The year is only a little more than a quarter gone by and already boxing fans have seen some tremendous action. Undefeated featherweight star Mikey Garcia got the year rolling in January when he turned in an eye-opening performance against the tough veteran, Orlando Salido, knocking him down three times and taking away his WBO belt via a one-sided technical decision.
In March, Bernard Hopkins broke his own record, winning yet another world title at 48. The week after that, Timothy Bradley and Ruslan Provodnikov fought a 12-round war for the ages, and two weeks after that, Mike Alvarado beat Brandon Rios in a fight that was as great as it was expected to be and only left fans anxious to see a rubber match.
On the business side of the sport, the big story last weekend was Bob Arum and Top Rank trying to open up the huge Chinese market with promising Olympic star Zou Shiming. But for diehard fans following the day-to-day scene, the real story was 22-year-old Juan Francisco Estrada outworking the highly rated Brian Viloria to capture his WBO belt.
Even though it was cast as second-fiddle to a four-round debut, the Estrada-Viloria fight had implications for the pound-for-pound rankings.
Estrada's last fight before Viloria was a not-very-close unanimous decision loss to undefeated junior flyweight sensation Roman Gonzales. Estrada's only other career loss was an eight-rounder to current 115-pound belt-holder Juan Carlos Sanchez.
It's been a great ride for boxing fans. And yet, everything so far has just been a warm-up. Because this weekend, we finally get to the big one, the biggest fight of the year to date, and the fight that has the potential to end up being the most important fight of 2013.
On Saturday night, April 13, at New York City's historic Radio City Music Hall, two-time Olympic gold medalist and WBA super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs) will face pound-for-pound star and WBO champion Nonito Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs). The fight will be broadcast live on HBO.
Donaire is currently ranked between No. 3 and No. 5 on nearly every pound-for-pound list in the world. You can make a compelling case for him as a No. 1 or 2. After losing his second professional fight, Donaire has waged a relentless campaign of domination from flyweight up to junior featherweight.
He hasn't been in a competitive fight in over six years (Ruben Garcia's 115-112 for Vazquez: worst card ever), and his left hook is the most feared punch in the sport. He's used it to knock multiple champions out cold.
Donaire is the one high-level boxer who I consistently see other high-level boxers legitimately intimidated or cowed by. You really don't see that often in real life. By the time a fighter gets to the level where he's fighting on big stages, he is a proven warrior—taking punches and staying in close to serious leather is not something he is shy about.
But Donaire is just so explosive, and so creative and unorthodox in his attacks, that high-level boxers really do consistently get in the ring with him and seem to have a moment of "What I have I got myself into?"
Omar Narvaez came all the way from Argentina with an undefeated record, got just a taste of Donaire's speed and power early on and said, "No thank you." He spent the rest of the fight crouched behind a high guard shell.
When Donaire fought Toshiaki Nishioka last July, the Japanese star fought very cautiously in the early rounds, as if taken off guard by Donaire in person.
Even among world-class talent, Donaire is special. He has the combination of explosive athleticism and spacial intelligence that make a fighter almost exquisitely dangerous.
So it is exciting every time he fights. And as good as he is, it isn't impossible to imagine him losing. He has certain defensive flaws that he covers up with his catlike agility, but he only fights extremely talented opponents, so it's not impossible to imagine a smart, determined foe executing a perfect game plan against him.
Still, it is rare to see a fighter of Donaire's caliber pitted with another fighter who truly seems to be his potential match. In Rigondeaux, plenty of smart boxing fans expect to see just that.
The southpaw Rigondeaux appears to be at least close to even with Donaire in terms of athleticism and speed. Like the Filipino Flash, he carries serious power in both hands.
But even more intriguing is the fact that the former amateur Cuban standout will truly be able to test Donaire when it comes to ring intelligence. Rigondeaux is also a master of distance and angles.
He might be able to press the offense against Donaire in a way that nobody ever has.
Rigondeaux's life story already reads like the pitch for a movie. The greatest amateur boxer of his generation, Rigondeaux escaped a communist dictator by motorboat, and now, just 12 fights into his professional career, he finds himself in the year's biggest fight to date.
There was a time last year, when this fight was first being talked about, that Donaire expressed a lack of enthusiasm, doubting a boxer with Rigondeaux's professional experience was ready to face a fighter at his level.
But since signing the fight, Donaire has expressed more respect for Rigondeaux's talent. On a media call I participated in yesterday, Donaire said:
The more I watch him, the more he seems worthy...not only does he have speed and power, he's tough mentally...he has the ability to see punches, to be intelligent...the more I see, the more I'm impressed.
Donaire said he had been less than impressed with Rigondeaux's split-decision victory over Ricardo Cordoba in November of 2010. But Rigondeaux has been a wrecking ball since, stopping Willie Casey, Rico Ramos and Teon Kennedy and beating Robert Marroquin by one-sided decision, and Donaire said that "if the (Abner) Mares fight couldn't get done" then Rigondeaux was "obviously the guy."
Donaire, of course, was as disappointed as the booing fans when Narvaez refused to engage with him during his Madison Square Garden debut in October of 2011. That was supposed to be the rising star's triumphant Big Apple debut.
This time, he returns to Manhattan to fight in Radio City Music Hall, only the second boxer to headline there in the famous venue's long history. Bob Arum announced on the media call that they were expecting a sellout. He said the place would be full of New York Knicks and Giants.
And this time, Donaire should have an opponent who will give him the kind of fight that will live up to the billing. "It might be a chess match," Donaire stated on the call, "but we're both offensive fighters. We're both aggressive."
For his own part, Rigondeaux added:
In this fight, I will try to engage. I want to give the fans the fight they want to see. Nonito is an aggressive fighter and I will be aggressive, too.
Rigondeaux and Donaire are both A-level offensive punchers and A-level counterpunchers. They both control distance and routinely outmaneuver opponents in order to create deadly angles of attack.
Both of these guys have the ability to knock each other out.
But ultimately, I think both fighters are too smart to get caught by a one-punch shot. I think what we will see is a tactical war, with both fighters willing to take risks in order to deliver damage, resulting in a steady fireworks display of explosive exchanges.
In a fight like this, I usually come down on the side of the more technically traditional fighter. I think Rigondeaux is the more solid defensive fighter and getting hit less when trading is a big advantage.
But it's hard for me to look past the element of experience. For all of Rigondeaux's amateur accolades, those were all three-round fights, fought under a radically different scoring system.
There's no question Rigondeaux has adjusted quickly to the pro game. But he has never been in the ring with a fighter as talented as Nonito Donaire, certainly not for 12 long rounds.
When I asked Donaire about the experience factor yesterday, he said:
If it comes down to us being evenly matched in terms of speed and power and tactical ability, I think the experience will be an ace in my back pocket...to help me push through.
Still, if one thing has become clear about the former Cuban amateurs in recent years, it is that you just can't measure them on the same learning curve you'd use for your standard prospect or contender. Guillermo Rigondeaux might not have been a professional for that long, but he has been preparing for this kind of showcase for his entire life.
"I have great respect for Nonito," Rigondeaux said. "What he's done speaks for itself. But I believe I belong with him."
Briggs Seekins is a Featured Boxing Columnist. Follow him on Twitter at #Briggsfighttalk.
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