That both Nonito Donaire and Andre Ward would both become elite, pound-for-pound bests in boxing was improbable; that they would help each other obtain prestige in the sport is exemplary.
If you had walked into US Karate and Boxing in Hayward, California in the mid-nineties, you might have glanced on a skinny Filipino teenager with big ears sparring in the company of peers. The boy was Nonito Donaire and the group included his brother Glen, Andre Ward from San Francisco and Andre's brother Jonathan.
Ward, a year and a half Donaire's junior, would someday become the WBA Super Middleweight champion, but at US Karate and Boxing he was a pupil, learning the sport under the tutelage of his father Frank, a former undefeated amateur fighter.
Frank would help tune the Donaire brothers' fiscal knowledge and in the process tap Glenn as the "Filipino Bomber" due to his heavy-handed style and Nonito the "Flash" due to his love of comic books coupled with his speed.
Early on Glenn was the superior boxer, besting Ward on many occasions, yet Ward noticed something special in Nonito.
"He's was the total opposite of Glenn," Ward said. "Glenn was a power puncher, he would stalk you and try to take your head off. Nonito also wanted to take your head off, but in a more graceful way. He did everything wrong - right. He was very unorthodox and lightening fast. He did what you didn't think he was able to do."
Donaire is more modest when talking about how his style developed, which he said formed with the desire to land punches coupled with the fear of getting hit.
"I didn't have much power then, it wasn't until later in my career that I would decide to work on hooks" Donaire said. "I was very fast with my feet and would move quickly in and out to land and then avoid punches."
For Donaire, turning pro was not a thought.
At the conclusion of his time as an amateur, Donaire was ready to leave the sport behind.
"I wanted to go to school. I didn't care about boxing, it was my father who decided to bring me to a professional level," Donaire said.
Donaire, not wanting to upset his father, obliged and in 2001 joined the professional ranks, but while training for fights Donaire was apathetic and as the ring loomed closer, apathy turned to fear.
Donaire said that walking to the ring sometimes made him feel like a condemned criminal walking into an ancient Roman arena.
"There was that feeling like I could get my arms or legs cut off. I had that fear in my heart and my body," said Donaire. "I fought with a feeling of desperation."
Donaire said his father, as a trainer, would push him too far, expect too much and that the life of a professional boxer was, to Donaire, a joyless one.
Donaire lost his second professional fight, a five-round decision to Rosendo Sanchez at the Pacific Sports Center in Vallejo, California.
"I knew I could have taken this guy if I had done my best," Donaire said. "But I didn't care about boxing."
Donaire recalled that the worst thing about losing the decision was looking into the crowd after the fight and seeing the disappointment on the faces of his family and friends. Donaire hated the way they looked at him.
"I quit boxing at that moment," Donaire said.
Ward, who had kept in touch with Donaire, saw that he needed help, saw an opportunity to sit and talk with his old friend.
For Ward, the talk was an obligation, the kind that comes out of years of knowing someone.
"It was a friend being a friend, and for him to remember and acknowledge that is an awesome thing," Ward said. "I did it as a friend and I feel like he would do the same thing for me."
To Donaire, Ward's friendship went beyond a pep talk. Donaire said Ward would go to gym with him to help spark his passion. Ward would also encourage Donaire to take the bus from San Pablo to nearby Castro Valley for physical therapy.
"It was kind of like a stepping stone for me," Donaire said. "There were a few times when Dre knew I did not have the money to get going and he would slip me a twenty."
While trying to help Donaire outside of the ring, Ward and another close friend of Donaire' s from the amateurs, Robert "The Ghost" Guerrero, led by example inside of it.
"Seeing Andre and myself rising through the ranks inspired him, made him believe he could climb back in the ring and make a good career," Said Guerrero.
It was these close ties that got Donaire back in and kept him in the ring, notching win after win until his big fight, a 2007 meeting with undefeated IBO and IBO flyweight titlist Vic Darchinyan.
Darchinyan, had beaten Glenn a year earlier, broken Donaire's jaw in the process. The fighter, known as the "Raging Bull," was brash and disrespectful leading up to the fight with Donaire.
"Darchinyan got me angry and when I get angry I try to think more," Donaire said. "I wanted to hit this guy, hurt this guyand make him bleed."
Darchinyan was undefeated having knocked out 9 of his 10 prior opponents, and Donaire was placed as a 7-1 underdog.
Darchinyan had a unique offense, an awkward open style which had bewildered, lulled and flattened most of his opponents. Donaire's style, unorthodox by Ward's estimation, neutralized Darchinyan as the "Raging Bull" could not find an opportunity to land, could not find the vision to move out of Nonito's wheelhouse.
"I knew I could beat this guy with just my jab, but I wanted to prove something," said Donaire.
Darchinyan, more worried about righting his stunted offense, did not see the punch coming.
"I saw him knock out a lot of guys with that left hook in the amateurs," said Guerrero.
Just as Ward had inspired Donaire with his ring work in the past, Donaire's knockout of Darchinyan paid the favor back. Ward went directly to the gym after watching Donaire fight to train for his upcoming bout with Francisco Diaz.
"Nonito always had the potential to be a great fighter and to see him climb up the ranks as an amateur and a pro gave me strength," said Ward. "When he knocked out Vic Darchiniyan, seeing him do that made me want to go train that night because I was getting ready for a big fight as well. Seeing him win a world title was big. I knew if a guy I came up with could do it, I could do it as well."
Donaire said that Ward called him that night and told him about the motivation the knockout had on him.
"That is the way it is with me and Dre," Donaire said. "If I get higher, he wants to get higher. If he gets higher, I want to get higher. We are like brothers. He just makes me want to do better."
On Saturday night, when Donaire steps into the ring to defend his super bantamweight belts against two-time Olympic champion Guillermo "El Chacal" Rigondeaux, Ward will be in attendance, but not in his increasing role as an HBO ringside commentator. Ward will be there as a spectator, in support of an old friend.
"He comes to my fights, he goes out of his way to support me and I want to do the same for him," said Ward. "It's important."
- Sports & Recreation
- Nonito Donaire
- Andre Ward