For boxing fans, the appeal in this weekend's long-awaited HBO doubleheader is obvious.
In Exhibit A, the de facto #1 and #2 fighters at super-bantamweight square off, Toshiaki Nishioka (39-4-3, 24 KOs) finally locked in after a spell as the long-time target in the sights of unified titlist Nonito Donaire (29-1, 18 KOs). Several more at 122 have their arguments, of course, and the likes of Moreno, Mares and Rigondeaux make up the top end of a division that's as talent-rich as any in the sport, but most observers appear comfortable with this simply being a fine example of the anomalous The Best vs. The Best concept, one often demanded but far less frequently delivered.
In Exhibit B - the grimier exposition of the two, the type perhaps best advised to be viewed safely from distance from behind protective glass panelling - it's less a case of The Best vs. The Best and more that it's simply the best fight of its kind. In any ballot, high on the list of prospective candidates for an all-action, come-forward, toe-to-toe slugfest would be the names of Brandon Rios (30-0-1, 22 KOs) and Mike Alvarado (33-0, 23 KOs).
Together, the two fights promise plenty of action - the former should be more refined than its counterpart, although both are likely to stay good to their word - but also key to the pre-fight excitement is that, on paper at least, each appears to be the beneficiary of some excellent matchmaking. A few eyebrows, then, were raised with the release of the odds earlier this week, with which the compilers gave us one strong favourite, and one more heavily so, for contests some have already described as being closer to pick ‘em territory.
Full Coverage Hub: Donaire-Nishioka / Rios-Alvarado
The latter is Donaire and, in reality, those expecting to see anything significantly closer to even money the pair would have been overstating their case. More than six years the junior of Nishioka, Donaire ticks most of the boxes with the oddsmakers: in California on Saturday night, he's the home fighter; he has the greater exposure, the flashier highlight reel, the P4P standing, the higher-profile names on his resumé. In short, he was always going to be the firm odds-on shot. At -450, though, one question is whether Donaire - as short as -600 elsewhere - is underpriced. Still available as a 4/1 underdog in places, is Nishioka - whose losses all either came 17 years ago or contained within a quadrilogy at the hands of an opponent he just couldn't edge - being overlooked?
There is another question though, and it's a simple one: just how good is Donaire? Despite a string of comfortable decision wins, with no stoppages since that picture-perfect left hand against Montiel, the Filipino-American has drawn criticism for, well, trying too hard to pull the same trick at his new weight, as well as failing to do so at 118 against a version of Omar Narvaez who just looked a little pissed that the fight had rudely interrupted his NYC sightseeing trip.
Come Sunday morning, irrespective of the result, Donaire could well be three and done with his super-bantam campaign, prior to moving up yet again. There's little evidence that suggests that Nishioka will be anything other than his toughest assignment at the weight yet. Fights against Mathebula and Vazquez Jr were steady but ultimately underwhelming - as bouts with a lopsided -1400 (vs. Mathebula) and -1500 (vs. Vazquez Jr) betting favourite so often are - with neither opponent ever really expected to draw the very best from a fighter of whom so much is, perhaps unfairly, expected. In each case, Donaire was long odds-on to beat both by KO and, indeed, he's been quoted at much less than even money to get the stoppage in every fight going back to Montiel and beyond, having closed at around -300 outright favourite on the night and an outside +275 to win over the distance.
The layers are equally wary of Donaire here, but there's a key difference: they're confident he wins, they're just not sure how. Though some books favour the stoppage marginally (-110), the consensus is that both KO and decision win are +125 shots. It's an unusual positioning for Donaire, having been around 4 to 1 on to force the stoppage in each of his last three. Failing (using that term in the loosest possible sense) to score the KO on the last three occasions doesn't shift him from -450 to +125 by itself. Mathebula and Vazquez Jr aren't world-beaters, but they're more credible than some would have you believe, and what's more feasible is that the stoppage prices on Donaire were artificially low based on how Montiel, Tyson Marquez, Darchinyan et al were closed out a division or more below.
Not only, though, is Nishioka plain better than the likes of Mathebula and Vazquez Jr, he's also - by far - a more intelligent fighter. There's an argument to say that Donaire went swinging and setting up for the KO as predictably as he did in patches the last few times out because he figured he could get away with it - that each opponent, in turn, wasn't good enough to capitalize. Unless there's a drastically worse version of Nishioka in the ring, it's difficult to say that will be the case on Saturday. Quoted at +800 for the stoppage, the Japanese is a fine technician, an excellent combination puncher, and will bring an attack that's better crafted and more varied than anything Donaire has seen in years. That's not to say that Donaire isn't good enough to figure him out, but it's likely that he'll need to fight altogether more cerebrally here and, as such, it's the +125 on him getting the nod that looks the bet.
Some encouragement for KO backers could be found in both Nishioka's age and inactivity. The former may not be an issue, considering the fact that he's taken relatively little punishment over the years and his best career spell has come well into his thirties. With regard to the latter though, Donaire has been out twice in 2012 already - it could well be the case that not only is he the quicker, younger fighter, but also that he's the fresher of the two. With that said, the conjecture of an badly aged, below-par version of Nishioka turning up doesn't sit comfortably with the image of the efficient, impressive, seven-years-unbeaten fighter we've become familiar with. For those unwilling to pick a winner, it's -125 that this simply goes the distance, while there's +700 about Nishioka pulling off the decision upset on the road, and +2800 the draw.
Rios-Alvarado feels like the type of fight where chewing over technical strengths, weaknesses and areas for either guy to exploit would be futile; the type of fight where a fighter's carefully-prepared gameplan goes out of the window after one hellacious early round. It's a fight that could end early, with a spectacular blowout or, just as easily, see two tough, tough men go toe-to-toe in a twelve-round war.
So, how on earth do you approach it?
The formative lines released mid-week suggested that what everyone had been thinking all along was wrong, and that Rios was a surprisingly warm -225 favourite, with Alvarado out at a more-than-generous +175. It was a clear example of a compiler getting it wrong. It didn't take long for the corrective process to kick in, though, and overnight Rios drifted out to as high as -138 as all the 7/4 about Alvarado was snapped up pretty sharply. There's been a fair bit of fluctuation since, but it looks as though Rios will settle at around -162 (as short as -188 in places), with Alvarado at +150. Either way, it's unlikely we'll see Rios as short as when he opened, and rightly so.
Rios may well win this fight, and may well win it big. At his best, he's looked unstoppable, and he has the edge in terms of experience and opposition faced. But it's easy to make a case against him. Past weight issues, a debut at 140, coming off a loss to Richard Abril in anything but name. From this viewpoint, and with all that mind, Rios isn't a -162 favourite, let alone anything shorter. At -125 or better he's a different proposition, but at the current prices Alvarado is certainly worthy of serious consideration.
It's a busy night for British boxing too, with most of the focus on a fight involving the heavyweight with arguably the heaviest hands around against another who has, from time to time, appeared afraid of even being hit. David Price (-800) takes on Audley Harrison (best-priced +800) in what's likely to a straightforward night's work. It's difficult to see Harrison fancying the job for long should Price land early here, and the Liverpool man has been backed into -137 to end matters anywhere in the first half of the contest, with +225 available for those who favour him to do it inside three.