I took you home
Set you on the glass
I pulled off your wings
Then I laughed
-Deftones, Change (In the House of Flies)
In “Culture and Value,” Ludwig Wittgenstein warns: “Resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when you are walking in the snow. You doze off and die in your sleep.” In winning the 2012 Fighter of the Year Award, Nonito Donaire never needed to improve, never needed to deviate from a hyper-dependency on his otherworldly athleticism. Saturday night, however, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Guillermo Rigondeaux, a fighter with comparable talent and superior polish, asked that Donaire do more than just be the faster, more powerful man. Unable to muster an adequate response, Donaire dropped a unanimous decision to the Cuban, losing for the first time in twelve years.
Prior to the fight, on his HBO special, comedian Louis CK dedicated a short bit to reveling in the delectable anticipation of a confrontation one cannot lose and the pleasures of righteous antagonism. This relish in assured victory may explain the first round of the fight. Eschewing a healthy modicum of caution—and the popular narrative in the process—both Donaire and Rigondeaux fought the first round like losing was impossible. That two of the most lethal counter-punchers in boxing courted destruction in these early exchanges was proof of their confidence, even if the primary purpose of those blows was reconnaissance. What Rigondeaux learned in these exploratory trajectories he would use masterfully over the remainder of the fight. Donaire, the much bigger man and the bigger puncher, looked to land his left hook. While he window-shopped, Rigondeaux, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, countered with left hands to the head and body before punctuating the round with a right hook. In a fight where inactivity as much as effect characterized the rounds, scores could be expected to vary, but round one was a clear victory for the Cuban fighter.
The fire subsided somewhat in the second round, one that Rigondeaux carried with feints, a blazing straight left to the body and a crisp combination to the head. Donaire, San Leandro, California–he of the one punch knockout and the style predicated on its inevitability–was in against a different pedigree, and very little of what he smacked around last year prepared him for it.
For the next seven rounds Doniare looked like a student trying to solve an equation without an understanding of BEDMAS: there were the odd successes, but he could never correctly solve the problem because he lacked the tools, the understanding of order and priority, the concept of solving as a process. Rigondeaux, 121 1/2, stayed within range of Donaire, ripping his opponent with right hooks, left hands, and the occasional whipping left uppercut to the body. His stoic expression broken only when mockery was added to his attack, Rigondeaux moved with the confidence of a two-time gold medalist with over four hundred amateur bouts; fully at home under Donaire’s sporadic fire, he slipped, ducked, and parried the punches that have confounded dozens of professionals, before lashing Donaire with his own leather.
Without a jab to expedite his arsenal, and with a corner whose counsel amounted to, “Do more good stuff better,” Donaire looked foolish for stretches of the middle rounds. Nabakov wrote, “All silence is the recognition of a mystery.” The fistic silence of Donaire, widely lauded as an offensive juggernaut, served as recognition of the baffling, eluding, and, most important, tormenting enigma before him.
To his credit, Donaire, 121 1/2, roared out of his corner to start the tenth. Consequences be damned, he bull rushed Rigondeaux, forced him to square up, and in that flash of vulnerability planted him on the canvas. The 10-8 round stood to impact the scores significantly: while it appeared Rigondeaux was dominating the fight, he did so in part through avoidance, and the dearth of action meant a broad spectrum of scores could be expected. Rigondeaux rose calmly and wrenched back control of the round.
Whatever damage he may have taken in the tenth, Rigondeaux doled out double in the final frame. A counter left hand smashed into Donaire’s eye and immediately the wounded fighter got on his bike. His right glove plastered over the swollen mess of swirling aubergine, Donaire fought the remainder of the round ostensibly with one hand and one eye. Rigondeaux strafed him with left hands, snapping Donaire’s head back with a sickening uppercut, and while his opponent managed to remain on his feet, Rigondeaux left little doubt as to who the better man was. The scorecards were recounted before they were read, but however long it took to do the math the outcome was correct: Rigondeaux won by scores of 114-113, 115-112, and 116-111.
Asked as to how he managed to so easily diffuse of one boxing’s most explosive fighters, Rigondeaux, 12-0 (8), offered, “With one shot is just no way to fight.” A laconic response perhaps, but brevity and simplicity are the mark of brilliance, and Rigondeaux is just that. What the future holds for him is unclear, though a rematch with Donaire is certainly a possibility.
That rematch may have to wait however, as Donaire, 30-2 (20), intends to have surgery on an injured shoulder, had already intended to take some time off to prepare for fatherhood, and plans on moving to featherweight. But rest, repair, and four pounds may not be enough to win a rematch. Donaire may not have to part with trainer Robert Garcia, but if he retains his services, Donaire should make sure Garcia is an active participant in his preparation. There was seemingly no game plan for Donaire, and when Rigondeaux nullified his left hook, Donaire was essentially declawed. Garcia asked Donaire to cook, but never gave him the recipe, which is hardly an acceptable contribution from a trainer many believe is among the best. Ultimately, there is no shame in losing to an elite fighter like Rigondeaux, and Donaire will certainly recover as long as he is willing to rectify his mistakes and rise from his snowy slumber.