When Nonito Donaire steps into the ring tomorrow night to take on Toshiaki Nishioka, the world will be able to witness one of the most talented fighters alive. Bone-jarring power in both hands, blinding speed, and combinations that would make Ray Leonard blush, Donaire as all of the abilities to be one of the true dominant champions in the sport of boxing. Yet, somehow despite his recent dominance over good-to-great opposition, it feels like there needs to be something more.
I can still remember the first time I was able to watch Donaire fight live on television. It was his wonderful fifth round stoppage over flyweight powerhouse VIc Darchinyan, an ending that was named KO of the Year by Ring Magazine for 2007. Donaire had it all: speed, punch, skill, and a sound chin. Not just anyone could vanquish a good, tough man like Darchinyan as if he were last week's sparring partner.
Then I looked on in awe as he decimated the very capable Wladimir Sidorenko in four rounds as he moved to bantamweight. Following that, he took on one of the pound-for-pound best at the time, Fernando Montiel, for 118-pound supremacy. Though Donaire was favored, most expected it to be a good, competitive fight that would show us something about the "Filipino Flash". Most were wrong. A counter left hook sent Monitel to the mat, arms flailing and all. Amazingly, Montiel made it back to his feet, beating the count and taking a little more punishment before the referee finally intervened.
The Montiel destruction was the one that put Donaire over the top. His win over Darchinyan was great, but it wouldn't be difficult for one to argue that the Armenian wildman was a flawed fighter, doomed against the highest levels of competition. Fernando Montiel was different. He was generally though of as the top dog at bantamweight following his surprising stoppage victory over longtime bantam kingpin Hozumi Hasegawa. Donaire manhandled him the way all-time great fighters tend to handle very, very good ones. Think of what Bernard Hopkins did to Felix Trinidad or Floyd Mayweather Jr. did to Genaro Hernandez and Diego Corrales. Donaire looked head and shoulders above one of the best in the world. How could anyone stand a chance?
Well, strangely enough, it has taken lesser fighters to bring out more questions about Donaire. Greatly outgunned in terms of talent (most notably speed) his recent opponents have taken to staying on the outside and playing defense to last the distance, and even (gulp!) win some rounds.
Omar Narvaez started the trend. Truthfully, he may have just been playing it safe, as he even admitted to considering retirment after receiving a healthy paycheck for rising in weight to face Donaire. Narvaez moved constantly, making it a boring affair for HBO viewers. In fact, Donaire himself declared to his cornermen at least once that he was bored while sitting in his corner between rounds. Donaire took home a wide decision, but promised next time would be better.
The next time was Wilfredo Vasquez Jr., and despite scoring a knockdown in the 9th, the fight was highlighted by Vasquez giving Donaire a tougher time than anticipated due to his defense and occasional counter punching. Donaire once again had to settle for a decision (it was actually split, believe it or not).
This leads us to his last fight, another largely ho-hum bout, this time with near-six footer Jeffrey Mathebula. Again, Donaire took home a decision victory, but largely looked flat. Yes, the speed was still there and we got a glimpse of the power with a beautiful 4th round knockdown on a left hook.
But something else was becoming blantantly obvious. Nonito Donaire, one of the best, most talented fighters in the world, doesn't break his opponents down. He applies very little, if any, body punching, focusing primarily on the head while his opponents move around the ring freely. He also is not very adept at cutting off the ring. Yes, sometimes he can trap opponents in the corner, but he struggles to keep them there.
I must admit I feel that this is his main drawback. When facing top boxers like Darchinyan and Montiel, Donaire brought his A-game, and blasted two excellent men in the center of the ring when they attempted to trade with him. Others have seen what he did, and made the necessary adjustments. Nobody is going to come at him anymore. He is going to have to learn to break men down, not headhunt, if he wants to score impressive stoppage wins on a consistent basis. In other words, he needs to show that he is capable of having a Plan B.
If he isn't, then Nishioka may be the man to show us Donaire was just a "Flash" after all.