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Nonito Donaire and The Monster

Matt McGrain

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The World Boxing Super Series 118lb tournament climaxes this Thursday in Saitama, Japan as the now fully-fledged wonderkid and local hero Naoya “The Monster” Inoue meets a man who essentially used to be him in the shape of ring veteran and Filipino legend Nonito Donaire. Whatever the outcome there will be tears in the far east come the final bell.

Donaire will recognize much of what awaits him in the opposite corner as he prepares for a monumental crescendo to a storied career. He will see an athletic, powerful, fast technician who can improvise across all styles and he will see some of what he himself used to be. Donaire was once the darling of the hardcore fan, a role Inoue has since embraced with relish. Small but devastating, these men toil in relative obscurity until something pushes them over the top and into the consciousness of the wider boxing public.

For Donaire it took an incredible championship tear-up running from flyweight all the way up to super-bantamweight beginning with that astonishing five round purge of Vic Darchinyan in 2007, arguably both the knockout and the upset of the year.

Donaire has seen ten miles of bad road since then. In 2013 while rated amongst the very best fighters in the world pound-for-pound he ran into an 11-0 contender named Guillermo Rigondeaux and was cleanly out-boxed over twelve. “Rigo” was a technical genius of the Cuban school and although he would go on to display none of the heart and soul that Donaire did in capturing the imaginations of a generation of boxing fans he was so clearly Donaire’s superior that no re-match was seriously touted. The high regard in which Donaire was held also meant that the Filipino was far from finished at the highest level, however; but this could no longer be held as the truth after he was out-pointed and out-fought even more completely by Nicholas Walters, a fine fighter but one that impressed far less than Rigondeaux. Donaire was cast down from the mountain.

Name recognition, the maddening intangible so sought after by marketing professionals, intercedes with boxing in a strange way. Fighters who otherwise might not be thought of are thrown opportunities that would otherwise be beyond their sporting abilities.  Donaire never really went away and when he charmed the Irish and British in his gut-fueled 2018 stab at former pound-for-pounder Carl Frampton, Donaire found himself inside a new market, hailed for the first time by the Europeans. It seemed almost reasonable that Donaire, behind this brave and characterful loss, found himself recruited to the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament, though in truth little was expected of him.

When he drew number one seed Ryan Burnett, less still was expected of him but Donaire was firmly in the fight when Burnett slipped a disc and retired from the fight at the end of the fourth. The sentimental regard in which Donaire was held was made clear when what was essentially a bye was met with few complaints. Even when the true second favorite for tournament victory, Zolani Tete withdrew with his own injury troubles and Donaire was matched with substitute Stephon Young in the semi-final, little criticism was heard. The overwhelming attitude was one of curiosity and the former champion did not disappoint.

To be clear, Donaire did not “turn back the clock” against Young. That is possible, perhaps, as demonstrated by the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Joe Brown and Archie Moore, but that is not what happened here. Rather, Donaire showed glimmers of the fighter he once was in dispatching a limited opponent, as was expected of a seasoned veteran of no small matter. But the slashing left-hook that delivered victory and deposited Young in the strange netherworld known only by combat sportspeople and victims of automobile accidents reminded one of the fighter he used to be; for a thrilling moment it was 2009 again. As Donaire knelt beside his stricken opponent in apparent prayer, gently nudging his thigh with one gloved hand, the realization sunk in that Donaire was set to contest the final with the deadly Naoya Inoue.

It would be nice here to offer a detailed breakdown of Inoue’s wonderful skillset and to trace its evolution over recent years but sadly that isn’t possible; no opponent has extended the Japanese past the second round since 2017. He is a wrecking ball of a bantamweight and a fighter who will be keen to remind boxing fans that he, like Canelo Alvarez, has taken straps and scalps in three different weight divisions but that, unlike Alvarez, he has reigned as the best fighter in each of the divisions he has graced.

Inoue has had none of the luck that Donaire has enjoyed in the course of this tournament, but he has gone un-extended regardless. After obliterating Jamie McDonnell in a single round to grab a strap in his bantamweight debut, Inoue drew top bantamweight Juan Payano in the quarter final. Once more a first-round knockout was the result. Against McDonnell he had ended matters with an old-fashioned fuselage of shots forcing the referee’s intervention, but against Payano Inoue favored accuracy and economy, landing a laser-guided one-two straight out of the Tommy Hearns manual on how to destroy ranked opposition. It was a perfect combination thrown at a moving target who had, up until then, never been stopped.

The semi-final against Emmanuel Rodriguez was almost as perfunctory. The right-hand to the body/left-hook to the head for the first knockdown was Tysonesque and as beautiful as any two-piece I’ve seen delivered in a boxing ring; the wide left-right to the body to end matters landed within seconds of the restart, runs it close though.

Inoue does not have a style but a skillset. He does what he likes. Perhaps the ultimate realization of the marriage of boxing technique and modern sports science, he is a machine capable of rendering destruction to a degree unseen anywhere in boxing currently. Perhaps not the artist that Vasily Lomachenko is, perhaps not the one-shot brawler that Deontay Wilder is, he combines much of what is good about both and lets it roll. He will take some beating. It may be that only an opponent of excess poundage or the admirable Japanese propensity for early retirement will get it done.

This, then, is the reward Donaire receives at the end – for it will be the end win or lose – of eighteen years at the sharp end of the toughest of sports. Twelve years after he vanquished Darchinyan, nine after his destruction of Hernan Marquez, seven after he gunned down Fernando Montiel, Donaire steps into the ring with the best fighter he has ever faced.

It is the kind of opportunity faded pugilists lie in bed at night and dream of. Since the fight was made, it is possible that those dreams have taken on a darker tinge. It’s not that Donaire can’t win; anyone who has followed boxing long enough knows those are foolish words. Rather it is that if he did win it would be the biggest shock of this decade and would rank among the most impressive comebacks in ring history.

Watching one of your old favorites put himself in legitimate peril for one more shot at glory is an uncomfortable trope for the boxing fan. Once upon a time he was the danger himself, but no longer is he “the man who knocks.” Rather, he is a fragile version of a fighter who likely even in his prime would have been an underdog against a boxer as special as Inoue. Whether or not you consider this unmissable may depend upon your age and your outlook. If you’re young enough not to remember Donaire’s scintillating prime, you probably feel compelled to track down and watch Inoue, a fighter already anointed great and in the prime of his career. If you are an optimist you may expect to see the old man trouble the relatively inexperienced Japanese, perhaps even witness what seems the impossible.

Or maybe, like me, you’ll be watching between your fingers as eras collide and fighting machines from different generations swing past one-another in a dance as old as the sport itself: the former master facing off against the current embodiment of his own self.

To catch it you’ll have to be up early if you’re reading this in North America or enjoy some glorious mid-morning championship action if you’re reading in Europe.

Inoue will win; I hope Donaire steps off the canvas for what should be the final time with his dignity and health intact.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: Crawford, Canelo, Caleb Plant and More

Arne K. Lang

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Although a lot of disinformation comes out of the mouths of boxing promoters, Bob Arum was apparently serious when he broached the idea of a two-fight series between Terence Crawford and Conor McGregor, the first fight to be conducted under MMA rules and the second under boxing rules.

Crawford is amenable. “I just have to have the proper time to prepare myself,” he told ESPN’s Dan Rafael. “…I haven’t been in that (wrestling) environment in a long time, but most definitely I feel I can compete with anyone given the proper time to train on the MMA side, being that I have a wrestling background.”

Crawford, 32, last wrestled in middle school so he would certainly need a refresher course. However, he would have a better chance of defeating Conor McGregor in an MMA match than McGregor would have of defeating him in a boxing match. So, if Arum’s proposed two-fight series ever comes off, the tailpiece may be unnecessary.

– – –

As first reported by ESPN’s Steve Kim, Andy Ruiz Jr. has dumped trainer Manny Robles. According to Kim’s report, Ruiz’s father informed Robles of the decision and said it was Al Haymon’s idea.

Andy Ruiz appears to be one of those people that can gain weight just looking at food. He weighed 297 ½ pounds for his pro debut at age 19, carried 268 pounds for his first meeting with Anthony Joshua, and ballooned up to 283 ½ for the rematch after leading reporters to believe that he had actually slimmed down for the sequel.

Ruiz, noted Kim, went from a feel-good story to a cautionary tale in just six months.

– – –

Who ya’ gonna believe?

A certain disreputable web site, bragging that it had an exclusive, told its readers that Canelo Alvarez had settled on Billy Joe Saunders as his next opponent and that they would meet on Cinco de Mayo in Las Vegas. The next day, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, a far more trustworthy source, reported that Ryota Murata had emerged as the frontrunner and that negotiations were underway to stage the fight in Japan.

Perhaps it makes sense for Canelo to promote his brand in a new market. However, if he fights Murata, who holds a WBA belt, he would reportedly be dropping back to 160 and at age 29 he appears to have outgrown the weight class.

Stay tuned.

– – –

If Caleb Plant were an NBA player, his name would be Kevin Love. Plant, who recently married FOX/PBC reporter Jordan Hardy, is the only U.S.-born, non-Hispanic white person among the various champions in the 17 weight divisions.

Plant, who hails from tiny Ashland City, Tenn. (23 miles from Nashville) defends his IBF super middleweight title on Feb. 15 at Nashville’s 20,000-seat Bridgestone Arena. In the opposite corner will be Germany’s Vincent Feigenbutz who will be making his U.S. debut.

The 24-year-old Feigenbutz, who turned pro at age 16, has won 10 straight and 30 of his last 31. He represents a big step up in class from Plant’s last opponent, Mike Lee, who was in way over his head.

– – –

A sad note from South Africa: Five days after the death of trailblazer Peter Mathebula, his widow, Emma Gabaitsiwe Mathebula, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. Peter Mathebula’s funeral, originally set for Saturday, has been pushed back until Tuesday and will now be a joint funeral.

Mathebula, who won the WBA world flyweight title in 1980, basically died a pauper, having sold all of  his boxing memorabilia to keep his head above water. His heirs had reached out to the government for assistance in defraying the costs of his burial.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 82: Jason Quigley Returns to SoCal and More

David A. Avila

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Southern California prizefighting heats up with Jason Quigley headlining a fight card in Orange County and then, two days later, another fight card takes place in the heart of Los Angeles.

Ireland’s Quigley (17-1, 13 KOs) faces Mexico’s Fernando Marin (16-4-3, 12 KOs) on Thursday Jan. 23, at the OC Hangar in Costa Mesa, Calif. DAZN will stream the Golden Boy Promotions fight card live.

Quigley, 28, seeks to reclaim territory lost when he suffered a defeat last July against Tureano Johnson. Ironically, Marin would lose 10 days later in Hollywood to super welterweight contender Serhii Bohachuk.

For several years Quigley had trained in Southern California but decided to change trainers and location. He moved to Great Britain and still prepares near his native country but primarily fights in the U.S.

At one time Quigley clamored for a match against Gennady “GGG” Golovkin or Saul “Canelo” Alvarez but now finds himself trying to prove he belongs in the upper tier of the middleweight division. It’s loaded with talent.

Also on the same fight card will be popular North Hollywood super welterweight Ferdinand Kerobyan who was headed to contender status when he ran into Blair “the Flair” Cobbs. At the time Cobbs was an unknown quantity but no longer.

Kerobyan (13-1, 8 KOs) meets Azael Cosio (21-8-2) in an eight-round clash in the semi-main event at OC Hangar. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Red Boxing International

On Saturday Jan. 27, Red Boxing International hosts its first boxing card of the year at Leonardo’s Night Club located at 6617 Wilson Ave. L.A. 90001. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Super welterweight Bryan Flores (13-1, 6 KOs) meets Brandon Baue (15-17) in the main event  in the first event of the year for the ambitious promotion company. For the past two years Flores fought primarily in Tijuana, Mexico where he racked up six wins. Now he’s back on Southern California soil.

Another match features lightweights Angel Israel Rodriguez (5-0) facing off against Braulio Avila (3-6) in a six-round fight.

Rodriguez fights out of Pico Rivera, Calif. but recently fought in Costa Rica where he won by first round knockout in November. He will be fighting Avila who just fought two weeks ago at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Calif.

It’s a long fight card with 11 bouts on the schedule.

JRock and Rosario

Boxing fans received another lesson on never underestimating a ranked contender regardless of the name recognition.

Jeison Rosario knocked out Julian “J Rock” Williams who was making the first defense of the WBA and IBF super welterweight world titles he won last year in my selection as “Fight of the Year.”

Rosario walked in with little recognition and was thought to be a soggy piece of bread for Williams. The long armed Dominican fighter walloped Williams in front of his hometown fans in Philadelphia. It was yet another warning for fans to understand that anyone who steps in the boxing ring ranked as a contender can do the unthinkable. In this case Rosario knocked out the champion in five rounds.

Many felt Williams was far too skilled, especially on the inside where he showcased those skills last May against former titlist Jarret Hurd. It was a remarkable display of the art of inside fighting. But against Rosario, he never got a chance to exhibit those skills.

The loaded super welterweight division has another dangerous champion in Rosario.

Fights to Watch

Thurs. 6 p.m. DAZN – Jason Quigley (17-1) vs Fernando Marin (16-4-3).

Sat. 6 p.m. Showtime – Danny Garcia (35-2) vs Ivan Redkach (23-4-1).

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Recalling Three Big Fights in Miami, the Site of Super Bowl LIV

Arne K. Lang

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The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs collide on Feb. 2 in Miami in Super Bowl LIV (54) in what will assuredly be the biggest betting event to ever play out on American soil. It’s the 10th Super Bowl for the South Florida metropolis which ties it with New Orleans as the most frequent destination for football’s premier attraction.

With its heavily Latin population, Miami would seem to be natural for big fights. However, this hasn’t been the case. Several great champions fought here, including Roberto Duran who twice defended his world lightweight title in these parts, but these weren’t big fights. In the case of Duran, his opponents were lightly regarded and the Panamanian legend was still three years away from his first encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard, a match that increased his name recognition a hundred-fold.

There were, however, three fights in Miami that summoned the interest of virtually all of America’s A-list sportswriters. Here they are in reverse chronological order.

Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello (Nov. 12, 1982)

Alexis Arguello (72-5) was bidding to become boxing’s first four-division champion. In his way stood WBA junior welterweight title-holder Aaron Pryor (31-0, 29 KOs), a man now widely regarded as the best 140-pound boxer of all time.

Arguello, a Miami resident, having been exiled from his Nicaraguan homeland by the Sandanista rebel occupation, was a textbook boxer who defeated his opponents with surgical efficiency. Pryor was a typhoon. He mowed down his opponents with relentless pressure. It was a great style match-up and it didn’t disappoint. Contested before nearly 30,000 at Miami’s iconic Orange Bowl, Pryor vs. Arguello was a fight for the ages.

“There was power, finesse, poise, courage and a tremendous ebb and flow,” said Associated Press writer Ed Schuyler who dubbed it Manila in Miniature. In the ninth, 11th, and particularly the 13th rounds, Arguello hit Pryor with straight right hands that would have felled an ordinary fighter, but Pryor had an iron chin.

In the 14th, Pryor buckled Arguello’s knees with a straight right hand and then unloaded a furious combination as Arguello fell back against the ropes. He was out on feet when referee Stanley Cristodoulou intervened and he would lay prone on the canvas for several minutes before he could be removed to his dressing room.

Sonny Liston vs. Muhammad Ali (Feb. 25, 1964)

If you happen to find a poster for this fight with the name Muhammad Ali on it, don’t buy it. It’s bogus. Liston met up with Muhammad Ali in their second fight. In their first encounter, Liston opposed Cassius Clay.

Clay’s Louisville sponsors, after a brief flirtation with Archie Moore, settled on Angelo Dundee as his trainer. Angelo operated out of his brother Chris Dundee’s gym located at the corner of 5th Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The fighter who took the name Muhammad Ali trained here and kept a home in Miami for most of his first six years as a pro.

Clay/Ali was 22 years old and had only 19 fights under his belt when he was thrust against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Liston was riding a 28-fight winning streak after back-to-back first-round blowouts of Floyd Patterson.

In a UPI survey, 43 of 46 boxing writers picked Liston. “Clay has no more chance of stopping Liston than the old red barn had of impeding a tornado,” wrote Nat Fleischer, the publisher of The Ring magazine.

This would be the first of many famous fights for Muhammad Ali who emerged victorious when Liston quit after the sixth frame citing an injured shoulder. What is not widely known, however, is that the fight, which was shown on closed-circuit in the U.S. and Canada, was a bust at the gate. The 16,448-seat Convention Center was only half full.

The expectation that Liston would take the lippy kid out in a hurry depressed sales, as did sky-high ticket prices ($250 tops when $100 was the norm). And there may have been more subtle factors. “This may not be the best place for a fight between two Negroes,” wrote Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times, cognizant that people of color were not welcome as guests at the ritzy beachfront hotels along Collins Avenue.

Jack Sharkey vs. W. L. (Young) Stribling (Feb. 27, 1929)

A big fight, as I define it, doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. An important fight that produces an upset automatically becomes a bigger fight in hindsight. The Sharkey-Stribling fight of 1929 didn’t draw an immense crowd by Jack Dempsey standards, but the turnout, reportedly 35,000, far exceeded expectations and the fight – which preceded Miami’s first Orange Bowl football game by six years — really established Miami as a potentially good place for a big sporting event.

Promoted by the Madison Square Garden Corporation, the bout was originally headed to a dog racing track but it quickly became obvious that a larger venue was needed. A stadium was erected on a Miami Beach polo field, taking the name Flamingo Park (not to be confused with the thoroughbred track of the same name).

Slated for 10 rounds, the bout was conceived as one of two “eliminators” to find a successor to Gene Tunney who had retired. What gave the fight it’s primary allure, however, was the North-South angle. Sharkey, born Joseph Zukauskas, hailed from Boston. Stribling, born into a family that traveled the fair circuit with a variety act, was from Macon, Georgia.

The fight, which aired on the NBC radio network, was a dud, a drab affair won by Sharkey who had the best of it in virtually every round. Both went on to fight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title. Stribling, dubbed the “King of the Canebrakes” by Damon Runyon, lost by TKO in fight that was stopped late in the 15th round. Sharkey took the title from Schmeling on a split decision after losing their first meeting on a foul.

Young Stribling died in a motorcycle crash at age 28, by which time he had engaged in 251 documented bouts, the great majority of which were set-ups. Jack Sharkey lived to be 91.

—-

The strong earnings of the Sharkey-Stribling bout inevitably drew the Madison Square Garden Corporation back to Miami for an encore. On Feb. 27, 1930, Jack Sharkey opposed England’s “Fainting” Phil Scott. Four years later, on March 1, 1834, Primo Carnera defended his world heavyweight title here against former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, the Philadelphia Phantom.

Both bouts were big money losers, as were the great majority of major fights during this period. Eight months after the Sharkey-Stribling cash cow, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Few Americans could afford to vacation in Florida, let alone travel anywhere for a big fight.

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