On Saturday, HBO offers one spectacular fighter and one spectacular match-up. In a boxing year like 2014, that’s a mix you’ll take gladly — perhaps, too, though, one you’ll take masochistically, in a desert environment where any oasis will do, and where one with pear trees is like heaven.
The spectacular fighter is, of course, Gennady Golovkin, matched against a sturdy middleweight contender in Marco Antonio Rubio, who is outmatched largely because he’s fighting a killing machine, not because he’s terrible. On the undercard, featherweight Nonito Donaire is off his spectacular prime, but has so much natural nitroglycerine that even the diluted variety he packs these days is potent, while his opponent, Nicholas Walters, has the raw, untamed variant.
GENNADY GOLOVKIN-MARCO ANTONIO RUBIO
Let’s cut directly to the chase: It’s hard to envision any scenario whereby Rubio can win this fight. That he’s taking it speaks to his warrior spirit, and it’s one of the assets he brings to the ring. He might even have more of it than anyone Golovkin has yet faced — it’s at least comparable to the level brought by Gabriel Rosado and Kassim Ouma, each of whom gave Golovkin a harder-than-usual challenge. Being hard-as-fuck, being able to take a punch, not backing down; these are things that can prolong one’s stay in the ring with Golovkin.
It’s another thing to actually win against Golovkin. The man who does it will probably be one or more of the following: larger, as in, a super middleweight; an ultra-slick spoiler; or someone who can hurt Golovkin in return. Even then, there’s no guarantee. Rubio has none of these qualities, nor even a smidge of them, probably. His defense isn’t atrocious, but he can’t outbox anyone from distance for any length of time — when he gets trapped along the ropes, as against Domenico Spada in his last fight, he gets hit. Guess who’s good at trapping his opponents on the ropes? Rubio will be good enough to land some counters, sure, but Golovkin has shown that even his off-balance counters of his opponents’ counters can be knockout blows. He hasn’t lost by stoppage since 2009. But Golovkin now looks a far superior fighter than Kelly Pavlik, Rubio’s last stoppage conqueror.
The fact is, there’s nobody at 160 who has a feasible chance of beating Golovkin. He’s too complete — only speed is lacking. His power is astounding, his offensive boxing skills incomparable in the division. His defense isn’t A+, but it more than does the job, and he can hardly be budged with a clean shot. Against Daniel Geale, a clean shot didn’t even prevent a counterpunch knockout. He has to be seen to be believed, and even then he’s hard to believe.
This is a showcase fight, by no fault of Golovkin’s own. For a fair number of 160-pound contenders, Rubio would be a credible challenge. For Golovkin, it’s a wipeout, with only the length of the encounter in question. It’s true that Golovkin is showing signs of moving past mid-level stardom and hardcore fan favorite into something more; fights like Rubio will only inch him forward in that regard, but absent a huge fight against someone with a big name or who is viewed as a major threat, inching is all he can do.
NONITO DONAIRE-NICHOLAS WALTERS
Now we’re talking. The featherweight division is deep with intriguing yet flawed talents. Donaire and Walters are amongst the best of them, with both possessing elite explosiveness.
Donaire was, for many, the Fighter of the Year in 2012. He is not the same fighter then that he was now, and in some respects, he wasn’t even the same fighter in 2012 as he was earlier. The talent is uncanny — few fighters in this era have been blessed with his combination of speed and power. His counter left hook was, and remains even now, one of boxing’s most fearsome weapons.
Yet as he has moved up in weight, as his emphasis on things other than boxing has increased, he has become a diminished fighter. The speed is still there, and the power, mostly. It’s that he doesn’t look as sharp. He is more hittable. He doesn’t have the same knack for timing. He gets hit more often, he is more stationary, less acrobatic. Perhaps he is overcautious. He can be made tentative more easily, partially a result of encountering a number of opponents who know that the best tactic to avoid being knocked out by Donaire is not to engage him with gusto, lest the counter right hand spell their doom.
Walters is a different case in many regards. I predicted that Simpiwe Vetyeka would have just the right style to capitalize on the lesser version of Donaire that exists today, with his awkward style and naturally bigger frame. Walters has some awkwardness, just not so much as Vetyeka that it defines him. And Vetyeka won some rounds, before the shameful ending of their bout. He just couldn’t stay off the ground, as most fighters can’t against Donaire.
We’ve not seen much wobble in Walters, although to be fair he hasn’t faced as big a puncher as Donaire, nor as many big punchers as Donaire has, and Donaire has been stunned about a total of once, against Guillermo Rigondeaux. Walters, surely, is the physically biggest puncher Donaire has ever faced, and the most athletic. Donaire once tamed a prime flyweight puncher in Vic Darchinyan, but 12 pounds makes a big difference. Between the two of them, Walters handled Darchinyan best in the past year, albeit with Walters benefiting from a softened up version of Darchinyan thanks to Donaire’s rematch KO.
Walters’ flaws are, in some measure, related to inexperience. His stance is too wide, many of his punches too wild. His defense is solid when he places an emphasis on it, but he will give Donaire options to counter when on the attack. Still, he can punch, and then some. He has a top KO of the Year candidate against Darchinyan, a category of year-end awards where Donaire once excelled. Donaire’s KO power is mostly in his left hook; Walters appears equally conclusive with either hand.
Walters is and should be a popular pick to topple the more well-known fighter. We don’t know what Walters can do against a well-schooled power puncher with a track record of resilience, is all, because we’ve never seen him do it. Meantime, he’s facing an opponent whose heart hasn’t appeared to be fully invested in boxing since he won Fighter of the Year, and who is coasting on natural talent and muscle memory to a large degree. Walters should be the first to hurt Donaire significantly, which should in turn be enough to score a knockdown or two and win more rounds en route to a close decision victory.
A win for Donaire proves he’s still one of boxing’s true elites, not an elite fighter on his way out. A win by Walters propels him from “obscure puncher to keep an eye on” into full-fledged arrival.