Dynamic Nonito Donaire faces a Mary Celeste-like mystery in the ring tomorrow night when he faces unknown quantity Jeffrey Mathebula at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, in a scheduled 12.
According to The Omniscients, titles and belts are meaningless (unless, of course, they have the imprimatur of Golden Boy employees), but few have failed to mention that this bout is a partial unification of junior featherweight kickshaws. This petty distinction basically means that two grifters—Alphabet Group A and Alphabet Group B–get paid off instead of one.
Footage of Mathebula is, apparently, as hard to come across as a good sentence from a bowtie blogger is. The few clips available of “The Mongoose” reveal a towering 122-pounder with a busy jab (one he likes to alternate from body to head) and a fair counter right hand. Mathebula, 26-3-2 (14), also likes to dip to his right from close range—a serious mistake against a left-hook artist like Donaire—and often negates his incredible height advantage by leaning forward. A wide stance also brings him down an inch or two, perhaps, and poor balance when on the attack leaves him bent over like a man looking down at a shiny new quarter through a subway grate.
With 31 fights over a 12-year career, Mathebula might be mistaken for an American. At 33, the 2000 Olympian has decided to go for the jackpot instead of risking the slow returns of the “World Title” installment plan in South Africa, where boxing is all but dead on television and major paydays are hard to come by. Since turning pro in 2001, Mathebula, Brakpan, Gauteng, South Africa, has faced a handful of fighters with fairly solid international reputations, among them Malcolm Klassen, Thomas Mashaba, and Takalani Ndlovu. His biggest achievement, however, was dropping a split decision in Panama to Celestino Caballero in 2009. At that time, Caballero was considered to be the biggest thing to hit boxing since the introduction of round card girls in bikinis. Caballero is one of an endless number of “P-4-P” stars created by Ratings Panel pedants and Überbloggers for whom critical acumen is a foreign country—they do things differently there. Poor “Pelenchin,” as capable today as he ever was, now roams a strange netherworld of the forgotten like some boxing Melmoth the Wanderer. Still, going heads-up with him on the road—as Mathebula did—can only be considered an accomplishment.
In order for Mathebula to win, he will certainly have to be busier and less shimmy-minded than he usually is. Four of his last six bouts have been split decisions, an indication, perhaps, of a low work rate. Although he pumps his jab well—and steps with it—Mathebula is a bit too defensive in the ring. And the last thing you want to do is let a flashpoint puncher like Donaire set up at his leisure. Another plus for Mathebula is a real trainer/second in Nick Durandt. Durandt was in the corner when Moruti Mthalane lost via 6th-round TKO to Donaire in 2008. Mthlane had some success against Donaire before a cut put an end to the proceedings.
In the end, it looks like Donaire, San Leandro, California, will have a tough haul in front of him tomorrow night. At times, “The Filipino Flash” looks like he might be wearing an invisible pneumatic exoskeleton in the ring. Donaire can be that explosive. Other times, he tends to lose focus, and, like many fighters gifted with extraordinary athleticism, Donaire, 29, seems impatient when unable to close the show quickly. He is like a bricklayer who—mystifyingly—always wants to start at the top row. Building a foundation in the ring from the opening bell is something he should have learned long ago, but that kind of patience is as yesteryear as horse-drawn buggies and spirit photography are. Few fighters work diligently, round by round, to produce a gradual result if an immediate one is unavailable.
For all his razzle dazzle between the ropes, Donaire seems a little lost when opponents are not tottering at his feet or spluttering blood. Last year, Omar Narvaez, in a terrible mismatch, assumed airplane-crash position for 12 monotonous rounds against Donaire and came out with a paycheck and all of his teeth intact. In February, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. showed up to face Donaire with a vastly improved defense and went the distance in a fight where Donaire wound up with a fair share of bruises to go along with an injured hand. The fact that Vazquez had previously been stopped by Jorge Arce—once a titleholder at 108 pounds!—only made Donaire look worse when the final bell rang.
Donaire, 28-1 (18), should have enough to hold off Mathebula, but—unlike most fights that come to pass—this is no walkover. In fact, this is the second consecutive Top Rank bout where the Risk Management Quotient seems slightly off. Like Timothy Bradley, Mathebula is both competent and potential box office poison. Most fights are a trifecta of negativity: no ticket sales, no television ratings, no competition. On paper, however, Mathebula is a serious test. Should he somehow find a way to upset Donaire, “The Mongoose” is also a limited future commodity for Bob Arum. In the absence of a lottery-sized payout, this is not the formula most boxing powerbrokers use to determine fights. And when promoters make mistakes, the beneficiary is the consumer, perpetually last in line among those to benefit in boxing. Has Top Rank erred here? Tomorrow night, Donaire and Mathebula will have the answers to that question. In the meantime, we should all hope that promoters miscalculate more often.