Top Rank Promotions unecessarily teased us and tormented us so long with the idea of an ultra-savory Nonito Donaire-Fernando Montiel fight that more than a few of us came to believe it was an illusion, never to be. As far back as late 2008, we’d been told this fight would happen. As recently as a couple months ago, I still didn’t think it would happen. Under the circumstances, it was hard to get excited about what, on paper, is easily one of the best fights that can be made in the sport.
But now it’s here. It’s coming up Saturday, in fact, on HBO. And it’s no more or less mouth-watering than it was back in 2008.
Yes, yes, yes, yes yes yes yes.
Now, since late 2008, Donaire has done very little of note. For all his talent — he owns one of the most explosive cocktails of speed and power in boxing — he hasn’t faced a world-class fighter for more than three years. He’s faced some contenders, some of them quality, but mostly he’s faced some men several divisions too small for him as he has moved up from flyweight to bantam. All the while, he’s looked sensationally overqualified and has proven a popular attraction among his Filipino people, albeit with a firm second-place finish behind national idol Manny Pacquiao.
Likewise, since late 2008, Montiel has done one big thing of note and very little else. He defied his promoter to go fight Hozumi Hasegawa on his home soil of Japan, knocking him out to produce the best win of his career. Otherwise, he’s faced an assortment of prospects and tomato cans, looking sensational at times and lackluster at others. All the while, he’s proven a popular attraction among his Mexican people, albeit less so than national idols like Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr.
But you still couldn’t come up with a better fight among little men if you tried. Both are among the standout talents in the lower ranks, and both have exceptional fighting brains to go with their power. You could argue that both of them are already among the 10 best fighters of any size. The winner is almost surely vaulted into the consensus top 5. They’re that good, and this fight means that much.
Regardless of their level of competition, both Donaire and Montiel have exhibited peak form of late. After struggling at first against Hasegawa, Montiel put a definitive end to matters by breaking Hasegawa’s jaw and forcing the ref to save him. After that, he demolished Rafael Concepcion, who’d given a variety of smaller men — including Donaire — a hard time. And after recovering from a bike accident, he returned to dispense with Jovanny Soto in short order. Donaire is coming off his own demolition job over Volodymyr Sydorenko, who had been highly-ranked prior to a lengthy layoff. It was the first live body Donaire had faced in a while, but against Manuel Vargas and Hernan Marquez, his two prior opponents, he shook off the struggles he had with Concepcion, who, to be fair, had come in well over the weight limit.
Examining Montiel when he’s on his game, it’s hard to find many flaws. He does basically everything well, on defense and offense. His money weapon is a left hook, which he can lead with — or counter with, as he showed with a sweet step-back knockdown of Concepcion. He has fight-changing power in that shot, and his right hand is nice, too, as Montiel showed when he finished the job against Concepcion. Of the pair, he’s more fundamentally sound than Donaire, and more experienced. The three best men he’s faced — Hasegawa, Martin Castillo and Mark Johnson — were all better at the time than the man who counts as Donaire’s signature win, Vic Darchinyan.
Even when he’s at his best, Montiel is perhaps too conservative offensively, prone to throwing single shots rather than combinations. In the past, he’s struggled with speed and length, which, wouldn’t you know it, Donaire has in abundance. When Montiel isn’t on his game? He doesn’t resemble a world-class fighter. He has fared poorly against quasi-contenders like Alejandro Valdez, whose size might have been part of the problem. He totally stunk out the joint against Jhonny Gonazalez, although that one has an explanation; he said later that he was overly concerned about moving up in weight and was therefore too cautious.
In terms of raw phsyical materials, Donaire has it all over Montiel. Montiel is of above average speed, but Donaire is blinding. After his last fight I couldn’t see for three days. I can’t imagine how long it took Sydorenko to see straight. Power-wise, Montiel has definitely grown into the weight, having stopped his opponent in five of six wins at bantam, but Donaire is naturally bigger and showed in his bantam debut against Sydorenko that he most certainly had carried his power up with him. Like Montiel, his best weapon is his left hook, although it’s almost always thrown as a counter and is kind of a hybrid uppercut. He’s also the better combination puncher of the two.
What could hurt him is that he’s more mistake-prone than Montiel, who seized on the one opening Hasegawa left him to finish the job. He’s often out of balance and sometimes gets far too casual with his defense, which is otherwise pretty good. Both Montiel and Donaire have proven punch resistance, but while Montiel got wobbled by Valdez at 118, Donaire hasn’t faced anyone at 118 who could really hurt him. If Donaire can’t take a shot from a powerful bantam, and he makes a big mistake, it could be over in an instant. That mistake-prone nature might have been mitigated by the addition of Robert Garcia to his corner, but fighting crappy competition for as long as he has may have convinced him he could get away with bad habits. His lack of fundamental soundness could, in some ways, work to his advantage, a la Pacquiao — with his punches coming from unconventional angles, they’re harder to anticipate.
This fight could be action-packed, but I think it might not be for a long while. Montiel has been respectful of top notch opponents, to a fault. Donaire is usually a bit more of a go-getter, but it’s telling that the reports out of his camp have him working on his jab. That suggests he intends to use his length to keep Montiel at bay, and it’s probably the right strategy. When Donaire opens up, or Montiel does — depending on whether, under cautious conditions, Montiel is too far down and has to change the plan, or Donaire wants to close the show — things could get interesting, but maybe not. Montiel against Hasegawa alternated tactics from one round to the next, trading between moving backward and coming forward. Donaire is himself capable of either style, which would neutralize Montiel somewhat if he decided to play hunter. That means that both men are going to have to get aggressive for them to mix it up for maximum fireworks.
The crux of the matter, I expect, is that Donaire should be too fast and too long for Montiel, despite Montiel’s better overall old-school technique. If Donaire boxes intelligently and doesn’t lose his concentration, he ought to be able to win. But if he has any lapses whatsoever, the fight becomes a toss-up.
There is danger here for both men in a battle where both are putting a lot on the line. Fortune favors the bold. The loser probably ought to still be considered world-class. But it’s the winner who will be in a class all by himself, and I think Donaire will be that man in a unanimous decision that is something along the lines of eight rounds to four.