Nonito Donaire is finally winning his critical acclaim, with many now considering him one of the 10 best fighters in the world. He is starting to get his spotlight, headlining his second consecutive pay-per-view card Saturday night. He is getting busier, fighting for the second time in 2009 after fighting only once in 2008. And he is climbing the weight classes, moving up to junior bantamweight where he will find an opponent, Rafael Concepcion, who is some kind of threat to him, as well as a fighter whose style makes for exciting boxing matches. What he isn’t getting: fights that are as big as his talent, on stages that are worthy of his skill.
But for now, atop “Pinoy Power 2,” Donaire is making due with the situation he has been dealt, and it’s obviously not all bad. He’s accumulating popularity with the Filipino-American market (pop. 4 million) and in his native Philippines, increasingly boxing-friendly territory. He’ll share a card with an excellent undercard bout — more promising, really, than his own fight — pitting Filipino featherweight prospect Bernabe Concepcion against experienced and savvy Steve Luevano. I don’t know if it’s worth $34.95, but the first “Pinoy Power” was, so I’m gonna pay the bill for this one too.
NONITO DONAIRE – RAFAEL CONCEPCION
It’s hard to believe, based on what we know now, that Donaire ever was thought of as “an opponent,” the guy brought in against Vic Darchinyan so that Darchinyan may shine. That 2007 bout should have made Donaire, and even today, it still counts as his arrival. He was so quick, and so powerful, and had such tremendous reflexes, and had such a good technical foundation — especially on offense — that he outclassed the highly-regarded Darchinyan. But he also showed a determination and complementary ability to resist Darchinyan’s power shots and bullying, and before long, Darchinyan was stumbling around, the victim of the best knockout of the year. Donaire got one more Showtime fight out of that, but a feud with promoter Gary Shaw led him to switch to Top Rank, and he stagnated. He hasn’t been on anything but small pay-per-view cards since.
He definitely got back on course against Raul Martinez in April, rebounding from a lackluster showing in late 2008. Trained now by the Penalosa family instead of his father, he looked leaps and bounds better than a good young prospect in Martinez who some people thought had a really solid chance of winning. Not even close. Donaire blew him out in four, knocking him down repeatedly, usually with that gorgeous counter left hook/uppercut hybrid of his. He got a little careless at times, probably his only flaw as a fighter, but when he regained his focus, he was right back on it. It was his last fight at flyweight, where he’d reeled off four straight knockouts, and he’s making his return to junior bantam for the first time since ’07. He certainly wasn’t the knockout artist there that he has been at 112, but then, he also wasn’t as good a fighter as he’s become.
There’s no other way to say it but that Concepcion is a class or three below Donaire. He doesn’t have a third of Donaire’s skill or speed. Jorge Arce, who got destroyed by Darchinyan, went life and death with Concepcion but ultimately beat him up. Those truths do not mean Donaire is an opponent who can’t endanger Donaire. For one, he has authentic power in both fists. For another, he’s a survivor who’s prone to coming back when he’s down or staggered (usually, by holding on for dear life even after the referee moves in to separate him from the fighter who just put him on his rear end). His power and tendency to rebound from getting hurt make him fun to watch. He is not without craftiness — his body blows sets up his late rallies, he’s not a bad counterpuncher and he’ll head butt or hit low if he can get away with it. His best win is against A.J. Banal, a highly-touted Filipino prospect who saw all of those qualities on display and was winning on the cards through 10 rounds before being knocked out. He’s also been at junior bantamweight for a while, a division where Donaire is a bit of an unknown. In his camp, they’re working on his biggest flaws — speed and defense.
Threat or no, Concepcion is an extreme long shot to win in my book. Yes, he could catch Donaire with a big shot, bigger than he’s accustomed to from flyweights, and knock him out if Donaire goes on one of his careless streaks. What’s daunting for Concepcion is that the level of opponent he’s been able to get to and hurt — slow, defenseless Arce and unproven Banal — don’t have the reflexes, speed or skill of Donaire. No amount of improved speed in camp will come remotely close to correcting that. Even if Concepcion hits Donaire with something big, Donaire has amply demonstrated he can take a punch, and taking a flush one usually wakes him out of whatever careless slumber he might be indulging. All the while Concepcion can’t connect, he’s also going to be getting hit by the far faster man, improved defense or no. It’ll add up pretty fast. If Concepcion makes it past the 6th, I’ll be surprised. But if Concepcion gives Donaire a fright at one point during the fight, I won’t be.
STEVE LUEVANO – BERNABE CONCEPCION
This one is significantly harder to call. I’ve been watching videos of both men for the past two days, and I still am not sure about my pick. For my pick record, it’s nerve-wracking. For my boxing fandom, it’s probably a good thing.
With Luevano, we know a lot more about what we’ll be getting. He’s a very sharp lefty boxer, long and lean, who throws punches fast and straight and can lead or counter. Despite his skill level, he has defensive deficiencies and, compounding those deficiencies, a beard that isn’t 100 percent reliable. He’s not particularly powerful, but he hits harder than his knockout record suggests, as he tends to score knockdowns in fights that you don’t score unless you can punch a little. What isn’t clear is whether we know which version of Luevano we’ll be getting. Sometimes, he stays on the outside and racks up points. He did it against Terdsak Jandaeng, for instance, and while he wasn’t able to stay off the canvas entirely, Luevano was able to win a very comfortable and boring decision. Other times, he decides to take the fight to his opponent. He did that against Mario Santiago, a powerful puncher who can box some, too, and Luevano ended up getting staggered numerous times en route to a fantastically enjoyable draw.
Concepcion is practically a baby next to Luevano, even though Luevano is a prime 28. Concepcion is just 21, and if you’ve been following the fate of recent extremely green Filipino prospects stepping up in competition, you’d be worried just on that alone. Banal and Rey Bautista have suffered major defeats when they’ve tried to make that leap. But Concepcion is neither of them. I think he’s better all around than that pair, who were primarily power punchers and didn’t have Concepcion’s speed nor probably his boxing skill. On the inside, in particular, Concepcion is very fast and throws punches that are crisp and crunchy. He’s a good counterpuncher who works well to the body, has quick and agile feet and demonstrates pretty good defense when he focuses on it.
From fight to fight, though, he varies, much like his opponent. It’s not because he has some cloudy identity. It’s because he’s so young that he’s still improving dramatically, some of which no doubt can be attributed to the tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach. He has been scoring knockouts increasingly as he has stepped up his competition, a strange trend that can only be explained by his advancing physical maturity — the acquisition of which is a phenomenon some boxing commentators have called (hilariously, to me) “man strength” or “man bones.” His major flaw is that he throws punches very wide from the outside, leading to defensive lapses. He also has a habit of starting slow and not throwing enough punches. Nor does he use his jab much to work his way inside, where he’s most comfortable. There are mysteries in that we don’t have much of a sense of how he handles elite fighters or fighters who can punch, since he’s not really fought either kind.
If Luevano decides to trade with this kid, I don’t think he’s going to like it. Concepcion is too dangerous in there, and Luevano too vulnerable. The fight will probably end up being the ol’ cat-and-mouse game, with Luevano trying to work his jab from the outside and land the occasional power shot and with Concepcion hungrily scarfing up any turf he can bite down on to try and get close. My instinct says Concepcion wins this fight. He’s faster than Santiago by my eye, but probably not the puncher he is nor the pressure fighter; still, that speed should allow him to connect on shots against the defensively vulnerable Luevano, maybe the kind that put Luevano down for good. Strictly using my brain, however, I favor Luevano. If he gets in trouble, he knows how to survive. His punches are straighter. He can outwork just about anyone, and Concepcion is prone to being outworked. I’m picking Luevano to win a decision, maybe a close one, but I’m n
ot doing it with a whole lot of confidence. This is a fight I can envision either man winning. As for the “how,” I’m rooting for it to be a good style clash, rather than an ugly one, to go along with the drama of not having any idea who will win.