Saturday, October 18, 2014

Donaire-Walters: Keys to the Fight

One of the most intriguing fights of 2014 takes place on Saturday in Carson, California, the featherweight showdown between four-division champ Nonito Donaire (33-2, 21 KOs) and undefeated knockout artist Nicholas Walters (24-0, 20 KOs). The bout is the chief support to Golovkin-Rubio but it could be significantly more compelling than the main event. 

Prior to facing Guillermo Rigondeaux in April of 2013, Donaire was one of the top boxers in the sport. However, he had few answers for the Cuban whiz and was summarily outclassed. Since that defeat, Donaire has earned two victories but he failed to resemble his former pound-for-pound self in those outings. Over the last year, Donaire (originally from the Philippines but raised in the U.S.) has spoken about having lost his motivation for training and his hunger for the sport. On Saturday, he looks to erase the ghosts of his most recent performances and regain his foothold in the top echelon of boxing.

Walters, from Jamaica, was virtually unknown two years ago. Fighting mostly out of Panama, Walters' power caught the attention of Top Rank Promotions and he impressed earlier this year by knocking out Vic Darchinyan in the fifth round (Donaire has knocked out Darchinyan twice but struggled before stopping him in 2013). Walters enters Saturday's fight having stopped 10 of his last 11 opponents and has guaranteed a knockout victory.

In a loaded featherweight division, the winner of Saturday's fight will have a number of very attractive opportunities for 2014, including potential matchups against fellow titleholders Vasyl Lomachenko, Evgeny Gradovich and Jhonny Gonzalez, while the loser might face a long road back to the top of the featherweight division. Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.

1. Chins.

Walters, known as the Axe Man, sure hits hard. With three knockout weapons – right hand, left hook and right uppercut – he loads up ferociously on his power punches. Donaire's chin has been rock solid throughout his career but there are some caveats for Saturday's fight. He certainly was hurt in the final round against Rigondeaux, and that was at a smaller weight class. Although Donaire stayed on his feet, he was clearly affected by Rigondeaux's power. In addition, Donaire has yet to face a real puncher at featherweight. Darchinyan was probably most powerful at junior bantamweight (three divisions below featherweight) and Simpiwe Vetyeka was only a moderate puncher at 126 lbs. It will be fascinating to see if Donaire can take Walters' best punch. 

As a professional, Walters has been down twice according to One time was against Alejandro Corrales (5-3-1) in 2008 and the other was while facing Carlos Manuel Reyes (12-0) in 2009. There are a number of observations that could be drawn from these facts but let's not jump to unnecessary conclusions. First, these fights aren't available online; I haven't seen them and I don't know anyone who has. Were the knockdowns legitimate? Were they flash knockdowns? Was Walters badly hurt?

On the flip side, Walters won both of those fights and dominated on the scorecards. That obviously shows perseverance and some recuperative powers. Yes, it troubles me when a fighter is knocked down by a 5-3-1 boxer, but that match was also six years ago. So much could have changed since then. Maybe Walters trains better and/or he has made improvements with nutrition. Perhaps he just walked into a stupid shot and he is now better prepared in the ring. So, let's acknowledge that he's been down twice many years ago but I don't know if this is ancient history; these knockdowns might have absolutely no bearing on Saturday's action.

Make no mistake: both fighters will get hit on Saturday. Donaire's defense has deteriorated over the years and he is more than willing to eat a shot or two in order to land his counter left hook. Walters isn't a defensive specialist either. He takes a lot of risks offensively and is open to counter shots. Whoever's chin is in better shape throughout Saturday will be in the driver's seat, because the power shots will be coming.

2. Donaire's motivation and conditioning.

Donaire's lack of focus, both inside and outside of the ring, has contributed to a number of lackluster performances over the past three years. Although even at his best he would occasionally abandon his boxing technique to go for spectacular knockouts, now, he just waits and waits, hoping to land his left hook, not really bothering to set it up with anything. His punch volume has become pedestrian. He has admitted to skimping on training in the past and before his previous fight he acknowledged his wavering commitment to the sport.

An unfocused Donaire could lead to a number of different outcomes on Saturday. Maybe he gets easily outpointed by a fighter who has a greater desire to win. Perhaps he walks carelessly into a shot. It's possible that he could get bored with trying to win rounds and instead he waits in vain for a knockout, letting the fight slip away.

Absent a spectacular one-punch shot, Donaire will need to be in good shape to beat Walters, who features a high punch output and can dazzle with eye-catching power shots. Although Donaire has the experience advantage over his opponent, if he's not prepared or focused for 12 rounds, he will struggle to win the fight on the cards.

3. Walters' defensive flaws.

If you were to draw up a fighter who would be susceptible to a counter left hook, Walters could very well be your guy. He stands very tall, he holds his hands far away from his body, he can get wildly out-of-position after firing his power shots and he is slow to return his hands to a defensively responsible position after throwing. In short, the opportunities for Donaire's number-one weapon will be there.

In addition, Walters separates his hands too far apart on defense, providing ample room for straight right hands and uppercuts. Although Donaire is known for his hook, his lead right has been a weapon in past fights, most recently against Toshiaki Nishioka in 2012. 

Walters is very athletic and he does avoid shots using his legs and upper body movement, but he can get hit during exchanges. If Walters hasn't tightened up some of his defensive shortcomings prior to Saturday, he will get tagged very hard by Donaire, leading to very bad dreams about left hooks.

4. Is Donaire anything more than a one-trick pony at this point?

Donaire was once a well-rounded boxer who had a jab and a fairly large arsenal of punches. At his best, he used his legs to get into position to land shots and also to avoid trouble. In recent outings, he has scarcely resembled that fighter, becoming stagnant, knockout-happy and predictable on offense.

It's clear that Donaire still has his left hook. That punch led to the Darchinyan stoppage last year and sent Vetyeka to the canvas in May. But is there anything else? He seems to move in cement these days and his other punchers are often thrown half-heartedly.

Walters will be coming into the fight fully cognizant of Donaire's left hook. There are ways to neutralize a fighter who loads up on one shot. If Walters is well-prepared on Saturday, he will force Donaire to beat him with another punch. He'll move to his left, pump the jab and fight in close – Donaire needs distance for his hook; it's not compact. Donaire must keep Walters honest throughout the fight. If Walters doesn't have anything else to worry about other than the left hook, he will innocuously circle to his left all night, away from Donaire's money punch. That will not be a formula for Donaire to win the fight.

5. Punch output.

Here may be the secret to winning the match. Both fighters are counting on knocking the other one out. Neither Donaire nor Walters is much of a jabber these days (although they possess solid ones) and both fighters will be spending a lot time looking for opportunities to land their thunder. The key to this bout may very well be who waits less. There will be dead stretches in the fight. The boxer who can capitalize on these lulls by throwing an extra five or ten punches a round may very well take the match, especially if both fighters' chins hold up.

In theory, a higher punch output favors Walters' ring style. He is aggressive, active and likes to throw multi-punch power combinations. However, there have been many fighters who have been spooked by Donaire's power; they feel a left hook and suddenly they are on retreat and/or too afraid to open up offensively.  

But if Donaire is just looking and posing while he waits to land his big left hook, it will be easy for judges to give rounds to Walters. The busier fighter may wind up stealing the fight on the scorecards.


I'm going with a slightly unconventional pick but let me walk you through my process. I'm not convinced that Donaire has enough power to knock out a full-fledged featherweight. Yes, he dropped Vetyeka but he seemed to recover decently enough from the shot in an abbreviated fight. However, I'm also not sold on the quality of Walters' opposition. His best win was Darchinyan, who had just been knocked out, was past his prime and above his optimal fighting weight. Walters has an impressive 80% KO percentage but has he ever faced anyone of the caliber of Donaire? Has he ever been able to drop someone who has a rock of a chin?

The more that I look at this fight, the more likely that I think that it goes to the cards. And if it does, I believe that Walters is best positioned to win the bout. I don't question his determination or conditioning coming into Saturday. He knows that this is his opportunity to make a big name for himself in the sport. Donaire may have had more talent than Walters will ever possess, but we are no longer witnessing the peak version of the fighter. The Donaire of recent vintage has been lethargic, not to mention extremely hittable. I'm also not convinced that he still has the will to pull out a grueling, 12-round fight. I predict that he will get his big knockdown on Saturday but that it won't be enough to win.

Nicholas Walters survives a knockdown to defeat Nonito Donaire 116-111.

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