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Nonito Donaire Hits a Speed Bump…HAUSER

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Drivers see them all the time. They’re bumps in a roadway (typically painted yellow, three-to-four inches high, six-inches-or-so deep) designed to reduce the speed at which cars are driven. Think of Nonito Donaire as a finely-tuned Porsche with Bob Arum revving up the engine for a test drive toward super-stardom.

Donaire is charismatic in and out of the ring. The WBC-WBO 118-pound champion is on virtually every pound-for-pound list. His record is 27-and-1 with 18 knockouts (the loss came ten years ago in his second pro fight). In the age of Manny Pacquiao, it doesn’t hurt that Nonito’s nickname is The Filipino Flash.

On October 22nd against Omar Narvaez at Madison Square Garden, Donaire hit a speed bump. He didn’t careen off the road, but it slowed him down a bit.

Donaire was born in the Philippines on November 16, 1982; the third of four children. “We were poor,” he says. “We weren’t starving, but lots of times we were hungry. If there was a chicken to split up, it was an occasion.”

Nonito’s parents emigrated to the United States when he was eight years old, bringing his younger brother with them. Nonito and two older siblings stayed behind with their grandparents.

“My grandfather called me ‘midget’ because I was tiny,” Donaire remembers. “As a kid, you take that very seriously. I thought I was nothing. I was an extra mouth to feed; that’s all. I grew up in the streets and got picked on a lot because I was so small. I’d fade away into corners and try not to be noticed. I tried to befriend everyone so I wouldn’t have to fight. No one saw the fighter in me, including me.”

When Nonito was ten, his parents brought him to America.

“I remember very vividly looking out the window of the plane right before it landed in San Francisco,” he recalls. “It was night. I saw all the city lights and wondered, ‘What is that?  Fireflies?”

The transition to life in America was hard. Nonito spoke Visayan; not a word of English. When he was eleven, his father put him in an after-school boxing program to keep him off the streets.

“I worked hard at it because I wanted my father to be proud of me,” Nonito says. “I remember walking to the ring for my first fight. I was so scared, I pissed in my pants. I literally pissed in my pants. But the moment I got hit, I wasn’t afraid anymore. That’s what courage is; facing your fears and giving your all, no matter what. When I got hit, it was like another person took over my body. I had to defend myself and the courage came out. I scored three eight-counts and won the decision. After I won, my father smiled and gave me a hug. That was the first time in my life that I felt special.”

Donaire has an exuberant personality and an enthusiasm for life. He loves to talk. His mind darts back and forth. He’s easy to like.

He’s also a gifted impersonator with innumerable accents and dozens of characters in his repertoire: Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver (“You talkin’ to me?”) . . . Mel Gibson in Braveheart (“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”) . . . Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (“Boards don’t hit back!”) . . . He could do stand-up comedy and be a success.

But Donaire’s most obvious gifts are as a fighter. He’s blessed with great athleticism and explosive punching power. Make a single mistake against him, and your night can be over. He also has a good boxing mind that is currently being honed by trainer Robert Garcia.

“I pay attention to detail in everything I do,” Nonito says. “A friend of mine drinks beer and always moves his glass in a circle. I’ve noticed that. When we sit down together, I know what he’ll do. If I know what my opponent’s habits are, everything in the ring becomes like a slow motion chess match to me.”

Donaire has two signature victories to his credit. The first was a one-punch knockout over then-undefeated Vic Darchinyan in 2007.

“Against Darchinyan, I fought with anger because I felt that he had disrespected me,” Nonito says. “When I knocked him down, I was hoping he’d get up so I could hit him again. After the fight, he said it was a lucky punch that knocked him out; but I don’t believe in lucky punches. When I get hit, it’s because my opponent did something right and I made a mistake. When I hit my opponent, it’s because I did something right and he made a mistake.”

Donaire’s other signature win came against Fernando Montiel in February of this year. Again, one punch made the outcome a foregone conclusion. Montiel rose from a brutal knockdown but was unable to continue.

“The punch I knocked Montiel down with was the best punch I’ve ever thrown,” Nonito says. “The respect I have for him, that he got up and wanted to keep fighting; it’s hard to express the respect I felt.”

Donaire is good, and the consensus is that he’ll get better. “I’m always learning,” he says. “And a lot of what I learned came from studying Bruce Lee. Watching him taught me that, every day, I can become better and go beyond what I already am; that there’s always another lesson to learn; that I have to be dedicated and do things right to succeed in life.”

“I love boxing,” Nonito continues. “I love the beauty of boxing, the purity of boxing. I give my whole being to the sport. Being a great fighter isn’t about belts. To me, greatness is the smile you leave on people’s faces and in their hearts, the way you inspire them. I want to win belts; I want to make a lot of money. But I hope that, a long time from now, people smile when they think about me as a fighter and that I inspire them to want to be the best at whatever they choose to do in their life.”

After Donaire knocked out Montiel, he was on the verge of stardom. Then Golden Boy tried to lure him away from Top Rank. Nonito was told by third parties with their own interests in mind that Top Rank (which had been building his career and still had him under contract) was keeping him under wraps to advance its own economic agenda with Manny Pacquiao. At one point, Donaire signed a contract with Golden Boy. That led to legal action and an ugly war of words.

“Facts are facts,” Top Rank CEO Bob Arum declared. “He’s not a pay per view fighter. Filipinos don’t support him. When we put him on pay-per-view, we did no buys. When he fought Montiel, it was all Mexicans. He has not connected with the Filipinos. I don’t think the Filipino people like him and that is largely because of his wife [who reportedly was advocating for Golden Boy]. She criticizes the way Jinkee [Pacquiao] dresses and she’s all tarted up. Jinkee dresses like a lady.”

That led to a self-righteous rebuttal from Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, who raged, “Nonito Donaire and Rachel Donaire are first-class people. They really don’t deserve this sort of vicious and uncalled for attacks from Bob Arum. Bob Arum may be angry that they left him, but such is life. There is no reason for these idiotic comments. Bob Arum’s true colors came out, and they always will. That’s just the kind of person that he is. If Bob Arum thought that he still had [a binding contract] with Nonito and he was making these comments, then wouldn’t that make him an even bigger idiot? You just don’t say these kinds of negative things. That’s just a low-life who does that; and that’s what Bob Arum really is.”

A contract extension heals all wounds. The war was resolved when Donaire signed a contract that binds him to Top Rank for a minimum of four more years. Top Rank can further extend the contract if certain contingencies occur.

“It went out of control,” Arum said after peace with the Donaire camp had been restored. “I should know with all my experience that it’s self-defeating to carry on battles like this through the media. I apologized to Rachel, which is more than most politicians do when they say something wrong. I apologized sincerely and she accepted my apology. We’re all on the same page now.”

With the hostilities at an end, Arum began planning for the future. “You can’t be a superstar if you have only a regional following,” he noted. “You can have a regional base or an ethnic base. But to be a real superstar, which means that you generate a large number of pay-per-view buys whenever you fight, you have to have a much broader following.”

Toward that end, Top Rank brought Donaire to New York for the east-coast media exposure that would accompany his fighting in The Big Apple.

“Our goal is to make him a superstar,” Arum said during a pre-fight conference call. “We think that Nonito is such a great exciting fighter and such a pleasing personality that, as he rises in weight, he will become a major superstar in the sport.”

“Donaire is telling us that he wants to go up in weight and fight the toughest guys out there,” Top Rank director of public relations Lee Samuels added. “He wants to fight Mikey Garcia. He wants to fight Juanma and Yuriorkis Gamboa. I said to him, ‘These guys are good and they fight back.’ Nonito told me, ‘No problem.’”

But first there was the matter of Donaire defending his belts against Omar Narvaez in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The good news for boxing fans was that Narvaez was undefeated (35-0-2) and a “champion.” The bad news was that the Argentinean was 36 years old, lacked power (19 knockouts in 37 fights), was moving up in weight, and had won his WBO 114-pound bauble in one of those contests for a vacant title.

Donaire said all the right things in the days leading up to the fight. “Narvaez is a tremendous fighter. He has a great heart. He knows how to win.”

At the final pre-fight press conference, people were throwing around the names of Argentinean fighters like Carlos Monzon and Sergio Martinez. Perhaps the most relevant name from a promotional point of view was that of Carlos Baldomir, who came into Madison Square Garden as a prohibitive underdog against Zab Judah in 2006 and emerged with the WBC welterweight crown.

But the truth of the matter was that Donaire-Narvaez had been put together as a showcase for Nonito with Narvaez as a sacrificial lamb.

The Theater was close to sold out with 4,425 fans in attendance. The fight began with Narvaez fighting cautiously and Donaire biding his time, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake. The fight continued with Narvaez fighting cautiously and Donaire biding his time, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake. And the fight ended with Narvaez fighting cautiously and Donaire biding his time, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake.

In sum, it was like a twelve-round sparring session with few solid punches landed. Narvaez, a clever boxer, was there to survive and spent the entire night in a defensive shell. Each of the judges scored the bout 120-108 in Donaire’s favor. This observer’s scorecard read 118-110.

The encounter didn’t do much to advance Nonito’s ring career, but it didn’t damage it much either. He was in the ring with a fighter who knew how to protect himself. And Donaire already has good highlight-reel footage from his earlier knockouts of Darchinyan and Montiel.

As for the future; Arum proclaims, “We fully intend to make Nonito a pay-per-view attraction. It’s silly to guess how long that will take. It will come when it comes. And it’s silly to compare Nonito with Manny Pacquiao. They’re both Filipino, but Nonito has lived in the United States since he was ten years old. Every fighter is different. Top Rank will promote Nonito as his own person in his own way.”

In other words; the issue isn’t whether Donaire will be “the next Manny Pacquiao.” Pacquiao (like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, and Oscar De La Hoya) is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. The issue is, “How big can Nonito become in his own right?”

We still don’t know how fast and how far the car can go.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (Winks and Daggers: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was just published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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