It’s a rare thing to see in boxing—the fighter who rises, hits the summit, falls off, and then after a wave of ups and downs, pulls out a few more years in the sun. Ali did it. Shane Mosley did it. There are others, of course, but I feel like I need to check my notes to see who qualifies. Regardless, that’s an article for another day. Today I’m here to talk about the “Filipino Flash.”
Donaire’s career didn’t start out with a bang. In just his second fight, way back in 2001, Nonito lost a unanimous decision to the long-forgotten Rosendo Sanchez. Then, Nonito Donaire did not lose another fight for 12 years—a remarkable 30-match winning streak. His coming-out party happened against Vic Darchynian in 2007, when Donaire scored an electrifying 5th round TKO over the formidable flyweight champion, picking up the IBO and IBF belts in the process.
Sitting with a record of 18-1 with 11 KOs after becoming a champion, Donaire’s ascent continued. Just two years later, he moved up to super flyweight and won the interim WBA title by taking a unanimous decision against Rafael Concepcion.
Donaire won nine more fights in a row after that, each of them against champions, and all while taking belts in both the bantamweight and super bantamweight divisions. This stretch of victories culminated with a devastating 3rd knockout of Jorge Arce in 2012. Nonito was on top of the world and on all the shortlists of every pound-for-pound discussion in the sport.
Then, Guillermo Rigondeaux came calling. Against the maddeningly talented and incredibly frustrating defensive expert/counter puncher from Cuba, Donaire lost his WBO belt by unanimous decision, despite scoring a knockdown of Rigondeaux in the 10th. It was a fair loss, though. Except for that moment in the 10th, Donaire struggled to solve Rigondeaux all night, to no avail.
Suddenly, the Filipino lost some flash. For a while, it looked like he might not get it back either. After knocking out Darchynian again (this time in the 9th) and taking a technical decision over Simpiwe Vetyetka (gaining the WBA featherweight title in the process), Donaire lost again, only this time it was in dramatic fashion via a 6th round TKO against Nicholas Walters. Donaire lost more than his belt in that fight; he lost his aura of greatness too.
One could at least partially dismiss the UD loss against Rigondeaux (one of the most difficult opponents ever), but getting blasted out by Walters was a different matter altogether. While Donaire did win his next four bouts (winning the WBO super bantamweight title in the process), his competition was off the A-list, and the victories carried little cache.
In 2016, when Donaire lost his belt by unanimous decision to Jessie Magdaleno, Nonito looked to be well past his salad days. Another UD loss to Carl Frampton 17 months later seemed to confirm that suspicion. Now 35 and holding a pedestrian 7-4 record over his last 11 fights, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Flash had finally left the pan.
Donaire had other plans though. At a time in a boxer’s career where going down a single-weight class while staring down the oncoming train known as middle age, Donaire went back to super bantamweight to face the great champion, Naoya Inoue, in Inoue’s own backyard of Japan. Their 2019 contest won fight of the year, as Donaire hurt and cut Inoue early in the fight before losing a fairly scored but hotly contested unanimous decision.
To me, it seemed more like a glimmer of former greatness was glanced in that fight as opposed to a full return to form for Donaire. As competitive as he was against Inoue, he did lose the fight, and no one felt he was robbed. There was a part of me that thought Donaire got a lot of credit for losing but not getting beat down by the still-peaking Inoue.
Then, as if to flout all conventional wisdom, Donaire dropped down another class to bantamweight at the vintage age of 38, and after a more than 18-month layoff, Donaire returned to the ring and knocked out two undefeated fighters (Nordine Oubaali and Reymart Gaballo) in dramatic fashion—both in the 4th round.
Somehow, at the age of 39, with significant wear on the tires and having to cut weight in a way that one can only marvel at for a fighter that long in the tooth, Donaire was back on top. This magical return to the championship level has been one of the great feel-good stories of the last year, and feeling emboldened, Donaire looked to claim an even greater prize in scheduling a rematch against Inoue.
As we all know now, less than a week ago, Inoue shattered Donaire in a dominant 2nd round KO victory, and with it, Cinderella’s slipper too.
Still, when one looks back on all that Donaire has accomplished in his career, there’s no way not to think of him as one of the best fighters of his generation. Aside from the 12-year undefeated streak, Donaire won titles in four different weight classes—from flyweight to featherweight. He’s also one of only six boxers ever to hold titles in three different decades. You may have heard of the others: they go by the names Evander Holyfield, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Erik Morales, and the ultimate fighting methuselah, Bernard Hopkins.
That’s a pretty damn amazing company. To think that Donaire stands alongside them now may just tell us that as much as we’ve lauded the “Filipino Flash” over the years, perhaps we’ve actually sold him ever so slightly short on just how great a fighter he has been. And it’s more than just that. Over this final stretch run, Donaire has not only pushed back Father Time but has also shown us his humanity and vulnerability in doing so. He was as bold as he’s ever been over his last four fights, but more than that, he also let us see him as a person. His bold stand against Asian hate crimes came from a place deep within, and at a time when racism is rampant, and Fox News is telling athletes to “shut up and dribble” (or, in Donaire’s case, box), Nonito Donaire has proven himself to be a credit to more than his profession, or his race, he has shown himself as a person for us all to aspire to be like.
That’s not something you see in boxing all the time and not all that often in other sports either. Now just six months shy of his 40th birthday, if the final curtain really has dropped, I hope Donaire will decide to rest on his laurels. Not only does he have plenty to lean back on, but he’s also earned every single one.