- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- Nonito Donaire was getting ready to make his one and only bantamweight title defense last October when, a few weeks before what turned out to be a lopsided decision win against Omar Narvaez, he enjoyed a night out during his Las Vegas training camp.
Donaire went to a boxing card at the MGM Grand to watch Toshiaki Nishioka, Japan's No. 1 fighter and one of the top fighters in the world, defend his junior featherweight title in a hard-fought decision win against former champion Rafael Marquez.
Teiken Promotions' Akihiko Honda brought Nishioka over from Japan and collaborated on the Marquez fight with Top Rank's Bob Arum for several reasons, and one was to lay the groundwork for an eventual fight between Donaire and Nishioka.
The fighters encouraged the plan. Before Nishioka and Marquez fought, Donaire even wished Nishioka luck and they made small talk.
"We were having somewhat of a fantasy talk about fighting each other," Donaire said Thursday.
Nishioka wanted to fight Donaire so badly that he gave up his piece of the 122-pound world title after the Marquez fight, because he had no interest in making a mandatory defense -- or any defense, for that matter. He only had eyes for "The Filipino Flash," and Nishioka was willing to wait for him.
Donaire, meanwhile, clobbered Narvaez and then made the move to 122 pounds, where he won a vacant title in February by dropping and outpointing former titlist Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. Then Donaire also dropped and outpointed titleholder Jeffrey Mathebula on July 7 to unify two of the titles.
Top Rank tried to make a fight between Donaire and Mexican star Jorge Arce -- with Nishioka on the drawing board after that -- but Arce priced himself out of the fight. That set the stage for the fight Donaire and Nishioka both wanted: a high-stakes match against each other.
Nishioka (39-4-3, 24 KOs), 36, who is riding a 16-fight winning streak since losing a decision in a 2004 bantamweight title fight, has made the long trek from Japan back to the United States to challenge Donaire for his belts on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET/PT) at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., the same outdoor arena where Donaire pasted Mathebula.
"He either was going to retire or fight me, so that's why I know we can't take anything away from him," Donaire said. "He's a veteran. He knows how to fight. He knows how to win. When he has his radar targeted on someone, he means business. So for me, I gotta be on my A-game.
"I'm honored [he called me out]. He's a very respectful kind of guy. He's a great fighter. We have a mutual respect for each other, for our ability, and we both kind of felt we are the best in this division. So we wanted to prove which one was better. We both respect each other, but we will try to do everything we can to win in the fight."
In the much-anticipated co-feature, former lightweight titlist Brandon Rios (30-0-1, 21 KOs) and Mike Alvarado (33-0, 23 KOs) hook up in a 10-round junior welterweight bout that many expect to be an all-action brawl.
Donaire's interest in fighting Nishioka stretches back to mid-2009, when Donaire saw Nishioka go on the road to Mexico and post one of his most impressive victories when he starched the formidable Jhonny Gonzalez in the third round.
"This is a fight that Nonito has wanted for a very long time," manager Cameron Dunkin said. "These are the kinds of fights that you get excited about because this is really a historic fight."
Donaire was fighting as a junior bantamweight at the time Nishioka knocked out Gonzalez but knew he would soon become a junior featherweight, where Nishioka was one of the division's elite.
"When he knocked out Jhonny Gonzalez, I was like, 'That guy is really good,'" Donaire said. "Jhonny Gonzalez is tough guy, a good fighter. I knew Jhonny Gonzalez has a lot of power. I knew [Fernando] Montiel had problems with him. Montiel was my guy to focus on [when he went to bantamweight], but then it was Nishioka at 122."
Donaire (29-1, 18 KOs), 29, who splits his time between San Leandro, Calif., and Las Vegas, moved up to bantamweight at the end of 2010 and won his debut in the division, and then challenged Montiel for his two belts in February 2011. The result was an unforgettable second-round knockout -- the consensus knockout of the year. After one defense against Narvaez, Donaire was on the move again, with Nishioka on his mind.
"He was still on top after all these years," Donaire said of Nishioka. "I believe he has the credibility to be No. 1 [in the division], and that's the guy I wanted to fight to take that spot. He was my aim from the beginning. When I went to 118, Montiel was the guy I aimed to fight. In this division, [Nishioka] was the guy I aimed to fight."
As interested as Donaire was in facing Nishioka, it was a two-way street, hence his vacating the title with only Donaire on his mind.
"I was waiting for Donaire. I didn't have any interest in any other fight," Nishioka said through translator Nobu Ikushima. "I've been wanting to fight Donaire since my last fight. I've been training since January for this fight. Just timing-wise, trying to get the fight together with Nonito has been challenging, and it took this long. We are now in October, so it took 10 months to get this fight together."
Nishioka is being covered by a throng of Japanese media who have made the trip to Southern California for the fight . As soon as he began training in January, he announced that he wanted to fight Donaire. The reason, he said, was simple.
"There were a lot of good fighters out there, but no matter who I fought, Donaire always came up," said Nishioka, a speedy southpaw with an excellent straight left hand. "He had the highest recognition, so it's faster if I just go directly to the top.
"I want to become not just a world champion [known] in Japan but a world champion internationally. I want to show that Toshiaki Nishioka is a world champion worldwide. So I was waiting for Donaire."
Traveling overseas to fight wasn't an issue for Nishioka. In addition to the road fights against Marquez and Gonzalez, Nishioka has fought twice in Las Vegas and once in France.
"I'm very comfortable fighting overseas," Nishioka said.
Besides the significant overseas title defenses against Marquez and Gonzalez, Nishioka's résumé also includes wins against Genaro Garcia and Rendall Munroe among his seven defenses.
"This Nishioka is a helluva fighter," Arum said. "He's a terrific fighter. On this level, you just want to win. If Donaire can knock him out, that's great. But he should be satisfied with a win. I saw Nishioka with Marquez. Nishioka is a helluva skilled, gutty fighter. Donaire is going to have to fight his ass off because Nishioka is no walk in the park. He sticks on you like glue."
Donaire agreed with Arum's assessment.
"We don't want to look past Nishioka," Donaire said. "Nishioka is an incredible challenge for us. He's a wall that we need to break down and climb over.
"This guy has proven himself for years. He's knocked world champions out. What else can I say about the guy? He's the guy I want to fight. He's the guy I feel will give me that challenge."
For some time now, Nonito Donaire and Toshiaki Nishioka have been sizing each other up for Saturday's superfight -- one that both fighters know will test the outer limits of their skills.