Boxing's most powerful promoters are poised to lock horns in a dispute over a highly coveted Filipino superstar.
If this sounds familiar, it is, because less than five years after Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank sued each other in a battle for the rights to Manny Pacquiao, history seems about to repeat itself. Golden Boy announced the signing of bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire Jr., on Wednesday, though Top Rank chairman Bob Arum insists his company has a valid contract with Donaire.
Donaire vaulted into stardom on Feb. 19, when he knocked out Fernando Montiel in the second round of an HBO bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas to win the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization 118-pound belts.
But not quite a month after the biggest victory of his career, Donaire left Top Rank and signed a deal with Golden Boy.
"We have a valid, enforceable contract, and we'll pursue our legal rights against Donaire, Golden Boy and anyone else who is involved," Arum said Wednesday. "We are absolutely confident we will prevail."
Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer said Golden Boy is confident Donaire was free to sign with it. He said Donaire's representatives approached him and informed him that they considered Donaire a free agent and were soliciting offers for a new contract.
Schaefer said after his lawyers gave him the green light, he pursued Donaire.
"Once he declared he was a free agent, we became interested," Schaefer said. "Who wouldn't be? I'm not an attorney, but we have a very good legal team and they agreed with Nonito's legal team and with their position, which paved the way for us to make an offer."
Arum said Donaire signed a contract with Top Rank in late June 2008 that was for three years and that included a one-year option. He said the contract included a provision that extended the terms if Donaire was suspended. Arum said Donaire had several medical suspensions, which are routinely doled out by state athletic commissions after fights, that have lengthened the contract.
Donaire's manager, Cameron Dunkin, failed to return several phone calls or text messages seeking comment. Dunkin, one of boxing's elite managers, has a number of fighters with both promoters. Dunkin has long had a close relationship with Top Rank and once had an office in Top Rank's suite.
Schaefer said Dunkin negotiated the contract on Donaire's behalf.
"Cameron signed the deal," Schaefer said. "He's Nonito's manager and he clearly has the trust of Nonito. Cameron is a very capable, great manager. I know doing this puts him in a difficult situation, because he has fighters with each of us, but this is what free agency is all about.
"I'm sure the Cleveland Cavaliers weren't thrilled when LeBron James didn't sign with them again, but that is what happens in free agency. When an athlete reaches free agency, he can go where he wants."
Donaire said after his win over Montiel that he would like to unify the bantamweight belts. Anselmo Moreno has the World Boxing Association belt and Joseph Agbeko holds the International Boxing Federation title.
Agbeko defends his title against the Golden Boy-promoted Abner Mares on April 23 in the finale of Showtime's bantamweight tournament. A win by Mares would set up an easy unification bout for three of the four titles between Donaire and Mares.
"There are some big fights at bantamweight out there for Nonito and he has the opportunity to move up in weight, as well," Schaefer said. "We didn't sign him just because we wanted to match him with Abner, because there is no guarantee Abner will win that fight. We think he will, but it's far from certain.
"But we signed Nonito because he is one of the best fighters in the world and he puts on exciting fights that people want to see. He's on everyone's pound-for-pound list. Those are the kinds of guys we want to promote."
Whether he will get the chance, at least in the short term, is probably going to be up to a judge or arbiter Daniel Weinstein. Golden Boy and Top Rank settled their suit over Pacquiao in 2007 after agreeing to arbitrate the matter with Weinstein. Arum said Weinstein still has jurisdiction over interactions between the companies.
He said Wednesday that he has left the matter in the hands of his attorneys and that legal action will be filed as soon as is reasonably possible.
"We have a very clear, very solid contract and we wrote a letter advising them of that," Arum said. "I am absolutely confident that we will prevail and that Donaire will finish out his contract with Top Rank."