Nonito Donaire Rediscovers His Finisher's Mentality

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The boxing legend plans to become a world champion again in devastating fashion against Nordine Oubaali when the two throw down for Oubaali's WBC Bantamweight title Saturday night on SHOWTIME.

In the ninth round of their 2019 bantamweight title unification bout, Nonito Donaire, a 37-year-old four-division champion, nearly dropped the pound-for-pound star Naoya Inoue with a guillotine-like right hand. Inoue doubled over in pain, clearly hurt. 

But with blood running down his face, Inoue eventually regained his composure, surviving the round and capturing a unanimous decision.

In the years since, Donaire (40-6, 26 knockouts) has replayed those fateful moments in the World Boxing Super Series Finals in his head, frame by frame, as if he was breaking down Zapruder footage to see if there was anything else he could have done to finish his opponent. 

Indeed, there was. 

In the final analysis, Donaire realized that he had been too passive, too respectful in letting him off the hook. Once a vicious finisher, Donaire admitted that he had lost some of the assertiveness and aggression that had once defined his in-ring persona.

“Earlier in my career, if I hurt someone, I was going for the kill,” Donaire said. “This time, I was walking in to see if I could time him instead of going for broke like I usually do.” 

Despite the slight mental hiccup and the loss on his ledger, the bout was a resounding success for Donaire, breathing new life into his career and reestablishing him as a dangerous puncher. Donaire will look to build on that success and summon the ruthlessness that once marked his rise in the sport when he takes on the undefeated Nordine Oubaali on Saturday at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California for Oubaali’s WBC World  Bantamweight title in a Premier Boxing Champions main event on SHOWTIME (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT)

The card will also feature knockout artist Subriel Matias (16-1, 16 knockouts) facing undefeated Batyr Jukembayev (18-0, 14 knockouts) in an IBF junior welterweight title eliminator in the co-feature, and unbeaten 2016 U.S. Olympian Gary Antuanne Russell (13-0, 13 knockouts) taking on Jovanie Santiago (14-1-1, 10 knockouts) in a 10-round super lightweight clash in the TV opener. 

If he wins, Donaire will become the oldest fighter to ever win a bantamweight world title, breaking the record held by his Filipino countryman Gerry Penalosa, who was 36 when he KO'd Jhonny Gonzalez in 2007.

Now 38, Donaire will most certainly enter the Hall of Fame when he decides to call it a day on his career. 

Donaire is close with Penalosa. Adding another title to his collection would validate his decision to remain in the sport and to keep competing at the highest levels even after he struggled with earlier losses that suggested his best days were behind him.  

“Gerry is a good friend of mine, (so) it would be so significant to me,” Donaire said of winning the title at his age. “I am still performing at a very high level and it proves that age is not a factor when you are healthy. When you keep yourself motivated and healthy, it all counts. I am really proud of where I’m at and what I can still achieve.”

He has already achieved so much. Since turning pro in 2001, Donaire has won eight world titles and was regarded as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport after he destroyed Fernando Montiel with a highlight-reel left hook back in 2011. The emphatic finish had the HBO commentators comparing him to the likes of Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. in terms of star wattage and talent. 

I don’t think the fight can go more than six rounds. Four-Division World Champion - Nonito Donaire

But two years later, Donaire found himself flailing away on an elevated stage at Radio City Musical Hall in New York City against Guillermo Rigondeaux, a defensive master from Cuba, and that surprising loss began a slow, painful downward trajectory. Three fights later, amid questions whether he was still committed to the sport, Donaire was knocked out by Nicholas Walters in the sixth round, causing HBO's Max Kellerman to question on-air whether this was the end of Donaire’s run as a top-flight performer back in 2014. 

Subsequent losses to Jessie Magdaleno and especially to Carl Frampton in 2018 reinforced the impression that his glory days were far behind him.

“Fighting for as long as I have, you come to a point where you are kind of floating in your career, winning here and then sometimes losing there,” Donaire said of his mid-career complacency. “And you realize that you’re losing a little bit of the edge.”

But nearly seven years after Kellerman and many others questioned if he was still a significant factor in the sport, Donaire, who dropped down two weight classes to enter the World Boxing Super Series, is still pushing his limits, challenging for a title and testing his capacity for greatness. Meanwhile, fighters who bested him, Walters and Frampton, have since retired. Donaire hopes to face Inoue again to accomplish the one thing that has since eluded him — becoming an undisputed champion of his weight class. 

“I feel like I can fight for another ten years,” he said, “that’s how good I feel.”

Even if his overall performance was widely praised and Inoue walked away with facial injuries that included a fractured orbital bone and a broken nose, Donaire blamed a lack of intensity on why he didn't follow up after he had Inoue badly hurt. It’s a lesson he says he’s learned from, and as proof his mindset is different, he’s been unsparing in his treatment of his sparring partners for this camp, unleashing what he calls “controlled aggression,” on them. 

“This is the first time in a very long time that I’m trying to knock the guys out in sparring,” he said. 

Donaire and Oubaali were initially scheduled to meet on December 12 of last year but Oubaali tested positive for COVID-19 in the run-up to the fight in November, and the bout was called off. When Donaire was afforded the chance to face Emmanuel Rodriguez for the interim WBC bantamweight title a week later, this time it was Donaire who tested positive for the coronavirus and Rodriguez went his own way and took on Reymart Gaballo instead, leaving Donaire in limbo until he secured a new date with Oubaali. 

While Donaire described the last year as frustrating, he also called the on-again-off-again circumstances as a blessing. The extra time allowed him to mend his body after a busy 12 months in 2018-19 when he fought three times, culminating with the war with Inoue. Donaire said he spent the time unwinding, with he and his family traveling to Hawaii for a month of well-deserved rest. 

“It was fortunate because it allowed my body to recover a lot and there was a lot of healing and when I came back to training camp I was at another level in terms of my physical ability,” he said. “It was good for me both mentally and physically and now I feel on a different level with my speed, energy and power. I’m putting everything together from all the years that I’ve been fighting, and it’s all just coming together at the right time.”

And he promises a more aggressive performance on Saturday against the southpaw Frenchman Oubaali (17-0, 12 knockouts).

“I don’t think the fight can go more than six rounds,” Donaire said, before adding ominously, “I’m back now.”

For a closer look at Nonito Donaire, check out his fighter page. 

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