by Kieran Mulvaney
The task for Nonito Donaire was twofold.
Most obviously and simply, he had to defeat Toshiaki Nishioka -- on the face of it, no easy task, given that the classy Japanese boxer was undefeated in eight years and had recently dispatched possible future Hall-of-Famer Rafael Marquez.
But he carried the extra burden of a man of whom much is expected: after a series of relatively underwhelming title defenses, the junior featherweight who is regarded as one of the best fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world had to do more than win. He had to win impressively.
In the early going, it appeared that one of those tasks could be checked off the list without too much concern. For the first few rounds, Nishioka didn't so much show Donaire respect as outright reverence. His right hand glued to the side of his head to protect against Donaire's vaunted left hook, he seemed reticent to deploy his southpaw left hand for fear of what incoming artillery he might receive in response.
In the recent past, as when Omar Narvaez showed similar reluctance to engage, Donaire has resorted to showboating, to launching power punches from improbable angles, as much to keep himself entertained as to break down stubborn opposition. This time, he stuck to the game plan, boxing behind a stiff left jab and a fast right hand to the body that kept Nishioka at a distance and looking confused. It was piling up the points, but it wasn't providing the highlight reel performance that he must have wanted.
But slowly, realizing he was falling far behind and not wanting to provide only target practice all night, Nishioka began stalking forward. As he did so, he inevitably left himself open. And Donaire, sensing an opportunity, pounced.
In the sixth, as Nishioka crouched down, hands held high on either side of his face, Donaire unleashed an uppercut up the middle that dropped his opponent to the seat of his pants. Stung, Nishioka rose to his feet and suddenly the two men were trading punches as a real fight broke out in the ring.
Nishioka maintained his pursuit in the seventh, but Donaire's foot speed ensured that he kept the fight at the distance and angle he wanted to, and when the two did exchange, the Flipino's blows were the shorter and faster.
Nishioka needed something big if he were to make any impression on the fight as the rounds ticked by. In the eighth, he suddenly started launching bombs from a distance -- not enough to win the round, but enough to serve notice that the final third of this contest might be a real brawl after all -- and in the ninth, landed a couple of blows that caught Donaire's attention.
But Donaire is so highly regarded for a reason. As Nishioka came forward, Donaire backed to the ropes, drawing him in. And as Nishioka fired a right hand, Donaire threw one of his own -- harder, faster and straighter -- that crunched into his foe's jaw and sent him down again. Again, Nishioka rose to his feet, but his corner had seen enough and stopped the fight.
Donaire's task of impressing the crowd in the Home Depot Center, as well as the audience watching HBO's Boxing After Dark broadcast, was complicated by the scale of excitement that had come before. The co-main event between undefeated junior welterweights Mike Alvarado and Brandon Rios always threatened to be a war, and it did not disappoint.
Alvarado, the slightly larger and arguably more skilled, took an edge from round two onward, using a stiff jab to keep Rios at enough of a distance that he could land overhand rights and crunching uppercuts. But Rios, a tank of a fighter, bulled forward, undeterred, looking to shorten the distance and do damage in close. But neither man's strategy required cautious, probing boxing; whether at range or in close, each fighter was throwing hellacious shots that detonated against the other's seemingly iron jaw and had the crowd roaring its approval.
By round five, Alvarado appeared to be asserting himself, his right and left uppercuts twisting Rios' head back and forth as his rival barreled in. Already winning from the outside, he appeared now to be taking over the Rios inside game as well. But Rios served notice of his intent when he responded with a furious rally at the end of the round that had the crowd on its feet.
The sixth was the best Rios round since the opening frame, as the Oxnard fighter smothered his Denver-based opponent, his head on his chest, left hooks landing to the side of Alvarado's head in close. Still, the end was sudden and surprising.
It came in the seventh, as Alvarado's jab, showing weariness, sneaked out and back with uncharacteristic laziness and Rios landed a big right hand over the top of it. That visibly hurt Alvarado and sent him backward. Rios, seeing his chance, jumped on his opponent. A right landed. A left. Another left, another right. Alvarado was on the ropes, no longer responding, and referee Pat Russell waved it off.
The crowd -- and Rios --expressed enthusiasm for a rematch. But promoter Bob Arum indicated he has bigger plans for the unbeaten brawler, in the form of the winner of the December 8 clash between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez.
Now that would be a fight, whoever emerges victorious in December. When Brandon Rios is involved, it always is.