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His bout with Naoya Inoue was the 2019 Fight of the Year according to Yahoo Sports and several other outlets, but that was of little consolation to Nonito Donaire.
He lost, and his dream of unifying the bantamweight title before he retired was slipping through his fingers.
Losing to Inoue, one of the elite talents in the sport, was nothing to be ashamed of, but it was how he lost to Inoue that disturbed him.
“Too offensive,” Donaire muttered. “All offense, really.”
He neglected during training camp to work on his defense, and it cost him significantly.
His wife, Rachel, had been telling him for a while to focus on his defense. A former amateur taekwondo star, Rachel Donaire managed her husband and was always heavily involved in his career.
As time had passed and Nonito had kept putting up big win after big win, he learned to listen for her voice in the crowd. And so he asked her if she would train him.
She’d taken plenty of abuse on social media for her role in managing her husband, first with the legendary Cameron Dunkin and then later on her own.
“I was branded these horrible names, these really awful, sexist names, and [training him] was a whole different side,” Rachel said. “But there have been managers who are women, but this being such a male-dominated sport, I knew it was going to be a lot harder. It’s a brutal sport and people were going to question what I knew. Most women don’t get the respect for their knowledge of a sport, not just boxing but all sports, that they really deserved. I knew it was going to be tough.”
But she did it and, just like her husband, she set a record on Saturday in Carson, California. Nonito Donaire knocked out Nordine Oubaali in the fourth round at Dignity Health Sports Park to become, at 38, the oldest bantamweight champion in history.
In the process Rachel is believed to be the first woman to serve as head trainer for a male boxer in a successful world title bout. Hall of Famer Lew Jenkins was a world lightweight champion and his wife, Katie, trained him for a while, but there is no evidence she trained him in a world championship bout.
Rachel did that. She watched film of Oubaali, spent hours in the gym with her husband, occasionally stepping in to spar, and formulated a game plan.
It was based entirely on creating offense from his defense.
The seeds of this were sown years ago. On Nov. 9, 2013, he was facing Vic Darchinyan in a rematch of a 2007 fight he’d won. As he often did during a fight, he glanced over at his wife, who was seated near the ring.
What she said wasn’t kind, and was brutally honest.
“He looked over and I was sitting in the front row and I said, ‘You’re losing the fight,’” she said. “Then he went out and knocked Darchinyan out. When he came to the dressing room, everyone is giving him high fives, very pumped for the win and excited about what had happened. He had come over and asked my opinion and I said, ‘You don’t want to hear my opinion right now.’
“He asked me why and I said, ‘I don’t know what you were trying to do. I don’t know if you’re trying to get brain damage, but I’m not here for this. I’m not going to watch that happen.’ And he was upset with me for a while.”
He knew she was right. He had the defensive skills necessary, but fell in love with his power and his ability to dazzle the crowd with his offense.
Like many athletes, he worked on what he was good at and what he enjoyed, and began neglecting the other parts of his game. Eventually, after losing to Inoue, Nonito recognized Rachel was correct.
“For years, we’d talk about fighting or she’d watch a fight and say, ‘Well, this is what is going to happen based on what they’re doing,’ and then ‘Boom!’ just what she said would happen,” Nonito said. “She’d predict things before they’d happen. She’d say, ‘He’ll throw this punch and then that will happen,’ and she was right so often.
“So I knew she had the knowledge. I knew she could do it. She has the intelligence and everything that’s needed to do that job, so it made sense for her to do it.”
Nonito is all but a lock for the International Boxing Hall of Fame given his fabulous career. He’s 41-6 with 27 knockouts and has won titles at flyweight, super flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight.
Becoming the oldest bantamweight champion only put an exclamation point on his Hall of Fame résumé.
But Rachel may find herself there one day, as well. Being a trailblazer is never easy, and certainly not in a sport like boxing where many of the central figures behave like it’s still 1950.
“Oh my God, if that were to happen, it would mean the world to me,” she said. “That’s breaking the glass ceiling in a way I’m not sure anyone ever imagined could be broken. I have two young children in addition to being his wife and his manager. I have to deal with his contract and his career and, with COVID, I’ve been home-schooling the kids. I’ve been training Nonito and there’s the laundry. My God, laundry. There’s this seemingly endless pile of laundry I need to do.
“So I had to make some personal time for myself in the gym each day to make it all work. But that [getting elected to the Hall of Fame] would make it all worth it. And not just for me, but for other women who have the ability to do what I did, but who don’t get the opportunity because they’re women.
“That’s something I hope that comes out of this. There are a lot of very knowledgeable women who could do this. I hope you see more of them getting the opportunity so it won’t be a big deal like it is now.”
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