Nonito Donaire Jr. begins his bid to become the sole ruler of the super bantamweight (122-pound) division on July 8 (Manila time), when he takes on South African Jeffrey Mathebula in California for the combined World Boxing Organization (WBO) and International Boxing Federation (IBF) versions of the championship.
A former flyweight (112 pounds) and bantamweight (118 pounds) champion, Donaire debuted in the super bantamweight class in February, overcoming an injured hand to eke out a 12-round split-decision victory over Puerto Rican Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. for the vacant WBO title. The win made Donaire only the third Filipino to win a title in the 122-pound division after Bobby Berna (1984) and Manny Pacquiao (2001).
Next to Pacquiao, Donaire is the most talented Filipino champion in boxing today. Donaire goes through his opponents like a surgeon, taking them out one limb at a time before sending them to the morgue with his vicious left hook. But just like the PacMan, the “Filipino Flash” has lately been turning in lackluster performances. Donaire looked spectacular in February 2011, when he demolished Mexican Fernando Montiel in two rounds for the World Boxing Council (WBC) and WBO bantamweight crowns. He has struggled since then, looking ordinary in decision victories over Omar Narvaez and Vazquez.
Donaire lost his momentum after the Montiel fight, when he tried to leave Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions and join Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. The tug-of-war that followed kept Donaire’s career in the freezer and by the time he returned to the ring in October 2011, he looked out-of-shape against the Narvaez.
With Donaire back with Top Rank, the “Filipino Flash” is looking to accelerate. With his hand fresh from rehab, Donaire was initially offered “safe” opponents for his next ring outing, namely Mexican Cristian Mijares and Dallas native Roberto Marroquin. Mijares, a 30-year-old native of Durango, Mexico, is a former two-division (bantamweight, super flyweight) champ who arguably has seen better days. Marroquin totes a record of 21-1, 14 knockouts, but is still a hush puppy in the weight class.
Wanting a real test, Donaire opted for a showdown with Mathebula, a co-ruler in the division.
Known as “Mongoose,” the 33-year-old Mathebula parades a record of 26-3, 2 draws and 14 knockouts. He compiled an impressive amateur career, representing South Africa in the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a featherweight. As a pro, Mathebula has been a well-kept secret in South Africa where he has fought all but one of his 31 paid contests. Mathebula turned pro in 2001 and went unbeaten in his first 14 fights before getting knocked out in six rounds by Thomas Mashaba in 2003. He went unbeaten in his next 9 outings (with one draw) to earn a shot at then WBA and IBF super bantamweight champion Celestino Caballero in 2009. Fighting before a hostile crowd in Panama, Mathebula dropped a close split-decision.
Mathebula is currently on a three-fight winning streak and his biggest win came in March, when he won by split decision over countryman Takalani Ndlovu for the IBF super bantamweight crown. At 5’10,” Mathebula is three inches taller than Donaire. The South African is a boxer-counterpuncher who boasts of a decent left jab and a howitzer right straight. Mathebula, however, is not as sharp as Donaire and tends to telegraph his punches. He also does not move his head well and has a habit of dropping his left hand too low, making him a primary target for Donaire’s hooks.
Donaire, 28-1 with 18 knockouts, is the heavy favorite to win the Mathebula fight – the first of a three-fight plan intended to install Donaire as the sole 122-pound king. If he beats Mathebula, Donaire will go home with the WBO and IBF crowns, leaving only WBA champ Guillermo Rigondeaux of Cuba and WBC champ Abner Mares of Mexico on his hit list.
Rigondeaux and Mares are two-highly competitive champions who will test Donaire, but the Filipino is up to the task. Then again, Mathebula will have to be yanked off the road first.
“Well, I feel Nonito is in very good condition,” former WBA super lightweight champ Morris East, a member of Donaire’s entourage, told this writer. “With God’s help, I think he has a pretty good chance of winning. Of course, if everything works out well, if you know what I mean.”