Not all mismatches are judged equally, it seems. Here’s a blind taste test: Imagine one of the five best fighters in the world is as much as a 20/1 betting favorite in his televised bout on HBO. Are we talking about earlier this month back when middleweight champion Sergio Martinez took on longshot Darren Barker, or Saturday night when bantamweight supernova Nonito Donaire takes on longshot Omar Narvaez? Trick question! It’s both. Yet the howls of protest from some quarters that greeted the network when it aired Martinez-Barker haven’t reemerged into so much as a squeak of indignity from those same quarters for Donaire-Narvaez. Oh, this topsy-turvy sport.
I feel the same way about Donaire-Narvaez as I did Martinez-Barker, as a match-up: Based on available options, neither mega-talent could do much better. And I am equally in awe of both boxers and their comparable Molotov cocktails of speed and power, enough that I don’t mind seeing them take the occasional less-than-optimal fight. Donaire might not have achieved as much as fellow Filipino and pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao (whose latest 24/7 debut episode is something we accidentally left out of this week’s schedule, as the poster suggests). But just watching Donaire blow out elite, world-class fighters like Fernando Montiel in his last fight, it’s not so hard to say based on pure talent that he could be the best fighter alive. That he’s fighting Narvaez isn’t cause for much celebration; that he’s back in the ring in 2011 after a promotional feud between Top Rank and Golden Boy that sidelined him is.
Narvaez is no slouch, of course. He’s the best junior bantamweight in the world, so perhaps the parallel here is actually Martinez-Serhiy Dzinziruk, when Martinez reached down a division to take on arguably the best talent there. Narvaez is probably undefeated in part because he’s not faced the best available men in his division in the time he inhabited them, but he’s beaten some pretty good boxers in his day. It’s just that Donaire is so paranormally talented, he’s scarier than anything else you’ll see on Halloween next weekend.
And in some ways, this Donaire fight is a mild improvement over the things that have recently gotten fantasy promoters to carping. For one thing, Donaire-Narvaez surely doesn’t cost as much as Martinez-Barker. For another thing, it was silly last weekend that two East Coast fighters in Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson ended up in a West Coast venue (not that East Coast fighters can’t do well in Staples Center). It’s slightly less silly that Donaire, a West Coast fighter based out of California’s Bay area — where Filipinos are concentrated more highly in the United States than anywhere outside of Southern Californaia — is fighting on the East Coast, because at least it’s in New York City, whose metropolitan area has the fourth-highest number of Pinoys domestically. And for all the mockery Dawson got for being a boring interview and not bringing anything to the promotion of Dawson-Hopkins… well, actually Narvaez brings even less. Not only is he unknown here, he’s not doing any interviews whatsoever.
And there’s one other way Donaire-Narvaez isn’t as good as Martinez-Barker: I could imagine a way Barker could make things competitive, and I was right. Donaire-Narvaez has all the makings of a ritual sacrifice, to me, but let’s consider the match-up’s specifics anyway.
When Donaire was lining up opponents for this fight, the choices were Juan Mercedes, Sebastian Gauthier, Christian Esquivel, Tshifhiwa Munyai, Silence Mabuza, Alexander Munoz and Narvaez. Among them Narvaez is by far the most accomplished. Some of those opponents would have been flat disgraceful. Other opponents outside that list simply weren’t available. The winner of the Showtime bantamweight tournament was obligated to fight once more on Showtime, and because they had a draw in the tournament finale, Abner Mares and Joseph Agbeko are doing a rematch — and because Donaire was obligated to fight once more on HBO, that couldn’t be his next fight anyway. It’s too bad that this is Donaire’s last fight at bantamweight, because Donaire vs. the winner of Mares/Agbeko II is one of the most important fights that can happen in boxing. Anselmo Moreno would’ve been a good option, but he turned down the fight when offered it earlier this year. Vic Darchinyan and Donaire simply haven’t been able to get a deal done, whoever’s most to blame. After that, Narvaez was as good an option as remained unless Donaire moved up to junior featherweight, not that there were many good options there, either.
That is damning Narvaez with faint praise. He’s earned it. His seven-year, 16-title defense streak at flyweight was built heavily on the most permissive alphabet strap title defense schedule in all of boxing. He was a top flyweight at the same time as names like Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, Darchinyan, Irene Pacheco, a prime Lorenzo Parra, Jorge Arce, Daisuke Naito and even Donaire. Who are the best people he’s fought at either fly or junior bantam? Brahim Asloum, Carlos Tamara and Luis Lazarte before they got their marquee wins, Adonis Rivas, Rayonta Whitfield and Cesar Seda (in his last fight, one some didn’t think he should have won on the scorecards). Compare those two lineups and ask yourself which is better. On the other hand, his best win may have come in the amateurs, when Narvaez beat Joan Guzman, something that hasn’t been done since. That speaks to his ability to handle a ridiculously powerful and fast boxer, but it was a long time ago.
What assets does Narvaez bring to the ring, then, besides a rare tuft of chest hair for a boxer? I’d say his defense is his biggest. He can avoid punches with upper body movement, the shoulder roll or a high guard. He has good footwork on both defense and offense, where he’s good at leaping in with punches at odd angles. As a southpaw, he automatically steps into the ring capable of making his opponent uncomfortable. He isn’t a pure boxer, but he does have skill, with an arcing lead left and a counter right his two favorite shots. And for a defensive fighter, he’s not afraid to mix it up when needed.
On the downside, he is not just small, not just tiny, but damn near microscopic. At 5’3″, he was short for a flyweight. He’s super-short for a junior bantamweight. He’ll be like one of the children from “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” fighting a Cheerio against Donaire, who’s big at 5’7″ for a bantamweight. Narvaez handled Seda’s similar size (5’6″), but with some trouble. He’s got more problems, besides. At age 36, he’s ancient for a small boxer. He just isn’t fast at this age and his current weight, and I doubt he’ll be all that fast at bantam. And I don’t see any real power or snap in his punches — he’s knocked out some good fighters, like Whitfield, but his knockout rate is inflated by poor competition, and since moving to junior bantam full-time, he doesn’t have any KOs.
And then there’s Donaire. This is a fighter at the peak of his powers, coming off the best win of his career — a jaw-dropping KO of Montiel, one that rivals his jaw-dropping KO of Darchinyan — who’s so good that he’d be a heavy favorite against even the best available opponent in the bantamweight division, let alone one division lower. His counter left hook might be the most fearsome punch in the whole sport. He’s faster than lightning and more powerful than thunder. If he got hit full-speed by a bull, he wouldn’t go down. Scientific tests have proven that he is technically well-calibrated to make his Lamborghini speed/power combo as good as they can be on defense and offense, down to his wheels, which are excellent.There is no chin behind his facial hair, only another fist. Et cetera.
You can’t find a flaw in Donaire outside of his tendency to, on occasion, lose concentration. Like certain special fighters, he is so comfortable in the ring, so astoundingly good, that a tendency to get bored leads him to sometime get tagged when he shouldn’t. The most he’s been hit in a long time is when he spent some time fighting as a southpaw against Hernan Marquez just because he wanted to see how he’d do. In the past, trouble making weight has hindered him once he gets in the ring, but there are no reports of him having difficulty making the 118-pound limit. And there have been times where he seemed not to take his opponent too seriously in the build-up to a fight and fared slightly poorly because of it.
The most static I can imagine Narvaez giving Donaire is if Donaire has to take a couple rounds to find Narvaez because of his defensive skill. Competitively, this figures as no more challenging than an exhibition bout for Donaire, but it might not be the ideal showcase of his insane talent if Narvaez spoils. Also, Narvaez has always had a terrific chin, so maybe Donaire doesn’t get the spectacular knockouts for which he has become well-known.
But probably, he does. I wouldn’t be surprised if Donaire doesn’t get that knockout in the 1st round. I’ll give it until the middle of the fight, though. From there, I hope he can be talked into fighting the winner of Mares-Agbeko II and becoming the lineal division champ for at least a minute, although a decent fight against Toshioka Nishioka or a marketable one against Jorge Arce awaits him at junior featherweight, a weight class at which his omnipotence is less assured.