By Eric Raskin
Ring announcer Lupe Contreras noted before the opening bell that the Nonito Donaire-Jeffrey Mathebula fight was dedicated to the memory of LeRoy Neiman, a man who, depending upon whom you ask, was either an iconic talent or the most overrated artist of his time. It was quite appropriate then that the boxing match dedicated to fight fanatic Neiman would feature pound-for-pound lister Donaire, with all of his polarizing qualities on display.
The fans at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California were treated to "Filipino Flashes" of brilliance from the 122-pound titlist, but they also watched the prodigious puncher somehow go the 12-round distance for the third time in row. In the end, Donaire won a clear-cut unanimous decision over Mathebula to unify a couple of alphabet belts, but it wasn't the statement fight we've been waiting for since he shockingly flattened Fernando Montiel in two rounds 17 months ago.
Some of Donaire's struggles could be attributed to the style of the absurdly lanky, six-foot-tall Mathebula, who busily unloaded 919 punches over 12 rounds, according to CompuBox stats.
"If he was easy to counter with the right, it would have been an easy fight. But he was tough," Donaire said afterward. "That jab, his jab really took [away] my power. He wouldn't let me get in there and work."
Instead, Donaire was reduced to looking for one massive punch, either in the form of a counter or a leaping lead shot. He nearly found it late in the fourth round, when a sizzling left hook dropped the South African with six seconds to go on the clock. Mathebula beat the count of referee Pat Russell and was lucky to hear the bell ring before Donaire could follow up.
"I wasn't on balance at all," Donaire said of the punch that almost earned him a knockout. "If I did have the balance like I did against Montiel, it would have been the end of the night."
Mathebula recovered impressively and worked his way right back into the fight after a minute's rest, arguably edging some of the middle rounds with sheer activity. Donaire's face was lumping up heading into the championship rounds and some observers thought the fight was close enough to steal if "The Marvelous Mongoose" could finish strong, but one punch in the 11th put the kibosh on any upset hopes Mathebula had. A pinpoint right to the jaw from Donaire cracked one of Mathebula's teeth, and the underdog suddenly stopped punching, instead holding his gloves over his face and looking to run out the clock.
Not that it mattered much in the final analysis anyway; those who thought Mathebula was within striking range on the scorecards turned out to be wrong. After the 12th round concluded, Contreras informed us that judge Jonathan Davis had it 117-110, Steve Morrow saw it 118-109, and Mathebula's South African countryman, Deon Dwarte, had it the most lopsided of all at 119-108, all in favor of Donaire.
The fight was much more challenging for Donaire than the scorecards made it sound, and critics will be right to suggest he made it more challenging than it had to be by loading up on single punches all fight and occasionally forgetting his technique to bound at Mathebula from Naseem-Hamed-like angles. Had the fourth round left hook ended the fight, we would be unanimously marveling over Donaire's exceptional gifts. Instead, we're left to debate whether he really deserves a top-five pound-for-pound spot and whether the Montiel result had a hint of flukiness to it.
There's no denying that Donaire has an impressive palette to draw from. But for the third straight outing, he failed to paint a masterpiece.
In the co-featured bout, a fighter whose name was on some pound-for-pound lists a few short years ago, Kelly Pavlik, took a small step back from the boxing abyss by defeating the game but outmanned Will Rosinsky over 10 competitive rounds. Following two losses in the ring and two stints in rehab for alcohol abuse, super middleweight Pavlik has now won four straight fights, including three in the last four months. Rosinsky took the first round on sheer energy and activity, but Pavlik dropped Rosinsky with a short, chopping right hand in the second round and was in control the rest of the way. The underdog from Queens, New York, frustrated former middleweight champ Pavlik at times with his movement and pesky flurries, but Pavlik's harder, cleaner punches-including a fair amount of body work-carried him to a unanimous decision by scores of 97-92 and 98-91 (twice).
"I got the rounds in that we needed and, hey, it's a ‘W,'" Pavlik told HBO's Max Kellerman after the fight. "We've still got a lot to work on. Taking nothing away from Will, but I can't perform like that against the [division's best]."
We might never again see the version of Kelly Pavlik that captivated the boxing world with a series of thrilling knockout wins back in 2007. That's okay. Nobody's expecting a return to the pound-for-pound list. For now, a return to the HBO airwaves is a welcome step.