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Donaire vs Mathebula Preview: Nonito Needs to Shine on Saturday

Nonito Donaire hopes the California sun is good to him on Saturday night. (Photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank)
Nonito Donaire hopes the California sun is good to him on Saturday night. (Photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank)
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Nonito Donaire is universally regarded as a top 10, mostly top 5, pound-for-pound fighter in the world. The former flyweight, super flyweight, and bantamweight titlist, who now holds a title at super bantamweight, has drawn comparisons over the years to fellow Filipino Manny Pacquiao, and many have thought him to be the heir apparent to the Filipino boxing crown when Manny steps down.

At one point, one of the debates was basically, "How high can Nonito Donaire go in weight?" He was steamrolling opposition, and good opponents at that, through 118 pounds. Folks were anxious to see him at 126, fighting Yuriorkis Gamboa. I myself thought that Nonito had the goods and the potential to go all the way up to 135 pounds eventually, a flyweight turned lightweight.

I never took it lightly when I said that, either. Going from being a dominant 112 to even a contender at 135 is seriously tough and requires truly special talent. Donaire does have that talent, I feel. But we've learned recently, I think, that there has been a little bit of smoke and mirrors work along the way, and his last two fights have brought him back down to earth.

Yes, he's still a top fighter. But that upside and that long-term potential has been grounded. No more is it about fans and media making projections. Donaire is now in the position where he's got to earn the over the top crystal ball visions.

Donaire (28-1, 18 KO) hasn't exactly struggled in his last two fights, but he has struggled to be truly impressive in that flashy way that endeared him to boxing fans in the first place. The world isn't always fair, and someone who talks as much as Nonito does will be criticized for not living up to his own hype, let alone everyone else's hype. In his final fight at bantamweight last year, he won rather easily over super flyweight Omar Narvaez, but he did so in a very dull fashion, as he couldn't find the crafty Argentine and wound up grinding out a 12-round decision win against a guy he towered over.

It was a fight that made clear that some of Donaire's success came because of matchmaking:

  • His most impressive performances were over guys smaller than him. He's listed at 5'5", but he's really about 5'7", it seems, as he towered over guys like Vic Darchinyan, Fernando Montiel, Wladimir Sidorenko, and Tyson Marquez, and has been noticeably taller than other guys listed at his given height, like Moruti Mthalane and Wilfredo Vazquez Jr.
  • Nonito works best when opponents give him openings. He's a counter puncher at heart, and a terrifically good one, too. There's nothing wrong with his approach to things, but like any other style, it has its limitations. If opponents don't give him anything, he struggles to create something for himself, as we saw against Narvaez.

We saw some of the same in February against Vazquez, in Donaire's debut at 122 pounds. Again, Donaire won clearly, although judge Ruben Garcia somehow lost his damn mind and scored the fight for the Puerto Rican, which I felt was a worse score than anything we saw in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight. Vazquez scouted things well, and while he didn't have much offense going for himself, he was able to play effective defense against Donaire, and for the second straight outing, Nonito looked less a world-beater than just a very good fighter who was going to be tough to beat.

(Photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank)

The 122-pound division right now is stacked with talent. Toshiaki Nishioka is still there, as well as Abner Mares and Guillermo Rigondeaux. Twice this year, Rigondeaux has totally overwhelmed opponents (Rico Ramos and Teon Kennedy), and many have said that he could be the worst possible matchup for Donaire. Nonito has responded by finding any reason possible to dismiss the dangerous Cuban as a potential opponent.

This week, Donaire addressed the issue again, and trainer Robert Garcia got involved in the excuse-making process.

Donaire said:

"I know Rigondeaux and Mares are out there, and I know they’ve called me out. There are five or six guys calling me out, saying I’m scared to fight them, and they are all good fighters. All I can say is that they have to wait their turn. I will get to them. ... They have to do their part to make the fight and be realistic when negotiating. You can’t call someone out and then ask for the world. Pardon my French, but you don’t shit gold, guys."

Donaire also does not shit gold, but with HBO in his corner, he can call more of the shots than anyone else can. Mares has been a headliner on Showtime, which is where Donaire first rose to prominence, and I have no doubt that HBO would love to make Donaire vs Mares or Rigondeaux. After all, they've given him main event slots against Narvaez and now Jeffrey Mathebula, two totally unknown fighters to American audiences.

Garcia added this:

"If it was up to Nonito he would be fighting Rigondeaux on Saturday, but it’s up to his manager, Cameron Dunkin – who we feel is the best manager in boxing."

This contradicts a lot of what Donaire has actually said about Rigondeaux. During our live coverage of Pacquiao vs Bradley, after Rigondeaux was done beating the crap out of Kennedy, I wondered on Twitter if Donaire felt that was exciting enough a performance from Rigondeaux. Donaire's response was to downplay Kennedy as an opponent, which was fair given that Kennedy really didn't deserve that fight, but also gave the impression that no, Nonito was no more interested in fighting Rigondeaux after that than he had been before, and he's used a lot of excuses: Rigondeaux isn't exciting, Rigondeaux doesn't draw fans, Rigondeaux isn't worth TV money, and so on. This is a guy fighting Omar Narvaez, who doesn't draw fans and is horribly boring, and now Mathebula, who doesn't draw any fans, either.

But that's all on another topic, almost, so let's get back to Saturday's fight. Donaire certainly won't have any size advantages in this one, as the 5'10" Mathebula, nicknamed "Mongoose," has drawn comparisons to -- GUESS WHO?!?!!? -- Thomas Hearns.

Let's be real clear right now that Mathebula is no Hearns (neither is anyone else compared to Hearns because they're abnormally tall for a division below middleweight). But the South African is a solid, credible opponent, and gives Donaire a chance to unify two titles. He says he wants all four, which would mean that if he is successful on Saturday, he'd be looking at Toshiaki Nishioka (WBC emeritus), Mares (WBC), and Rigondeaux (WBA) after this. Nishioka is going to be in attendance on Saturday, and most are expecting that if Donaire wins, he'll face Nishioka next. Of the three big challenges awaiting him, I actually think Toshiaki is the safest for Donaire, but he's also the most-established guy at 122 pounds, too. Nonito would be trying to slay the king, basically. Maybe the king isn't what he used to be, but it's still his throne.

I like Donaire in this fight because I think he's simply too talented, and I do think Mathebula is going to give Nonito some openings. If he doesn't, then the fight could be dull, but I'll be blaming it on Mathebula this time. This is a guy with a golden opportunity, and if he shows up just to collect a paycheck -- which is mostly what Narvaez was doing last year -- then I'll be sorely disappointed in him. I'm hoping he comes to put on a fight and give a serious effort to win, but I won't exactly be surprised if that's not the case. It's not like we haven't seen it a million times. Donaire by decision.

Super Middleweights, 10 Rounds
Kelly Pavlik (39-2, 34 KO) vs Will Rosinsky (16-1, 9 KO)

I have great respect for both of these guys, who took this fight on short notice when Brandon Rios dropped out of the co-feature. Pavlik last fought on June 8, and Rosinsky on June 14, with Pavlik beating Scott Sigmon and Rosinsky topping Aaron Pryor Jr.

If he wins here, Pavlik is hoping to move back up into the higher levels of the sport. But I'm not getting ahead of myself. Kelly's last three opponents have all been lousy fighters, and he struggled to a win over Alfonso Lopez in his last fight with Jack Loew, and has easily beaten Sigmon and Aaron Jaco, pure club fighters, under Robert Garcia's care.

If Pavlik is really back in business, he should step up the performance here, and he shouldn't have a lot of trouble with Rosinsky, who is capable but doesn't project as a top fighter. If Pavlik struggles with Rosinsky, it's just not a good sign for him at the moment. All things considered, they might actually be moving Kelly a bit too fast with this comeback. I'm going with Pavlik, but I actually think he's going to have some trouble here, and look really pedestrian. It's just a gut feeling. I think they're trying to cram too much together at once with him. Pavlik by decision.

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