Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Greatness: Nonito Donaire and Mikey Garcia

Nonito Donaire once made me travel 3,000 miles.
For his 2012 fight against longtime junior featherweight champion Toshiaki Nishioka, and the very tasty Brandon Rios-Mike Alvarado undercard matchup, I was compelled to leave my comfy East Coast environs and make my first boxing trip to Southern California. Donaire was on quite a run, unforgettably knocking out Fernando Montiel in a bantamweight unification fight, forcing longtime junior bantamweight champion Omar Narvaez to hide behind his gloves and moving up to 122 to dispatch former champion Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. and then-titlist Jeffrey Mathebula.
In Donaire I saw a tantalizing display of hand speed, boxing skill and knockout power. To my eyes, he had already elevated himself to the rarified air of the top-five fighters in the sport. I knew that Nishioka would be a real opponent, someone who featured caginess, power, hand speed and ring intelligence.
And while most remember the fight of the year candidate between Rios and Alvarado from that October night, Donaire-Nishioka provided me with all sorts of joy. From the second round on, I saw one of the proudest champions in the sport practically refuse to engage. Donaire dropped Nishioka in the sixth round with a beautiful left uppercut, a fact that excited me in so much that it was a punch that wasn't often featured in his arsenal. In the ninth round, Donaire ended the fight in perhaps one of the best sequences of his career. Facing an opponent who wouldn't open up, Donaire planted himself along the ropes, practically begging for Nishioka to attack him. Within a few seconds, Donaire landed a perfectly timed counter right hand and Nishioka was sent spiraling to the canvas. Nishioka's corner soon stopped the fight.
That sequence showed me a new side of Donaire, who often could get frustrated in the ring and lose focus. Here, he figured out how to best an opponent who was intelligent, capable and unwilling to let his hands go. The catcalls which Donaire had heard after the Narvaez fight shifted to cheers after the Nishioka knockout.
That fight was Donaire putting it all together. He demonstrated that he could not just counter but also lead. He also featured his wide arsenal of punches and didn't get too left-hook happy. This was a truly great fighter and someone whom I was happy to witness ply his trade live.
After an obligatory early knockout of an overmatched Jorge Arce, the stage was set for Donaire to face his next significant threat, Guillermo Rigondeaux, the legendary Cuban amateur who had won his first world championship in just his ninth pro contest.
Coming into the fight, Donaire was seemingly on top of the world. He was the consensus 2012 Fighter of the Year and was making excellent purses. Quickly he had established himself as one of the faces of HBO Boxing. Yet, there were many who thought that Rigondeaux had the style to present huge problems for him. By fight night, Donaire was only a slight betting favorite. Once again, I was compelled to see Donaire in person. This time it was a far more palatable commute up the Jersey Turnpike to Manhattan.
What followed was a pure master class from Rigondeaux, who timed Donaire perfectly with lead and counter left hands. Using his brilliant footwork, Rigondeaux skated away from trouble throughout most of the fight; he was the one clearly dictating the terms of the match. Donaire couldn't find a clear way to initiate offense. He spent much of the fight either following Rigondeaux around the ring listlessly or swinging wildly with his left hook and right hand.
As the rounds continued to pile up in Rigondeaux's favor, Donaire seemed to have no concrete plan in how to turn the tide in his favor. Even after knocking the Cuban down in the 10th, he proceeded to lose much of the remaining round and the subsequent moments of the fight. I scored the fight 116-111 and I may have even been generous to Donaire. For an elite-caliber boxer, it was a dreadful performance.
During the fight, trainer Robert Garcia gave Donaire instructions about how he should initiate offense, but Donaire was unwilling to respond in the ring; there was a clear fissure between trainer and fighter. It was a major failure by both in that there was no real Plan B; I'm not sure that there was a definitive Plan A.
When things were going well in Donaire's recent run of excellence, few made note of his bizarre training regimen, whereby Garcia, only traveled up to Northern California on the weekends and during the week Donaire worked with his own people and contacted Garcia only by phone. After the Rigondeaux fight, Donaire admitted that he undertrained and didn't study his opponent.
In hindsight, dropping a decision to a fighter of Rigondeaux's caliber wasn't a great calamity, but how easily Donaire accepted defeat was far more problematic. There was no great stand from a proud champion, which we have come to expect from the best in the sport. What we got instead was Donaire going out with a whimper. He didn't take the risks needed to change the fight. Even after the knockdown, he soon went back to caution. Ultimately, there was a shortage of pride. It seemed that he had made peace with his impending defeat.
HBO and Top Rank were very much in the Nonito Donaire business, so they were nice enough to provide him with Vic Darchinyan as his next opponent, a fighter whom he had destroyed in the fifth round of a bout six years prior. Darchinyan, a southpaw slugger who had been receiving pound-for-pound consideration before facing Donaire the first time, wasn't able to defend himself adequately against Donaire's power or speed in 2007. That win catapulted Donaire into the higher echelon of boxers, a position that he had not relinquished until the Rigondeaux fight.
In the lead-up to the Darchinyan rematch, Donaire was surprisingly candid about his waning passion for boxing and his inadequate preparation for Rigondeaux. He hoped to turn it around against Darchinyan but even he wasn't sure that he had the necessary desire to get back to the top.
Saturday's rematch was a strange affair. Darchinyan made some key adjustments, not lunging in with shots and fighting at a more measured pace. He had success early by firing his shots from a low angle, avoiding Donaire's counter left hook. Donaire moved his hands only sporadically and rarely threw more than one shot at a time. He was looking to land knockout punches with his left hook or right hand and felt no need to try and set them up.
Darchinyan was seven years older but fought as the younger and hungrier boxer. He was making a concerted effort to win rounds and prove that he could best his nemesis from years prior. Donaire was getting tagged throughout the fight by Darchinyan's left hand. Not only was Donaire fighting with less-than-maximum effort, but his reflexes look like they had regressed as well. 
Going into the ninth round, I had Donaire and Darchinyan even. Donaire won his share of rounds in my opinion by landing harder shots during exchanges, but many of those rounds were close. Meanwhile, Darchinyan notched his frames more definitively by outworking his opponent (two of the judges had Donaire down big and one also had the fight even).
Donaire was able to end things in the ninth with a punishing left hook that sent Darchinyan to the canvas and a series of follow up shots with Darchinyan trapped along the ropes. In those brief moments, Donaire saved what was left of his career and finished a wounded opponent like a champ, but boxing observers knew what they had witnessed in the rounds prior to the conclusive ninth.
Still lacking hunger, Donaire's performance was desultory and lacked passion. His body looked soft at featherweight and he almost completely neglected his considerable boxing skills in favor of one-punch solutions. Donaire was no longer an excitement to see in the ring; he was suddenly a grizzled vet hoping to survive on the muscle memory of his power shots.  

Even at his best, Donaire had his foibles as a fighter, but they were mostly from caring too much; he wanted to be spectacular and give fans an unbelievable knockout. Now, he looked like he was just going through the motions. His sense of regard was almost a reverse of his halcyon days.
I didn't travel this weekend to watch Donaire live and I bet that I won't ever do so again. I'm happy that I was able to witness that wonderful night he had in California just over a year ago. I knew what I saw that night, a truly great fighter. But I also quite clearly realize what he has now become. 
Greatness can be so ephemeral in boxing. Within one short year, a fighter of the year can devolve into a middling talent; a pound-for-pound entrant can make one question how he was once ever an elite boxer.
Most often we equate slippage with a fighter as a result of the abuse that he has taken in the ring and/or the many wars that have zapped his faculties. But for Donaire, this is clearly not the case. Only 30, he has been in very few tough fights and has very seldom lost rounds prior to the Rigondeaux match.
However, the psychological edge needed for greatness has left Donaire. The best in the sport don't take opponents lightly. They train hard for every match and ensure that their body is in top condition. The elite know that the competition is coming for them and that they must continue to improve; there is always room to get better in the ring. 
Donaire reached the top echelon of the boxing universe and coasted. Reading his own headlines and convinced of his superhuman strength, training and preparation became more of a chore for him. His love of the sport diminished. His role as a family man shifted the priorities in his life.
These psychological components or intangibles aren't talked about as much as the in-ring action but they are just as important in determining how far fighters will go in the sport. Donaire, like many others before him, hit his point where outside interests became more important than boxing. He had an excellent five-year run, featuring many highlight-reel knockouts and impressive victories, but the days of him ruling the lower weights are almost certainly over.
Donaire himself may not be sad about this development. He put in his time to the sport and achieved wonderful results in four weight classes. He made the boxing world care about bantamweights and flyweights, divisions often ignored by mainstream boxing fans and media. He provided for his family and made a good living.
It's always upsetting to see once-great fighters regress or deteriorate. It reinforces thoughts about mortality and the vicious nature of sport, not to mention life. Yet Donaire's story isn't a tragic one (at this point). He made his bones in the sport and was a success story. Absent a complete rededication to boxing, I hope he hangs the gloves up sooner rather than later.
Mikey Garcia is 33-0 with 28 knockouts. He has amassed titles in two divisions and many consider him to be one of the more promising young fighters on the boxing landscape, if not already among the top-20 fighters in the sport. However, I feel that he is still far from hitting his ceiling. To my eyes, he has yet to put together a complete performance against a top opponent (I'm not counting Juan Manuel Lopez, who had already been clearly cooked coming into their fight).
In November of last year, Garcia faced former titlist Jonathan Barros, who was a late replacement for the injured Orlando Salido. Barros had a smart game plan of using his jab and quick combinations from the outside to keep Garcia at bay; Garcia struggled at many points to find the right distance and timing. Going into the eighth round, I only had Garcia up one point. He was able to end things with a pulverizing knockout later that round but I wasn't overly enthralled with his performance.
Earlier this year, Garcia faced Salido and started out like gangbusters, dropping him four times. Garcia's counters were razor sharp and his accuracy, power and ring intelligence were something to behold (I was fortunate enough to see this performance live). But something happened by the sixth round. Salido just wouldn't go away and he started to have success landing his right hand from range. Suddenly, Garcia seemed less confident in the ring. In the eighth, Garcia suffered a nasty gash from a head butt. Knowing that he was ahead comfortably on the scorecards, he and his team took full advantage of the rules and claimed that he was unable to continue. He was awarded a decision on the scorecards, but the ending of that fight left something to be desired. It was a strange way to win his first title.
On Saturday, he was dropped early by Roman Martinez. In the ensuing rounds, he cautiously picked up points by being more accurate and highlighting the defensive aspects of his game. Finally in the sixth round, he started to unleash his power shots and his fireworks were impressive. Pinpoint counter right hands and left hooks crushed Martinez. Garcia used his jab to initiate thundering combinations. In short time, Martinez was unable to defend himself from the offensive onslaught. Garcia landed a menacing left hook to the body in the eighth and Martinez was down for good, giving Mikey his second title.
Growing up in a boxing family, Garcia's ring I.Q. and veteran savvy far belie his 25 years. He initially had the reputation of almost being too cool in the ring, perhaps lacking the passion or fire needed to be a top talent. And make no mistake; he can be very cautious in the squared circle.
To this point, he has faced a number of very good fighters, but he has yet to meet an elite opponent and may not for a while as the 130-lb. division is relatively weak, outside of Takashi Uchiyama, a Japanese slugger who has yet to leave his homeland for a fight.
Garcia has all the tools and talent to ascend to the highest reaches of the sport, but, for me, it's too early to suggest that he will achieve greatness in the ring. I'm still waiting for him to put it all together against top competition.
For now, Garcia can continue to consolidate his skills and work on defeating opponents with different styles and dimensions. For me, the true evaluation of Garcia's future will be in how he handles duress. Yes, I was impressed with how he recovered after being knocked down by Martinez on Saturday – it was more of a flash knockdown – but he responded well. But what will happen when Garcia faces the power of the Uchiyama or the pure hand speed of Terence Crawford? Does Garcia possess the ability to will himself to victory? Can he fight six rounds with a bad cut or a broken hand? We don't yet know these answers and until we do, we can marvel at Garcia's impressive skills and savvy and speculate on how high he might one day ascend in the sport, but at this point it's just conjecture. Greatness may one day be there for him, but it's not there yet.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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