In and of itself, Golden Boy Promotions’ announcement Wednesday that is has signed one of the world’s best fighters, bantamweight Nonito Donaire, would constitute major news: The promotional whereabouts of a superstar fully coming into his own always counts as a big story.
But when paired with the fact that Donaire had been (and might still be) with Top Rank, the other biggest promoter in the sport, an outfit that has been locked in mortal war with GBP in a way that has riven the sport nearly in two, we’re talking about a story that has long-reaching destructive potential beyond Donaire.
There’s what it means for Donaire, and there’s what it means for boxing as a whole.
Until Top Rank put Donaire in with Fernando Montiel last month, it would be hard to argue that the company had done a good job with him. They had Donaire since 2008 and he hadn’t fought one elite opponent, not one. Donaire made no secret of his desire to fight Montiel and other top opponents, which is as commendable a trait as you could want in a fighter. There came a moment where Donaire and his manager, Cameron Dunkin, agitated publicly for a big fight. Only then did they get it.
So maybe his profile was boosted by that pay-per-view in the Philippines in 2009. Maybe headlining all those pay-per-views helped build up his name some. But it also resulted in some backlash. He was losing standing with fans over not fighting top opposition. At best, he had plateaued. Things finally got on the right course when the Montiel fight happened, and in more ways than one. The performance on HBO introduced Donaire to a wider audience, and the impression he made with his sensational knockout win had turned him into one of the most buzzed about boxers there is, one that HBO wanted back ASAP. After the fight, he even resolved his ugly family dispute, one that limited his appeal in the traditionalist Philippines.
For as good as things have been going, there was at least one way he was held back: Top Rank wouldn’t make a fight with Golden Boy-promoted Abner Mares if he won the Showtime bantam tournament, and Donaire had spoken out about wanting to become the real champion of the division, something that might not be able to happen sans Mares.
There are other theories/complaints. Donaire wanted to be on the undercards of Manny Pacquiao, and Top Rank didn’t want that, thinking that it would be Filipino audience overkill, since Pacquiao already draws nearly 100 percent of that audience, whereas for Donaire it meant broader exposure. There’s a theory that Donaire was worried about being in Pacquiao’s shadow with Top Rank, but that strikes me as silly; he signed with Top Rank knowing Pacquiao was their main guy, and asking to be on his undercards is not the kind of thing I would do if I was worried about being in someone’s shadow. Then there’s the blame his wife Rachel will get in some quarters. She’s a strong influence on Donaire’s career, no doubt, but I’d worry that boxing’s tendency toward chauvinism informs any allegations against her over all this sans evidence. Maybe she meddled too much, maybe she didn’t — but let’s not jump to those conclusions yet. There’s also a contention that Top Rank didn’t get Donaire enough fights, but that goes to the crux of the legal dispute that we’ll discuss later.
For whatever mistakes Top Rank had made with Donaire, the company seemed to be turning things around in their promotion of him, if you exclude the potential boycott on a Mares fight. It had a couple viable junior featherweights (Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr.) and especially some featherweights (Juan Manuel Lopez, YURIORKIS GAMBOA!) who would make for good-to-highly appetizing future opponents. In the short-term, it tried to make a fight with Anselmo Moreno, the next best option at bantam besides the winner of Mares-Joseph Agbeko. It was offering Donaire half a million for his next fight and talking about million dollar paydays down the line.
The question then becomes what it is GBP can do for Donaire. There’s Mares, obviously. Then what? If you look at the big names they can deliver at 122 or 126, they are few, since there aren’t many big names at 122 and the two big names at 126 are with Top Rank. A bantamweight stay isn’t out of the question: There’s Moreno, who is rumored to be considering an offer from Golden Boy, and some of the other people who are in the Showtime tourney outside of Mares that aren’t promoted by Top Rank if they can get some bounceback wins, like Yonnhy Perez. And once you get to 126, there’s really only Chris John, who’s with Golden Boy but could be very old by the time Donaire moves up that high. Ultimately, then, there arguably isn’t more for Pacquiao at Golden Boy than there was at Top Rank. Maybe that changes. Maybe that develops.
But there’s another thing that could happen: Donaire could be put on the shelf for a while as the courts consider his situation. If that’s the case, then this switch becomes actively bad for him, rather than ranging from “not much better” to “somewhat worse.” Michael Marley, the boxing reporter with a legal background, considers that unlikely, but it’s a risk.
Yes, yes, this is going to get ugly fast. Golden Boy and Top Rank were already in a Cold War. Things kicked off when Golden Boy officials raised scurrilous accusations while negotiating for a fight on behalf of Floyd Mayweather about Pacquiao using performance enhancing drugs, which understandably inflamed Top Rank. Since then, Top Rank has kept the feud going by refusing to work with GBP whereas GBP has indicated its willingness to work with Top Rank. But if it was a Cold War before, it’s about to go nuclear.
Top Rank is going to sue GBP as hard as it possibly can. We’re talking, super-sue. Their argument is that they have a valid contract with Donaire. They say that, contrary to Donaire’s claims, they didn’t meet the requirements for minimum number of fights per year only because Donaire was “physically suspended,” reported elsewhere as “injured.” I don’t remember these injuries, which maybe is my fault for just not paying attention (I try to), but it’s possible they were kept quiet, but the extent and nature of those alleged injuries an interesting angle I haven’t seen much reporting on out there that could be determinative to any court outcome.
GBP also says they’ve looked this over legally or they wouldn’t have done it. They’re already talking up a May fight on HBO, legal action be damned.
Politically, GBP has made no illusions about their desire to sign every free agent they can, even when other promoters allege that what they’re doing is closer to theft. Top Rank has done some of that, too, although less than GBP. But while GBP has talked about being willing to work with Top Rank, they had to know that this would effectively kill their chances of that happening again anytime soon. This either means A. They’ve given up (and I could see he stubbornness of Bob Arum driving them to such ends) or B. They didn’t really mean it. Whatever the case, it’s a confrontational move to go after a fighter that their rival claimed to have a valid agreement with, and it now shifts the largest measure of responsibility for the feud going forward to GBP.
It could spread, too, depending on the role of Donaire manager Cameron Dunkin — reps from both sides have claimed the allegiance of Dunkin, who has been silent today, and whichever promoter blames Dunkin over this might not want to work with him in the future. (Let’s not forget how much Arum refuses to work with manager Al Haymon, for instance.)
Whatever hope there was of resolving the GBP-Top Rank feud anytime soon just diminished significantly. This being boxing, rifts can heal instantly and inexplicably or they can fester for longer than most any human beings would allow them to do so. GBP and Top Rank once settled things after years of refusing to work together, with that feud caused, as Kevin Iole noted, by a promotional tug of war over anther Filipino superstar, Pacquiao. This development just stretched out the timeline for resolution of this latest version of the feud as far as the eye can see.