Something interesting has happened in recent years along the way to four-division champion Nonito Donaire's eventual path to boxing immortality and a well-deserved spot in the Hall of Fame.
Donaire (40-6, 26 KOs), the hard-hitting native of the Philippines, never stopped daring to be great long enough to get too old or become a danger to himself in this exciting twilight of his 20-year professional career.
Already the oldest fighter to win a bantamweight world title in 2018 when Donaire, then 35, defeated Ryan Burnett to capture the WBA crown, the "Filipino Flash" will look to extend his mark considerably at 38 years and 204 days on Saturday when he challenges France's Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12 KOs) for his WBC title at 118 pounds (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET) at Dignity Sports Health Park in Carson, California.
The fight was originally scheduled for 2020 and has gone through various stages of postponements and cancellations, even after replacement opponents were named, due to COVID-19 complications suffered by both fighters. But nothing appears to be holding Donaire's quest for history back this time in his first appearance since co-authoring 2019's Fight of the Year when he broke the eye socket of pound-for-pound ranked Naoya Inoue in a close defeat over 12 thrilling (and brutal) rounds.
Donaire has fought some of the sport's most dangerous fighters as high as 126 pounds during two separate runs at featherweight over the past decade yet considers bantamweight his best and preferred weight class as he looks to become just the 11th fighter in history to hold world titles in three different decades.
"When I got back into the gym for this fight, I could feel that the power, the speed, the explosiveness was all there again," Donaire said. "I felt like my body had time to heal properly for this training camp. I am very confident going into Saturday night."
"He's very technically sound. You can't underestimate a guy like him who has that amateur pedigree and who has worn that belt on his waist. We are not underestimating him. He is smart and sound, but I have the experience, the power, the speed and all the motivation to beat him. I will be looking for the knockout like I do every fight."
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The oddsmakers have installed Donaire as a small underdog with huge respect for his one-punch knockout power against the southpaw Oubaali, who last fought on the undercard of Donaire's decision loss to Inoue when he handed the brother of the Japanese "Monster," Takuma Inoue, his first pro defeat in the second defense of his WBC reign.
"Yes, [Donaire] has had an outstanding career and he has power but I believe I have more power than him," Oubaali said. "I know I have the power. He's a good boxer but I'm the world champion and on Saturday I'm going to show the world who is the best. I know I am the best. I respect Nonito. He's had a good career but I'm the best in the division."
Although Donaire's power has long been his calling card, it's his great technique that has paired with his toughness to keep him viable in the lower weight classes despite his age in a way that is both shocking and impressive.
A huge part of Donaire's confidence entering this weekend is how reinvigorated he has felt in the gym after changing his mindset during sparring to become even more of a finisher.
"For the past four or five years, maybe even longer, I have been sparring to just work with guys. The mindset was not about destroying someone," Donaire said. "But in this training camp, I have had great sparring where I am going at my pace and no longer holding back. I have been going all out.
"This has been the biggest key in reclaiming the killer instinct that I had in the past. I was very aware after the Inoue fight that I needed to make a change in sparring. When I would hurt a guy, I would step back. That showed in the ring when I hurt Inoue, I stepped back a little bit instead of going for the kill."
While Oubaali has routinely shared praise for Donaire's accomplishments and respect for his opponent as a man, he expects to put all of that to the side once the two share the ring.
"Nonito Donaire is a big name and he's been a world champion in a lot of different divisions. He's strong, but I know what he can do and I know what my strategy is," Oubaali said. "I think we have similar styles, because we both like to stand and fight [but] I'm the best bantamweight in the world.
"I'm going to give a great fight on Saturday so that everyone knows. I want all the bantamweights to know that I'm ready for them. I want to fight the best. I'm ready for the winner of John Riel Casimero versus Guillermo Rigondeaux or Naoya Inoue. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. I know that I'm the best. Now I need to win and show the world."
Donaire shares his opponent's hope of drawing Inoue back into the ring for a rematch should he defeat Oubaali. Inoue returned last October for the first time since breaking his eye socket against Donaire when he knocked out Jason Moloney and will defend his WBA and IBF titles once more on June 19 against Michael Dasmarinas in Las Vegas.
"I want to fight the best out there. I want the rematch with Naoya Inoue and I want to get all the belts," Donaire said. "The only thing I haven't accomplished in boxing is becoming undisputed champion. I've done everything else -- fighter of the year, knockout of the year, multiple championships, four-division champion. You name it. That's my main goal. Get the belt and put them all together."
This tripleheader sees the return of a top prospect in the junior welterweight ranks when Gary Antuanne Russell heads into the ring against Jovanie Santiago. Russell, the younger brother of former champion Gary Russell Jr., owns a perfect mark at 13-0 with 13 knockouts. This will be the biggest bout of the 24-year-old's career to date in a 10-rounder against Santiago. He's only been as far as the fourth round in his career and that was just one time. Santiago, meanwhile, is 14-1-1 with 10 knockouts to his name.
Fight card, odds
Odds via William Hill Sportsbook
- Nordine Oubaali (c) -300 vs. Nonito Donaire +240, WBC bantamweight title
- Batyrzhan Jukembayev -125 vs. Subriel Matias +105, super lightweights
Gary Antuanne Russell -1000 vs. Jovanie Santiago +650, junior welterweights
- Date: May 29
- Location: Dignity Health Sports Park -- Carson, California
- Start time: 9 p.m. ET
- How to watch: Showtime, Showtime.com or the Showtime app
As the betting odds indicate, Donaire is very much a live dog in this fight given his power and the tremendous hunger he has shown to not walk away quietly at the tail end of his career. He has talked openly entering this training camp about fighting into his 40s and is back at a weight class where he can alter the terms of the fight against any opponent with one punch.
Expect Oubaali to be active and difficult for Donaire from the southpaw stance with an aggressive style that statistically has lowered the output of his opponents. Donaire will likely need to give up some rounds in the face of that voluminous style in order to figure out the right timing and opening to land his heavy counter shots.
Despite Donaire's confidence, it's still hard to ignore that he has been off upwards of 18 months and might have lost any momentum created from his impressive (and largely unexpected) performance against Inoue. Can he bring more than a puncher's chance at stopping Oubaali and actually be a threat to win more rounds should it go the distance?
That question can only be answered in the ring, yet it's clearly lingering over the proceedings. As long as Oubaali can avoid becoming too reckless in his pursuit, this is a fight he should win, even if Donaire has a few moments that remind us of how great he still is.
Pick: Oubaali via UD12