Ever since Filipino Marvin Sonsona won a junior bantamweight title belt over the weekend, things have gotten a little wacky in the Philippines, and in particular in the household of another Filipino junior bantamweight titlist, Nonito Donaire Jr., whose estranged father trains Sonsona. It’s a story that includes shaky facts, family melodrama, national pride and — why not? — a touch of dengue fever. It’s hard to say what, if anything, it all adds up to, but there are telling, piecemeal nuggets of information to draw from it all.
- First thing that happened, obviously, is Sonsona beat Jose Lopez to win a junior bantamweight alphabet title. This is significant stuff in the Philippines. They’re always looking for “the next Manny Pacquiao,” and being a youngster with explosive power who clearly has room to grow into different weight classes and win different titles put Sonsona in the “Hey, he’s a little like Manny Pacquiao!” category.
- But he just so happens to inhabit the same division as the other “next Manny Pacquiao,” Donaire. Naturally, that is going to make people wonder about whether they’d fight or not. There can only be one “next Manny Pacquiao,” right? And yes, I find this “next Manny Pacquiao” stuff kind of silly, as does Donaire, who doesn’t even try to pretend like it’s something he wants or is capable of. But it’s natural in a country that is really still relatively new to manic boxing fandom, and it’s natural in every sport, basically — how long was America looking for “the next Michael Jordan?” There are no “next” anyones. The answer people in line for “next” whomever always give is, “I just want to be the first” me. It’s a cliche, but it’s the only real answer.
- Cue the Donaire family drama. Sonsona is trained by Donaire’s dad, and when asked whether Sonsona would fight Donaire Jr., Sr. was quoted as saying: “[Sonsona] is ready to fight him [Donaire] now.” It was a bold thing to say, and it may have changed things for Jr. Jr., you see, has caught some hell in the Philippines for being on the outs with his father. It’s a culture that thinks young men ought to be deferential to their fathers, and no matter who was to blame in reality for the fallout, Jr. was catching flack. However, it can’t have looked good on the archipelago for Sr. to have said that. If Sr. was willing to have one of his fighters try to beat up his son, doesn’t the evidence of Sr.’s culpability begin to overcome the assumption of Jr.’s blame? I personally have always felt Jr. was less to blame, by the way. If he doesn’t want his dad as his trainer anymore — for any reason — that’s his right as a boxer. Trainer/boxer-father/son relationships are always complicated anyway. Look at the ups and downs between Floyd Mayweather, Shane Mosley and Roy Jones and their respective father/trainers. Sometimes, business and family don’t mix. If a boxer severs the business side of that relationship, maybe it’s for the best.
- Unless that’s not what Sr. meant. Sr., says Sonsona promoter Sampson Lewkowicz, was “taken out of context.” I’m not sure if he was actually taken out of context — “I was taken out of context” is the #1 excuse for all people who regret saying something out loud, and putting the remark in context in these cases rarely if ever changes the meaning — but I suppose it’s possible. After Jr. fought Rafael Concepcion, Sr. weighed in on Jr. in a way that indicated very little real hostility, even though he acknowledged the pair still wasn’t talking. Of course, it could have been a public relations maneuver, too. Not only was Sr. potentially running afoul of Filipino standards on father-son relations…
- …But he was also potentially running afoul of loyalty to country. Donaire, Jr. quickly said he wouldn’t fight another Filipino — sort of, which I’ll get to in a second. In leaped Sonsona promoter Lewkowicz, who said no, Sonsona-Donaire wouldn’t happen at any cost, because Filipinos shouldn’t fight each other. I actually think there are good reasons for Sonsona-Donaire not to happen. Sonsona isn’t seasoned enough; Donaire would probably counterpunch the hell out of him. Donaire has other challenges that are more worthy before Sonsona. I do, however, always hate it when top boxers in a division have barriers to fighting one another. I hate that the Klitschko brothers won’t fight one another, even if I understand it. I hate it for whatever reason it happens — rival promoters, whatever the hell. But if Donaire-Sonsona ended up being THE fight in the junior bantamweight division and it didn’t happen, it would reflect poorly on them before the rest of the world. Mexicans fight each other all the time. Americans fight each other all the time. Australian, Japanese, you name it. Why shouldn’t Filipino fighters? It doesn’t strike me as a good enough reason, that two people have the same heritage. And I get that there’s a cultural difference here. But to me, it speaks to the immaturity of the boxing culture in the Philippines. (By immaturity, I don’t mean that Filipino boxing fans behave like children or anything [although some do]; I mean that the CULTURE is new, and as such doesn’t behave like the boxing culture of other countries where the sport has been more ingrained for longer.)
- It gets one step worse, too. Since both Donaire and Sonsona have belts, were they to fight one another, the Philippines would end up with one fewer fighter holding a belt, a concern cited by many involved parties. Again, I think this speaks to the immaturity of the boxing culture in the Philippines. Let’s take this to its logical extreme. There are four belts per boxing division, minimum, more if you count “interim,” “super,” “regular” and “in recess” belts, thanks the the alphabet sanctioning organizations. What if eight more belts were created per division, hypothetically. Let’s say Filipino fighters held all 16 “championships.” Should they still not fight one another? How much do paper titles truly matter if they’re so easily obtainable? Sonsona — who initially said he would fight “anyone” in response to a question about fighting Nonito Jr. — backtracked from his original stance, talking about not fighting a fellow “world champion,” but to make that phrase plural for one division is contradictory to the meaning of the term “champion.” In America, there are boxing fans who pay attention to, and respect all these, belts. Not, however, THAT many. Most fans look down on them; some, such as myself, favor the Ring magazine belt policy of one lineal champion per division. But in the Philippines, I get the sense that belt collections — any belt will do, no matter how diluted — matter far too much.
- Donaire, Jr. recovered from dengue fever. As of yesterday on Twitter, he announced he was out of the hospital. This actually doesn’t have much impact on the debate here. It just made the introduction to this post sound neater.
- Ultimately, I think Donaire, Jr. has the right attitude about this. He said, specifically, through his wife, that he wouldn’t fight another Filipino “when there are others to fight.” This leaves open the possibility that Donaire WOULD fight another Filipino, but only if it was the only fight that made sense. I understand reluctance toward fighting a countryman; it’s not anyone else’s attitude around the world, but I understand. But I think boxers’ first allegiance should be, once they reach the elite level, to fighting the best possible opponents. For now, I wouldn’t blame Sonsona for chasing Donaire. But Donaire has better potential opponents, higher-ranked dudes. Maybe some day Sonsona-Donaire SHOULD happen. But the wrong reasons shouldn’t prevent it.