WHEN Nonito Donaire, the “Filipino Flash”, was drilled by a Nicholas Walters right hand, he crashed face-first to the canvas and the lights on an at-times-sparkling career had been dimmed.
A stunning, emphatic defeat can render fighters lost in the shadows of the wreckage, searching for solutions.
That right hand, however,
served as an immediate epiphany. The answers to the questions he had long ignored were glaringly apparent.
A humble man outside the ring, Donaire had become complacent inside it, taking for granted the speed and power that had bailed him out when in trouble in recent fights.
The birth of his son Jarel dulled his fighting instinct, his hunger had apparently been satisfied by his success. Now 32 and at a career crossroads, an enlightened Donaire understands that 2015 signals either a new dawn or a full stop.
He concedes that having been a pound-for-pound contender until his 2013 loss to Guillermo Rigondeaux he is now fighting for his career in the midst of a rebuilding job after big-hitting Walters wreaked his violent havoc.
“I still want to do this,” Nonito insists, as he leans forwards on a comfortable settee in his mansion on the outskirts of Las Vegas. “But I was torn between the new things I should be doing [in training] and the old things. Because I was fighting bigger guys I needed to let my body have more time to prepare. For Walters I had six weeks’ notice. For other fights I’ve had about eight weeks. Fighters should be training all year round, like regular athletes. I wasn’t doing that at all. I was going out, doing photography, doing this, doing that and it was crazy because I managed to get as far as I did without the proper focus or without giving it 100 per cent. This time, in 2015, I’m giving it all I’ve got. That means I’ve got to train my body physically, whether I have a fight or not, and to be mentally prepared, which is to watch fights which I never did – and to eat healthy.”
Wife Rachel and Jarel will remain in Las Vegas while Donaire travels to his father’s gym in California’s Bay Area in search of the eye of the tiger.
“That’s a funny thing,” he says about the desire that went missing. “I was never hungry until I realised hunger was a very big and important part in winning. I thought winning and being smart was more than enough but when you get a guy like Walters, you can feel the hunger and it was stronger than talent. You can’t use talent if you don’t have the hunger for it. You can’t use talent without the proper hard work and dedication. And I’m also actually watching fights. I hadn’t watched fights in a long time so I’ve watched Roy Jones, a little bit of [Naseem] Hamed – because I’m a big fan – and [Marco Antonio] Barrera, of course, Oscar [De La Hoya] and [Felix] Trinidad and all those guys. I got to how I was by watching these guys. You’ve got [Ricardo] ‘Finito’ Lopez, he was one of my guys. I realise that I got good watching the fights.
“I think you kind of lose track because you’ve been doing it such a long time, you’ve been winning all this time. It’s kind of like autopilot. You work hard when you’re in the gym but you just don’t use your mental capacity. I didn’t have the heart at all. I would never ever quit in a fight. You can take me down and I will try to get up as much as I can but I just went on autopilot after such a long time of fighting and after all the achievements. Now I realise I want to be good. I want to be smart. I want to be patient. That’s one thing I lost. I want to be patient.
“I should have listened in the corner when they said, ‘Box him, you’ve got him hurt, you’ve got to make him think.’ Instead, I gave him the opportunity to hit me. That was the impatient part of my style that somehow developed over the years.
“I should rely on my fundamentals, not so much my natural gifts. I have the speed. I still have the speed I had when I was 25. I’m still fast out there. When guys spar me they are like, ‘You’re so fast, I don’t even know where you’re at.’ It’s just that I relied on that power so much more to end the fight, to give the fans a knockout. I always go out for a knockout and I got caught up with it.
“I never saw myself being on the floor, not in my entire career, not in my life, because I thought I was always smart. But impatience took over and I just didn’t care. I wasn’t afraid to get hit.
“I’ve always been the type of fighter that wants to knock you out. If you don’t knock me out I will knock you out. It was kind of like the old mentality of fighting, which is bad, which is stupid, but I have it in me. It’s kill or be killed.”
The odds go against you, however, if your chamber of bullets is either empty or the firearm is not loaded correctly.
A devoted family man, Donaire recognises he will have to prioritise fighting rather than his expanding brood, although training with his dad again has allowed old wounds from a previous father-son split to heal.
“Now our relationship is beyond what we could ever be,” he continues enthusiastically. “With my dad, I’ve just never given him a chance because since we got together I never really listened. Even with Robert [Garcia], I didn’t really listen, I just kind of did the things that I do. That’s why I have told my dad, ‘Now, when I come back to training camp, I want you to guide me, give me a mission every round, like throw all jabs for a round, or throw jab-hook,’ whatever it may be so I can learn the skills all over. It feels like I don’t have the skills and I want to bring the skills back. If I listened to what he said in the third round [of the Walters fight] which was to box and be smart, we might have had a different outcome – but that’s a different story. That’s why I want to give my dad a chance, it’s not fair because my performance has not been really good but that’s because I didn’t give him a chance by not listening.”
The lessons he has learned from the difficulties with Nonito Snr have been invaluable. Donaire is a hands-on dad. He’s involved with his son in a way that was foreign to the culture his own father was exposed to in the Philippines. “The reason he was as he was is because he cared for us,” Donaire explains. “He just didn’t know how to do it properly because he never had anyone. When he was three his father died. So he didn’t have a father figure to set an example. I do. He was harsh in some part. He loved us but I never saw that. I always thought he wanted to control things, that I couldn’t do anything.”
Being a father, now, has altered Nonito’s perspective. It’s mellowed him, arguably it’s tamed him.
“It’s changed me a lot,” he admits. “It changed me as a person. My killer instinct is there but not to the extent that it was, you know? I want to hit the guy hard but I wasn’t there to pursue it… It’s weird because I’ve noticed it in sparring. When I sparred I would go out and try and hurt my opponent and I slow down when I do but this time it’s mainly me working and just getting in shape. At the same time as I was successful in 2012 and before it doesn’t compare with the life that I have now. I see my son and sometimes he will give me a little tantrum and he follows me around because he wants to get carried. It’s fun. And if I never get to that level [of fighting] again, I’m alright with that because I’m happy.
“It’s a different kind of happiness. I’m full. I think it’s part of life. The way you grow up, you learn things, and it settles you down and that’s the same thing with fatherhood. You need to change and tweak your mentality to work with how you think.”
There is ambition, though, not least because boxing can provide well for his family. He’s a little guy who’s made big money. “Right now it’s getting back in there,” he says of the search for his hunger. “I think a good win, a dominating win, is more crucial for my mental game.
“I don’t think I have a high mileage as a fighter. I have a lot of experience but we’ll see. I can’t say that I don’t and next thing it shows otherwise. I need to get some answers because sometimes a fighter, especially at this age and at this time of their career, they don’t stop and they don’t realise it because they keep telling themselves that they’re good, that they’re the best still. But sometimes that’s not the case. For me, I just will see where I’m at inside that ring and if I can’t compete with guys I should be destroying then I’ll hang up the gloves.
“As a fighter I would be disappointed if I never fought again but as a person I’m happy to be with my wife and my son, that’s my joy. That’s something I’m really proud of. I can be overjoyed about that but as a fighter I will always feel I can do more.
“Hopefully now I will get another title and go from there. But it’s kind of like rebuilding a fighter. Taking it a little bit at a time until everything is there, the confidence, and then we’re ready to go for a big fight. I’m really eager, I’m hungry and that’s important to me.”