The slender figure wearing a white fedora and a gleaming smile could have passed for a 15-year-old, and if it weren't for a tiny soul patch under his lower lip, you might have thought he was too young to shave. But this was no callow teenager. The sprite-like boxer was Nonito Donaire, 26 years old, holder of a flyweight belt and widely considered a rising star destined for greatness.
It was May 1, 2009, the day before fellow Filipino Manny Pacquiao would decimate Ricky Hatton at the MGM Grand, and Donaire was already regarded as Pacquiao's likely heir apparent. When he strolled into the media room that afternoon with his glamorous fiancee, Rachel Marcial, the couple quickly became the center of attention. Nonito had created a minor sensation by knocking out previously unbeaten titlist Vic Darchinyan with a single left hook and had since tallied three successful defenses.
At the time, there seemed to be no limit to what Donaire could achieve. He appeared to have it all -- sound fundamentals, quick hands and feet and an aggressive attitude to augment his lethal punching power. He was also endearingly open with the public, admitting that he was bullied as a kid, harried by a domineering father and so scared before his first amateur fight that he peed his pants.
The juxtaposition of his boyish charm and fierce ring demeanor created one of boxing's most appealing archetypes -- the baby-faced assassin. There was virtually universal agreement that he was a special fighter, and big things were expected. There was, however, one significant problem: Flyweights are a hard sell in the United States.
There was a time, back in the 1920s and early 1930s, when flyweights were popular, and fighters such as Pancho Villa, Fidel LaBarba, Frankie Genaro and Midget Wolgast were major attractions in the U.S. Since then, with the exceptions of Michael Carbajal (who was actually at his best as a junior fly) and Johnny Tapia (whose glory days were at junior bantamweight), the division has been a relatively minor player.
Wiping out Darchinyan in his breakthrough fight was a mixed blessing. It immediately branded Donaire a terrific fighter, but it also eliminated one of the few recognizable names in the division.
Donaire's team kept him reasonably busy, but a signature victory that would vault him to the next level proved elusive. He abandoned the flyweight division in 2007 and was fighting at junior featherweight by early 2012. His performances weren't always memorable, but "The Filipino Flash" continued to tease us with occasional glimpses of brilliance, such as his breathtaking knockout of Fernando Montiel.
Still, every time Donaire seemed on the cusp of superstardom, there was an irritating, albeit minor, setback, such as his 2011 fight with light-punching Omar Narvaez. Although Narvaez lost every round, the 36-year-old defensive specialist from Argentina stymied Donaire's offense and lasted the distance in a stinker that did nothing to boost Nonito's status.
That Donaire could not impose his will was somewhat of a revelation, and brings us to a pertinent question: If Narvaez gave him fits, why would promoter Bob Arum match Donaire with Guillermo Rigondeaux, an even better defensive boxer and a much harder puncher?
It made absolutely no sense. Even if Donaire wanted the fight, which was purportedly the case, it was idiotic to allow him to take it. The window of opportunity for Donaire to fulfill expectations was already closing, when, for all intents and purposes, a promotional blunder damn near slammed it shut on his neck.
Then, after the Cuban convincingly beat Donaire by unanimous decision, Arum had the audacity to bellyache that Rigondeaux would be almost impossible to promote due to his boring style. You couldn't help but wonder if Uncle Bob was losing his grip. It would have been different if the Rigondeaux fight had promised to be a huge moneymaker, but as it was -- and to nobody's great surprise -- only hard-core fans cared.
The rebuilding process starts all over again on Saturday in Corpus Christi, Texas, against none other than Darchinyan, a faded but fun fighter who always gives his best. Nothing, however, that the Australia-based Armenian has done since his loss to Donaire would indicate that he could avenge the defeat. What's more, it will be difficult for Donaire to top the effect of his first fight with Darchinyan, and anything less would lend credence to the notion that his chances of achieving superstar status are fading.
In some respects, Donaire-Darchinyan II is reminiscent of the recent mismatch between Miguel Cotto and Delvin Rodriguez -- an opportunity for the A-side fighter to look better than he actually is by fighting an inferior opponent. True, even at this stage of his career, Darchinyan is a far better fighter than Rodriguez, but in Donaire he's up against an opponent who is much closer to his prime than Cotto.
Any way you look at it, the Donaire-Darchinyan rematch is another get-well fight. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a ritual as old as boxing. The trouble is that in today's market, they take place on subscription TV, which was once reserved for fights worthy of the monthly premium.
Who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be a good scrap. Darchinyan is a hard man, full of pride and determination, but the odds are heavily against him. According to most Nevada and U.K. sports books, a $100 winning bet on Donaire will earn a magnificent profit of roughly $8, while a $100 wager on Darchinyan would be a $600 windfall for anyone brave enough to back the underdog.
Now in his 13th year as a pro, the 30-year-old Donaire has to win impressively on Saturday to keep his dream of superstardom alive. For him, it's not a case of coming full circle, but a matter of retracing old steps in search of a fresh start.
Donaire has also continued to grow physically. He had problems making weight for Rigondeaux, and entered the ring much heavier than his official weight of 121½, which is why he'll be fighting Darchinyan at featherweight. That should make preparation less stressful, but moving up in weight could also have a negative effect.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking a fighter's KO percentage peaks before age and/or circumstances force him or her to move to a heavier division. Featherweight opponents will still have to respect Donaire's firepower, but there's a good chance it won't be quite so devastating as in the past.
"I thought I could catch him with one punch and fell in love with that," Donaire said after losing to Rigondeaux.
Actually, he did finally catch his crafty adversary, dropping him with a left hook in the 10th. But the Cuban popped right back up as if he had a spring attached to his backside, and Donaire never threatened again.
To his credit, Donaire has said he wants another crack at Rigondeaux, and providing he gets past Darchinyan, he'll probably get the opportunity. It's an admirable attitude, but not the best career move. Sure, there's a reasonable chance that Nonito could beat the only man to defeat him since 2001, but why take the risk? Rigo's style is all wrong for him. Win or lose, it's highly unlikely a rematch would be aesthetically appealing.
Life as a featherweight won't be easy for Donaire. Most opponents will be naturally bigger and tougher to stop than the men he fought at lower weights. At least he won't have to worry about Mikey Garcia, who is moving up to junior lightweight when he fights Roman "Rocky" Martinez on the same show as the Darchinyan rematch.
Looking back, it's clear to see that playing second banana to Pacquiao has ultimately proved a handicap for Donaire. Manny ushered in a new era of success for Filipino fighters, but his immense popularity has eclipsed all who have followed in his wake, including Donaire.
Regardless of what the future holds, Donaire has done very well for himself. The loss to Rigondeaux could have been the beginning of the end, but the Darchinyan rematch could just as easily be a new beginning.
He's not quite so shiny and new as he appeared in the afterglow of the first Darchinyan fight. Life has etched a few more lines on Donaire's face, and he would no longer pass for a teenager. Even so, he has never suffered a severe beating and should have at least a handful of good years left.
Perhaps it's enough time to prove not that he's the next Manny Pacquiao, but the best Nonito Donaire he can be.