It is possible that the deathly quiet surrounding this weekend’s showdown between the world’s number one light-flyweight and the former world’s #1 minimumweight in Cebu, The Philippines, is causing even tried and tested fight fans to sleep on it. Those among you who already have it circled on your calendar: My compliments.
For anyone who has understandably missed it, allow me to preview for you a Fight of the Year candidate to be fought on JUly 11; the onetime top minimumweight in the world is Francisco Rodriguez Jnr., the current number one at light-flyweight is Donnie Nietes. The fight will be fought for the latter’s strap in a rare meeting between two surging fighters that have somehow conspired to meet in what is nevertheless a crossroads fight for both.
More of which later. First I need to clear up any confusion surrounding my description of Rodriguez as the “former” number one flyweight in the world. 17-2-1, Rodriguez, out of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, is just twenty-one years old and has packed twenty fights into just four young years but can no longer pack his growing frame into the smallest division. At no time has Rodriguez had his status ripped from him by a fighter, he is “former” only because he has inevitably outgrown 105lbs and although he clings wilfully to the belts he won in that division, it is pretty much an open secret that he will never make that weight again.
The last time he made that weight though, he made a legend, too.
I made Katsunari Takayama a slender favourite over Rodriguez when they met in March of last year. In the main, my thinking was of their respective tilts at Nicaraguan genius Roman Gonzalez. Rodriguez was brutalised in seven, Takayama made the distance, and although he dropped a clear decision he looked better, at least, than Rodriguez had. I was wrong about a Takayama victory but what I did manage to get right was my pre-fight prediction that the two would put on the best fight of the year; this they did, exceeding even my expectations, throwing more punches than I have ever seen thrown in any fight, ever, through eleven rounds and then delivering a magical twelfth anyway. It was a shame that someone had to lose.
What Rodriguez showed in that fight, more than anything, was a determination to stay the course. Takayama probably was the man who carried the style advantage into that fight, but Rodriguez denied him it with unsound footwork that kept the pressure on an opponent whose lack of power made him ripe for an old-fashioned Mexican walkthrough. This, Rodriguez delivered, but more than that he delivered a propensity for identifying key rounds and pursuing them with total commitment – the third, the sixth, the ninth. He displayed a ring IQ beyond his years. Rodriguez, perhaps in part specifically because of the lessons he learned at the hands of Gonzalez, has become an excellent general. He sought to control the action and against Takayama it was the difference, by my eye, between success and failure. It also took heart, strength, what appeared at that time to be the best engine in the sport and a hell of a pet punch in the traditional Mexican left-hook to the body, too. But it was his determination to build momentum when Takayama retreated that won the day.
If he is to win the day against Donnie Nietes, however, that pet left-hook might be what wins the day. If Nietes has a vulnerability, it is to that very punch.
35-1-4, Nietes, out of Murcia, the Philippines, also has a single lose to his name. Unlike Rodriguez, Nietes’s loss is a mirage; it is one of boxing’s frequent lesser moments, a split decision dropped to Angky Angkotta back in 2004. Nietes travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia only to discover that Angkotta had come in six pounds over the agreed weight. Nietes being Nietes, of course he determined to go on with the fight and for the most part got the better of it; the local judges found in favour of the local fighter and the stone-faced Nietes, then almost exactly the same age as Rodriguez is now, went home. He then went on a twenty-seven fight unbeaten streak that has carried him to his thirty-third year.
This makes Nietes one of the most underrated fighters on the planet.
He did have one scare recently however and that was against Mexican Moises Fuentes, the man who retired Ivan Calderon. Fuentes, who impressed me against “Iron Boy”, brought the same stoic, lanky pressure against Nietes who seemed uncharacteristically ruffled by his attentions. The considerably bigger Fuentes was hurt by a right hand in the first round but recovered well and began to motor in the second, attacking the belt-line two-handed. Nietes has a habit, pronounced in this fight, of dipping in to attack his opponent but occasionally he prefers to wait for his man to throw at which point he can counter. This leaves him vulnerable to an accurate body-attack – and Rodriguez has one. Fuentes also has one but it is considerably less good than that of Rodriguez. Nevertheless, he repeatedly scored with the left-hook against Nietes and went on an astonishing run on my card, taking the sixth through ninth rounds and leaving Nietes in need of either a knockout or a dramatic rally.
Or neither. Nietes just didn’t panic, stuck to his boxing, snaked out that left jab, kept to his toes and scavenged enough hard right hands to win the tenth through twelfth and salvage a draw. The guard-bursting uppercut he landed from all the way outside in the eleventh was the highlight of the run-in but other than that Nietes basically just outlasted the younger, supposedly fresher Fuentes. Nietes, too, has a wonderful engine.
He needs it. Nietes probably takes more steps per round than any older fighter I have seen. He is perennially mobile when he is in the ring, except on those frequent occasions upon which he decides to throw punches. He is extremely hard to corner, perhaps impossible, spinning, bouncing and dancing off with some of the most irrepressible footwork this side of Manny Pacquiao. Still, Nietes was held to a draw and punished to the body by a fighter who is clearly inferior to Rodriguez – that makes the pick clear, right?
Some fighters embody old-school because they are busy or have a certain style, but others embody old-school because of an attitude. Nietes is such a fighter. He didn’t wipe his brow and thank his luck; instead he almost immediately re-matched Fuentes. When the Mexican tried to get his body attack kick-started in the second round in the rematch, Nietes had him timed, keeping distance but a half-step closer than in the first fight, in a sphere of operations that almost always allowed him to deliver punches whenever Fuentes began to build momentum. This, combined with elusive footwork which kept Fuentes from getting set brought him every completed round outside of the third and the eighth in which I thought Fuentes was just about able to out-squabble his elusive opponent. When the Mexican gave way in the ninth it was to an ugly, consistent attack which saw him sent to the canvas three times. A short left-hook that left him staggering drunkenly for the ropes was the punch that really did the damage. An onslaught of right-hands brought him the second knockdown and then Nietes checked Fuentes out with a peach of a left-hook in the final seconds, seeming to reach across himself for the right hand before switching, and driving the left into his opponent’s exposed jaw.
Ugly is the right word for that onslaught. Nietes hit Fuentes twice when he was on a knee after the first knockdown and I thought perhaps was a little lucky to get away with a single point deduction. When he holds against a dipping opponent there is quite often an accompanying elbow; whenever there is an “accidental” clash of heads, Nietes tends to be the man who comes out on the right end of that clash, although that wasn’t the case in the first Fuentes fight where he finished the fight bleeding from both eyes.
Rodriguez though, does not rattle. Takayama has feet as quick as Nietes, and although it should be noted that Nietes has a far better feel for the ring than the Japanese, Rodriguez tracked him down with ease. Perhaps the combination of body assault and footwork make Rodriguez the favourite?
The problem with Rodriguez here is that after that astonishing fight with Takayama, Rodriguez had another one just three months later – in the Philippines with unheralded journeyman Jomar Fajardo. 14-5-2 at bell, Fajardo appeared canon-fodder, an easy comeback fight after the traumatic war with Takayama and a chance to pick up some walking-around money while putting down roots in what is (for a sub 112lb pound fighter) a lucrative territory. Instead, Fajardo made the kind of war on Rodriguez that Rodriguez had on Takayama. Putting everything he had on his reasonably sharp power leads, Fajardo took the first and refused to budge when Rodriguez focused himself and his attack, instead introducing a delightful surprise right uppercut to the body, a punch that Rodriguez failed to resolve. Fajardo married himself artfully to a total lack of finesse, dragging Rodriguez into a gutter war that I thought he finished looking tired. A draw was the official result and although it is possible to find support on the internet for the idea that the fix was in, I thought the draw was a fair result.
Like Nietes, Rodriguez is not one for leaving a mess in his wake and he invited Fajardo back to Mexico with him for an immediate rematch. He was far more dominant and dropped Fajardo on his way to a UD over ten, but I thought he lost the eighth, ninth and tenth. This is a cause for concern for two reasons. Firstly, as stated, Rodriguez needs his engine. If it is compromised by the Takayama war, he cannot win elite level fights; very good fighters are always going to get to him if he cannot maintain that savage pace. Second, after going 0-1-1 over the distance with Rodriguez, Fajardo has lost a six round technical decision to Japanese gatekeeper Hayato Kimura and was stopped in two by the formidable bantamweight Suriyan Sor Rungvisai. These results do not preclude Fajardo being a stylistic bugbear for Rodriguez, nor from his 112lbs bothering Rodriguez physically in their first fight but there is something worrying about the way the Mexican landed many steaming power-punches on Fajardo to such little effect only for Rungvisai to break him completely in mere minutes.
Nietes meanwhile, suffered no such difficulties when he stepped down a level after his defining victory over Fuentes. Neither Carlos Velarde nor Gilberto Parra, Nietes’s two most recent opponents, were ranked, but they were certainly a level above Fajardo. Nevertheless, Nietes stopped both. He looked quick and dominant against Velarnde but still shipped the occasional reminder in the shape of a left-hook to the body. When he opened up Velarnde’s face with a headbutt in the seventh the Mexican was rightly pulled by his corner, having lost every completed round. Impressively complete, Nietes also dominated Parra when that more elusive challenger tried to box and move. Nietes tracked him down and by the end even had Parra chasing him, when after a torrid ninth and also suffering from a cut (this one caused by a punch), Parra was pulled by his corner.
Not a concussive puncher, Nietes is a firm hitter. I can’t help but feel that Takayama’s inability to punch lent itself to the great success of Rodriguez’s stalking style. I suspect that Nietes will be the puncher in the fight and I think that, either way, this will be a crucial ingredient.
That said, I think that Nietes will need that power. He will make Rodriguez work harder for his openings than Takayama did in a tactical sense, but there is no discouraging this Mexican – or his left hook to the body. Nietes is clearly not going to alter his style at this point in his career to accommodate his young opponent and that means opportunities for Rodriguez to land his pet punch will manifest themselves. Rodriguez mixes this punch to body and head like almost nobody in the sport right now, and it is a punch that Rodriguez also disguises well as a jab. This is a good combination for the younger man, this punch and that closing footwork. Nietes is going to get hit.
Then again, that’s never bothered the Filipino before so why should it now? In the event of a loss to a fighter so much younger than he, he has little place to go in the event of a defeat but a rematch; meanwhile Rodriguez, though he is young enough to bounce back again and again must begin to doubt himself at the higher weight having struggled against Fajardo and then being defeated by Nietes. More than that, the blend of styles and attributes are superb, even their best punches are lined up almost perfectly in readiness for some brutal exchanges; they are both tried and tested at the highest level but raise questions about one-anther’s perceived weaknesses, Rodriguez’s apparently withering stamina, Nietes’s seeming vulnerability to the left hook. I just don’t see how this fight can miss.
The result may depend on the unknowable. Can Rodriguez walk through the Filipino’s best punches; can Nietes keep abreast of the Mexican’s pressure? Will Nietes find enough right hands to compensate for the left hooks he’ll have to eat; will Rodriguez be able to maintain the necessary pace? I think, on balance, Nietes may just bring enough variety to squeak out a narrow win in a brutal contest. He looked extremely capable of winning rounds off the backfoot against Fuentes and that ability will prove invaluable here, helping him steal a key round in the middle-late quarter of the fight.
Whoever wins, I suspect that this fight is going to be good enough to birth a rematch, and perhaps even a trilogy.
Wouldn’t it be nice to say you were there at the beginning?