feature Thursday, 07 November 2013

Nonito Donaire: Changing Man

Nonito Donaire explains to Donald McRae how his first defeat and becoming a father have altered his outlook

NONITO DONAIRE is meant to be training tonight in Las Vegas but, two hours into an interview which has turned into a three-course meal at a swanky restaurant deep inside Caesar’s Palace, the engaging super-bantamweight knocks back another slug of fine red wine. It’s an unconventional way to prepare for a fight that, as we talk, is only four weeks away – for Donaire faces his old rival Vic Darchinyan at Corpus Christi in Texas on 9 November – but the “Filipino Flash” is an extraordinary man. He is also in the midst of a life-changing time, both as a once-wounded son and a new father. 

“Maybe I’ll delay training tonight,” Donaire says with a wry grin just after nine o’clock. “I’m in great shape anyway.” 

His friendliness and charm have long been celebrated within boxing, but I had expected a more pensive man after his last encounter in the ring. Donaire had been unbeaten for 12 years and a month when, in April, he accepted the apparently foolish challenge of trying to catch Guillermo Rigondeaux. The Cuban is the kind of slippery opponent few fighters ever want to meet but Donaire, having won 30 bouts in a row, was convinced he would knock him out. He managed to floor Rigondeaux in the 10th round – but still lost a unanimous decision in his first defeat since March 2001. 

The pain, however, has been replaced by a sense of wonder that Donaire does not try to contain. He’s already talked and ate his way through a delicious risotto, a juicy fat steak and he is about to tuck into a creamy dessert when he laughs at the rather obvious observation that it seems highly unusual for a super-bantamweight to be eating so freely while training. 

“It’s great,” Donaire exclaims above the clatter of plates. “Last time, before Rigondeaux, I didn’t eat properly for a week-and-a-half. This time my weight’s there. I could train late tonight and lose it all. It’s a good thing for me to eat like this – sometimes you need to indulge yourself in something that’s good for you mentally. I’m already around 132 pounds and I’m fighting at 126. When I spar 10-to-12 rounds I lose that weight really fast. On the night of the fight I should be 100 per cent.” 

The real reason for Donaire’s exuberance is propped up on the table in a baby chair. His name is Jarel and he’s passed back and forth from Donaire to his wife, Rachel. “I’ll tell you how we came up with his name,” Donaire says of his first child. “I’m [Nonito] Junior and my family call me June. So [the letters of] Jarel spells out June And Rachel’s Ever-lasting Love. He’s definitely a blessing. At first I didn't think his birth [in July] changed me. But now my mentality is all about my kid. For a long time it was all about me, me, me, because I'm a fighter. Now it's all about him. It's very unselfish being a father – and an incredible thing. I've only been away from him once – when I went to Texas and Mexico and California for the press conferences and training. It was very difficult because you can't smell him, hold him or kiss him. When they picked me up at the airport I wanted to bite his arm, I wanted to bite his cheeks! There’s that joy.”

Donaire cuddles his son before, more seriously, he explains how Jarel’s birth has transformed his previously broken relationship with his own father. “It’s the power of my son,” Donaire says, “because you forget about your pride. You just want everything in your life to be OK – not for you but for him.” 

The fighter points to the little boy, gurgling in his arms, and shakes his head in disbelief. The animosity between him and Nonito Snr, his father, was such that, apart from severing their partnership as fighter and trainer, he and his dad had not spoken for a long time. “I hadn’t talked to my dad for three or four years. We first had this problem six years ago and then we got reconciled but it only lasted a month or two and it went bad again.” 

Donaire Sr was once a fierce and uncompromising father who found it impossible to ever praise his son. He expected Nonito Jnr to show unquestioning obedience to his harsh regime. “My father just never changed. He was pretty much the head and I did everything he wanted me to do. And then when my wife came in she became my voice. She became the person I wanted to be with most of the time and that made the relationship with my father go down. It was a very big change for him. He admits that. I also have my faults. So when the media got into it the finger-pointing escalated to something really big.” 

Eventually, a bitter silence sealed their separation. As the years passed it became increasingly hard and Donaire is open in describing how affected he was by their parting. “There were a few occasions in Vegas where I thought I saw my dad. My wife said: ‘You're going crazy...’ And I was crazy. I would dream of my dad and I’d tell my wife. So, without telling me, Rachel reached out to my dad. They were texting back and forth and she decided to fly my dad out. So that's how we met – without me knowing. She just told me on the day that: ‘Your dad's coming over and you're talking to him.’” 

Even now Donaire looks shocked. “I was nervous. I couldn't think. But this time the reconciliation worked. There was no hatred and we refused to talk about the past. It was, like, ‘Hey, let's work things out. Let's make things better.’ It's definitely a blessing to have my family back. My wife did an amazing thing for me because this was the one thing missing in my life. I can start all over with my father.” 

Nonito Snr is now working his son’s corner again. But is there a danger that he will slip back into his domineering ways? His son shakes his head. “I'm turning 31 next month. Yeah, he still works my ass off. But he respects me enough to know not to push me now. He just says: ‘Good job today. Keep it up.’ That’s great because I never got compliments from my dad before. It was always a case of: ‘You need to work harder!’ Now it’s, ‘Good work, good job.’” 

Donaire gestures again towards the reason for the change. “My kid is amazing! The power of that baby!” 

How did Donaire feel when his father actually praised him? “The first time he complimented me I was so shocked it made me stutter. Even when things haven't gone well he now says, ‘It's OK...we'll do better tomorrow.’ He used to be hard on me because he was protective. His own father died when he was three. My dad grew up in the streets. Everything he did he made it himself. That’s why he was so strict with us. My father saw I had that same pride and he knew I could take it. But my older brother [fellow pro Glenn Donaire] wasn’t as strong mentally. And he didn’t have my desire for success.” 

Donaire’s years of success in the ring curdled against Rigondeaux. Did he really expect he could beat such an awkward stylist? “Oh yeah. I was definitely sure I was going to win. Maybe that's why I took it lightly. I didn’t think he had anything to beat me. In the ring he was more slick than fast. I was faster but he was a lot slicker. I didn’t put too much in the fight. I trained hard but I didn't really study him because I thought the guy has no chin. One punch and it's over. That's all I aimed for – a knockout. But I was fighting with myself. I was just thinking: ‘Why aren't you moving? Why aren’t you capitalising on all his mistakes?’ It was a battle because I was fighting two guys in front of me: myself and Rigondeaux. I also lost 10-12 pounds that week because I didn’t really prepare myself. 

“But, ultimately, they are only excuses. Rigondeaux prepared better. In that moment he bested me and it's definitely a well-deserved victory for him. Even when I knocked him down I didn’t think I’d dropped him. When I got back to the corner I was still fighting with myself: ‘What the hell are you doing? You threw those punches but you held back – why?’ He did a real good job but mentally I was in a tug of war.” 

Donaire insists that he was far more upset by his first loss, a disputed points decision over five rounds 12 years ago against the unheralded Rosendo Sanchez. “I was devastated after the first one,” he says of his defeat to Sanchez, who had only more bout in a truncated career which lasted a mere five fights. “I broke my hand in the fight and found I had courage. But in the judges’ eyes I wasn't good enough. It hurt me a lot. As much as it was the beginning of my pro career [and only his second fight] I'd spent so much time in the amateurs and had accomplished something. I reached the final of the Olympic trials – but it wasn't enough. So I was going to call it quits. But I realised I don't just quit because I've lost. When the second loss came this year at least I’d won lots of world titles and been Fighter of the Year [in 2012 when he reeled off four straight victories]. Of course losing to Rigondeaux hurt because I'm a very proud person. But it will propel me to something better.” 

In choosing to reappoint his father as his trainer, Donaire has jettisoned the highly regarded Robert Garcia. He suggests Garcia made a mistake towards the end of the Rigondeaux fight. “Robert reminded me of Rachel and my kid – but it was wrong. I got distracted even more. Before the last round when they were trying to encourage me, saying, ‘This is for your son…,’ I stopped thinking about boxing and I got hit. I told Robert later: ‘Never say that because in the ring I’m not married. I have no kids. I have no family. I have no past. I am only a fighter – fighting to destroy that person in front of me.’ Otherwise it complicates things when your life is on the line. If you start thinking of your wife or your success, just get the hell out of the ring.” 

Donaire still harbours that cold intensity. It helped him remain unbeaten for so long and he identifies its source in his difficult childhood in the Philippines where, amid poverty and deprivation, he was also bullied. “That kid will always be with me. That's why I always try to accommodate everyone and be nice because I know what it's like to not be noticed. That little boy could never dream of being here, talking to you, eating this food, having the house I have, and the success. I didn't have anything when I grew up. I was very poor. 

“We'd go barefoot to school because we didn’t want to wear out our only slippers. I remember the few times we got soda and the way it burned your throat. It was so refreshing. We never had meat – but look at the steak I ate tonight! We didn't have electricity so we had candles. You would read a book and go close and you’d then smell your hair burning with that distinctive smell. But I was never bitter. I just became ambitious because I wanted to laugh in the faces of the kids who bullied me. I wanted to be successful, have cars and a nice house. My success would be my revenge – that was the scenario in my head as a kid. So I’m thankful for everything in my life – even the bullying.” 

As a boy Donaire was puny and asthmatic. So how did a bullied and frightened boy turn himself into a fighter? “I always had this [strength] inside me, that will never to give up. I don’t know why because the first time I went into the ring I was so scared I peed in my pants. I was 11. Walking to the ring I trickled and stopped, trickled and stopped. I was more wet with my urine than sweat. But the moment I got hit it was like another person showed up. It was survival instinct and I kept going and kept punching. I won.” 

Out of such adversity and insecurity, Donaire propelled himself to great heights. But he still sounds ambivalent towards boxing. “When my wife asked me, ‘Why do you box?’ I couldn’t answer. I used to box for my dad. It kept the family together. My father was calmer when we fought. We were one when I fought and supported each other. Now I’m fighting for my wife and son and the fans.” 

Does he ever fight just for himself? “I’ve never really felt that. One day, when it’s over, I’ll be able to say this whole boxing thing was for me. When I won the Fighter of the Year award I nearly felt it. For once I was satisfied. I felt I was worth something. I thought: ‘Damn you've finally made it!’ All my life I've been bullied so I always question myself: ‘Am I good enough?’ For once I felt satisfied because my name was among all these great fighters. But that defeat to Rigondeaux reminds me I have to work hard again.” 

His next fight will not be easy and, with his obvious intelligence, Donaire insists he won’t underestimate his opponent – even if he stopped Darchinyan impressively six years ago. “He’s always going to be tough. He is very tenacious and aggressive. And he hits hard – but so do I. It's a coincidence I'm fighting him again because that's when my career really started and now my dad and I are back together. Everything is starting over again and I need to get back that hunger I had 10 years ago. And I’m starting to get that fire back with my dad. There are days when I don’t work as hard as I should but, for years, I was beating everybody and that whole process gets old. It’s just being human. You’re always going to have your ups and downs. 

“When I do fall into those moments of depression my wife helps me. So I’m blessed I have a wonderful wife and a beautiful kid. But I’m not perfect. I get depressed and sad – and I fight with my wife and my friends. But that’s part of life. To get out of that and be happy 95 per cent of the time is where you find the real glory because life always tries to bring you down. It makes you sad, because most people are selfish. I would rather sacrifice myself. I’d rather make people happy. So when I was young I used these voices to make my family laugh. I don’t want people around me to be sad.” 

There are times when Donaire can’t stop talking, almost in an unbroken stream of consciousness, but it seems right to break into his tangled monologue and ask him a simple question. Isn’t it exhausting always trying to please everyone around him when he is besieged by such contradictory emotions? “Not so much. There is a joy and when I make you laugh. We all laugh and that’s energising…” 

There is no doubt that, during such a stimulating dinner, we feel as energised as we are well-fed. But he is also a thoughtful man and he makes numerous telling points. In becoming one of the first fighters to sign up for voluntary and totally random dope-testing, Donaire stresses that, “drugs are a big issue in every sport. It’s in our nature when we are corrupted by greed. Some people will do anything to be on top. They’ll even cheat. But that’s why I’m here up to be drug-tested 24/7, 365 days a year. They can come in at any moment and test me. Last week they came in without me knowing. I was surprised when they showed up. They’ve tested me at least 10 times over the past 18 months.” 

Does this new commitment to anti-doping explain why he severed his working relationship with the infamous Victor Conte? “I don’t work with Victor anymore. But I always give people a second chance. I don’t judge them on their past. I look how they are with me. But I ended our relationship this year. I learnt a lot from him but I told him from the very beginning that I’m not that kind of fighter to take anything to enhance myself. If it’s natural then I’m there. But I’m very strong against drugs.” 

Donaire had hoped that he might fight Orlando Salido next – but the veteran featherweight and WBO champ looks likely to face Vasyl Lomachenko. “There are a lot of great fighters out there at 130 [super-featherweight] and I do want to move up. In five years I want to be fighting at 135 or 140. I could go up to 147 – why not?” 

He laughs when I suggest that eating like we’ve done tonight will help the cause. But it seems incredible that a fighter who won a world title at flyweight might one day campaign at welterweight. “A man without ambition stands still,” Donaire says. “You become stagnant. I’ve been a world champion in three divisions so far and it should be four. I was an interim champion at 115 but no one would fight me at that weight and I never got the belt. That’s why I want more now.” 

Donaire flashes another smile before moving on quickly to also reveal his hopes to become a photographer and a film-maker. It’s hard to keep up with his bubbling enthusiasm until, with more gravitas, he turns back to his son. “I want him to learn how I lived. So maybe for a week every year we’ll go back [to the Philippines] and I’ll make sure he fetches water and bathes with the water he walked so far to find. I want him to realise life is about working hard and appreciating every moment. Just because you’re privileged now doesn’t mean you can be ungrateful.” 

He will be a different kind of dad to his own father. “I’ll be more loving,” Donaire confirms. “But I don’t regret anything. My dad taught me to never give up. I have a different theory – I think showing love, and working hard, matters more. I want my son to see how hard I work in training…the tears, sweat, everything. And I don’t want him to regret anything. That’s the secret.” 

Donaire rises to say goodbye and, as he stretches out his hand, he clearly does not regret his huge meal or pouring out everything from his fighting heart again. “Of course not,” he says with a winning smile. “It’s been beautiful…”

Author : Donald McRae


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