Waiting in the wings

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He’s always been compared with boxing great Manny Pacquiao, but newly crowned WBO super bantamweight champ Nonito Donaire, Jr. may soon find that, along with the fame and fortune that come with the championship, he must also contend with the controversies waiting in the wings to hound those who stray in the limelight.

We live in a curious era where all a Filipino boxer dreams of is to become the next Manny Pacquiao.

And true enough, the likes of Brian Viloria, Z Gorres, Boom-Boom Bautista and Donnie Nietes have become “heir apparent” to the Great One.

But one name certainly stands above the rest, one who packs the speed, punching power and courage comparable to that of Pacquiao: Nonito Donaire Jr.

The newly crowned WBO super bantamweight champion proved this anew after pounding out a split decision over Puerto Rican tough guy Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. on February 4 in San Antonio, Texas.

Donaire didn’t knock out Vazquez but gave him a taste of his wicked left fist which slipped in an upper cut and an overhead hook that sent the Puerto Rican sprawling to the canvas. Take that, for engaging wildly against the Filipino Flash, something that Argentine Omar Narvaez oh so fearfully avoided during their dull, boring fight in New York last October.

Donaire came out of the ring in Alamodome wearing his fourth world title in as many weight divisions, half of what Pacquiao has so far achieved. That fueled the comparison between the two even more.

“I’m really honored just to be mentioned in the same sentence with Manny,” Donaire told this reporter in one interview. “He’s a great fighter and he brings honor and glory to the country.”

Donaire, who is quite articulate for a nasty brawler, wasn’t just being nice. In fact, he can be forthright and candid as the rest of them.  During his open media workouts in Texas, he poked fun at the top boxers by mimicking their fighting stance.

He gamely exaggerated Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s shoulder defense while warning his opponent, “look out wham bam,” the way the brash, undefeated American cut a sucker punch that felled Victor Ortiz last September in Las Vegas.

Donaire also generated laughter from the crowd with his version of Vic Darchinyan’s menacing stance; and Juan Manuel Marquez’s constantly raised arms. But when asked to copy Pacquiao, he quipped: “Manny’s too fast,” then banged his gloves and made quick shadow boxing.

Even from Donaire’s own stand-point, the comparison with Pacman was lopsided at best.

For one, the Filipino Flash has yet to score a pay-per-view contract, which confirms a boxer’s bankability while fattening up paychecks the way it did for megastars of the sport like Pacquiao and Mayweather.

In his fight against Narvaez, Donaire earned $725,000. He reportedly got a fat $1 million for fighting Vazquez, and probably stands to earn even more when he takes on bantamweight stars Jorge Arce of Mexico, Toshiaki Nishioka of Japan, and fast-rising Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux later in the year.

But Donaire’s margin of income will stay in that range unless his fights are sold on PPV by cable giant HBO which has carried three of his bouts so far.

Shrugged his manager Cameron Dunkin: “Pay-per-view? That I don’t know. You know that comes in time. We gonna let Bob (Arum) and Todd (duBoef of Top Tank) figure that out.”

Inside the ring, the comparison continues.  While Donaire can muster the kind of fury that inflicts serious damage, the 5’5½” inches fighter has to first knock down bigger, more established foes the way Pacquiao annihilated all-time greats Oscar dela Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Erik Morales and Marquez.

Donaire’s stunning KO wins—18 in all—are largely against smaller opponents like Fernando Montiel (5’4”), Volodymyr Sydorenko (5’4”), Hernan Marquez (5’2”) and Raul Martinez (5’4”). In fairness to him, however, Manuel Vargas and Vic Darchinyan stands at about his height.

Darchinyan, the Australian who goes by the nickname of Raging Bull, has remained the most stunning display in his wall of trophies when he—the clear underdog in the fight—stopped the champion in the fifth round of their title bout for the IBF flyweight title in 2007.

“He’s a great champion and he has my respect,” Pacquiao’s equally famous coach Freddie Roach was quoted as saying before the Vazquez fight last February. That statement help clear up the animosity between the camps of the two Filipino champs which began when Roach and Donaire’s coach Robert Garcia exchanged heated words over the Internet middle of last year.

But beyond the boxing stats, just who is Donaire and why does he keep getting caught in one nasty controversy after another?

By the boxer’s own account, he was a sickly, asthmatic kid who was born on Nov. 16, 1982, in Talibon, Bohol, and grew up in Pacquiao’s Gen. Santos City before his family migrated to San Leandro, California, when he was 11.

The wimpy kid, who got bullied so bad in tough LA schools that he had considered taking his own life, learned boxing for self-defense and found that it also built his self-confidence.

“I wasn’t blessed physically,” he told a group of NY-based journalists and consul officials during a pre-fight bout with Omar Narvaez at the famed Madison Square Garden. “I had asthma and was always sickly. I was that frail little kid who got bullied in school and would go home crying.”

In a private interview with this reporter, Donaire confided that he had once contemplated suicide. “I felt so worthless and can’t find reason to live.  I would definitely champion the (anti-bullying) cause because I feel for these kids who have to endure these things. Kids can be so cruel because they don’t realize that they’re hurting another kid.”

Warming up to the subject, he added: “(Bullies) think it’s a way to feel good about themselves, but that’s wrong. It’s so sad young people think of taking their own lives because of bullying. I understand them because I’ve been through it.”

But things have changed since then. Next thing you know, Donaire was following in the footsteps of his elder brother Glen Donaire whose boxing career would eventually be dramatically overtaken by Nonito’s.

Like Pacquiao before him, Donaire seems to be a magnet for controversies. Last year, his career suffered a blow after he signed up with Oscar dela Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions even when Top Rank insisted that he has a live contract with him. Because of the controversy, Donaire’s fantastic second-round domination of Fernando Montiel for the WBO/WBC bantamweight title on Feb. 19, 2011—which catapulted him high up the pound-for-pound standings—was only followed up last October 22 with that shutout win over Narvaez.

On the domestic front, Donaire put family quarrel on public display when he exchanged painful words over the media with his own father, Nonito Sr., early last year.

Now this is where he differs markedly from Pacquiao. The People’s Champ seems to have a knack for dodging not only punches inside the ring but also burning intrigues thrown at him off it. From his alleged love-children and affairs with movie starlets, to the quirks of his own parents who have separated even before he hit the big-time, Pacquiao has handled the barbs smoothly, like a perfectly timed jab.

Donaire’s quarrel with his father started in 2009 when he switched manager and trainer. His father used to be his trainer back when he was still trying out to eventually become a fighter in the United States national team. The elder Donaire was in his corner when he floored Darchinyan in 2007 and became an international sensation.

But fractures appeared in the father-son relationship when the boxer changed manager and trainer. Nasty things were said, sometimes involving as little as a few hundred dollars.  Donaire Jr. insisted they have patched things up, and that in fact, he had invited his father to watch his fight in New York.  Still, Donaire Sr. didn’t show up.

Donaire also engaged in a Twitter war with TV sportscaster Chino Trinidad over the latter’s reports of his disjointed relationship with his family. His decision to lash out at the reporter rather than act on the issue created more harm than good as it fanned more speculations about his parents who—oddly enough—never came out in the media to congratulate him for his string of successes.

Fortunately for Donaire—and this is something that can’t always be said about Pacquiao—all through his personal battles, he has his wife Rachel Marcial by his side.

He met the former Philippine and US taekwondo jin in LA and eventually married her on Aug. 8, 2008. The couple had a grand church wedding in the Philippines on Nov. 11 last year.

The highly articulate and camera-ready beauty has since been acting as his “assistant.” Though the wife said she doesn’t want to get involved in her husband’s career, Donaire, said Rachel, “believes in my ability to do it and he wants me in his team.”

There have been insinuations that it was actually Rachel who caused the rift between father and son, but she has maintained that she doesn’t have anything to do with it, and that the problem has been put to rest.

But controversy continues to hound Donaire.  Just before his fight against Vazquez, an elderly couple came out on national television, claiming to be his grandparents from Gen. Santos City and allegedly wishing that he loses the bout.

Donaire has denied ever knowing them. He added that he may have met them back when he was little, but that he had no recollection that they are indeed his grandparents. In a report that came out on ABS-CBN, Donaire said it was unfortunate that the two seniors came out but that he wished them luck. At their age, he said, he hopes they find peace.

His family relations seem to remain frayed however. He was recently quoted as asking his family to talk things over to settle their differences. If that’s not possible, he advised, it’s better to keep things to themselves.

In the meantime, his parents-in-law, Gerry and Rebecca Marcial are Donaire’s leading support group, with Rachel’s dad acting as his chief security.

Rachel added: “As far as my involvement is concerned, it’s only because of the fact that I was also a fighter so I understand what he needs. A lot of women out there can’t understand it. They could try but they can’t, unless they too could be there and get hit. I know what it’s like.”

Despite their divergent domestic paths, Donaire continues to be compared—not always favorably—with the Pacman.  And while it would thrill any fighter to be compared to Pacquiao, given all the factors, it would be unfair for Donaire to be likened to him, Arum said.

“Nonito can never be the next Manny Pacquiao, the way nobody can be Manny Pacquiao, because there is only one Manny Pacquiao,” said Arum in previous interviews. “People back then didn’t say that Muhammad Ali was the next Joe Louis. Nonito is making a name for himself and he is on his way to greatness.”

At the very least, Donaire is at the cusp of becoming the Pacman’s best version.

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