More to give? Frampton vs Donaire preview

Chris Williamson
20/04/2018 1:59pm

Saturday night's featherweight showdown between Carl Frampton and Nonito Donaire sees two thirty-something former champions looking to recapture former glories. Chris Williamson previews an intriguing clash...

The autumn of a fighter's career is often the phase which reveals most about their skill level, character and the sharpness of their boxing brain. It is arguably the most interesting period of a pugilist's career arc; as the athleticism of youth erodes and physical decline slowly becomes reality, the championship fighter is forced to reveal qualities hidden during their athletic prime and consider strategies which leverage guile and timing to compensate for fading speed and wilting vitality.

One winter night in Las Vegas in 1982, the legendary 30-year-old former lightweight and welterweight champion Roberto Duran lost a fifteen-round decision to WBC light-middleweight titlist Wilfred Benitez - then a precocious 24-year-old three division champ – after which the Panamanian was widely viewed as finished.

The cover of Boxing News chose 'Proud finale' as their headline the following week, with current BM editor Graham Houston describing the bout from ringside as “the last curtain for a legend”.

Of course, a reinvigorated Duran went on to reach championship status again, beating solid champions at weights the former lightweight had no business competing at during thrilling matches late in his career. Incredibly, the young Benitez never won another title fight as he spiralled into a premature and largely tragic personal and professional decline.

On Saturday night at the SSE Arena in Belfast’s Titanic quarter, two thirty-something former champions clash in a contest likely to reveal much about the trajectory of their remaining athletic careers.

Belfast-born Carl Frampton (24-1) enters his second fight as an ex-champion when taking on the Philippines' former multiple-weight champion Nonito Donaire (38-4) at featherweight.

The division is in the midst of purple patch, already among the most competitive in the sport and with a World Boxing Super Series-like schedule of matches set for the near future. WBA ‘super’ champ Leo Santa-Cruz will soon rematch Abner Mares, IBF boss Lee Selby is set to meet mandatory contender Josh Warrington and WBC champ Gary Russell Jr is lined up to face unbeaten top contender Joseph Diaz, all before the end of June. Each of these fighters crack the BM top 10 at the weight, with Frampton at number two and only Donaire currently unranked.

Amid this jostling for position, there is an unexpected bonus for the winner of Frampton vs Donaire in the form of the interim WBO featherweight title - main belt-holder Oscar Valdez having suffered a broken jaw in a gruelling match with Frampton's old rival Scott Quigg last month. As such, Frampton vs Donaire is a significant match in a vibrant division.

Questions must, however, be asked about whether Donaire belongs at featherweight and, indeed, what he has left at all. The Filipino once rode high in numerous pound-for-pound lists, and was seemingly countryman Manny Pacquiao’s natural successor as a worldwide superstar, having pole-axed then-unbeaten IBF flyweight champ Vic Darchinyan before a string of impressive victories culminated with a frightening second round KO of Fernando Montiel to win two bantamweight world titles. Donaire’s power at lower weights, particularly his lightning-fast, perfectly executed left hook, was simply awesome.

However, one November night in 2013 the wrecking machine met his match in the form of the cultured fists and effortless footwork of the great Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux. The ‘Filipino Flash’s’ career never quite recovered from that unanimous decision defeat, with decent wins over solid opposition mixed with further damaging defeats, by KO to the larger Nicholas Walters at feather in 2014 and a clear but competitive decision loss to Jessie Magdaleno for the WBO belt at super-bantamweight two years later. The feeling is that Donaire remains world class, but that his days as an elite fighter are over.

Still, speaking to the UK press this week Donaire sounds focussed on regaining titles and re-establishing his career at the highest level. “Me and my wife feel like we are married to Carl,” he laughed. “We wake up, we see Carl, we go to bed, we see Carl. I feel like I'm entering my peak because of my positive mentality. I'm smarter now and I've learned (from) the ups-and-downs of my career in the past couple of years. We are very confident going into this fight.”

Frampton too has endured a difficult period, suffering his first defeat in a rematch with Santa-Cruz in January 2017 followed by the breakdown of a promotional, managerial and training relationship with Cyclone, the fallout from which is subject to an ongoing court case.

Under guidance from new trainer Jamie Moore, Frampton - an exciting all round box-fighter with no significant weaknesses - battled to a tougher than expected ten-round decision win at this venue last November against tough Mexican Horacio Garcia. In retrospect, the gut-check provided precisely what the Belfast man needed, serving both as a high-quality spectacle for fans and a reminder that at this level there will be no easy nights.

Frampton, as in the lead-up to his brace of bouts with Leo Santa-Cruz, has spoken respectfully of his rival and acknowledges Donaire as a true modern great. “To have a guy like Nonito Donaire coming Belfast to fight me almost feels like an honour,” Frampton explained. “In terms of accolades, he's accomplished more than anyone I've fought [and] that includes Leo Santa Cruz.

"He's a future hall-of-famer and hopefully I can put my name in that bracket one day. I'm experienced enough to know that I need to be in fights that excite me and get me nervous.”

The weight undoubtedly suits Frampton better, with the Belfast fighter now a solid featherweight following his unified reign as super-bantamweight champ. Donaire looked fleshy and undersized 17 months ago at super-bantamweight and this factor figures to be decisive.

Carl Frampton is one year older than the great Duran was the night he challenged Benitez under the lights of Caesars Palace, but as the younger, fresher and home fighter the odds here are stacked in his favour. I expect Frampton to win a clear decision in a compelling fight, but the favourite will be wary of the fact that truly great fighters occasionally battle against those with advantages in weight and age and win.