For Nonito Donaire, the route to Canastota, N.Y. seemed simple. Sure, it's a long way from his native Philippines or even his current home in California, but that's where the International Boxing Hall of Fame resides, in all its shabby glory. And Donaire was well on his way.
Three divisions, three world championships.
Wins over some of the best in his weight range, including Vic Darchinyan and Jorge Arce.
Startling power for a man weighing just 122 pounds.
Donaire was a budding star on HBO, disproving the idea that a fighter can't be a drawing card if they aren't at least a lightweight. Knockout wins over Arce and Toshiaki Nishioka launched him to stardom. HBO was all-in and the future seemed bright.
And then a speed bump appeared on what had been a blissfully easy trip. Guillermo Rigondeaux was supposed to be an easy mark, a former Cuban amateur penciled in as Donaire's final victim at 122 pounds before moving up to new challenges at featherweight.
Instead, Rigondeaux was everything a swarming action fighter like Donaire hates. He was disciplined. He was stingy with his punches, throwing an average of just 33 a round. Worst of all, he was elusive, turning what promoters and Donaire hoped would be an exciting fight into a miasma of despair, sucking all of the energy out of the room with his incredibly effective yet incredibly desultory defensive style.
It was, in truth, just one loss, his first since splitting his first two fights at the turn of the century. A single blemish after more than a decade of fighting. And yet it seemed to erase the 30 wins that preceded it. Boxing is all about what just happened, not what happened in 2007 or 2011. With that metric in mind, there was only one word to describe Nonito Donaire:
True? That's where things get tricky.
Some fighters never really recover from their first significant loss. Boxing, like all combat sports, is a much more mental game than anyone imagines. The physical differences between fighters are often negligible. So too the training regiments and skill sets. A fight between two evenly matched men can often boil down to confidence and attitude.
Donaire had it. Whether he will emerge with it is an open question. In addition to the loss and feelings of inadequacy, another challenger has emerged to battle for the fighter's time and attention—a six-pound, 12-ounce boy named Jarel, who was born Tuesday after an eventful final month in the womb.
“I think it’s gonna motivate me to get that hunger back again,” Donaire told ABS News. “I am just very excited, so I think that’s gonna be something that’s gonna propel me into something bigger.”
Fatherhood can soften a man, remove the sharp edges you need to prepare body and mind to batter another human being—and to receive that kind of punishment in return. Donaire, who admitted being distracted by his wife's pregnancy leading up to the Rigondeaux fight, will have to go to the gym every day leading up to a potential return this fall or winter and try to take his mind away from his wife and newborn back home.
That's a lot to ask of a man who may not have boxing in his heart. Donaire is a reluctant warrior, pushed, he says, into battle by a domineering father:
And all my life I wanted to be recognized by my parents, especially my dad. I hated boxing and I hated fighting but I did it because I saw the attention my brother was getting.
His own growing family offers an excuse to quit. Will he take it sooner rather than later? Donaire claims the opposite is true, that the loss and birth of his son have reignited a passion for boxing.
"I'm not talking away anything from Rigondeaux, because he beat me clearly and fairly," Donaire told Ring Magazine. "But my mind wasn't really 100 percent on the fight. I honestly didn't care about it that much. Most of the time, I was thinking about my kid. But I am glad that he beat me. I was seriously considering retirement, but that loss woke me up and told me, 'Hey, I don't want to quit. I want to do this for a lot more years.'"
And then there's the matter of weight. Donaire was rumored for a return bout with Darchinyan but may be too heavy to return to 122 pounds. He told Boxing Scene he was walking around at over 140 pounds and might come back at featherweight instead, likely against Orlando Cruz. Darchinyan, who has sought a rematch for years, was not amused:
No matter what excuses [you make] about weight, I am still going to break you the way I made you. Do not use steroids, think about your future and your weight will be good. I remind you again – I made you, I will break you.
For Donaire, and the division that revolves around him even after his loss, everything remains up in the air. He has expressed interest in avenging his loss to Rigondeaux, telling The Manila Standard he wants that fight "more than anything." His promoter, Bob Arum, told Bleacher Report that HBO has no interest in that fight.
Whatever he decides is next, the boxing world will be waiting with bated breath. Despite the lack of a "magic zero," Donaire is still a star capable of creating interest. In boxing, those kinds of fighters are few and far between. That means, even if it takes him a little time to find his way, he'll have every chance to continue on the road to Canastota, leaving Rigondeaux, and any lingering doubts, in his rear-view mirror.