The recent fight of Nonito Donaire Jr. against Ruben Garcia Hernandez almost went unnoticed among fight fans, as if it was never meant to be hyped up as the Filipino’s way of demonstrating that he still has what it takes to win another world championship.
Donaire (38-4 with 24 knockouts) collared the World Boxing Council (WBC) Silver Featherweight (126 pounds) championship, which to me looks like more of a second-tier title compared to a full-fledged world title.
Donaire’s last outing before facing Hernandez (22-3-1 with 9 KOs) was a unanimous decision loss to Jesse Magdaleno in the undercard of the Manny Pacquiao-Jessie Vargas bout. The Filipino lost the World Boxing Organization (WBO) junior featherweight title to Magdaleno.
No longer ranked by The Ring magazine at both junior featherweight and featherweight (126 pounds), Donaire is currently facing an uphill battle to regain prominence so he can get a crack at a world featherweight title.
The current world titleholders at featherweight are a tough bunch judging by their records: Leo Santa Cruz, the World Boxing Association (WBA) champion (33-1-1 with 18 KOs); Gary Russell Jr., WBC champion (28-1 with 17 KOs); Lee Selby, International Boxing Federation champion (25-1 with 9 KOs); and Oscar Valdez, WBO titleholder (23-0 with 19 KOs). All are ranked by The Ring for the division.
At 34 years old, time may be running out for Donaire and he and his camp must play their cards very well. In the Hernandez fight, Donaire looked like he has a lost a step, while his speed has diminished a bit. Or maybe the Filipino is adjusting to his new fighting weight, and he might be able to regain his old reflexes and his speed as he piles up one to two more tune-up fights at featherweight.
Donaire fought once at featherweight in October 2014 for the WBA Super crown but lost via sixth round stoppage to knockout artist Nicholas Walters (26-1-1 with 21 KOs). It was the first time the Filipino was stopped in a fight.
Now that Walters is campaigning at junior lightweight (130 pounds), Donaire need not worry about having to facing him again.
So who is the best opponent at featherweight that Donaire should face to really bolster his stock? My answer is Abner Mares (30-2-1 with 15 KOs), who has held titles in three divisions and is currently campaigning at 126 pounds.
Boxing analysts saw a marquee fight between the Filipino and Mares as early as 2011. But Donaire’s loss to Guillermo Rigondeaux in April 2013 and Mares to compatriot Jhonny Gonzalez in August of the same year suddenly made their supposed marquee fight unpalatable.
Donaire holds a two-inch height and reach advantage over 31-year old Mares, whose last fight was a split decision win over Jose Andres Cuellar (28-2 with 21 KOs). Footages from the fight show Mares still has snap in his punches and trades blows just like a typical Mexican boxer. Mares is also ranked No. 5 in The Ring featherweight list ahead of compatriot Valdez who holds the WBO crown.
Maybe Donaire should first take on an opponent not ranked by The Ring before taking on any of the fighters ranked by the boxing magazine at featherweight. That may look like “cherry picking” but the Filipino losing to a world-class opponent in his next fight could pave the way for his retirement from the sport.