In my long years following boxing, I must confess to having a hard time finding any fighter other than Nonito Donaire who came out with an even better image and credential after a major bout that he lost. Magnificently, I must add
Nonito had been generally perceived as a fighter who has had his heydays in the elite ranks and now on an extended borrowed time. Worst, he is considered as a fighter with a still prominent name and scalp ready for the taking by any upcomer or any fighter or champion wishing to bolster their rising stock or improve further their fight resume and ledger.
Indeed, since losing ignominiously to Guillermo Rigondeaux in their super bantamweight title unification in 2013 and later, getting knocked out for the first time in his career by Nicholas Walters in their featherweight title bout in 2014, Nonito was perceived to be on a free fall. And, just a matter of time, on the way out in the manner of old lions in the face of challenge or defiance from younger beasts.
Decisive title losses to Jessie Magdaleno and Carl Frampton seemed to confirm this perception.
Heading towards his World Boxing Super Series bantamweight finals versus Naoya Inoue, Nonito was generally seen more as an extremely lucky than a still good, viable competitor.
It was probably providential that in the middle of 2018, he was seeded in the WBSS tournament, as eighth and last of the chosen viers, after he announced his return to the 118 lbs.weight class following a unanimous decision loss to Frampton in their fight for the WBC interim featherweight title earlier that same year.
He was just 3-2 in his last five fights with his last significant victory coming in late 2015 over Cesar Juarez for the WBO super bantam title—ironically stripped from his former conqueror Rigondeaux, the first of the lucky breaks that critics said would come his way going forward. But he would lose that same title by close decision a year later to Magdaleno after a single defense against an obscure Zsolt Bedak whom he iced in three rounds.
He was probably lucky that in the first round of the tournament he was paired against UK’s Ryan Burnett who the organizers deemed as the top seed, notwithstanding Naoya Inoue and Zolani Tete who were then already rampaging more impressively through the bantamweight ranks. Inoue with his knockout win over Jamie McDonnell in his bantam debut and Tete with his dominant win over rated Arthur Villanueva and record setting earliest KO win over fellow South African challenger Siboniso Gonya.
But it was more than his luck that Burnett had to quit on his stool due to back injury after just five rounds with him. In my eyes, Ryan did not injure or re injure himself. Nonito was banging his body like bongo from the get go and that had more to do with his injury than the self infliction as advanced by the UK press, taken at face value by most other media, in an obvious face saving measure. Burnett, though, has recently announced his retirement from boxing due to recurrent back injuries.
He was probably lucky when his supposed WBSS semis opponent Zolani Tete had to pull out two days before their fight due to alleged late training injury (which was questionable, as fighters are usually just into light workouts at this stage, a case of jitters perhaps?)
But Nonito disposed off the late substitute, Stephon Young, as he should, sending the game and competitive but elusive Afro American to dreamland with his picture perfect left hook in the later round.
Ranged against The Monster Naoya Inoue, practically every boxing Tom, Dick and Harry said that Nonito had ran out of luck. Some were even betting that not even a strange stroke of luck could save him from the certain disaster that awaited him in Saitama, Japan.
For in Inoue, Nonito was fighting the most formidable and widely popular bantamweight, indeed pro boxer, ever produced by the Land of the Rising Sun since Masahiko Fighting Harada, and right in his own home turf, at that.
Inoue on his side of the WBSS tournament dispatched his opponents, ex champion Juan Carlos Payano and then IBF defending titlist Emmanuel Rodriguez in less than three rounds or total of nine minutes. The ring smart Payano who had never visited the canvas before was counted out after smashed by an overhand right while Rodriguez, himself building a reputation as a ponderous puncher, was stopped after being downed, dazed and bloodied by a vicious one two combination from Inoue.
The odds were overwhelming 10-1 against Nonito and in favor of his more illustrious opponent, with only trainer manager Sam Garcia and columnist Anson Wainwright out of 25 experts polled by the Ring Magazine giving him a ghost of a chance to pull a gigantic upset.
Needless to say, we saw how that fight unfolded.
We saw Nonito not just surviving the dreaded onslaught of Inoue but dishing out the worst ever punishment on Naoya that only the Japanese huge pride and his smarts and his taking power — and Nonito getting dog tired in the try—prevented an upset knockout.
Inoue rallied in the championship rounds, even scoring a late deciding knockdown to win by unanimous decision with two of the three judges surprisingly or shockingly giving him so much to spare.
But to many, save for the most rabid Inoue fanatics, who saw the fight, the scorecard of the American judge, Robert Byrd, of 114-113 for Naoya, best reflected how that fight went down.
Without that fateful body punch knockdown he suffered in the 11th and penultimate round, Nonito indeed had the chance to win or at least a draw as far as the veteran American fight judge was concerned.
Inoue suffered a fractured eye socket and a broken nose. He was also cut in the upper right eye and probably suffered cuts inside the mouth as well as Nonito caught him flushed in many occasions. All these physical damages were competently managed and even masked by his corner such that they were not apparent at the end of the brutal, grueling bout.
If it is a Pyrrhic victory for Inoue remains to be seen in his next major assignment.
As for Nonito, the gallant stand and magnificent defeat made him an even bigger fighter than he was before, perhaps including in his elite prime.
His being a prime model as a clean boxer, the first and only fighter to enroll in 24/365 anti PED program of the VADA is now even being cited by many as a factor in his longevity and successful transition from fighting in the higher weights to his return as still a power to be reckoned with in the elite bantamweight division, notwithstanding his age.
Indeed, Nonito looms even larger in defeat in this last major fight against Inoue.
It is entirely up to Nonito where he goes next.