Back in 2012, it seemed everyone was on the Nonito Donaire bandwagon and I have to admit, it felt a bit lonely standing on the dusty sidewalk, watching it go by, all the happy people on it cheering and dancing and holding up those festive banners proclaiming: “Nonito Donaire: Fighter of the Year!” I couldn’t get on that happy wagon even if I’d wanted to, me being too old and a bit too creaky in the joints to hoist myself up. Besides, I can’t take the racket like I used to either. Doesn’t sound much like music anymore, just a lot of electronic noise.
So I made my case, quietly and indoors, to those who would listen: the real “Fighter of the Year” for 2012 was Juan Manuel Marquez. The man was boxing’s Ahab, had been on a quest to kill his white whale for almost a decade, got robbed big time in his third fight with said whale the year before, and more than evened up the score with a one-punch knockout for the ages. I still find it difficult to understand how anyone couldn’t see that 2012 belonged to “Dinamita,” not “The Filipino Flash.” The repercussions of that single win will be felt for years, if not decades.
Yeah, I know, the punching power that did in the otherwise sturdy-chinned Manny, and which emerged at the advanced age of 39, maybe, just maybe, had something to do with some not-so-legal substances being consumed on the part of Mr. Marquez. But it’s up to the officials supposedly in charge of boxing to police such things, not me. According to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Marquez is clean. Who am I to say different?
But beyond that, how were Donaire’s four wins that year anything to get so excited about? Did any significantly impact the sport? Sure, he was admirably active in an era when champions don’t even contemplate fighting more than twice a year. Which gives one pause. How must young boxers today regard guys like Henry Armstrong, who thought nothing of climbing into the ring a couple times per month? Now there’s a true warrior. Maybe even “TBE,” dare I say it. “Henry who?” the kids in the gym reply and I just shake my head and walk outside to light up another Winston.
It’s grey, overcast, the trees aflame with color and Nonito Donaire’s reputation is fluttering to earth like the yellow leaves now littering Saint Laurent Boulevard. Two years ago he was a future all-time great; now he’s a bum. Such is the fickle nature of the fair-weather fight fan.
Me, I truthfully never thought he had the stuff to be a great fighter. In such evaluations, intangibles come into play, maybe more so in boxing than in any other sport. I cannot always explain such judgments. “I see something,” as Max Schmeling famously said.
For me, there was a certain something in Donaire’s make-up which I knew would lead to defeat, sooner rather than later, a certain complacency and an element of vanity that added up to an over-confidence which, as opposed to the kind of arrogance displayed by so many champions of the past, smacked of self-satisfaction. It is important to never wholly believe, deep down, in one’s self-delusions. Confidence is good, but never contentment. A great fighter never completely loses a certain anxiety borne out of a desperate need to win and a deeply held fear of losing.
And there was Donaire back in April of 2013, befuddled and bemused, and content to almost sit still for a 12 round boxing lesson from professor Guillermo Rigondeaux. We waited in vain for a warrior to appear in Radio City Music Hall that night and it never happened. And this past Saturday, after absorbing a sustained pounding from a bigger, stronger and more desperate man, Donaire gave all credit to Nicholas Walters. And such sportsmanship is to be applauded, no question. But for me, I saw a boxer a bit too willing to accept defeat.
To see the other end of the spectrum on Saturday one had only to change the channel. And there was Steve Cunningham in Philadelphia, battling an opponent eight years younger and 70 pounds bigger. And winning. Skill had much to do with the outcome, but so did drive and heart and a throwback Philly fighter simply refusing to lose. Despite the inexperience of Natu Visinia, at times he gave Cunningham all he could handle with his size and aggressiveness, manhandling the older man on the inside and even scoring a knockdown in round five. But “USS,” battling for his daughter’s life, would not be denied, though both men wanted desperately to win; round six of this bout might have been the best round of any fight, anywhere, that particular Saturday.
And on a night when Donaire, and Marco Antonio Rubio, appeared all too willing to accept defeat, Cunningham’s performance was a welcome tonic. One made even more refreshing if one happened to remember how “USS” got screwed when he faced Tomasz Adamek a while back. Man, I love payback. Now it’s Cunningham on Grantland and NBC and getting all the love. As I recall, it was one of the worst robberies of 2012, the same year of course that I watched that noisy bandwagon go by. I wonder where it went? It’s nice and quiet now. — Robert Portis