THERE isn’t a couple in boxing like Rachel and Nonito Donaire. Over the past decade Nonito has been one of the world’s most successful fighters. Rachel is also unique. She is his wife, his manager and now his head trainer. Once Nonito demolished Nordine Oubaali in May to win the WBC bantamweight belt, Rachel became the first female trainer to guide a male boxer to win a major WBC title.
Boxing is an industry dominated by men and Rachel’s expanding role in the sport has not exactly been celebrated. She’s had public arguments with rival managers and abuse on social media is sadly hard to escape. “It does get to me, I’m not going to say it doesn’t. My kids are at this point now where my eldest, he searches us on the internet so he sees these things that people are saying or they’re writing or the videos on Youtube, and they ask. But really at the end of the day once I start taking apart every one of these people, there are some really bad insecurities because of what they’re doing. I’m the easiest target so they’re going to come after me. I believe in karma. I believe eventually it’ll all come out. I’m not the bad one in the game,” she told Boxing News. “Because we’re in such an electronic world that you can see everything, when you ask someone a direct question and instead they throw insults at you, it kind of just shows their maturity level and how insecure in the actual argument of the topic.”
“When my wife starts to feel the disrespect then that’s when I start to get all fired up. I don’t get mad a lot but when I do, I get fired up like crazy,” Nonito notes. “When it comes down to my wife is suffering from all this disrespect then that’s when I get fired up and sometimes I can’t hold my words or even my body or whatever it may be and I get angry.”
But he warns that doesn’t affect his boxing. “The angrier that I become the calmer that I become. That’s the weirdest thing about me,” he says. “If I am at a level where I’m angry about something, I am going to make sure that you suffer and by doing so I’m going to use every part of me, in terms of strategy to be useful.”
When speaking to Boxing News, there are no signs of rage though. Sitting back in comfortable armchairs inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas the two look perfectly at home. As music plays loudly and hotel guests wander in and out of the casino, Nonito picks up my Dictaphone to make sure he can be heard and holds it out to Rachel like a microphone so we don’t miss anything she says.
Their partnership extends from their personal life into their professional life. When they married, Cameron Dunkin was Nonito’s manager. “An amazing manager. He had so many guys and he knew I was taking care of the logistics and everyday things,” Rachel said. “So I started doing small things like that, looking over contracts to the point where Cameron started to let go and decided to make me co-manager so I would get some recognition and some power in negotiating his contracts, and then eventually he gave me full management.”
Her role evolved. She was a Taekwondo athlete herself and helped Nonito with his conditioning. “Between the management side, I always got slack on that side. Then of course when I became strength and conditioning and then head trainer, [people started to think,] ‘There’s no way she knows what the hell she’s doing,’” she reflected.
Her role as a trainer has developed. Nonito explained, “It came to a point where I was up and down, up and down with my career. She’d tell me here and there about strategy and all that stuff. I’d just kind of like wave it off.
“She’s always had my back, she’s always protected me. She’s always done this, that she’s even gotten to a point of becoming my manager. And then she would say things like in a strategic way, ‘why don’t you do this’ or ‘why don’t you do that’. Before that it was the strength and conditioning, which I’m like, ‘What kind of crap is this?’” he continued. “I started to do it and it hurt a lot. And one thing I’ve learned from it is what we were doing was transitioning well into the ring and that’s how I got my surge in popularity from 2008 to 2012, because that’s when I met her.”
Step by step he realised how much she was helping him. “We talk about sparring after the sparring and what we want to improve. It’s just a never-ending conversation. I think with most trainers once you leave the gym there’s no more conversation,” Rachel said. “I don’t sugar coat anything. Because the thing is that, his game is my game.
“Being in a marriage, you trust and you have the best interest for the other person to grow and do their best. I think that’s the biggest thing with us.”
Nonito remembers his second fight with Vic Darchinyan. “I was sick as a dog. I had a flu. I was sick. I had fever, I was shaking, I had chills and the fight was almost cancelled. But, you know, I was one of those rough guys, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’ So I fought with the flu and when I was losing the fight I didn’t know who to turn to because I couldn’t listen. But then I turned to her and she gave me a lot of advice in the ninth round when I ended up knocking Darchinyan out again,” he said. “She has always been a great strategist.”
Training for the Oubaali fight this year, taking precautions against Covid, it made sense to train within the household and for his wife to come into his corner. Nonito then handed the younger, previously undefeated Oubaali a punishing four-round defeat. “It was incredible because our strategy was always in a conversation, like a husband and wife. So whatever she told me, it registered really well. Because we can have that conversation, sometimes we’re just shadowboxing at three in the morning after having a conversation – why don’t we do this, why don’t we do that? So that was the greatest thing that I got during the pandemic was we ended up trusting each other with our strategy and working together,” Nonito said. “Whatever she wrote or said, I’d just get it right away. I think that was the biggest component in how I fought. I just knew exactly what to do by what she said, and so that’s why she’s in my corner now.
“From now on we’ve established the connection and the chemistry inside that ring and even in the house.
“We just get it. She will definitely be in the corner 100 per cent, as the head trainer.”
Real communication, understanding one another rather than trying to correct one another, made all the difference. “The biggest thing about us is that we can be friends, we can be mad at each other but then ultimately we come to realise that we always had each other’s back. That’s just why our relationship works so well and I can respect her in my corner,” Nonito said. “Not only are we best friends, we’re husband and wife, but manager, trainer, fighter, our relationship has been built in that type of energy or atmosphere. I accept her for what she is and what she does and what she brings and with that part of me accepting her in that way, she can be open to suggest what she knows best, which is kicking my butt in the gym.”
Rachel’s tenure as his trainer has been undeniably successful so far. With that Oubaali win her husband is now ranked second in the world at bantamweight behind Naoya Inoue, a fighter they know well. This November saw the two-year anniversary of Nonito’s epic clash with the Japanese star, one of the best fights of the past decade. The Donaires want a rematch.
To Nonito it doesn’t matter where it is, or what TV channel it goes on, he just wants to fight Inoue again. “I think both of us are vowing to knock each other out. Because it proved to him that I’m his obstacle and it proved to me that he’s my obstacle in this division,” he said. “I think that he wants to take me out and he knows that I’m there to try to take him out. We’re so respectful of each other because we’re friends. We’re very respectful but then at the same time we want that dance still. It was fun for me, it was fun for him and he wants to prove that he is the best in the division. He wants to be undisputed like I do.
“I just want the fight to happen. I want that rematch so bad and he wants that rematch so bad. It doesn’t matter to me where it’s going to be.”
Inoue is known as ‘The Monster’ for a reason. He’s one of the most fearsome punchers in this sport. For the fight Rachel was sitting a couple of rows back, watching her husband merrily trade leather with him. Even behind the scenes in Japan there had been plenty of drama. The gloves Nonito normally fights in had been damaged in transit. Moments before his ringwalk, Rachel had to face down the commission trying to pressure him to remove the leggings he typically boxes in. After that she was just a spectator. “Once he got in the ring there really wasn’t anything I could do,” she said. “It didn’t seem like anyone was keying in on the fact that Inoue couldn’t see. But I was sitting ringside and as much I was yelling, he couldn’t hear me. Any time I stood up, the commission would make me sit back down because I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere towards the corner.”
The rematch will be different. They know he can make the weight better now and Nonito is adamant that he has improved. “I was having fun in that fight. It was back and forth action. Power. It was us talking to each other with respect. That’s how I felt. The power was like whatever you can give, I can give more. And then he gives more and then I’m like I’m going to give more. To me it was an amazing dance. I had great fun in that fight. I believe he’s gotten so much better. But I also believe I’ve gotten so much better and I believe the next fight, the rematch will be an incredible rematch,” he said.
It’s remarkable that at 39 years old Nonito is performing at the highest level. They put that longevity down to lifestyle. “I think what makes a fighter old, you see a lot gain so much weight between fights,” Rachel said. “It would be this vicious cycle all the time. Now he’s learned, it’s okay to have a really good meal that you really want to have but that doesn’t mean you have 20 of those in a row and then you’re going to hurt later and wonder why it’s so hard for you to get back in shape for a fight. I think that’s detrimental to your health. That ages fighters a lot.”
Nonito continued, “Discipline. I think that’s all there is too it, discipline and confidence. The body’s only as good as the mind tells it to be. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I guess the biggest weapon for me is that ability to believe in myself that no matter how old I am, I just feel like I can still perform with these young guys. And I do train harder than a lot of people.”
“Lifestyle for me, to be kind of like a monk. Believing in just the habit and the things you want to form in your life, the blueprint you want to create for yourself, it’s possible with all this habit forming, with the mindset you’ve created and the ownership of making the decision. That it is your decision. If you falter, it’s your decision. If you step back it’s your decision and no one else is to blame but yourself,” he adds. “The biggest thing actually that I’ve learned is how powerful we are if we start to believe in how we can direct our mind.”
He has no plan to let up yet. “It could be just one fight. It could be 10 fights, it could be 20 fights. It’s just a matter of when I wake up in the morning and I feel good still, I’m still going to go. If I wake up in the morning and I just don’t have that drive any more, there’s no point for me,” he said. “My goal is to get in with Inoue as soon as possible because I never know what this mindset of mine will come to. I know for sure, deep in my heart, I have a lot left in me.”
With what he’s done at this stage of his career, Donaire is pushing the limits of what’s possible. It’s underpinned by an extraordinary confidence. That though was something Nonito developed as a fighter and in his life with Rachel. It was never innate.
As child he suffered from a terrible depression. “I was always bullied, I was always made fun of. So I didn’t feel like I existed,” he recalled. “In the past in the Philippines, it’s either you can protect yourself or not. Obviously I couldn’t because I was very small, I was very tiny growing up. So I couldn’t protect myself and I was always made fun of and it came to a point where it overwhelmed my brain where I was very depressed. I remember my parents would tell me that they got a call from my grandparents that every night I would wake up in the middle of the night and start crying. Of course, I’m oblivious to this because I’m sleeping.
“A lot of kids suffer with that depression. Depression is not something to joke around with, especially with young kids.”
When he was just a child, he tied a cloth round his throat to try to take his own life. “As it was choking me and I started to feel my body’s numbness, the tingle. Everything was just white, everything around me was buzzing and then it unravelled and I was gasping for air on the bed. I remember that part,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t need to exist anymore. I felt like I shouldn’t be here. So it came to that point.
“I guess I’m blessed with an opportunity to tell that story now. I’m blessed with a story to tell from a world champion, from a kid who didn’t have a future to a world champion and a future Hall of Famer. Now I can tell this story with pride because we all go through them, we all go through depression, we all go through fights, we all go through arguments. It’s about not giving up. Sometimes in relationships we fight and we just want to blow up. But sometimes we come realise that it too shall pass. At the end of it all you’re going to talk about it and be proud that you’ve overcome adversity. Thay’s why I’m very positive. I’ve learned throughout my life just never give up.”
He could never imagined how far he’d go. “This is not even a glimpse of a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream of a dream. Anybody can tell you from my village in the Philippines growing up that they would never believe a person like me would become a world champion or even get his feet inside a boxing ring or a boxing gym. Because there was no essence of any fighter in me,” Nonito explains. He was slung into his first amateur bout at 11 years old after just 45 days of training. “I came in the ring, I literally pissed in my pants, it wasn’t a trickle, it was a lot, as I was walking in the ring. But the moment I got hit in the ring there was another switch, it just… another guy came in there and I beat the crap out of that kid and that’s when I started to understand I had another person within me, I’m very confident inside that ring.
“It was my nature to fight, rather than run.”
Speaking now, in the fight capital of the world, he’s looks utterly at ease with himself. Successful, celebrated, he has a family of his own and a wife who’s his greatest champion. “If you had met me in 2008, I would never look at you in the eye, I would just always look down. I didn’t have the courage to look people in the eyes because I felt I was still that little kid who was always afraid of everybody. But inside the ring I was a world champion who wasn’t afraid of anyone at all.”
Rachel helped him realise his confidence. “And that’s how I got to the top,” he said.
Inoue gave him a little help too. “When I got to the top and became the fighter of the year, which I dreamed to be, in 2012, everything fell apart,” he said. “The determination diminished tremendously because there was no purpose… I would have to say thank you to Inoue because it brought the purpose back. It brought the purpose back for me, and now my purpose is back all over again.”
That’s why he needs to go through that fight again. This time with Rachel in his corner.