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LAS VEGAS – It's not lost on Nonito Donaire, the World Boxing Association interim super flyweight champion, what it means to be a headline act at the Las Vegas Hilton.
This is where Elvis Presley used to star and where Donaire's name now adorns the hotel/casino's oversized marquee.
Seated upon the ring apron at the Top Rank Gym in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip, Donaire beams when the connection between with Presley is mentioned. Donaire was born in 1982, more than five years after Presley died in Memphis, Tenn., but he's a devoted fan.
"Thank you," he said in a mock Elvis voice. "Thank you very much."
Donaire, 27, dreams of one day fighting World Boxing Organization featherweight champion Juan Manuel Lopez and will have much to be thankful for if he gets the chance.
He's in many ways following the path blazed by his countryman, Manny Pacquiao, who began his boxing career at 106 pounds in the Philippines and is now the pound-for-pound king while competing at welterweight.
Donaire (22-1, 14 KOs) hopes to eventually make his mark as a three- four- or even five-division champion. He's got two under his belt – he was the International Boxing Federation flyweight champion before taking the WBA super flyweight crown – and he longs to take on the biggest stars at bantamweight, super bantamweight and, most of all, at featherweight.
Donaire, though, has a title defense to concern himself with Saturday in the main event of a Top Rank pay-per-view card at the Las Vegas Hilton. He was slated to meet hard-punching Gerson Guerrero, but will now face Manuel Vargas because Guerrero has a detached retina and failed the ophthalmologic examination administered by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
For many young fighters, a change in opponents at such a late date could be disastrous. But Donaire's manager, Cameron Dunkin, insists that the change will have no impact.
"Before he was with me, his Dad [Nonito Sr.] was making his fights for him and he never knew until the last minute who he was fighting," Dunkin said. "He was called in as an opponent. He's totally comfortable with this. He's very adaptable and he's the kind of a kid who can pretty much fight any style. The change won't bother him a bit."
Promoter Bob Arum said that if Donaire wins, he'd like to rematch him with Vic Darchinyan, whom Donaire stopped in the fifth round of an IBF flyweight title fight in 2007.
Though there has been talk of a bout with bantamweight title-holder Jorge Arce after the Vargas fight, Arum said he's open to a Donaire-Darchinyan rematch as Donaire's next outing if he's successful Saturday. He mentioned super bantamweight star Israel Vazquez as another high-profile potential opponent down the road.
But while Donaire has a title defense in front of him and is eager to again get his hands on Darchinyan, his main goal lies far in the distance. He wants to move up to featherweight and take on Lopez, who has become one of the big stars in the lighter weight divisions.
If Donaire can make that move and is successful at featherweight, he will have a chance not only to duplicate the path Pacquiao has blazed, but to potentially match his stardom.
Pacquiao built an exceptional fan base in the Philippines and expanded it worldwide as he began moving up in weight, defying the odds and beating naturally much bigger men.
Donaire has a solid following in the Philippines, but Arum said he still has a long way to go to get into Pacquiao's neighborhood.
"He's well-liked over there and he's the most popular fighter there other than Manny, but there's Manny up here and then there's everyone else," Arum said. "If Pacquiao is a 10, Donaire is maybe a three and a guy like [Gerry] Penalosa is a two and everyone else goes down from there."
The average American fan is largely unaware of Donaire, simply because few other than the hardcore fans pay attention to fights below featherweight.
Donaire, though, is a big super flyweight and Dunkin, one of the game's most astute minds, insists he'll have no problem eventually fighting at featherweight. He weighs in the mid-to-high 130s between fights and often spars with larger men.
Kenny Adams, one of the world's elite trainers, raves about Donaire's physical gifts. It's that speed, quickness and power that allows him to compete on more or less even terms with the much bigger men with whom he trains.
"I watch him in the gym and he spars lightweights and junior lightweights and he competes them with no problem," Dunkin said. "When he's at 130, 128, 132 [in training camp], those kinds of weights, he hits so much harder and he's just as fast."
Donaire is something of a boxing historian. He's read about greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard and admires their willingness to take on challenges many thought were out of their reach.
He wants to emulate them and meet the biggest and the best opponents he can.
"People really get excited and get talking about boxing when you put the best guys in with the best," Donaire said. "I don't want to sound overconfident when I say I want to take on JuanMa Lopez. I get a fire when I see him and when I hear people talking about him. It's a great challenge to me. There's no one out there that gets that fire burning inside of me … like it does when I hear people talking about JuanMa."
A fight with – and a win over – Lopez would clearly make Donaire a star in the U.S. That Donaire can even be considered for stardom in the U.S., though, is a tribute to Pacquiao.
"Before Manny came along, people would look at the Filipino fighters like they were cannon fodder," Arum said. "It was like the Koreans. You'd bring them over to get your guy a big victory. But because of what Manny has accomplished, there's more money coming in and these [Filipino] kids are being given a chance to develop and become successful.
"Nonito is a wonderful kid and he's obviously a terrific fighter. If, and if is the operative word here, because I'm not sure, but if he can make it up to featherweight and fight these monsters like Lopez and [Yuriorkis] Gamboa, he has a great opportunity to become a star here. But he's got a lot of work ahead of him before he gets to that point."
Donaire concedes that, but working hard is not an issue for him. He is a boxing guy to the core and wants to keep the sport on its current upward spiral.
"If you give the people the kind of fights they want, put the best against the best, and then the guys come to fight hard, boxing is going to be the best sport out there," Donaire said. "We're starting to see that happen more and more and I am going to do what I can to help build on that momentum."
If he gets those fights, he won't be the only one rocking to Elvis' standard, "Viva, Las Vegas!"