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In the gym with Nonito Donaire: "We're preparing for 20 rounds"

(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)
(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)

In the second week of March, I had the pleasure of visiting super bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire at his training camp in San Carlos, CA’s “Undisputed Boxing Gym” as he prepared for Saturday’s unification bout with Cuban amateur boxing legend Guillermo Rigondeaux to be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and televised on HBO. The fight is one of two that Donaire, the 2012 Fighter of the Year, wishes to have in 2013, the other being against Abner Mares, most likely to be held at 126 pounds. This training camp, as all camps do, has had its ups and downs.


“I feel great,” Donaire told me after his final training session which included eight rounds of sparring with lightweight prospect Erick De Leon and featherweight prospect Víctor Pasillas. The session included a long hypoxic training session that included mitt work. “I didn’t reach my peak early like I usually I do. I usually peak the week before which is the perfect time because I didn’t want to get bored. Usually I get bored a lot when I reach my peak early. This time I timed it really well. We got 12 rounds sparring one time (that final Tuesday). We feel good. Today’s sparring was even better.”


On the upside, Donaire is facing a fighter in Rigondeaux that is what fight fans ask for. It’s a unification bout that features two top fighters with the ability to knock the other out. Fight fan heaven after fights with the shell of Jorge Arce and Toshiaki Nishioka, who stunk out the joint before Donaire finally knocked him out late. Donaire could use a hit against a top, dangerous fighter the fans want to see him face. Rigo could provide that.

Donaire and his wife Rachel are having their first child in July. While the event is blessed, Donaire has been splitting time between Las Vegas and San Carlos in California’s Bay Area to attend to his wife and prepare for the arrival of their first born. Not exactly what the old timers would prescribe in training camp before a dangerous fight. The split focus early on in camp was something Donaire was elated by. He was also cognizant of the situation’s inherent danger. For a fighter, focus is everything.


As we sat and talked for our first interview session late in that second week of March, I asked Donaire if he was looking to make a statement or simply get the win. He answered then jumped to talk of the pregnancy without being prompted.


“Get the win. I am looking forward to my first born, you know? That is one thing that I am really just . . . I come home every weekend and tired or not or exhausted or whatever I may be on the weekdays, that’s something I look forward to every day that I am training. Of course, I take care of business. That’s one thing I learned about life, throughout my career is take care of business. But throughout, take pride and joy of what you have and what you are looking forward to and that’s my first born. It’s amazing.”


The way his face lit up and his eyes looked off into the future as he spoke, it was clear that at age 30, with his firstborn on the way, Donaire was not so much dangerously distracted as realizing even more that this sport can make you pay the ultimate price.


“Growing up, I was always a goal-oriented person,” Donaire told me. “I wanted to dream big. And I said I wasn’t the marrying type. Even now that I am having a kid I never saw myself with [a child] but now that I am having it . . . yesterday I felt the first kick from her belly. It was faint but I can feel it and  . . . nothing matters, man. Nothing matters but that moment. I don’t know. It’s crazy. So for me, I just have to train hard and just focus on it because it does tend to take away a lot of the focus but I am ready for anything. That’s one thing for sure. I am ready for anything and it’s going to be fine. There’s nothing personal with Rigo. It’s part of the game. I always just talk with my fists when I am inside that ring.”


Donaire won his Fighter of the Year honors in part due to his history-making stance on performance enhancing drugs in boxing. Donaire is the first professional boxer to voluntarily undergo year-round anti-doping tests through the independent testing organization VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Association) headed up by Dr. Margaret Goodman, formerly the head of the Nevada Medical Board. It is a stance he believes in to the point that his fight with Rigondeaux was in danger of being called off due to the Cuban’s team taking what Donaire deemed too long to agree to the testing terms. The delays in that process both angered Donaire. He took to twitter to push Rigo to get his VADA paperwork signed, sealed and delivered.


“I have nothing to hide. Whatever goes on [on social media] unless Cameron [Dunkin, his manager] or Top Rank [his promoter] says this or that, I am usually like a wild card,” Donaire explained of his social media strategy to corral Rigondeaux into the VADA program. “I usually just think on my own. My plan was if they didn’t sign, I was just going to in there and say you know what? I was going to say if you guys demand this I am going to demand Mares. I was just going to say that in there. That was thing in there. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone but if the contract wasn’t signed, if it was a no information type contract, I was going to say that. I wish I had would have known.”


To be fair to Rigondeaux and his team, they ultimately did turn in the paperwork and submitted to testing. There were language barriers to be overcome and information on their side to be vetted. The anti-doping movement is in its infancy in boxing and trepidation is understandable and misinformation is rampant.


However, the trouble in getting testing accomplished (his previous two opponents, Jorge Arce and Toshiaki Nishioka, balked at doing training camp testing) motivated Donaire to mandate all future opponents undergo VADA’s strict testing protocols or not get a fight with him. Being a multi-division champion with Fighter of the Year honors and an anti-doping platform no one can argue with allows you a certain measure of power. Donaire is discovering that.


“For me it was more of  . . . I was always going to make it voluntary. But Rigondeaux offered that. ’Oh I am going to do their BS testing. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. No problem IF Nonito fights me." So I said ’OK. Let’s do that," Donaire explained to me in our first interview. "What made it mandatory from this point on was that it was so difficult to get that thing signed. It was so hard to get that single signature signed as promised that they were going to do it. So to me, it was fishy. There was a lot of stalling. There was a lot of fishy stuff going on and so I said ’You know what? If they want me the next time, the next guy that I am going to fight, I am going to make this mandated. I am going to mandate drug testing not only because it’s good for [the sport] but it’s about time to make it really part of boxing."


For Donaire, his anti-doping stance is not about what it can get for him. Despite losing his sponsor, Victor Conte, who quit the team just a few days after my first interview session with Donaire, Nonito told me in a statement that he planned to continue doing VADA testing year round. The two, in his mind, are not connected anymore. His anti-doping stance is something Donaire plans on maintaining throughout his career and he’s not asking anyone to call him a hero or the leader of the movement. This is simply his choice and gift to his fans.


“I am taking a stand on my island. This is what I needed to do. This is what I believe. If it comes to the point that it makes me [a hero]  . . . I mean, whatever I can do to help, I owe a lot to boxing. It gave me everything that I have and whatever it may be, if there an organization that makes it happen for clean fights, I am all for it. For me, I make that stand and be strong with my belief, my theory of boxing and life that you have nothing to hide. I live my life that way. It comes down to that. If people see me to be that type of person then that’s good. I hope other fighters will do the same,” said Donaire.  


Both Donaire and Conte declined to elaborate on their split and that request is being respected.


As for the fight, Donaire’s thoughts on Rigondeaux initially were about his lack of big fight and world class experience. The Cuban fighter is a double gold medalist with an amateur record of close to 400 wins against a dozen losses. He won a world title in just seven fights yet is merely 11-0 (8) to Donaire’s 31-1 (20). Still the Cuban appears to have thunder in both fists, lightning in both hands and feet and high boxing I.Q. 11 fights or not, he’s going to be an issue and yet Donaire seemed relaxed about him.


“That’s the funny thing. I guess a lot of people do look at it as a tough fight but I feel he’s not at that level,” assessed Donaire. “He’s never been to a point where he fought guys like Darchinyan or Montiel. But then again, when I had ten fights I was knocking guys out. I was giving world champions a hard time in sparring. So there again, I better not let my experience get the best of me. Sometimes I think of it ‘He doesn’t pose me any threat.’ Yeah he has that big punch but what else does he have? Darchinyan had a bigger punch. Montiel had a [higher KO ratio]. So in my mind I was more of like not so much underestimating him. Maybe because it’s just the beginning of the game and I haven’t seen his fights yet. That can change within a week or two. That mentality.  But for now my mentality is to get in shape and pretty much not looking on with him or what he has yet until maybe we get to study him. For now I’m kind of like ’It’s a fight? It’s a fight."


Donaire studies opponent’s fight tapes during camp but doesn’t get married to what he finds there. It’s more of an excavation where he hopes to find perhaps a “tell” or a tendency to exploit.


“I don’t really study guys because every time I fight I try to expect something,” he explained. “I just go in there and they just fight me the way my raw mentality is. So meaning that I’ll fight my fight and they have to fight my fight rather than expecting what they’re going to do and I fight their fight. That’s why I don’t ever study my guys but it’s good to look at fights [sometimes] because I watched a few fights when I fought Darchinyan. Just to see what their overall technique or where they put their weight most or how they counter and stuff like that. They’re patterns. I don’t want to get too in detail where I expect but just to get the mentality of how they will fight so that when I go in there it’s nothing new.”


As prepared as you can be for a fight, everything else you didn’t expect likely is going to happen. Donaire understands that fully so rather than prepare for certain moves or expect specific mentalities, he prepares for as many eventualities as he can. Then he enters the ring open to whatever may come.


“It’s usually more what game plan they give me and I work from that,” explained Donaire. “And I usually I have a lot of counters in my mind ‘If this doesn’t work then I will work with kind of counter.’ I always have like three or four of the same type of counter and if they don’t work then I think how I can go about it and do another type of style. I go out there and watch what [the opponent does.] I’m more of an eye guy. I’m out there and I kind of pay attention to what they do. How their chin is up or how they jab or how they throw their straight or how they move.


“Mainly the first thing I will do in all my fights is capture the speed of the punch, the speed of your foot, the distance of your body,” continued Donaire. “The distance of your counters and I usually can figure that within the first round except with Nishioka because he was not eager to do anything but at the same time he wasn’t giving me anything. So it was hard to build upon. Like with Narvaez, it was hard to figure somebody when they aren’t giving me things at me. Those are difficult fighters. If Rigondeaux does that I kind of have that experience to go about and just win it with I can do rather than what he is not willing to do.”


For some boxing fans, that might be the problem with this fight. Both Donaire and Rigondeaux are natural counter punchers to the core. The fight likely will come down to who decides to lead and how well they are able to do that.


“I think I have always been that type of fighter where I will make you pay for mistakes you make,” said Donaire of his counter punching origins. “I think I got that kind of mentality because [fighting] was always self-defense. They taught me self-defense. If somebody gets in your face on the street, you let them hit you first. But of course don’t get hit but the moment that they throw you can go and tee off on them so that’s always been in my head and I think I brought that in the ring. I let them do what they need to do and I retaliate from that point on.”


That was clearly in evidence vs. Pasillas and in particular with De Leon who participated in six of Donaire’s final eight rounds of sparring.


A natural southpaw, De Leon is fast of foot and hand at 135 pounds and he tested Donaire every step of the way.


It should be noted those steps are taken on the Undisputed’s particularly soft ring surface. Moving around it as I waited for Donaire to arrive for sparring, I was immediately struck by how deep my feet sunk into it the surface. It felt like those stress balls made of memory clay. Each fighter present remarked how my surprised reaction was the same as theirs the first time they stepped into Undisputed’s ring. To a man, each fighter said it worked their legs so intensely that they would feel like they were flying on a normal surface ring. Moving around the ring for two rounds, I believed them.


De Leon was aggressive yet intelligent in his approach, feinting, stepping in and out ala Rigo. And when one opened up, so did the other. The session was heated but respectful and that didn’t change when Pasillas, an absolute brick house of a featherweight who gave no quarter that final Friday afternoon, entered the fray.  It was clear the youth of these two young boxers invigorated the 21 year boxing vet.


“These guys are incredible fighters and they will be incredible professional fighters,” Donaire told me afterward. “The difference is these guys, I think they are better than Rigo. They move better than Rigo and they both counter punchers so one thing is they give me the bets work where I am gasping for air every round. So that’s where I want to be. I already know how to fight a counter puncher. These guys are counter punchers and they can get the best out of me. Even though these kids are still learning, they do a good job playing games with me. Rigo is going to be doing the same thing. These guys gave me different looks. Different kinds of counters.”


Donaire talked about the difficulties facing southpaws.


“You always want to be wary with a head butt or a knee. With Erick De Leon, we kept stepping on each other’s foot and we keep trying to get to the outside. He keeps trying to do what I am doing. We both end up in the same spot. I usually step first so he usually steps on my foot. I get there first but he steps right where I am so he steps on my foot. So that’s why it’s not a big problem if it happens. I can always shift my ways and my weight and my body. Even if he steps in and throws that straight left hand which a lot of people do. They step on your foot and throw that but I know how to counter off that. So if they do try to play game with me, bring it,” said Donaire.  


The lead voice in Donaire’s corner on fight night is Trainer of the Year Robert Garcia who acts as a third expert eye, the finishing touch on a team that consists of Mike Bazzel and Brian Swartz, each of whom handle strength and conditioning and boxing training.


“Robert is a big part of the team. As much as he is not here he is the leader of the team in terms of that. He is a knowledgeable guy. He’s an experienced guy and they look up to him. These guys they work well with me. They are like my brothers. They have my best interest. Robert and I have a respect relationship. A family relationship but at the same time, what he does for me is amazing. Robert will always be part of the team,” Donaire explained. The way he carries himself, when everyone gets rowdy, Robert is going to sit everyone down and say ’Listen. This is what we are going to do. Don’t play their games.’ That’s how Robert is.”  


While Donaire handles game planning his own fights, Garcia will also implement things he wants tried in the fight and make adjustments on the fly throughout. The catch is that he is in camp maybe two or three times each fight. Donaire said he was not bothered by it and Garcia, who was at Friday’s session seemed comfortable as well. Watching the team work, there appeared to be harmony.


The sudden departure of Conte, who brought Donaire to VADA and introduced him to hypoxic training, sprint work with Remi Korchemny as well as providing his SNAC supplements including personalized supplementation on fight night has to be a shock to Team Donaire. No one really seemed to want to discuss it with more than a “It’s too bad” shrug or a prepared statement. While the hypoxic machine Conte supplied remains in the ring at Undisputed, Korchemny (a Conte team member) and the personalized supplementation are gone. For this camp, Donaire was able to do one sprint training session with Korchemny, incidentally the day we interviewed. How a modified training regimen and fight night routine will affect Donaire, no one can say.


But life is about staying focused on the present and future and Donaire appeared to be doing that.


“I believe that I have always been that type of person; that life and death. I have always felt like it’s my last day on Earth; that kind of gladiator mentality,” Donaire told me in that early March session days before Conte left. “That’s why I fight with all my heart. I don’t ever disregard my opponent. But having a kid, it’s the same mentality. I just need to focus more on the boxing world but at the same time I am training harder than before, I think.”


Donaire told me that he tends to envision the fight and its various scenarios before actually fighting. If you can’t visualize success, it will never be attained.


“You have to. When you create that imaginary world, you kind of call it out. So when you set that type of cinematic tone in your mind, somehow you’re comfortable with whatever situation because you feel like you already been there. For me, it’s just kind of visualizing what you can do to make that happen. So for me, I always have a different type of scenario so I already know what it is going to be. But again it is a different situation when you enter that ring.”  


As for Rigondeaux and what Donaire expects now that he had a whole camp to look at him, he said “From the way my sparring and from the way he is, he is not a very good defensive fighter. He is a good offensive fighter. He is good defensively because of his countering. But I’m in the same boat. I am good defensively because of countering and being able to see the punches. And you saw in the sparring today, if they open up its going to be an early night. But again, I can’t say much because you can analyze outside as much as you can but inside there, anything can happen. And that’s what we’re here for. We’re here preparing for 20 rounds.”

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