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Nonito Donaire faces Toshiaki Nishioka on Saturday night, in a fight pitting a still-rising star against a long-established top dog. Does the Japanese star have one more great night left, or is it time for a new No. 1 man at 122 pounds?
It's been a long time since Toshiaki Nishioka has lost a fight.
The exact date was March 6, 2004, when Nishioka dropped an unanimous decision to Veeraphol Sahaprom in Saitama, Japan. Those two fought four times, with Nishioka going 0-2-2 in the bouts against a fellow contemporary great. They first met when Nishioka was 23, then again at 25, and twice more during Nishioka's 27th year. It wasn't quite Pacquiao-Marquez, drawn out over nearly a decade. They fought, and they moved on.
Since losing to Sahaprom in their final fight, Nishioka has gone 16-0 (10 KO), with wins over notable names such as Jhonny Gonzalez and Rafael Marquez, and he went on the road to Mexico and Las Vegas, respectively, for those fights.
On Saturday night in the HBO Boxing After Dark main event, he faces Nonito Donaire in Carson, California. Donaire has also been on quite a tear, though he's done it over four weight classes, from flyweight to super bantamweight, while Nishioka has been dug in at or near the top of the super bantamweight rankings all that time.
Donaire hasn't lost since his second pro fight in 2001. That's not usually the sort of thing that makes a future pound-for-pound contender, but the 29-year-old Filipino star broke through when he broke Vic Darchinyan in 2007 on Showtime, laying waste to the then-unbeaten destroyer via fifth round left hook, a shot so powerful that to this day Darchinyan doesn't seem to know what hit him, insisting that he could have continued. (He was toast.)
Nonito's career really starts there, at least as far as the stories go. One of the reasons Donaire was such a massive underdog against Darchinyan was his leap in opposition to face Vic. Prior to that bout, Donaire had never fought near the world class level. It was made in part because Darchinyan had demolished Nonito's brother, Glenn Donaire, and it was a decent storyline.
Instead of just a storyline, though, it became a star-making performance. Starting with Darchinyan, Nonito is on a run of dominance that amounts to a record of 12-0 (8 KO). He has stopped good fighters like Moruti Mthalane, Raul Martinez, Tyson Marquez, and Fernando Montiel. In fact, two of those guys -- Mthalane and Marquez -- have gone on to prove that they're among the best in their divisions. Donaire overpowered them.
But that was then, and this is now. The 122-pound version of Nonito Donaire hasn't been quite so flashy. His workmanlike wins over Wilfredo Vazquez Jr and Jeffrey Mathebula have been quality, but not eye-openers. Both of those guys are legit fighters and good wins, same as Omar Narvaez was in Donaire's bantamweight swan song, but in none of his last three fights has he left you dying to see him the next time out.
I once said earlier this year that Donaire (29-1, 18 KO) might have to settle for just being one of the best fighters in the world. What I meant, tongue in cheek, was that Donaire can't destroy everyone. He can't leave them flattened like he did Darchinyan and Montiel. He's not looking for easy fights, and when you fight other good fighters, sometimes you're going to lose. Donaire has not lost yet to those other good fighters. The other thing is, sometimes you're not going to look spectacular.
That is the "problem" that Nonito Donaire has had. Despite clearly beating good fighters, he hasn't been spectacular lately. What a problem to have.
Nishioka is now 36 years old and hasn't fought in a year. When we last saw him, Rafael Marquez, an old and fairly faded fighter, though still quality, was giving him plenty to worry about for much of what was a good fight. But Nishioka pulled away down the stretch and won yet again.
After that, Nishioka was not stripped of his WBC title, but rather moved into "champion emeritus" status, which means that the WBC has graciously donated the vacant "diamond" title for this fight with Donaire. There was also talk at that time that Nishioka was looking for one more fight, and then a retirement. They said he wanted Nonito. They've got the fight they wanted.
Nishioka (39-4-3, 23 KO) has some interesting potential advantages here. His experience can't be disregarded, but it's more in years than in great competition faced, really. Donaire has a record that stacks up well against Nishioka's overall.
If Nishioka is to win this fight, it will have to be on craft. Donaire does sometimes let himself get sloppy, at least by the standards of an elite fighter. He often abandons combination punching for single shots, and looks far too much for knockouts that might not be coming. He's a tremendous counter puncher, and his left hook can be devastating, but he has a habit of making it far too predictable, and good fighters have been able to sniff it out when he relies on it too much.
Donaire also allows himself to be hittable at times, and Nishioka is a good, accurate puncher. He goes to the body fairly well, and his straight left is a genuine weapon, which could really trouble Donaire if it hasn't been properly scouted, or if Nonito loses focus.
The problems Nishioka might face are very obvious: He's old, he hasn't been active for the last year, and Donaire is regarded as one of the world's best fighters, pound-for-pound. But I think this is going to be a very competitive fight, and Nonito will be facing a guy who won't give him anything at all. Nishioka may not allow this fight to become exciting, which now isn't anything new to Donaire bouts, but unless he gets sparked early, he'll be in this fight.
The only way I can see this going truly one-sided is if Nishioka just isn't the fighter he was before, and that's a real possibility. Fighters get old, and it often happens very quickly.
Donaire might be catching the king at the right time, ready to be dethroned, almost welcoming of the idea. Nothing lasts forever. I'm not saying Nishioka won't go down fighting if he is to go down. But, simply put, it feels like this is Nonito Donaire's time. It's not that he wouldn't still have worthy challengers out there at 122 -- Abner Mares (or perhaps Anselmo Moreno) and Guillermo Rigondeaux would certainly like to find out where they stand against Nonito.
Nishioka is acting like he's the No. 1 man, by fighting the No. 2 man, who may be ready to be No. 1. He is potentially choosing to leave the sport taking one last great challenge. Either way it turns out, he's acting like a genuine champion, because he is one.
Full Coverage Hub: Donaire-Nishioka / Rios-Alvarado