People tend to forget that Rocky loses in the end. Though filmed as a moment of triumph, when Sylvester Stallone’s eponymous dipshit is monosyllabically shrieking the name of his sort-of girlfriend, the ring announcer can very clearly be heard declaring Apollo Creed the winner via split decision.
Now, “Rocky” is obviously just a single entry in a series of mostly-bad movies, and Nonito Donaire, despite continuously mounting evidence to the contrary, is just a mortal human soul, but the point still remains: not all losses are created equal.
Moral victories often suffice when actual ones aren’t possible. Every so often though, the joy of simply finishing on your feet renders the plus-one to your loss column irrelevant.
For the majority of his hall of fame career, Donaire was the one handing out those losses. Fighter of the year honors in 2012 and highlight-reel knockouts of psychopathic Armenian boogeyman Vic Darchinyan and long-reigning Mexican champion Fernando Montiel cemented Donaire’s place in lower-weight lore.
Time, however, takes pity on no one. As the years caught up to Donaire, so did the defeats. The wins still came but they were hard-earned. No longer able to rely on his preternatural reflexes or his bullet-fast hands, Donaire rode his legendary power all the way the finals of the World Boxing Super Series Bantamweight Tournament on DAZN. It was a dream scenario for an aging fighter but to quote Detective Rust Cohle, “Like a lot of dreams…there’s a monster at the end.”
That monster came in the form of undefeated Japanese sensation Naoya Inoue. When the two were announced to meet in the tournament final it was hard not to notice a palpable sense of fear among the general public for Donaire’s safety. No one had gone the distance with Inoue since Obama was in office, and a fighter closer to 40 than 30 certainly wasn’t expected to buck that trend.
Donaire, though, has made a career of bucking trends. He bucks them so hard. He pins them down and bucks them right in the….
Alright, I’m done. No need to get the hose. I’M FINE.
Merely surviving Inoue is no easy ask. Defeating him? Impossible. So what could Donaire do to even give himself a chance?
Simple. He would do what he’s always done.
As the opening bell rang, the intrigue initially lay in whether or not Donaire would make it out of the first round. Inoue had fought less than seven total rounds in the previous two years, and it’s not because his opponents caught the flu. When he hits someone, they go.
For Donaire, however, this looked like just another day at the office. Come out, see what your opponent has to offer, and adjust accordingly. Cautious but not guarded. Aggressive but under control. Adorable but kind of bald.
In round 2, Donaire landed a left hook that opened a cut over Inoue’s eye. It would continue to bleed for the duration of the fight and some scar tissue will look nice on Inoue’s otherwise unmarked, prepubescent little boy face, but it was never in any danger of interrupting the fight.
Inoue would wrest control of the fight in round 3 with sharp, digging hooks to the body that slowed Donaire’s momentum ever so slightly. Both guys were landing heavy shots but the sense that Inoue was keeping his big guns holstered was hard to ignore. What would happen when he finally whipped em’ out?
In round 5 we had a chance to find out, and the answer was, well, kinda nothing. Inoue was certainly able to move his man back and Donaire’s poker face likely belied the actual damage these punches were doing, but he was able to withstand them in a way few before had. It was a big round for Inoue, and he was beginning to break away on the scorecards, but Donaire had planted his flag and he wasn’t going anywhere.
As the blood continued to flow over Inoue’s eye, courtesy of Donaire’s focused attack, he began to show increasing signs of previously unseen mortality. As the seconds ticked down in round 9, Donaire would put that corporeality on display for all to see with a massive overhand right that temporarily turned Inoue’s face into something resembling a Garbage Pail Kid.
“You see, Timmy, when a fist and a face love each very much, they slam into each other in super slow-motion and that’s how memes are made.”
Inoue would survive the scariest moment of his career and it set the table for an 11th round straight from the depths of hell.
With six minutes remaining in the fight, both guys decided to introduce each other to some shit they’d never seen before. Inoue focused his attack on Donaire’s body, and early in the round a nasty left hook to the liver forced his aging opponent to take a knee. Few expected Donaire to beat the count, and even fewer expected him to survive the round if he did. But Donaire, as pure a fighter as this sport has ever known, rose to his feet and continued plodding forward. He would not only survive the round but he’d get his licks in too. Good god, what a round.
As the final bell rang, the decision wasn’t really in question. Inoue had done enough to fend off the attack of his elder opponent but as last stands go, you couldn’t ask for a better finish from Donaire. The scorecards read 117-107, 116-111 and 114-113, all in Inoue’s favor, but they were largely academic.
Everyone expected Inoue to win. Shit, everyone expected him to annihilate Donaire. What no one expected though was how good of a fight this was. Up-tempo from the first round and intense, high-IQ boxing until the last.
You’re likely to see a few “Inoue got exposed” takes in the coming days, but they’ll only come from galaxy-brained idiots who don’t know what they’re watching.
Inoue had a tougher out than expected but sometimes that happens when you fight a living legend. He’ll be a better fighter for it, which doesn’t seem possible. He’s amazing.
If this is indeed the last time we see Nonito Donaire in a boxing ring, his next stop will be the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has done everything you can do in this godforsaken sport, and done it with grace and humility. His legend will only grow after he hangs up his gloves.
Inoue will likely join Donaire in Canastota one day, such is his otherworldly talent. When that day comes, fans will no doubt look back on the day they got up before the sun to watch a king hand off his crown to a prince.
Nonito Donaire is the most human of fighters. His legend, however, is not. As he approaches boxing immortality we’re reminded once more that it’s the fighters that define this sport, not the other way around.
Legends never die. They’re simply reborn.
(Photo via Sky Sports)