Nonito Donaire's Next Fight: Ranking the Best Potential Opponents
Nonito Donaire captured a featherweight world championship on Saturday night in Macau, China, taking the WBA 126-pound title from Simpiwe Vetyeka under all sorts of controversial circumstances.
"The Filipino Flash" was badly cut over his left eye in the first round, the result of a headbutt that seemed to be missed by notoriously terrible referee Luis Pabon, and struggled with the cut for the remainder of the four-round affair.
It didn't appear that the referee ruled the cut as the result of a headbutt, and Donaire, sensing the fight slipping away, was forced to fight with a sense of abandon over the next few rounds.
Donaire buzzed Vetyeka in Round 3 and probably should have been credited with a knockdown as the champion seemed to be held up by grasping onto the ropes. But the Filipino left no doubt in Round 4, dropping the now-former champion hard with a crushing left hook.
In an odd sequence, after buzzing his opponent again, Donaire seemed to call a timeout, getting the cut checked and allowing his opponent off the hook.
When the fighters returned to the corner after Round 4, Pabon, after consulting with the WBA supervisor at ringside, called a sudden halt to the bout, forcing a technical decision by three identical 49-46 scores in Donaire's favor.
Yes, somehow, five rounds were scored in a four-round bout.
The controversy of this fight isn't going away anytime soon, but the reality is that Donaire is once again a world champion.
Here we explore and rank the five best options for his next fight.
5. Evgeny Gradovich
Evgeny Gradovich, the IBF featherweight champion, has now made three straight appearances at the Cotai Arena in Macau and successfully defended his title via unanimous decision against Alexander Miskirtchian on the Donaire vs. Vetyeka undercard.
The verdict was a wide one, but the champion had to survive a knockdown in Round 6 to retain his title.
The undefeated Russian was barely even a blip on the radar screen—perhaps even that's generous—when he jumped in as a late replacement to face Billy Dib in a Friday Night Fights event co-promoted by rapper and nascent boxing promoter 50 Cent.
And while 50 Cent led his fighter Dib out to the ring, it was the Gradovich who walked out with the belt around his waist.
Proving it was no fluke, and with both fighters getting a full training camp this time around, Gradovich dominated Dib in a rematch on the Manny Pacquiao vs. Brandon Rios undercard, knocking him down in Round 6 before stopping him three rounds later.
With the WBA title now in Donaire's grasp and both fighters under the Top Rank banner, this fight would be significant and easy to make.
4. Vasyl Lomachenko
Vasyl Lomachenko is just .500 as a professional fighter, but the Ukrainian deserves a ton of credit for immediately jumping into the deep end of the pool and facing a rugged veteran like Orlando Salido for a world title in his second fight.
Of course, he came up short in a rough affair, but he came on strong down the stretch and seemed to have the Mexican former world champion in some significant trouble in the final frame.
Lomachenko gets a second bite at the world championship apple in June, facing undefeated but thoroughly unproven Gary Russell Jr. for the vacant WBO Featherweight Championship as part of a Showtime televised tripleheader. The reason that Showtime—and not HBO, which works with Lomachenko's promoter Top Rank—will televise the fight is because it won a WBO-ordered purse bid.
With a victory, Lomachenko will accomplish something noteworthy, winning a world championship in just his third professional fight.
He's still under contract with Top Rank, and a matchup with Donaire would be intriguing for both guys. Like others on this list, it could provide the opportunity to unify 126-pound titles and either make or resurrect a star in the featherweight division.
3. Guillermo Rigondeaux
There's no shame for a fighter, even one as good as Donaire, to get beaten by Guillermo Rigondeaux. The Cuban former amateur standout is the best pure boxer in the sport today, and his technical skills are unmatched.
And, yes, that means anyone.
But for Donaire to become truly back—whatever that means—he needs to prove he just had an off night against the man who dominated him and nearly sent his career into a death spiral.
Rigondeaux made him look amateurish, and regardless of the ludicrously close scorecards, he was light-years better than Donaire on April 13, 2013.
It's true that many fans probably won't be in a hurry to see this fight a second time. Nothing about it—except Rigo's technical mastery and Donaire's flash knockdown in Round 10—was really compelling.
Even still, there's a score to be settled.
Donaire, even if he doesn't win, needs to show that he can compete against Rigondeaux. Otherwise, that loss will hang around his neck like an albatross. It'll remain the fight where he got exposed and the one that derailed his bullet train to the top of the sport.
As for Rigondeaux, he just needs someone, anyone, with a pulse to fight.
A rematch makes all the sense in the world, but if it won't sell, it probably won't happen, even if it's one of the best fights available for Donaire and the only compelling one for Rigondeaux.
2. Nicholas Walters
Nicholas Walters is not the most technically refined fighter on the planet, but boy, can he punch.
He holds the regular WBA Featherweight Championship—one of the more ridiculous quirks of boxing is that a sanctioning organization often has no fewer than two champions at a given weight—and has been mentioned as a possible opponent for Donaire in the past.
Bob Arum, the CEO of Top Rank, floated the possibility of a bout after Donaire defeated Vic Darchinyan back in November, and now that Walters has also beaten the awkward Armenian, you can only expect that desire to grow.
"The Axe Man" dominated Darchinyan in Macau on Saturday, dropping him in Round 2 and blasting him nearly out of the ring in Round 5. If the fight was an audition, you couldn't have asked for more.
Walters is the logical next option, and the fight should be easy to put together. As an added bonus, when it's over there should only be one WBA featherweight champion.
This is quite possibly the most intriguing potential matchup on the list.
Walters is a straight-up bomber. If he hits you, you're probably going to sleep. But he's never faced anyone as refined and technically sound as Donaire, who is also quite the puncher—even at 126 pounds where he dropped Vetyeka hard in Round 4 on Saturday night—even if he's slowed a bit.
This fight would go a long way toward shaking out the goods in the featherweight division and exposing the true champions from the pretenders. And it could potentially be a star-making fight for Walters or a return to the top level for Donaire.
1. Simpiwe Vetyeka
Vetyeka has every right to feel that he got jobbed out of his title on Saturday night.
It seemed like he cut Donaire in Round 1 with a headbutt, and he landed several more of those illegal shots over the course of the fight. The Filipino's eye was an absolute mess by Round 4, bleeding profusely and almost completely shut.
But it never seemed that Pabon, the referee charged with controlling the action, ruled the cut as the result of a foul. If he had, there would be no controversy here.
Zero. Nada. Zip.
Instead, we have nothing but controversy.
Vetyeka seemed very comfortable in there in the first two rounds. His speed and boxing ability were giving Donaire some trouble, and the cut certainly didn't help.
The Filipino got his bearings in Round 3, stunning Vetyeka with a shot along the ropes that probably should have been ruled a knockdown. The fourth was total domination.
Donaire blasted Vetyeka with a short left hook that almost ended the fight right there. But the South African got his legs back, finding his way back into the fight before getting clipped and hurt again. Then, suddenly, with his man in trouble, Donaire seemed to call timeout to have the cut examined.
The scene that followed had all the earmarks of shady business. Pabon, who was awful as usual, immediately engaged in conversations with ringside officials and quickly called a halt to the bout. Donaire was awarded a unanimous technical decision in a bout that reeked of improprieties.
At the very least, Vetyeka deserves a rematch. And a fair shake.
Whether or not Donaire and his team choose to give him one—to his credit Donaire was unhappy with the outcome in post-fight comments and promised a second bout—remains to be seen.
But to remove the stench, it should happen.