After chopping down reigning WBC champion Nordine Oubaali, newly-crowned Filipino world champion Nonito Donaire roared with a mixture of ecstasy and relief. Most unusually though, almost all of boxing roared with him, celebrating one of a select group of fighters who can unite the sport’s often-fickle fraternity.
Now 38-years old, he had visualised that moment; the hand raised, the slightly heavier waist, draped in green leather and gold engraving. While it wasn’t new to the four-weight world champion and his loyal team, this re-crowning seemed highly unlikely at various, arduous junctures. His record boasts some stunning victories including the Vic Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel showstoppers; but he has been unafraid to rebuild after six professional defeats – including Guillermo Rigondeaux’s Cuban masterclass and a stoppage at the merciless fists of Nicholas Walters.
Donaire, trained for this bout by his wife Rachel, has come a long way from his second set of Fighter of the Year awards in 2012 (after beating Wilfredo Vasquez Jr, Jeffrey Mathebula, Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce). He has come even further since surrendering his second professional contest, losing to the unheralded and bluntly unremarkable Rosendo Sanchez in the Pacific Sports Centre, California, over 20 years ago. He has become a master at bouncing back from adversity yet doesn’t allow the disappointment of defeat to restrict legacy-defining fights.
Boxing fans, media and direct fight figures enjoy nothing more than picking holes in the matching of fights and their regularly contentious outcomes. But this past weekend, the sport was united. The reason for coming together wasn’t down to the method of victory – some stunning shots, slicing through the defending and soon-to-be dethroned Frenchman. It wasn’t purely because Nonito Donaire and his tight-knit team are affable, friendly and consistently professional either. You’ve probably heard him singing Ed Sheeran during press conferences or interviews or caught snippets of his appearances on Celebrity Duets: Philippines.
Donaire’s unique ability to bring boxing fans together is surely underpinned by his understanding of professional boxing; it’s the desire to perform in a vicious, violent fashion, but to almost cushion his opponents’ fall, accepting both victory and defeat graciously, staring into the eyes of the sport’s disingenuous flaws. He can be seen during the build-up to his fights laughing and joking, making time for absolutely everybody in the room and often performing for those there to carry out their repetitive pre-fight rituals. He wants to have a drink afterwards or breakfast the next morning, paying homage to the man who put lumps on his face or drew blood.
He gets boxing at a time when so many others can only respond to their perception of the sport in the modern age. There is no braggadocio via his social media; there is, however, plenty of pictures of his sons, training updates and motivational quotes. You won’t find Nonito Donaire engaged in the slapping or pushing often seen at weigh-ins, which fans see through like wet t-shirts, fake and desperate. He is a gentleman before, during and after combat.
The reason boxing’s brooding population adores Donaire is that, despite all the above, he is still legitimately exciting. And though father time has appeared hot on his heels at points (versus Carl Frampton, precariously up at featherweight or losing to former WBO world champion Jessie Magdaleno), he managed to shrink himself back down to his optimum weight again, taking part in a thrilling contest with unbeaten monster Naoya Inoue to conclude the World Boxing Super Series in 2019. Again, falling short, but gaining an army of fans some 10 years after what most considered his prime.
Now, once again, he has succeeded at the top level when many assumed it was a ‘last hurrah,’ destined to end in a pat on the back and no more. He floored Oubaali, proving that good guys don’t always finish last and that his fairy-tale appears to be ongoing. Donaire understands that striking the balance between personable and punishing is key to keeping everybody happy; he’s been doing it for the last two decades. And while we ponder his next steps – a return bout with Rigondeaux has been mooted, as has retirement – we should take time to appreciate the future Hall of Fame fighter, because he’s one of our rare gifts.
Controversy allows cheap, quick sales of pay-per-views, but fighters like Adrien Broner sit several shelves below the WBC bantamweight champion, creating moments born for TikTok or Snapchat – viewed and discarded in a matter of seconds. Greatness consists of far more complex ingredients and, when gauging the reception of Donaire’s latest triumph, the father-of-two young boys certainly has the recipe. Donaire has earned the respect of the sport of boxing, just as countrymen and former schoolmate Manny Pacquiao had before him. That lasts forever and boxing, united, won’t forget.
Main image and all photos: Sean Michael Ham/TGB Promotions.