One is a perfect gentleman, the other a foul-mouthed troublemaker. One is a slick speed demon, the other a rough-and-tumble brawler. You can be forgiven for thinking that Nonito Donaire and Brandon Rios don't have a whole lot in common.
But they are united by ambition and upward trajectory. Neither Donaire nor Rios is interested in maintaining his status quo. They're both expanding -- quite literally by rising up the weight scale, and figuratively by taking the steps necessary to the increase their fan bases and the thickness of their wallets.
And Donaire and Rios will next be demonstrating those various ambitions in the same ring (at the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA) on the same night (October 13) with the same trainer (Robert Garcia) working double duty. What makes this one of the year's hottest fight cards is that even though Donaire and Rios are the clear promotional "A-sides" in their respective halves of the doubleheader, they are not clear favorites to win. These are not "showcase" fights for two ascendant stars. Donaire faces Toshiaki Nishioka, the most established belt-holder in the junior featherweight division, and Rios takes on Mike Alvarado, who is undefeated in 33 pro fights and coming off back-to-back Fight of the Year candidates.
How do you increase your fan base and the thickness of your wallet? By taking fights like these.
Donaire (29-1, 18 KOs) has stormed through three weight divisions, rising to the top at flyweight, junior bantam, and bantam, before landing in February 2012 at junior feather. He's won two fights already at 122 pounds and claimed a couple of alphabet belts, but Donaire views himself as the challenger against Nishioka.
"What Nishioka has done in this division, he's been number one in this division, and that's why I dreamed of this fight," Donaire said. "This is the best of the best. This fight is where my dreams can come true."
It's also where his 28-fight winning streak can get snapped, because Nishioka (39-4-3, 24 KOs) is undefeated at junior featherweight since rising from bantam way back in 2004, a span of 16 fights. And despite a modest knockout percentage overall, the 36-year-old Japanese veteran has ended nine of his last 12 fights inside the distance. The highlight of his resume is an off-the-canvas third-round knockout of Jhonny Gonzalez, and a decision win in October 2011 over likely Hall-of-Famer Rafael Marquez didn't hurt Nishioka's reputation either. The problem is that the southpaw Nishioka hasn't fought since then, meaning ring rust could be a concern.
Ultimately, the burden is on Donaire to elevate his game above where it's been his last three bouts, when "The Filipino Flash" has been more efficient than spectacular. In his biggest fights, against Vic Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel, Donaire has produced his most explosive performances. That's a trend he'll want to continue, because boxing fans hunger to see that version of Donaire again -- and because anything less might not get him in the win column against a pro of Nishioka's caliber.
In the co-featured bout, there are no such concerns about fan-friendly versions of the combatants needing to show up. Rios and Alvarado both know only one way to fight.
"Brandon Rios is about to emerge from the near-death torture of training again and burst into the ring for exactly the right matchup to show his 1930s bodysnatching style. Mike Alvarado, whose last two fights were memorably hurtful, is about to get hurt in the ring again and ... he likes it," HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley said on the September 22 episode of ‘The Fight Game.' "You don't ever expect to see Gatti-Ward I or Corrales-Castillo I again. But if you see something like it October 13, it shouldn't come as any shock."
Color analyst Max Kellerman agreed on ‘Boxing After Dark' one week later: "I know everyone wants to see [Manny] Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather. That's the biggest fight you can make in boxing. The best fight you can make, the Pacquiao and Mayweather of action fights, is Rios and Alvarado."
Want more hype for a fight that doesn't need any? Try this quote from Alvarado: "Everything's going to be tested. Our heart, our chin, our stamina, everything. This is a fight that's going to be talked about for a very long time." Or perhaps this one from Rios: "It's going to be a bloody, violent fight. It's not going the distance. Whoever can take a shot better and hit harder is going to be the winner."
If the conversation concerns how well these warriors can give and take a punch, you have to talk about the fact that Rios, like Donaire, is testing his strength in a higher weight class. Unlike Donaire, Rios (30-0-1, 22 KOs) is moving up by necessity rather than by choice, having failed to make the lightweight limit in both of his last two fights, against John Murray and Richard Abril. "Bam Bam" and his team have finally acknowledged that, at age 26, he's a junior welterweight. And he's not taking a soft touch in his first fight as a full-time 140-pounder.
Alvarado (33-0, 23 KOs) is fresh off a pair of buzzed-about brawls that established him as one of boxing's biggest-hearted battlers. In April, he outslugged Mauricio Herrera over the 10-round distance. And in his previous fight last November, "Mile High" fell a mile behind Breidis Prescott, arguably losing each of the first five rounds before rallying for a 10th-round knockout in a ring saturated with his own blood.
Meanwhile, Rios' back-to-back knockout wins in 2011 over Miguel Acosta and Urbano Antillon offered similar action and drama. Add it up, and it's plain to see why even the most jaded, hardened of boxing fans are giddy over this pairing.
Perhaps it's unfair to focus predominantly on the two "stars" of the show, Donaire and Rios, and their shared ambition. Nishioka and Alvarado are obviously striving to be great too; the evidence is in their signing for these fights. Donaire and Rios are moving up the scale, while Nishioka and Alvarado are defending their turf. And all four are determined to be that guy the entire boxing world is talking about come Sunday morning.