These two fights on HBO Saturday night — Nonito Donaire-Jeffrey Mathebula, Kelly Pavlik-Will Rosinsky — weren’t on anyone’s wish list, but they do serve their purposes. Donaire, one of the best boxers in the world of any weight, and Pavlik, the fallen middleweight champion, get something out of this, and so do we, even if it’s nothing likely to send your socks zipping from your feet.
Donaire is, at least, inching up the competition ladder at 122 pounds, a division where he’s had just one fight, against fringe top-10 Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. The inches are going up in the competition, too; Mathebula is taller than Donaire by a hefty margin, unsual for a boxer who not so long ago looked like Super Mario on mushrooms next to the smaller men he towered over at flyweight, so there’s an interesting new competitive element at play and Mathebula poses a test of Donaire’s ability to keep moving up against bigger opposition. Too bad the competition is likely to resume a downward arc should he make it past Mathebula (the talk is of Jorge Arce next) in the frustrating pattern of Donaire’s matchmaking, where “moderately acceptable” and “mediocre” are far more common adjectives for describing his opposition than “exceptional,” with years of the semi-OK stuff followed by rare spikes of Donaire taking on a challenge that is worthy of his immense talents.
Pavlik has three reasons to be facing someone like Rosinsky, who himself is something less than a fringe top-10 super middleweight but not much less. Pavlik is a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his career, so in no way should he yet be taking on the kind of killers he was once facing, guys like Bernard Hopkins and Sergio Marginez. Rosinsky is a significantly tougher challenge than the other two men on Pavlik’s comeback tour. And this was a substitute fight after a modestly more appealing junior middleweight bout between Brandon Rios and Mauricio Herrera fell apart. Pavlik and Rosinsky both have proven capabile of putting on a good show, so besides marking Pavlik’s progress, we should get plenty of fists flying.
Still, both of these fights are something less than I would’ve liked, anyway, however defensible some of the circumstances. Donaire ideally would be in there with Abner Mares or Toshiaki Nishioka or Guillermo Rigondeaux. And Pavlik-Rosinsky would, in a perfect world, be served up to us via the website of promoter Top Rank, with Pavlik’s next fight — against an indisputably qualified contender, I would hope — the one on HBO. It’s forward movement for both men. But it’s in slow motion, halting progress like a fish swimming upstream.
NONITO DONAIRE-JEFFREY MATHEBULA
This is how rare it is that Donaire has taken on the best possible opposition: it has happened two times, total, in his career, actually. He shined in both occasions, against Vic Darchinyan and Fernando Montiel, like a comet. Those two knockouts are the foundation of Donaire’s esteem, although he’s beaten some other authentic contenders, too, from Moruti Mthalane to Vazquez to Omar Narvaez to Volodymyr Sydorenko to Hernan Marquez, although sometimes those men were moving up in weight to face him. At times, it’s seemed as though his promoters, first Gary Shaw and then Top Rank, have been more interested in milking him for his Filipino fan base as the “next Manny Pacquiao” than in actually making him prove he is worthy of such laurels.
And sometimes, like in his last two fights, he’s appeared less like a comet and more like a turbo prop plane — it’s been enough to get him from point A to point B successfully, but it’s a bit bumpy and less than impressive. It’s hard for anyone to look good against boxers deliberately turning down the temperature, as Narvaez and Vazquez were, and maybe as Donaire moves up in weight his stellar speed and power were bound to lose some of their shine. At any rate, he didn’t have too terrible of a time actually winning against Narvaez and Vazquez (I thought the split decision against Vazquez was a bit generous to the Puerto Rican), just a hard enough time to make you wonder if he was beatable by someone else who could be more effective while forcing Donaire out of his comfort zone. Donare is more comfortable countering with his beaut of a left hand than pressing the action, but he still was too fast on his feet and with his gloves, and too sharp with his reflexes, to ever be in much trouble against his last two opponents.
Mathebula does offer some trouble spots for Donaire. That height is tough to contend with, even if Mathebula is prone to giving it away by launching sloppy offensive assaults. He is, however, very good on defense when he’s not throwing those flurries. You would think such a big target would be easier to hit, especially since he is somewhat ponderous, but Mathebula has the whole array of defensive techniques, from sidestepping and ducking punches to catching with his gloves to keeping his head moving. And, while his punches are a bit sloppy, he has a diverse attack, like a decent jab/right hand, and a variety of odd punches for a tall fighter, like counter lefts to the body or uppercuts from the outside. He doesn’t appear to have big power, but he is capable of taking punches back if need be.
Mathebula has been good enough to keep things close with all the best boxers he’s faced, namely Malcolm Klassen (a draw), Celestino Caballero (a split decision loss) and Takalani Ndlovu (two bouts, one SD loss and another SD win). Donaire, though, is a better than all of them.
I don’t think Donaire will be able to be spectacular against Mathebula, and I can see Donaire losing an early round or three as he adjusts to Mathebula’s height and defense. But the more Mathebula opens up, the more Donaire will exploit the openings. And if Mathebula turns the temperature way way down, it’s going to be hard for him to win a decision backing up and reacting to Donaire’s aggression. Donaire wins this one by decision, probably in the nine rounds to three ballpark. And he’ll unify two alphabet titles in the division, which will mean something to some people, especially since the San Franciso 49ers’ Frank Gore will be carrying in Donaire’s current belt, yay.
KELLY PAVLIK-WILL ROSINSKY
There are two good stories here, but only one gets the completely happy ending. Pavlik has now had a stretch of his life and career unmarked by the kind of drama that once filled it — pulling out of boxing matches, reportedly getting into fisticuffs with his brother, racking up DUI charges, denying he was an alcoholic, hitting rehab. It was a sad thing to see Pavlik in such trouble, as he once was one of the best in the world, a legit middleweight champ, a fun show and the hero of working class Youngstown, Ohio to such a degree that Hillary Rodham Clinton talked about him on the 2008 presidential campaign trail. Seeing Pavlik get back to where he once was would be heartwarming, and a nice treat for the sport of boxing as a whole to have a white American among the elite, since that could bolster a fan base that has taken a back seat in the United States.
Rosinsky is more up-from-nothing than Pavlik, at least boxing-wise, as nobody really expected him to get here. He had a cool story about being an EMT in his day job, but clearly loves the sport — he even proposed marriage in a boxing ring after a fight last year. When he was shockingly competitive against Edwin Rodriguez on Showtime that fall (most scored the fight a draw, including myself, although the judges gave it to Rodriguez by wide margins), it wasn’t clear whether that was a knock on Rodriguez, but Rosinsky at least raised some eyebrows and made a few fans. When he beat fringe contender Aaron Pryor, Jr. in July, he proved he was more than a one-hit wonder, if nothing else, and he won the fight on a weekend around the same time Pavlik needed a future opponent, so the good story continued; Rosinky now had the biggest fight of his career.
I think the happy ending will be for Pavlik this time, though. Rosinsky is something like Pavlik’s last opponent, Scott Sigmon, only better — rugged, determined, too tough for his own good, not especially powerful and short compared to Pavlik. Rosinsky was adept at working his way inside against the taller Rodriguez and using sharper, shorter punches to outpoint him for stretches. Rodriguez in turn landed the heavier blows, and often in eye-catching spurts. But if Rosinsky is a better version of Sigmon, then Pavlik is a better version of Rodriguez. The only area where Rodriguez is better than Pavlik is in the speed category, but otherwise Pavlik is bigger, punches straighter, hits harder and has a more sustained attack.
The only way I see Rosinsky pulling this off is if the Pavlik we’ve seen in his too comeback fights has only looked that good because of the subpar opposition. If Pavlik is faded, or if his personal demons have resumed residence, or if it turns out he’s far more ineffectual at 168 pounds than we realized, then Rosinsky is the exact kind of guy to expose it all. Rather, I expect a back-and-forth brawl for a few rounds before Pavlik begins to pound Rosinsky badly. And Pavlik is the kind of boxer from whom a prolonged beating is particularly damaging; his hard, thudding punches sometimes don’t lead to clean knockouts, but rather the kind of damage that makes you cringe. Hopefully Rosinsky’s corner will pull the plug at the right time, if it goes that way. If not, it could be a particularly unhappy ending for Rosinsky.