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Thursday, October 11, 2012
Donaire battles foes, outsized expectations

By Brian Campbell

There's a certain population of the boxing community that abhors the mere idea of a pound-for-pound list used as a scientific tool to compare fighters.

They'll point to the fickle nature of the voters and the ever-changing criteria. There's also the "what have you done for me lately?" debate that tends to value spectacular performances over sustained longevity.

Consider the case of Nonito Donaire, whose four-year run of nine knockouts and 10 straight victories across three weight classes culminated with the ultimate statement win, a brutally sensational KO of bantamweight champion Fernando Montiel in February 2011.

It was a victory that made Donaire the darling of P4P lists worldwide, with the only question being how high to rank him. It also gave him the perishable status of red-hot/must-see -- the Manny Pacquiao of the smaller weight classes, with the perceived power of Mike Tyson.

But three fights later, after three unspectacular decision victories, there's a lingering feeling that Donaire is treading water. It also begs an odd question: Was the Montiel victory as much a curse -- for creating unreachable expectations -- as a blessing?

"Not really," Donaire told ESPN.com. "Being a top pound-for-pound guy, they always will expect something. They want knockouts. They want everything that is positive. That's how the sport is. I try to give them that, but it's the effort that I give and that's good enough for me. I keep trying to please people, but if [the knockouts] don't happen and I get the victory, that's the most important thing."

The debate, of course, is without merit (if not unfair). In fact, it touches on exactly what can be wrong about P4P debates in the first place. Donaire's accomplishments in his past three fights -- all title bouts against respected current or former champions -- are arguably more impressive than his initial run, when you consider his jump in weight and the obstacles he has overcome.

In his final bantamweight title defense, Donaire intimidated a defensive Omar Narvaez into abandoning his game plan and hiding. He overcame a broken hand to knock down and defeat Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. in his junior featherweight debut. Then, facing an opponent five inches taller, Donaire broke the jaw of Jeffrey Mathebula in two places before claiming a wide decision.

Still, it would be disingenuous to suggest the victories had anywhere near the same resonance as the Montiel fight to the impressionable fans and critics who crave the big moment. If the "Filipino Flash" is the superhero alter ego of Donaire, his past three fights had a pedestrian, workmanlike air to them, akin to watching Clark Kent navigate air travel without the use of his special powers.

"I guess people just want to have something to look forward to, which is good, but they've got to understand that these guys are world champions that I've been fighting," Donaire said. "They're just not top-15 or top-20 guys; these guys are world champions for a reason, they are good at what they do, and I beat them."

Whether the shine has subjectively dimmed on his mainstream appeal or not, Donaire believes he's gained much perspective from the three challenging victories that followed his emphatic thumping of Montiel.

"There is a lot of things I've gained, experience-wise," Donaire said. "How to wait out an opponent from a shorter version and from a taller version, and looking at their weakness, how can I get them? The last three fights have been more of an experiment for me to get better, and I feel like I have learned a lot."

Although there's no tangible evidence to suggest he has changed as a fighter after moving up in weight -- or whether simply the expectations have -- even Donaire admitted a nostalgic yearning for the Nonito of old.

"I'm trying to go back to who I was and what made me that tactical guy who could break you down and set up a good punch," Donaire said.

There are likely a few who obsess over mythical pound-for-pound lists that'll be anxiously waiting to see if he can.