Written off too soon

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston pays tribute to Filipino great Nonito Donaire following his historic victory at the weekend and recalls other elite fighters who were written off too soon.

Nonito Donaire’s sensational knockout win over Nordine Oubaali served as a reminder that an elite-level fighter should never be written off.

Even though 38 years old, Donaire looked as if he has hardly lost a step. So, here he is again, looking to add more bantamweight titles to the WBC championship he won by flattening Oubaali in the fourth round. 

Donaire even talks about a rematch with Naoya Inoue, who defeated him by unanimous decision in a thrilling fight in Japan in 2019, before Covid-19 changed the world.

If I can keep count, Donaire has been considered through as a championship-class fighter on three occasions. 

Donaire seemed on the way out when, boxing as a featherweight, he suffered the only stoppage defeat of his career against the heavy-handed Nicholas Walters.

Then, when Carl Frampton outpointed him in Belfast, it again looked like the end had come. Jessie Magdaleno was too speedy and too cute for him. Once more, it looked as if Donaire was a diminished fighter.

However, when Donaire entered the World Boxing Super Series he had the chance to breathe new life into a flagging career — and so he did. The win over Ryan Burnett was inconclusive, with the Belfast boxer suffering a freak back injury when leading on the scorecards. Donaire took no satisfaction from the four-round TKO. But Donaire looked good when blasting out Stephon Young in the sixth round in the WBSS semi-final. Clearly, he wasn’t done yet.

It was the tremendous performance against Inoue, however, that showed Donaire was still a formidable fighter at the highest level, as he proved in his knockout over Oubaali.

We’ve seen it through the years, though, with other fighters. You think a fighter is through, then back he comes. 

Britain’s Henry Cooper looked just about done as a leading heavyweight after four consecutive losses in the 1950s. 

Cooper was unlucky to lose to fellow-Briton Peter Bates, halted with a cut over the eye in a fight he was winning — he even had Bates on the floor.

But Ingemar Johansson flattened Cooper in a European title fight in Sweden. Joe Bygraves, the Jamaican from Birkenhead, Merseyside, crumpled Cooper with left hooks to the body in a fight for the British Empire championship. Cooper was lacklustre in a British title challenge against Joe Erskine, who won a dull 15-rounder on points.

Cooper pulled his career back together, though, with a classy display of boxing when he outpointed local favourite Hans Kalbfell in Dortmund, Germany. It was a new beginning. Cooper went on to win a string of big fights involving the British and European titles and famously knocked down Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay).

New beginnings. That applies to so many fighters, including James J. Braddock. A former light-heavyweight title contender, the “Cinderella Man” suffered injuries, including a broken right hand. “He was getting licked so regularly that the experts shook their heads,” the great sportswriter Edward J. Neil noted in a series of articles on Braddock. 

But Braddock got a break when matched with a heavy hitter named Corn Griffin on the same bill as the 1934 heavyweight title fight between Max Baer and Primo Carnera at Long Island, New York. Griffin had impressed reporters by getting the better of Carnera in sparring. He was expected to beat Braddock, and he did score a knockdown. However, Braddock came back to stop Griffin in the third round. A year later Braddock was heavyweight champion, having outpointed Baer in a big upset.

While Braddock wasn’t a great champion, he was game and persistent and he proved the critics wrong.

Another who did this, and who was a truly great fighter, was Sugar Ray Robinson.

Robinson looked like a badly faded fighter when Ralph “Tiger” Jones soundly outpointed him in January 1955, in the second bout of Robinson’s comeback campaign after two years’ inactivity. It seemed inconceivable that Robinson could ever be champion again. 

“The fight mob is branded as a set insensitive to suffering but almost to a man they were hoping today that Sugar Ray Robinson would ‘hang ’em up before he gets busted up,’” United Press columnist Oscar Fraley reported. 

Fraley took it upon himself to sum up the fight fraternity’s impressions of Robinson’s performance against Jones: “His reflexes were gone, his punch wasn’t sharp, he was easy to hit and he ran out of gas.”

There was surely no way Robinson could come back after a showing like that, right? Wrong. Eleven months later Robinson reclaimed the middleweight title by knocking out old rival Bobo Olson in two rounds. By the time Sugar Ray retired for good he had been a five-time middleweight champion.

Then we have the other Sugar Ray — Sugar Ray Leonard. It looked as if Leonard had reached the end of the line after a struggling win over hard-hitting but undistinguished Kevin Howard in a welterweight bout in May 1984. The former champion was boxing for the first time in two years, having undergone surgery to repair a detached retina. Although Leonard won in the ninth round, he had to pick himself up from a fourth-round knockdown. 

Leonard announced his retirement after the Howard fight, telling the press: “It just wasn’t there.” The ringside reporters applauded Ray’s decision to retire for a second time. “His terrible uneasiness against an honourable second-rater made Sugar Ray unrecognisable as the man who had broken the spirit of the ferocious Roberto Duran, who had slid in through the heavy artillery of Thomas Hearns to outgun the Hit Man,” Hugh McIlvanney reported in The Observer.

Watching Leonard that night, it seemed impossible that, three-and-a-half years later he would win the middleweight title by upsetting Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Roberto Duran’s ring epitaph was written after he lost to Wilfred Benitez in a 154-pound title bout in January 1982. “Roberto Duran is only 30, hardly an elderly age in boxing. But he’s an old 30, a worn and weary warrior,” Dave Anderson wrote in the New York Times. The headline over Anderson’s report read “Adios, Roberto”. 

It turned out to be a long goodbye. Duran went on to have great wins over Davey Moore and Iran Barkley in championship fights, and he gave Marvin Hagler a close call.

And what about Evander Holyfield? The “Real Deal” looked like a spent force when labouring to stop the smaller Bobby Czyz at Madison Square Garden in May 1996. The crowd booed when Czyz — complaining of a burning sensation in his eyes — was pulled out by his corner. Holyfield’s performance left many fearing for his safety against Mike Tyson later in the year.

“Everyone in the boxing business will privately tell you Holyfield, now 34, is shot,” Colin Hart wrote when previewing the Tyson fight for The Sun

Well, in that case everyone was wrong: Holyfield gave the performance of his career to stop Tyson in the 11th round.

Now we have Nonito Donaire not just turning back the clock but seemingly rendering it irrelevant.

Donaire is the latest fighter to prove that a bad night, even several bad nights, doesn’t always mean a boxer cannot still enjoy spectacular success.

Fighters are human. There can be factors involved in unimpressive showings. Donaire’s losses against Walters, Frampton and Magdaleno seem like a distant memory.

Sometimes observers, myself included, are too quick to assume the writing is on the wall.

Whether it’s the dogged determination of a Jim Braddock or a great fighter like Donaire surging forth anew, one of the enduring mysteries of the ring is that things are not always what they seem. The writing on the wall we think we can see may sometimes be blurred.

Main image: Esther Lin/Showtime.