Donaire still moving to higher heights
By Dan Rafael
When pound-for-pound star Nonito Donaire signed with Top Rank in June 2008, he was already a flyweight champion when he stood at the podium at the introductory news conference at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. It was there that Donaire said his goal was to win titles in at least six weight classes, all the way up to the 130-pound junior lightweight division.
Donaire is well on his way.
After giving up his flyweight belt, he won an interim title at junior bantamweight and then scored the 2011 knockout of the year last February when he crushed Fernando Montiel in the second round to win a pair of bantamweight titles.
Now, after one defense, Donaire is movin' on up again, this time into the 122-pound junior featherweight division, where he will gun for yet another world title.
Donaire, who hails from the Philippines, will meet former titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., the son of former three-division titleholder Wilfredo Vazquez Sr., for a vacant belt at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET). In the main event, middleweight titlist Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (44-0-1, 31 KOs) will make his second defense, against Mexican countryman Marco Antonio Rubio (53-5-1, 46 KOs).
Donaire, 29, is relieved that he doesn't have to cut as much weight as he once did. But cutting down also isn't as necessary as it once was, he said, because he is now taking great care not to put on as much weight between fights. He weighed 147 pounds when he began training for his October bantamweight defense against Omar Narvaez. Donaire had to get down to 118 pounds. For the fight with Vazquez, Donaire said he started camp at 130 pounds.
"I'm so much more mentally and physically prepared for this fight," Donaire said. "We're working really hard. I want to fight three or four times this year. I want to stay healthy and I am keeping my weight where it should be. I've done that. I haven't gone up to more than 130 and it's been great. I was 147 before the last fight and it was the biggest mistake. I wasn't taking care of myself. I've learned a lot."
By the way, Donaire routed Narvaez with ease in that bout. Narvaez refused to engage, ran all night and lost a shutout decision.
Several days before Saturday's fight, Donaire was already down 124, which essentially puts him on weight and has him eating regularly.
"He has no problem making weight for this fight," trainer Robert Garcia said. "I see Nonito being here for a few fights and eventually featherweight and, hopefully, then junior lightweight. But right now our focus is at 122. We want to have great fights at 122 and fight the best.
"He enjoyed camp this time. Before, he'd have to come down in weight the last two weeks and it was all about making weight. Sparring didn't go as well, he was mad and tired and bored. Now he's been walking around at 124 for the last couple of weeks. He's getting ready to fight Vazquez, not just making weight."
Donaire wants very much to make an entertaining fight, not another snoozer like the one with Narvaez.
"We want to make it exciting for the crowd. I want to be able to say I made it exciting for everyone," Donaire said. "And that is what I am aiming for this year in all of my fights. I felt bad for the crowd at the Narvaez fight. We don't want a boring fight. We want one that is fun for everybody."
Donaire (27-1, 18 KOs) expects Vazquez (21-1-1, 18 KOs) to pose a much bigger challenge, which is one of the reasons he said he took training so seriously when it came to maintaining his weight.
"I know I will be facing the best Vazquez," Donaire said. "He's the kind of kid who gets better and better. I can't look past that. I think he has good power and decent speed. I can't take him lightly."
In May 2011, Vazquez, 27, lost his title via 12th-round knockout to Mexico's Jorge Arce in an upset on the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley undercard. Vazquez won his next fight by knocking out no-hoper Robert Leyva in October to set up the fight with Donaire. Arce had vacated the belt and dropped down to bantamweight, where he claimed one of the belts Donaire had relinquished.
"Vazquez is a helluva fighter," Garcia said. "He has power. He hits hard. We have to fight smart and not look past Vazquez. A lot of people might think he should have never lost to Arce, but it might have been a learning experience for Vazquez. I think he's learned his lesson and we will see a better fighter."
If Donaire wins, it could set the stage for a string of major fights for him at junior featherweight before he will look to move up again.
"If my body lets me go up, I want to be able to go higher and higher, but first things first," Donaire said.
Even though Donaire says he is focused on Vazquez, he can't help but talk about other fights that loom if he wins. There is Arce, who is also with Top Rank, Japanese titleholder Toshiaki Nishioka and newly crowned titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux, also a Top Rank fighter, who knocked out Rico Ramos to claim a belt two weeks ago.
"Nonito and Arce really want to fight each other," Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. "We have an incredible Mexico-Philippines rivalry in boxing that has developed over the past few years. But Nonito has a tough out in front of him. Vazquez was beating Arce handily and got caught late and things turned. Nonito has a tough test.
"But it's great when you're in a weight class with options like Nonito has. You have marketable opponents and skilled opponents. Those are the two qualifications you need to engage the fans."
Donaire and Arce have already called each other out, and it's an easy fight for Top Rank to make.
"I think that would be an exciting fight," Donaire said. "He's not the most dangerous guy for me, but he's the most exciting fight I would fight in this weight class. He's still strong and still determined. And he beat Vazquez. He's not a pushover."
As for Nishioka, Donaire said he wants to fight him because Nishioka defeated another fighter Donaire wanted to fight, Jhonny Gonzalez.
"I wanted to fight Gonzalez and he knocked him out, and now I have him in my crosshairs," Donaire said. "Nishioka is a very tricky fight, the most challenging fight in this weight class. I think even more than Vazquez."
Nishioka made his most recent defense in October in Las Vegas, with Top Rank assisting Akihiko Honda of Teiken Promotions with the fight for the express purpose of laying the groundwork for a potential fight with Donaire, who was ringside.
Rigondeaux has chirped about wanting Donaire since his victory last month, but Donaire didn't have anything good to say about him.
"He was boring; he didn't excite me at all," he said. "You just got to stay in line. He can talk all this and that. It doesn't matter. I still don't think he is worthy. But he needs to stand in line. I will fight the guys who are champions and if he's still champion, he can get a shot. But I don't see anything that's special.
"I have my eyes set on Vazquez and then Nishioka, Arce and Rigondeaux. We'll get to them. I just have to keep winning. They'll get their chances because I believe I will be at 122 for a bit."
Rafael's boxing blog
Dan Rafael is a boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
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