- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Junior featherweight titleholder Nonito Donaire has earned his place on the pound-for-pound list. He's at the peak of his powers and is obsessed with cleaning out the 122-pound division.
The road toward that goal begins for "The Filipino Flash" on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET/PT) at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Donaire (28-1, 18 KOs) will headline the card in a title unification bout against Jeffrey Mathebula (26-3-2, 14 KOs) of South Africa, as both make their first defenses of belts they won earlier this year.
"The motivation is in my heart to work toward my goals and my dreams," Donaire said. "To be a unified champion, then challenge anyone out there and make it undisputed is a dream, and hopefully I can make it happen."
Donaire has won major titles at flyweight and bantamweight, and an interim title at junior bantamweight. He has a long-range goal to someday be champion at junior lightweight and perhaps even heavier as he tries to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Manny Pacquiao, who has won titles in a record eight weight classes.
In February, Donaire took a big step toward that goal by scoring a knockdown and winning a decision against former titleholder Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. to claim a vacant junior featherweight title.
When Donaire was a bantamweight, he won two belts on the same night by drilling unified titlist Fernando Montiel in the second round for what was universally hailed as the knockout of the year in 2011. Now Donaire is seeking to pick up the belt owned by Mathebula, who claimed his version of the title with a decision against countryman Takalani Ndlovu -- who owned a previous win against Mathebula -- in March.
Donaire hopes it's the first of a series of major fights in the division on the road to unification. He is fortunate to be fighting in a weight class with a number of quality potential opponents, and Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said he is gung-ho to try to make those fights happen -- although some will be a lot easier to put together than others.
"Those who follow boxing know that the 122-pound division is chock-full of superstars," Arum said. "We have a long list of guys who will be making tremendous fights. HBO has recognized this and will concentrate on bringing to the public the best of 122 pounds in a series of bouts."
Arum mentioned junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, bantamweight titlist Jorge Arce (who is moving up to 122 pounds) and Toshiaki Nishioka, a recent junior featherweight titlist, among those who are "waiting out there."
Arum promotes Rigondeaux and Arce, so they are easy fights to make. If Donaire wins, Arce likely will be his fall opponent. Nishioka is also a relatively easy fight to make because of the relationship between his promoter, Teiken Boxing, and Top Rank.
"Like Bob said, there are incredible fighters in this weight class," Donaire said, "and we are going to take them and I am going to keep all the belts."
Mathebula traveled halfway around the world for his biggest fight and is confident.
"I am bigger and stronger than Donaire at this weight," he said. "I came to the U.S. to win. When I am done with Donaire, I will do the same to Arce."
In the opening bout, former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik (39-2, 34 KOs), who just fought June 8, will continue his comeback against Will Rosinsky (16-1, 9 KOs), a former standout amateur, in a scheduled 10-round super middleweight bout that was added to the show only three weeks ago after junior welterweight Brandon Rios suffered an elbow injury and his bout against Mauricio Herrera was canceled.
The fight will be Pavlik's third since ending a 10-month layoff in March but only his fourth since April 2010, when he lost the middleweight championship to Sergio Martinez. The defeat was followed by outside-the-ring troubles, including a stint in alcohol rehab, a DUI arrest, problems with Top Rank and a breakup with career-long trainer Jack Loew to go with Robert Garcia, who also trains Donaire.
One of the intriguing aspects of Donaire-Mathebula is the rarity of the 5-foot-7 Donaire, who is normally taller than his opponents, being shorter than the 5-11 Mathebula -- a giant for a 122-pounder.
Donaire wanted the challenge of a bigger man, even if manager Cameron Dunkin is admittedly a nervous wreck about it.
"Mathebula is a very tough fighter," Donaire said. "He is a tall guy, the tallest fighter I will have faced, and I know Cameron is nervous about it. But he's always nervous. He's always looking out for his fighters -- that's how he is. But I told Cameron I wanted this fight. I knew this guy would motivate me, and he made me train as hard as I did. I don't know what to expect because he is so tall."
Said Dunkin: "Nonito is somebody who is very special to me. He's more than just a boxer. I have known Nonito for so long now and I have watched him come from fighting for nothing, literally fighting for nothing. All the struggles he's had and all the things he's been through, it's very personal for me. I want to give him these opportunities.
"I didn't want to make this fight at first -- I had someone else in mind -- but it's what he wants and I want to give him everything possible I can, and I know Bob does too. He wants to be great. In my opinion, he is already great, but he wants to be greater. I want to do everything I can to make that possible."
Although Arum can likely make several quality fights for Donaire, the one fight that almost certainly won't happen is a unification match with Abner Mares.
The fighters never met in the ring when they were both bantamweight titleholders, and a junior featherweight fight seems like a similar pipe dream, even though it's one of the most attractive fights in boxing.
The reason is simple: Donaire is with Top Rank and fighting on HBO, while Mares is a star under the banner of archrival Golden Boy and fighting on Showtime. The cold war between Top Rank and Golden Boy is as bad as it has ever been, and the potential for a Donaire-Mares fight is an obvious casualty. It's a promoter issue because neither fighter is contractually bound to a network.
Although Arum spoke about the fight as a possibility -- under certain conditions -- it sounded like lip service.
"Mares is a very good fighter, but he has to be willing to fight on the premier network, which is HBO, and not on the secondary network, which is Showtime," said Arum, whose relationship with Showtime is nonexistent due to conflicts over the competing cards on Sept. 15 and Showtime's alliance with Golden Boy. "It's not a question of Top Rank or Golden Boy, but it's the fact that HBO has embraced Nonito and this entire division, and that's where the future is.
"Mares is there but has got to cut the apron strings and be willing to fight in this whole series of important fights on the premier network, which is HBO, which understands how important this whole division is."
With Mathebula on deck, Donaire hasn't gotten too caught up in the discussion of future fights.
"From what I have seen on Mathebula, he has shown that he is a fighter that engages," Donaire said. "I understand that he is from the Zulu tribe. I have had a lot of experience with the South African fighters, and they are really tough guys and they really come prepared to fight.
"We have looked at ways he is going to fight. He is going to use his range and use his height. He is going to go out there and throw combinations. But we are in tremendous shape and ready for anything -- that's why we are very confident. No matter what he brings to the table, we are ready for it."