It's easy to forget now that, five years ago, Manny Pacquiao was not as highly regarded in boxing circles as Nonito Donaire Jr. is now.
Pacquiao was considered one of the game's most exciting performers as 2005 came to a close, and he was clearly exceptionally skilled – he proved that in a one-sided drubbing of the great Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003.
But no one in late 2005 was proclaiming Pacquiao the greatest of his era, let alone comparing him to the all-time greats. But Pacquiao wasn't content with being just another good fighter. As he continued to work under the guidance of trainer Freddie Roach and became a two-fisted fighter with an uncanny ring presence, Pacquiao would continue to clear hurdles on his way to the top – to the point that his promoter, Bob Arum, now proclaims him as the greatest fighter he's ever seen.
Donaire turned 28 last month and is the same age now as Pacquiao was at the conclusion of 2005. And while no one now is predicting that experts in 2015 will be lauding Donaire as one of the greatest fighters they've ever seen, one thing is certain as Donaire prepares to meet Volodymyr Sydorenko on Saturday in the main event of a Top Rank pay-per-view card at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.: Donaire is at least as highly regarded now, if not more, than Pacquiao was as 2005 came to a close.
"I'm hoping to be able to get where Manny is," the affable Donaire said. "Who wouldn't? I want to be a star. I want to fight the big fights and the best guys. It's not right now for anyone to talk about being another Manny Pacquiao. There's only one Manny Pacquiao."
Donaire is ranked ninth on the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings. He's fifth on The Ring's list and he's 10th according to ESPN.com – pretty heady company for a guy still largely unknown to the casual boxing fan in the United States.
Donaire, though, like Pacquiao five years before him, has the style and the determination to change that. He's not willing to settle for being one of the best. He has ambitions far beyond the World Boxing Association super flyweight belt he holds or the WBA bantamweight title belt he'll fight Sydorenko for on Saturday.
He wants to climb the ladder, to chase championships and megafights at bantamweight, super bantamweight, featherweight and, heck, maybe even super featherweight and lightweight.
"I don't want to limit myself," Donaire said.
Pacquiao never accepted the status quo. He was regarded almost universally as just a one-handed fighter when 2005 ended, and no one-handed fighter is ever going to be regarded as the best of his era – even one with a left hand as lethal as Pacquiao's.
But Pacquiao proved when 2006 began that he wasn't just skipping rope in the gym. He pummeled Morales in a rematch, using a suddenly effective right he'd worked on relentlessly with Roach to turn what had been expected to be a dogfight into a rout.
Similarly, Donaire has worked to improve his game. He's taken his conditioning seriously and insists he's never prepared like he has for Sydorenko. Trainer Robert Garcia has worked hard to make him more decisive in the ring, to get him to pull the trigger when he sees openings.
"When I was brought into training camp last year, I saw that he was very talented," Garcia said of Donaire. "But he lacked that final decision. He always fought with very good skills but was never able to make that quick decision at the end. He was so skillful, he never had to [before]; but coming into big fights, you need someone to push you to the extra level.
"The last couple of fights, we still haven't reached that level. We have done it in the gym but not where we needed to – in the ring. But these next two fights, I am going to have to come in there to help him and I'll do everything I have to, to push him harder. I've seen him do it in training. Now we have to get him to do it in the ring."
Donaire, who is 24-1 with 16 knockouts, will land perhaps the biggest match of his career on Feb. 19 if he gets past Sydorenko on Saturday. He'll meet the highly regarded Fernando Montiel in what would then become a battle for the WBA and World Boxing Council bantamweight belts – a bout that would become the main event of an HBO card in Las Vegas.
That's motivation enough for him. Donaire has long wanted a bout with Montiel, who has been on a parallel course for the past several years, navigating the flyweight and super flyweight divisions en route to bantamweight.
Donaire, though, is one of the more level-headed boxers you'll meet. And while the more significant carrot is still dangling in front of him, he's not losing sight of the fact that he needs to handle his business with Sydorenko.
"A lot of people fall into the trap of being so concentrated on the next fight that they let their concentration lapse on the fight they have," Donaire said. "My whole motivation is, that I realize is, if I'm not at my best against Sydorenko there is no Montiel fight. I'm never so motivated as I am now, and I want to use this fight and the way I perform as a statement to Montiel."
And that brings us back to the Pacquiao comparisons. Fighting and defeating the best is the only surefire way to achieve greatness.
It's a novel concept for some elite boxers, but it's one that Donaire has embraced. He's not nearly brash enough to compare himself to Pacquiao in any way, but he's clearly been paying attention to the trail that Pacquiao has blazed.
"I'm a competitor, and there are a lot of great opponents out there that are at my weight or right around my weight," Donaire said. "To me, it only makes sense to want to challenge myself and try to take on the best guys out there. I'm not going to be stupid about it; I'm going to take my time and move at the right pace. But by the same token, I'm always going to be seeking the toughest challenge I can find."
If he's up to the task, as the curtain falls on 2015 and 2016 dawns, boxing experts may be comparing the next generation of young stars to Donaire.