Home Columns Nonito Donaire guns for the legit featherweight championship on Saturday: Where’s the...

Nonito Donaire guns for the legit featherweight championship on Saturday: Where’s the buzz?

Credit: Chris Farina - Top Rank

Nonito Donaire Returns this Weekend & Nobody is Talking About It:

On Saturday in Macau, Nonito Donaire guns for the legit linear featherweight championship, as he takes on Chris John-conqueror Simpiwe Vetyeka in an effort to win yet another title in his illustrious career. The lack of buzz is palpable. It’s not as if Donaire’s achievements are that far back in the rearview. He was the 2012 Fighter of the Year. He loses one fight to a superb boxer like Guillermo Rigondeaux and it’s like he fell off the face of the earth. What gives?

Normally, when a fighter of Donaire’s extreme stature guns for a legit championship, there is some sense of anticipation. Well, this fight has several factors working against it. It’s in the faraway location of Macau and will be part of a dual-site HBO telecast, where most of the appeal is absorbed by the Carl Froch-George Groves rematch.

It doesn’t help that Simpiwe Vetyeka has almost zero name-recognition outside of the realm of super-hardcore boxing fans. He won the title by beating a fighter who was unbeaten in 50+ fights with a decade-long reign. One would think he would have more appeal than he does, but he remains virtually anonymous even after becoming champion.

People neglecting Vetyeka is understandable, but why is Donaire being relegated to people’s mental scrapheap? Granted, the Rigondeaux effort was disappointing and he looked bad against Vic Darchinyan before rallying to knock out his old rival. Still, when a fighter has as much success as Donaire has enjoyed, fans don’t typically abandon ship so quickly.

There seems to be a collective vibe that Donaire is on his way downhill, which could contribute to the lack of interest. Donaire himself says that he was in a funk and now he’s ready to reclaim the form that saw him sitting high in the pound-for-pound rankings. Whether he can will himself back into his prime is problematic, but there’s no doubting that he is coming off a really tough year.

What Donaire did before the Rigondeaux fight may also be a contributing factor to his diminished interest levels. Looking at his record, there are indeed some big names. And looking back, it’s hard to think of more imagistic knockouts than his annihilations of Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel. At the same time, the memories he created don’t run all that deep.

If anything, Donaire seemed to spend a bulk of his prime biding time. He also caught a lot of flak for not fighting Abner Mares. That may sound critical being that he fought the best flyweight, bantamweight, and junior featherweight in the world. Not a lot of fighters took on the number-one guy in three weight classes. In addition, he made it look so easy against guys like Omar Narvaez and Toshiaki Nishioka, that what should have been very good wins became something less than that. The strength of his resume is just easy to forget for some reason.

Nonito deserves credit for not always fighting the most-popular opponents, but typically getting around to fighting the most-difficult ones. Case in point is this fight with Vetyeka. Not all of Donaire’s opponents are well-known, but he’s always fought the top fighters in whatever division he has occupied, with the exception of 115 pounds. Even so, it’s not absurd to say he didn’t maximize the potential of his prime, where clear-cut greatness was attainable. Perhaps it still is.

Simpiwe Vetyeka is a good litmus-test for Donaire. The South African is a relentless puncher and a very flexible guy, able to bend away from punches, almost a Gumby sort. On the strength of knockouts over Daud Yordan and the long-unbeaten Chris John, he is a threat and Donaire recognizes that. If Donaire is getting a little frayed around the edges, Vetyeka is precisely the kind of fighter to bring that out in living color.

Those who enjoy boxing have become spoiled when it comes to longevity, with fighters like Bernard Hopkins and others redefining the boundaries. There was a time not all that long ago when a good featherweight 13+ years into his career was likely to be at the end of his rope, especially if that fighter once reigned as a flyweight. Looking through boxing history, there aren’t a lot of lower-weight fighters who were still shining after a 7-year run at the championship level. Not that Donaire is finished. That would be a rash declaration. It is, however, fair to start asking some hard questions based on his mileage and on the merit of his last two outings. Is that unfair to apply such a rigid standard to a fighter who has lost once in 13 years? It probably is. Either way, we should get some answers in this fight.

The Filipino Flash promises a career-best performance. If Donaire fulfills his prophecy, those who compile pound-for-pound lists will need to entertain the idea of returning his name to the top. Vetyeka is a legit titleholder and beating him would be a big win, yet another of many gems on his record. If Donaire comes into this fight flat and looking shot, he will lose. So by Saturday, we should have a good idea of where Nonito Donaire fits into the big picture.