If there’s one thing Nonito Donaire has learned over these past 13 years, it’s that you can’t stand tall if you’re sitting down. Nor can you achieve your dreams if you become frustrated and simply give up on them.
Now 30, the “Filipino Flash” is at or near the pinnacle of a likely Hall of Fame boxing career that still appears to be on the ascent. Already a fixture on most experts’ pound-for-pound lists, Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs; seen in above Chris Farina-Top Rank photo) puts his WBO super bantamweight championship on the line against two-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist and WBA super bantam titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs) Saturday night in New York’s iconic Radio City Music Hall. Should he add Rigondeaux’s strap in the much-anticipated 122-pound unification showdown, Donaire – coming off a stellar 2012 in which he was named Fighter of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America, ESPN, Yahoo!Sports, Sports Illustrated and several boxing web sites, including (along with co-winner Robert Guerrero), thesweetscience.com – he could put himself in the early mix to become only the third boxer to win back-to-back BWAA awards. The others? Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield and Manny Pacquiao.
“Growing up, there were times I was made fun of and bullied,” Donaire, who emigrated with his family from his native Philippines to San Leandro, Calif., in 1994, said in an exclusive interview with TSS. “There were hardships I went through. It’s just amazing to me to think about where I am now. And I want to go even further. I need to keep reaching for the top.”
But all the good things that have come to Donaire in recent years, not the least of which is the baby boy (he’ll be named Jarel Michael) he and his wife Rachel are expecting in July, might have been put on hold – or worse – had the bitter disappointment of what happened at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials continued to fester.
After Nonito and his older brother Glenn both lost disputed, computer-scored decisions to the favored Brian Viloria in Tampa, Fla., a decision was made – a decision reportedly pushed for by the Donaires’ coach, Robert Salinas – for the brothers to stage an in-ring sitdown strike rather than for Glenn to proceed with a 106-pound losers’ bracket bout with Karoz Norman. Had Glenn, who was favored in that matchup, won, he would have faced Nonito for a berth against Viloria, the Trials winner, in the Box-offs in Mashantucket, Conn.
Taking part in the sitdown strike, which lasted about five minutes, were Salinas, Nonito Donaire Sr., Glenn, family friend Jaquin Gallardo and Nonito, who was all of 17 and even then wondering why he had agreed to participate.
“I was naïve at that time,” the WBO 122-pound ruler recalled. “Whoever led me to make that decision, my brother and I went along because we were convinced that no matter what we did, there was no way for us to come out ahead. Neither Glenn nor I was the `Chosen One.’ Viloria (the defending world amateur champion in his weight class and USA Boxing’s Fighter of the Year) was.
“But now, if I could go back, I would have kept fighting, kept trying. I’ve learned a lot since then. I learned it’s always better to at least try no matter how big your obstacle is. That knowledge helped make me who and what I am now.”
That realization was slow to dawn on a teenager who felt, with some justification, that he and his brother – Glenn is three years older – had been the victims of a flawed amateur boxing system that was stacked against no-names such as themselves. Nonito walked away from boxing, with the intention of never tugging on the gloves again.
“The politics of amateur boxing discouraged me to the point where for a while I really didn’t care about it,” he told me in 2009. “I was offered a spot at Northern Michigan University (where the U.S. Olympic Education Center is located) and a chance to compete for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, but I was really down on the sport at that point. My idea was to forget about boxing and to go to school. I actually did quit boxing for a year or so.
“Then I saw Dre (Andre Ward, the USA’s last Olympic gold medalist in boxing, in 2004, and currently the WBA/WBC super middleweight champion) and he got me back into it. He and some other people made me realize I had the talent to still achieve something.”
It was a fortuitous moment in Donaire’s life pretty much along the lines of a music teacher telling little Yo Yo Ma, hey, you might want to stick with those cello lessons. When you have the talent of a virtuoso, you don’t throw it all away in an impulsive moment because you’re hissed off.
OK, so maybe Yo Yo Ma never wanted to stick his cello in the closet after a less-than-perfect recital. But the Donaires’ act of defiance, ill-advised though it might have been, now might be looked upon as a small brick in the road toward change that has resulted in the scrapping of the hated computer scoring system and other reforms instituted by AIBA and USA Boxing’s new president, Dr. Charles Butler. One can only speculate how it all might have turned out for the Donaires, particularly the more gifted Nonito, had all the changes been in effect in 2000.
“I’m happy they went back to the old-school way of doing things,” Nonito said of the much-needed makeover of the amateur boxing establishment. “You can’t change judges’ opinions, of course. You’re still going to get curious decisions, just like you get sometimes in the pros. But at least they’re finally getting rid of that ridiculous scoring system that held so many guys back. What people are going to see now is more of what I consider to be real boxing, and that can’t help but be a good thing.”
No American boxer was expected to shine more in Tampa in 2000 than Viloria, but many ringside media types felt that the wrong guy came out ahead in the 10-5 nod he got over Glenn, and that impression was intensified after Nonito dropped an 8-6 decision to Viloria, a fellow Filipino-American. In the third round of that bout, Nonito appeared to score with four or five clean jabs in the center of the ring, but somehow was credited with just one point.
“I think the big thing is that I was an unknown who wasn’t really expected to do anything at the Trials,” he said. “I was not being groomed for stardom. I was the short-notice guy, the guy who was supposed to lose.”
Of the sitdown strike, Salinas said, “None of the other people have enough courage to do this. We know this is the wrong way (to make a point), but we needed to do something. (USA Boxing) has a select few and there’s no way to beat them, so why try? If we lose fairly, fine. But if we lose because of politics, that is something else.”
Gary Toney, then the USA Boxing president, called the sitdown strike “tragic,” adding that “As far as I’m concerned, (the Donaire brothers) were given very poor advice by their coach. One of them probably would have advanced to the Box-offs and would have had a chance to make the Olympic team. Why would anyone want to deny a kid that opportunity?”
Nonito still feels he deserved the victory over Viloria he was denied, but he believes the real tragedy would have been had he never come back from his self-imposed exile.
“It’s not that I think about it all the time, but I kind of have a clue as to how things might have been for me if I hadn’t gone back to boxing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have fulfilled all of my dreams that are now coming true, that’s for sure. I always strive for the best, to be the best, but how can you do that if you just give up on something? I’m glad I chose boxing again. I couldn’t let it end that way.”
Perhaps, in retrospect, there were some benefits to Nonito taking some time off to clear his head and to rededicate himself to what he did best. He was a pure boxer as an amateur, a stick-and-move type with little apparent power, but when he turned pro on Feb. 22, 2001, with a first-round knockout of Jose Lazaro, he showed considerably more pop in his punches. Never was his newfound strength more evident than on July 7, 2007, when he wrested the IBF flyweight title from Vic Darchinyan on as emphatic a one-punch takeout as you’ll ever see. That left hook in the fifth round might have made Joe Frazier smile in approval. Maybe that part of Donaire’s development would have been put on hold had he stuck around to try for the 2004 Olympics.
“The power came out of desperation,” Donaire said. “I began to understand the way my body moves, because of the speed I always had. My speed became my power. And, to tell the truth, I was kind of afraid to get hit in the amateurs. That’s why I always boxed. I got pretty good at it.”
Viloria, of course, has gone on to have a fine pro career in his own right. He lost his WBA and WBO flyweight titles to Juan Estrada, on a split decision, on April 6 in Macao, China. He and Donaire cross paths occasionally, but the subject of their Olympic Trials bout never comes up.
“When I fought in the Philippines (a fourth-round stoppage of Raul Martinez on April 19, 2009), Brian was on the undercard,” Donaire said. “We talked some, but not about that. What happened in 2000 is in the past. It was a growing-up process for me. Whenever I see him now, it’s, like, `Hey, how are you doing? What’s up?’”
What’s up is Nonito Donaire’s status as an emerging superstar in the sport he once considered abandoning. It’s been a long, strange journey from there to here, but maybe that makes arrival at the final destination all the more satisfying.