight. As for his next move, everyone wants to see Donaire fight Abner Mares. However, due to the Top Rank-Golden Boy feud, that fight is sadly unlikely to materialize soon.
Another intriguing option includes Guillermo Rigondeaux, though Donaire told Max Kellerman in a post-fight interview that he believes the Cuban champion needs more notable victories to make such a bout viable. Donaire could choose to move up in weight, but regardless of what he decides to do, he unquestionably proved that he is one of the best fighters in the world.
As for Nishioka, at 36 and now title-less, his next move seems murky, and after his performance on HBO, it seems unlikely that a major American network will be clamoring to have him back.