As he made the glad-handing rounds at last week’s Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner—where he’d been invited to pick up the membership’s collective accolade as 2012’s fighter of the year—Nonito Donaire was as near as he’d ever been to the top of the boxing mountain.
Already a six-belted champion across three weight classes, he’d not lost in 12 years, had starched his last two foes in a dozen combined rounds and was a solid betting favorite—as high as 3-to-1 in some places—to add Guillermo Rigondeaux’s WBA strap to his own WBO and IBF trinkets at 122 pounds.
But a funny thing happened on the way to world domination.
By the time Saturday night became Sunday morning, not only had Donaire been left title-less by a unanimous 12-round decision, but the goodwill he’d generated since laying Vic Darchinyan out with a single shot in 2007 was snuffed by a maddening in-ring listlessness few had ever seen him display.
Many on press row didn’t think Saturday’s fight was nearly as close as the 114-113, 115-112 and 116-111 verdicts rendered by judges John Stewart, Tom Schreck and Julie Lederman.
In fact, unofficial HBO judge Harold Lederman, whose network did the broadcast from Radio City Music Hall, had it 118-109, or 11 rounds to 1, for Rigondeaux. The only round Donaire won on Lederman’s card was the 10th, in which he scored the fight’s lone knockdown.
“I never studied the fight, and I should have,” Donaire said in a post-fight interview with HBO’s Max Kellerman. “I got too carried away. I wanted to take him out so bad. I got carried away with that."
Indeed, rather than the flurry of effective aggression he’d delivered in previous venues—usually punctuated by smashing left hooks—Donaire instead greeted observers of his first New York City stage show with a docile surrender at the hands of a ring general in just his 12th pro fight.
Though he averaged just 33 punches a round—and landed fewer than 11—Rigondeaux, a southpaw, nonetheless controlled the action with an intermittent right jab and just enough flashes of a sharp, straight left to keep the normally ferocious Donaire at a safe, manageable distance.
Meanwhile, the Filipino, who threw 515 punches against Jeffrey Mathebula when he last went 12 rounds last July, attempted only 352 against the Cuban this time around and landed only 82 of those shots—an average of less than seven every three minutes.
It was a far cry from pre-fight press conference banter, in which a future-focused Donaire said he’d have rather faced Abner Mares—formerly the WBC’s champion at 122 pounds—and claimed that a stoppage of Rigondeaux was what he sought while aiming to impress the midtown masses.
“I want people to have fun and I will always go for the knockout,” he said. “You're going to see the best of Nonito Donaire on Saturday night.”
With his man having failed to produce a show-stopper, it’s now up to Bob Arum to turn Rigondeaux’s prescient aside from Wednesday’s media gathering—where he warned the promoter, “I hope you have a Plan B”—into an instant resurrection blueprint for a now-former champ.
Any lingering chance of meeting Mares, who’s vacated his title to jump to 126, became even slighter thanks to the loss and an ongoing battle of barbs between Arum’s Top Rank Boxing and Golden Boy Promotions—which works with Mares and is run by Arum’s ex-client, Oscar De La Hoya.
De La Hoya took to Twitter to revel in the upset early Sunday morning, suggesting that Donaire’s team “should have taken the 3 mil” that was reportedly offered to get the fight done, and boasting, “I guess (Showtime) does have the best (122-pounder) after all, Abner Mares.”
The two fighters still seem destined to work the same featherweight neighborhood, however, especially after Arum claimed at the post-fight press conference that getting down to 122 might have negatively impacted Donaire’s performance.
Donaire, who stands a shade less than 5-foot-6, fought at 112 pounds as recently as April 2009, then weighed between 114½ and 118 pounds for six straight fights through the end of 2011.
He captured the WBO title at junior featherweight while weighing 121½ pounds in February 2012, and had won three in a row at the 122-pound limit (Mathebula, W 12; Toshiaki Nishioka, TKO 9; Jorge Arce, KO 3) before meeting Rigondeaux.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that he had trouble making weight. He has to go up,” Arum said. “He blew off the fighters' meetings and had to sweat it out to come down and make the weight. He has to come up in weight.”
The talk about scales presumably derails any talk of rematch with Rigondeaux—who stands an inch shorter than Donaire and hasn’t fought above 122 in more than three years—though not everyone agrees that a rise in weight will be a cure for all ills.
Veteran broadcaster Al Bernstein, now an analyst for Showtime, sees a return bout as the best way to quickly rebuild the Donaire brand.
“Schedule a fight at 122 against a good fighter in that division, someone definitely in top 10,” he said. “Then I would seek the rematch. Despite all his success, Donaire will be a victim of boxing's prevailing mentality that you are only judged by your last performance. Some fans and even a few pundits are already doing revisionist history about his ability or opposition, etc.
“This is just the way the boxing landscape plays out these days. In fact, it is the way the landscape is for all sports with so much media, both social and otherwise. A solid performance against a good 122-pounder will set up the rematch just fine—and they have his knockdown to use in that build-up."
Still, if weight gain is imminent, Top Rank promotes a number of possible top-shelf opponents for Donaire at featherweight, including newly-crowned WBO champion Mikey Garcia, freshly-minted IBF incumbent Evgeny Gradovich and former 122- and 126-pound title-holder Juan Manuel Lopez.
Garcia’s brother, Robert, is his lead trainer and also works with Donaire.
Lopez, meanwhile, was a rising Top Rank star at 30-0 with 27 KOs before stoppage losses in 2011 and 2012 to Orlando Salido—the man Garcia dethroned by technical decision on Jan. 19.
He’s the clear choice of Florida-based promoter Terry Trekas, whose client list once included former IBF/WBA/WBO lightweight champion Nate Campbell.
“If it were me,” Trekas said, “I'd move him to 126, give him a tune up to test the shoulder, and then do (Lopez)-Donaire."
Arum’s stable is additionally flush with tune-up candidates Robert Marroquin, who was outpointed by Rigondeaux over 12 rounds at 122 pounds last September; and former two-time world title challenger Bernabe Concepcion, who’s lost to both Lopez (TKO 2) and Garcia (TKO 7) at 126.
Elsewhere in the division, WBC champion Daniel Ponce de Leon is a Golden Boy client and will defend his title against Mares on May 4 in Las Vegas. WBA champion Chris John is also on Golden Boy’s fighters list and fought Sunday in Indonesia, while IBO champion Simpiwe Vetyeka won his title alongside John’s fight on a card assembled by Asian-based Dragon Fire Promotions.
In the interim, until a comeback course is officially charted and begun, the Saturday hangover will linger for those who’d believed the Donaire hype.
“I like Donaire a lot as a fighter, but he was outclassed by a well-schooled guy with a style that will always give him trouble,” said Todd Thorpe, who covers boxing for Calkins Media Group in suburban Philadelphia. “The promoter/network's inability to get the Mares fight will hang over Donaire for the rest of his career, because it’s a huge promotion and I think he wins."