by Hamilton Nolan
Boxing, unlike saner, better organized sports, is prone to leaving its fans wishing for matchups that never take place. Pacquiao vs. Mayweather. Gamboa vs. JuanMa. Golovkin vs. anyone good. Boxing fans are used to the disappointment of "what if"s. Which makes the fact that Nonito Donaire is preparing to fight Guillermo Rigondeaux all the more remarkable. It is one of the very best talent matchups in boxing. And despite that, the fight actually got made.
Donaire (31-1), widely considered one of the top five pound for pound fighters in the world, spent the past year running through four very good super bantamweight opponents in brutal fashion, en route to Fighter of the Year honors. His left hook, which in his last fight left Jorge Arce twitching on the ground like a seizure victim, is the most feared in the sport. Yet he's far from one dimensional; last October, Toshiaki Nishioka kept his guard up against Donaire's left hook all night, only to be knocked out cold with a straight right hand.
At 30, Donaire is a world champion and boxing superstar at the height of his powers. And at age 32, his opponent, Guillermo Rigondeaux, has accumulated a record of only 11-0. But don't be fooled: Rigondeaux is the most technically sound boxer this side of Floyd Mayweather, a two time Olympic gold medalist, and is often referred to as "the greatest amateur boxer in history." Only the fact that he is from Cuba and did not defect until 2009 prevented him from having a pro record every bit as decorated as Donaire's. And there is absolutely no doubt that, pro record notwithstanding, Rigondeaux is the only 122-pound fighter in the world who poses a serious threat to Donaire's record, and health.
Donaire is extremely fast, and extremely athletic, and extremely smooth. His balance is near perfect. His feet are a wonder. He can go in and out, attacking and circling, never losing his center of gravity, before an opponent can react. In another life, he could be a high wire walker. His left hook, thrown at a textbook perpendicular angle to his body, could probably kill someone. Thus far, he has not encountered anyone fast enough or skilled enough to take advantage of his flaws. Which is not to say that those flaws don't exist. Donaire, unlike Rigondeaux, is not a Platonic ideal of defensive positioning. He gets loosey-goosey at times. He puts his hands down, and sticks his head out, and relies on reflexes rather than form to keep him out of trouble. For all his explosive energy, he generally seems relaxed in the ring. He knows that he has the natural ability to snap into action in a split second. He is poised, but not perfect.
It's a style honed against lesser opponents, and one that lesser opponents are not equipped to take advantage of. But Guillermo Rigondeaux is. He possesses technically flawless form, hand speed and knockout power (at least close to) equal to Donaire's, and a truly remarkable reserve of patience. Rigondeaux would be a fine deer hunter, waiting motionless in the woods for hours or days before his prey arrives. His preferred fighting style is to lay back, rely on his defense, throw very few punches, and allow his opponent to flail away for round after round, growing increasingly frustrated. Then, at the merest opening, to knock them out with a single punch. Often to the body, for added shock value. Rigondeaux is a man who tends to manufacture very boring fights with very exciting endings. And based upon skills alone, he is a top ten pound-for-pound fighter just like Donaire, although his short record will prevent many from acknowledging this fact.
This is one of those very rare fights in which two of the best fighters in all the world face each other, and it is impossible to predict who will win. The best kind of fight, in other words. The most probable outcome may be a decision win for Donaire: he is a more active puncher, so even if Rigondeaux's defense keeps him alive, he would lose due to his lower punch count. But the second most probable outcome is a knockout win for Rigondeaux: he waits patiently, and reads Donaire, and takes advantage of a split second opening to land a killer blow, as no one who Donaire has fought before has been able to do. A knockout by Donaire? Also eminently possible, since Rigondeaux has never faced pro competition remotely as good. How about a decision win by Rigondeaux? With his abundant technical skills and counterpunching ability, it can't be ruled out either. You get the drift here. Anything could plausibly happen in this fight. It's not often that boxing fans get the chance to say that with a straight face.