Nonito Donaire still has plenty left in the tank but this is Ryan Burnett's time to shine against a legend of the fight game
World Boxing Super Series bantamweight quarter-final: Ryan Burnett (19-0) v Nonito Donaire (38-5) (tonight, 9pm, streamed live on WBSS website, Facebook page and YouTube channel)
THE booming music aside, a hush descended upon the Lomond Auditorium as a gaunt Nonito Donaire took to the scales shortly after 5pm yesterday. Despite insisting that he was making the bantamweight limit of 118lb fine, anxiety still hung in the air as he moved to centre stage.
“Nonito Donaire,” called master of ceremonies Tuuka Koistinen before another few seconds’ pause, just for effect.
“…one hundred and 17 pounds and seven ounces.”
Phew – we have a fight, and tonight Donaire will box at bantamweight almost exactly seven years since he last did so. The ‘Filipino Flash’ told us earlier in the week that he was a man of his word, that he hadn’t missed weight in his career, amateur or pro, so who were we to doubt?
Ryan Burnett, on the other hand, was never a concern and the smiles that followed a preliminary check with trainer Adam Booth told you all was well in the north Belfast man’s camp. He registered 117.8 on the scales.
Given all that has gone before in the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), expectations are understandably high – and tonight’s match-up could turn out to be one for the ages.
Indeed, in terms of overall quality, the bantamweight division might just be the most competitive yet. Japan’s 17-0 superstar Naoya Inoue packs dynamite in his fists and has made the early running with a stunning 70-second stoppage of former world champion Juan Payano, while the tricky, awkward Zolani Tete awaits the winner of tonight’s contest after seeing off Mikhail Aloyan in Russia three weeks ago.
But who will he meet? Due to his age – Burnett is nine years younger than Donaire – and the fact the ‘Filipino Flash’ is coming down from featherweight, there is a general feeling that the 26-year-old will grind down his aging opponent to add the WBC Diamond belt to the WBA strap he already holds.
Yet there are plenty of other factors to take into account.
It is undoubtedly a risk for Donaire to drop two divisions to box at 118lb for the first time in seven years, especially considering he turns 36 in a couple of weeks’ time and has been on the road as a professional since 2001.
But that also shows he is not in the frame of mind to coast towards the end of his career. A former Ring Magazine fighter of the year, Nonito Donaire could have filled his boots by taking easy fights in far-flung locations at higher weights, cutting down on the stress of gruelling weight cuts and trading on his name before sailing into the sunset.
But he isn’t. Instead he has thrown himself right into the middle of a hugely competitive division, and tonight takes on the number one seed in the WBSS. You cannot question his desire to make an impression and show the world that he still belongs among the elite.
Also, although Donaire hasn’t boxed at bantamweight since late 2011, it is a much more natural weight class for him. Indeed his only loss from 10 bantamweight outings came in his second-ever fight back in 2001, a five round points decision defeat to Rosendo Sanchez that can be easily disregarded 17 years on.
Fighting Carl Frampton at featherweight last April, he looked slightly fleshy when compared to the nine stones of pure muscle packed into the Tigers Bay man’s smaller frame.
In the days leading up to that fight, he was walking around at the 126lb weight limit.
And yet, although Frampton deservedly won by a wide margin on the cards, almost every round was competitive. Unfortunately for Donaire, the lethal power that led him to world titles at four different weights didn’t quite travel up with him.
When he caught Frampton with a trademark left hook in the 11th round, ‘The Jackal’ was buzzed but managed to regain his senses. Donaire is used to seeing men hit the deck when he connects with a shot like that, as the knockout of the year gongs from 2007 and 2011 suggest.
Frampton is as solid a featherweight as you are likely to come across too; that he was rocked to his core shows that, while some of the zip and electric speed from his earlier days may have deserted Donaire, the power in the left hand certainly hasn’t.
However, as Frampton proved, Donaire can be outworked and outmanoeuvred. Burnett and his trainer Adam Booth will no doubt have noted how, after some even early rounds, ‘The Jackal’ took control in the second half by dominating at mid and long range.
Too often Donaire was flailing hooks into mid air or waiting that split second too long in the pocket, allowing Frampton to retreat after landing crisp, accurate, eye-catching shots to body and head, while constantly changing the angle of attack.
The ‘Filipino Flash’ may be the taller man with the longer reach again but, like Frampton, Burnett is as strong as an ox and can box comfortably on back foot or front.
That Donaire’s veteran coach Kenny Adams seems to believe tonight’s opponent is little more than a brawler with a limited skill-set appears at odds with the fighter most of us have watched through the years.
Perhaps Adams had just seen the pictures of Burnett’s battered and bruised face after those victories over Lee Haskins and Zhanat Zhakiyanov and drawn his own conclusions.
The reality is that, despite the cuts and the claret, Burnett proved in those fights that he has enough ring intelligence to adapt to any kind of opponent. Haskins was slippery but Burnett managed to find a way to do damage, while he mixed it up beautifully against Zhakiyanov – controlling from the outside but also dominating the phone box-style exchanges close in, taking away the Uzbek’s greatest strength.
Giving away three-and-a-half inches to Donaire tonight will not bother him too much either. With his wide stance, the 5”4 Burnett will likely try to stay low and force the Filipino to reach for his shots, allowing Burnett to step back and counter, using his supreme footwork and clever upper body movement.
Doing damage to the body must also be a priority against an older man coming down in weight.
Patience is a key part of Burnett’s armoury though and, when choosing to close the range, he needs to be wary of the stinging uppercuts that caught Frampton clean in the fifth and seventh rounds.
‘The Jackal’ was fit to brush those off but how Burnett reacts if, and probably when, Donaire lands a left hook on the chin, or a solid uppercut, will be telling. That said, there is nothing to suggest that Burnett - who has yet to feel the canvas in his unbeaten 19-0 pro career - can’t handle whatever comes his way.
He has been in against some big hitters in recent times, Haskins in particular, though probably hasn’t faced anyone who possesses the kind of one-punch power Donaire brings to the table.
Much will depend on how much the weight cut has taken out of Donaire. He has certainly looked fresh this week but, at 35, coming down two divisions is a big ask.
Tonight’s WBSS quarter-final could follow a similar pattern to the Frampton fight, with Burnett possibly having to come through a few nervy moments before his superior fitness sees him take control from the mid rounds, out-working Donaire down the stretch to claim a points victory.
Do that, and a return to Belfast is on the cards. March 9 at the SSE Arena has already been provisionally pencilled in for a mouth-watering semi-final showdown with Tete as Burnett bids to bring the mad, brilliant World Boxing Super Series roadshow back to his home town.