One weekend after HBO debuted its “Thrilla in Manila” documentary about the legendary third fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, four fighters who are anything but heavyweights will meet at the scene of that historic battle in the Philippines. But don’t let their diminutive size — none of the four will weigh more than 112 pounds, and combined will equal almost exactly what Ali and Frazier weighed together that night — fool you. Two of the men, Nonito Donaire and Ulises Solis, are arguably top-20 pound-for-pound talents, and the other two, Raul Martinez and Brian Viloria, are just plain talented, albeit with question marks. The match-ups are also such that for $24.95, a reasonable price for a pay-per-view night of fights, I expect to get big-sized bang for the buck.
It’s also fairly remarkable that the card is even happening at all. To say it’s had some problems would be an understatement: Postponements, opponent switcheroos, network-hopping, unsigned contracts and even the threat of outright cancellation have plagued the event. For instance, that Donaire won’t be fighting Fernando Montiel on Showtime robbed fight fans of what could have been one of the year’s highlights. All things considered, though — like the fact that Martinez is a pretty good substitute — I think this pay-per-view is worth ordering, and I intend to order it. That means I’m going to preview and predict it, too.
BRIAN VILORIA – ULISES SOLIS
Viloria is Hawaiian, but since he’s of Filipino descent, he comes in with home court advantage. Beyond that, it’s hard to think of what other advantage he has. If it seems like I’m discounting his chances of winning, I’m not. Allow me to explain.
In 2005, Viloria looked like a young man with the world at his feet. The 2000 Olympian had won a junior flyweight title with stunning ease, knocking out the considerably more experienced Eric Ortiz in the 1st round. With his charisma, power, amateur pedigree, speed, trainer (the brilliant Freddie Roach) and fantastic nickname — “The Hawaiian Punch” — Viloria was getting the kind of press 108-pound boxers dream about. But rather than ascending to stellar new heights, Viloria began a long plummet from which he still hasn’t recovered. He lost three straight fights on the scorecards, two against an opponent in he was picked to defeat, Omar Nino Romero, although one of those losses was later overturned when Romero failed a drug test. In all three fights, plus another fight prior to the losing streak, Viloria showed a disconcerting lack of urgency, spending long stretches doing basically nothing. In his last five rebuilding-style fights with his third trainer, the underrated Roberto Garcia, Viloria has roamed all the way up to flyweight and junior bantamweight, and has scored two knockouts against journeyman competition. He has shown flashes of his “old” self, but still sometimes reverts to counterpunching instead of being aggressive, revealing that an indecisive streak remains. His team, though, says his confidence, and enjoyment of the sport, is fully back.
Solis is the more proven commodity of the two. He’s beaten more high-level contenders than has Viloria, and while he’s had brief moments when he’s gotten carried away brawling where he’s shown a loss of focus, he has been significantly more consistent in beating that better competition than Viloria has been in beating lesser competition. There are very few questions about Solis, and so excellent has he been that the major question involving Solis is, “Could he be the one to beat the best little man of this generation, Ivan Calderon?” He has speed and power, too, knocking out a common opponent, Jose Antonio Aguirre, against whom Viloria reportedly coasted aimlessly. He has a more distinctive identity than Viloria, working a very stiff jab, playing excellent defense and mixing in big shots off his stick. It’s why I have less to say about him than I do Viloria. The Solis story is fairly simple: He’s really good.
What makes this fight intriguing is that Viloria might have the overall physical edge, and given his Olympic resume, he’s also not some uneducated guy who gets by on good genes. On a good night, I can see Viloria catching Solis during a careless moment and ending the evening early. Even on a less-good Viloria night, I see a fight that is competitive on paper. But I go back to the other advantages of Solis. Given physical abilities that are comparable, Solis is the more reliable performer. Viloria is like a smaller Kendall Holt — you have to like what he’s capable of, but the X factor is what’s in his head. Another X factor is whether Viloria is comfortable at the weight. I’ve seen it said that he left junior flyweight because he was having trouble getting down to 108, but on his Twitter page, Viloria says he’s doing just swell in that category. We’ll see. But I’m not taking a gamble on him. I see a competitive fight to start, and although both men have been wobbled at times, both have also demonstrated good chins. Even if Solis gets in trouble, I picture him rebounding to take control and pull out a clear decision win.
RAUL MARTINEZ – NONITO DONAIRE
If Donaire is to be picked off by a talented youngster like Martinez stepping up in class, the time is now.
To say Donaire has had some drama of late would be something of an understatement. There are the distractions inherent to the troubled card he is headlining, but there are other besides. Some family feuding — some gossip rag-fueled according to Nonito and his wife Rachel Marcial, some not — has left him with his father no longer training him, and relations that are still tempestuous. In his father’s place is a kind of semi-training team made up of a committee of Penalosas, a distinguished fighting family in the Philippines not known for its collective training abilities as much as it is for its in-ring performances. He’s sparred a reported 150 rounds compared to his usual 40 or so, which has raised questions of whether he has overtrained, and besides, he wanted to move up to junior bantamweight after having trouble in his last fight getting down to 112 pounds. It’s a wicked cocktail of red flags, although whether it’s enough to eclipse the wicked cocktail of Donaire’s considerable speed and power is another matter.
Of potential benefit to Donaire in this time of uncertainty is that his opponent, Martinez, has never fought a world-class opponent. Donaire has knocked out a man, Vic Darchinyan, who now resides in the top-10 pound-for-pound. He’s defeated quality contenders. Martinez’ most established opponent, Isidro Garcia, had lost to a who’s who of contenders by the time Martinez fought him. Martinez’ last opponent, Victor Proa, whom he knocked out in one round, had an unbeaten record built against a long list of boxers with losing records. When Martinez took an incremental step up in opposition, his power evaporated, with the Proa knockout amounting to just his second in eight fights. That doesn’t mean Martinez isn’t dangerous. When he hurt Proa, he finished him. Those who have followed his career say he shows a certain seriousness that underscores that tendency — he is a driven fighter. He’s fast, and a pretty good all-around boxer, although, again, those who have followed his career more closely than I have say he’s also very hittable. I’ve seen a number of clips of Martinez, but not enough to endorse or repudiate the accounts.
I really do think Donaire is playing with fire with some of his career moves, and Martinez might be just the one to burn him. I like Donaire as a fighter — he’s one of my favorites — and having interviewed him once, as a person, too. But I question his lack of a real trainer; he told me he didn’t even think he needed a trainer, per se, which is confidence bordering on foolishness, to put it politely. I also wonder why, if he acknowledged having serious trouble making weight in his last fight, he’s taking this fight at 112. I know he has a belt there, but the belt isn’t worth it if he has trouble holding on to it because he’s not fighting with a body meant for 112. And the complete reversal in rounds sparred is troubling.
Ultimately, Martinez very well might burn him, but I don’t see enough there to predict the upset. Martinez doesn’t seem like the kind, based on what I’ve seen and read, to wilt in the spotlight, so if he gives Donaire a scare or two, not only would it be unsurprising, it might even be good for Donaire. Martinez’ chin has held up but is totally unproven against elite competition, and sometimes for a fighter stepping up as far as Martinez is, chins get tested real fast. I think Donaire will knock him out in the middle rounds of a second competitive bout — let’s say, KO-8.