If Nonito Donaire can beat Jorge Arce in impressive fashion on Dec. 15, "The Filipino Flash" could thrust himself into the frontrunner's role for Fighter of the Year honors. But Arce, the Mexican warrior who has been known to ride to the ring on a horse, has said several times that this will be his last year in boxing, and dollars to pesos says there's no way Arce wants to ride off into the sunset slumped over a saddle.
In an era when the top boxers in the sport fight just one or two times a year, Donaire will be making his fourth title defense of 2012. That alone should put him in the mix for the year's top fighter. Of those in front of Donaire on the mythical pound-for-pound ladder, Floyd Mayweather has fought only once, Manny Pacquiao twice, Andre Ward once, and Sergio Martinez twice. "If he beats Arce, he will have successfully defended his title four times," says Donaire's manager, Cameron Dunkin, who has overseen the destinies of more than 20 world champions. "That should mean something."
Arce, however, represents a dangerous roadblock. In the twilight of his career, the beloved Mexican brawler has experienced a rejuvenation of sorts, having beaten nine straight opponents, including previously unbeaten champion Wilfredo Vasquez Jr. last year. "Arce is a tough bastard, and he's going to fight his ass off against Nonito," Dunkin says.
While acknowledging that Donaire is a good fighter, Arce (61-6-2, 46 KOs) has fanned the flames by saying that the Filipino has never faced a fighter "with balls," a statement which didn't sit well with Dunkin. "I think Arce has a lot of balls to say the other fighters Nonito has faced didn't have balls," Dunkin says. "Arce said he is going to fight to the death, and give everything he's got. But when the body doesn't work, it doesn't matter how much balls you have."
Donaire (30-1, 19 KOs) possesses the kind of one-punch knockout power that can make opponents' bodies stop working, as the Filipino demonstrated first against slugger Vic Darchinyan five years ago, and last year against Fernando Montiel. Donaire was a virtual unknown when he stepped into the ring with Darchinyan, who was then 28-0, a world champion, and had knocked out 23 of his last 24 opponents. A super-aggressive fighter, Darchinyan walked right into a short counter left hook in the fifth round from Donaire and went down like he'd been hit with a sledgehammer. So powerful was that hook, that when Darchinyan got up, he staggered around the ring like a drunkard until the referee stopped the fight.
The same thing happened to world champion Montiel, another fighter who, like Arce, vowed to come forward and pressure Donaire. With just under a minute to go in the second round, Donaire tagged Montiel with a blistering counter left hook that dropped the Mexican, who landed with his back on the mat, legs flailing in spasms. Montiel bravely got up on wobbly legs, but after the ref watched Donaire hit him easily with two straight punches, he waved the fight off.
"Montiel and Darchinyan both had power and were aggressive until they got hit by Nonito," says Dunkin, who has managed Donaire the past eight years. "Something happens to fighters when they get hit by Nonito. It changes them."
Now along comes Arce, who like Montiel and Darchinyan, is an aggressive fighter and will bring the pressure to Donaire. Arce doesn't have the one-punch knockout power of either of those other two victims of Donaire, but his non-stop, all-action style and ferocious body work can take the life out of his opponents just the same. "Arce says he can take Nonito's punches," Dunkin says. "He says I have been in with everybody and took their punches. I'll tell you this, if Arce does take Nonito's punches, it's going to be a long, hard fight."
So the overriding question then is if Arce gets tagged by a Donaire's thunder, will he be able to weather the storm? Unlike Montiel and Darchinyan, who had never been knocked out before, Arce's record shows he has lost three times by KO. But that is a deceptive figure.
Arce was first knocked out when he was a raw teenaged boxer in 1996 in just his fifth professional fight. The boxer who knocked him out in the first round, Omar Nino Romero, would go on to become a world champion. Three years later, Arce was knocked out in the 11th round by future Hall of Famer and defending world champion Michael Carbajal. At the time of the stoppage, Arce was comfortably winning on all three judges' score cards. The last time anyone stopped Arce was in 2009, when after surviving 10 rounds of brutal bombs thrown by the heavy-handed Darchinyan, the referee stopped the fight in the 11th because of multiple cuts suffered by the Mexican.
"Arce has a great chin," acknowledges Dunkin. "But we think Arce will be like Montiel, who said he would crowd Nonito and not give him any room. If Arce does pressure him like that, Nonito can do the same thing he did to Montiel -- catch him coming in. And while Nonito has great boxing skills, he will not be afraid to go toe-to-toe. Nonito told me, ‘I'm going to fight this bastard and push him and push him.'"
The biggest unknown for Arce is a trainer change he made for this fight. After 69 career bouts, Arce decided to work with the great Mexican trainer, Nacho Beristain, who has guided the illustrious career of Juan Manuel Marquez, among many other world champions. "I think that will be a huge advantage for Arce," Dunkin says. "Nacho is a brilliant trainer, and the main thing about him is he is a great strategist. It's not about changing Arce at this late point in his career. It's the game plan Nacho will devise for him. We could be facing the best Arce we have ever seen."
That being said, no matter what game plan Arce shows up with, Donaire, who is brilliant at figuring out his opponent while in the ring, should be able to adjust. As Donaire told HBO's Max Kellerman on air after knocking out Montiel, "I wanted to see what Montiel did, how he threw his punches, and where I could exploit them. Time slows down for me in the ring. I knew exactly what he was going to throw and timed it perfectly."
Timing is everything in a larger sense for this fight, because a late-year victory over Arce could make him the Fighter of the Year.