To look at Nonito Donaire in street clothes you would never guess that he was one of the best fighters in the world and that his small frame could generate lethal punching power. In fact, the baby-faced slugger, who will turn 27 in November, still gets carded at nightclubs.
Actually, Donaire, a native of the Philippines who moved to the Bay Area in California at 10, likes it when people underestimate him. He’s been underestimated his whole life. It is just more fuel for the inner fire that drives him in the ring.
Donaire (21-1, 14 knockouts) is a boxing lifer, though he’s had a love-hate relationship with the sport. At this moment, as he prepares to fight Rafael Concepcion in a junior bantamweight fight on Saturday in Las Vegas, he is back in love with the Sweet Science. Since handing Vic Darchinyan his first career loss and winning the IBF flyweight strap in July 2007, he is enjoying the best run of his career. Donaire has tallied three successful defenses, turning back the challenges of Luis Maldonado (KO 8), Moruti Mthalane (KO 6) and Raul Martinez (KO 4).
And Donaire has succeeded in the midst of controversy and personal turmoil. He recently severed ties with his father and longtime trainer, Nonito Donaire Sr. The Martinez fight was the first time he’s fought without his father in his corner.
Another major change came in August of last year when Donaire married the former Rachel Marcial, a Filipino-American who has brought a measure of stability to his life.
And while there is only one Manny Pacquiao, Donaire has also benefited from the Filipino people’s current infatuation with boxing. His fan base is growing in his native land and with Filipino-Americans.
A few weeks after Donaire beat Martinez, THE RING Managing Editor Joseph Santoliquito spoke at length with “The Filipino Flash” about his life and career.
THE RING: How does it feel to be the second-most famous boxer in the Philippines?
Nonito Donaire: It feels good (laughs). I’m not into being competitive. I never saw myself as a competitive type of person. That’s why I could never see myself competing with Manny’s popularity.
THE RING: Prior to your recent knockout of Raul Martinez, you had only fought three times in the Philippines. How come?
ND: I turned pro and came back to the Philippines and tried to make it there. Nothing was happening, so I went back to the United States, but boxing really wasn’t in my heart that much. I was out for maybe a year, something around that area (seven months, from November 2002 to June 2003). I was around 21 then.
THE RING: What do you mean when you say that boxing wasn’t in your heart?
ND: There were a lot of things that were going on, father issues, and my love of the sport wasn’t there. I just did it because I was an amateur standout and I was always expected to box. Everything in our family was always boxing. It was the life my father chose for me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
THE RING: It doesn’t sound like you were in control of your own destiny.
ND: No, I wasn’t. It was all in my father’s hands, and I did what everyone else expected me to do. I went through this soul-searching thing, thinking maybe I should go to school; maybe I should do something different. I was scared to go into the ring because I felt I didn’t have it in me. I felt a lot of pressure coming from my pops and I felt pressure from everyone.
THE RING: What was it like carrying the weight of expectations?
ND: It became too much. I was boxing since I was 10. I had a scholarship offer to Northern Michigan University and my mom wanted me to take it. My dad, however, didn’t think it was something for me. I felt I had to listen to my dad. Being young, you tend to fold. You don’t know what to do, and then you turn to the very person who led you in that direction.
THE RING: Any regrets about briefly quitting?
ND: Not really, because it made me who I am. I was hanging with friends and getting drunk, but I realized that it wasn’t me. I realized I wasn’t that type of person. And I realized how much I loved boxing.
THE RING: Were you working when you weren’t boxing?
ND: For a while I was relying on my mom for money. I was a momma’s boy (laughs). Then I got a job at PetSmart, working with dogs. It was menial labor job. But it’s the first time I really felt normal, because I didn’t have to get up and train, train, train. Even in high school and when I was a little boy, I was waking up four, five in the morning and running hills. That’s what I did. It seems that’s all I did. That was my life.
THE RING: Tell us about your first amateur fight.
ND: My first fight as a kid I literally pissed in my pants going to the ring. I was freaking out. They were putting the gloves on me and I was so damned scared that I literally peed in my pants.
THE RING: Let me get this straight: In your first fight you peed your pants and then beat the piss out of the kid you were facing?
ND: That’s a good way to put it (laughs). I was always afraid to hit someone. Then, in my first fight this kid hit me and I went nuts. I beat the crap out of him. Looking back, I can remember my father kept telling me, “Hit him, hit him, hit him.” There was nowhere I could run in the ring (laughs), so I hit him. The kid hit me first and that seemed to trigger something. I started throwing straight punches, no hooks or uppercuts. I remember that feeling. I had no worries in my head. Just the one thought: I’m going to kill him before he kills me. I made his mouth and nose bleed. I was so surprised with myself that I won. I didn’t know I was capable of stuff like that.
THE RING: How empowering was that?
ND: Everyone was looking at me and shaking my hand. My father gave me a big hug and it felt really good to be on top for once. Before, everyone used to pick on me, but in the ring I got a chance to fight back and it was OK to hit back. It gave me a little confidence. Inside the ring, the confidence was there. It was like I was a different Nonito, and even to this day I’m different in the ring. In front of everyone I was the happy kid. But inside I was sad and there was some anger there, well, a lot of anger there. There were times I would just cry in school. Boxing was really my outlet for my anger. When I fought as an amateur, all that anger came out. There was no sense of winning or losing. I just want to punish all of the people who punished me.
THE RING: Where did that anger come from?
ND: Someone was always making fun of me. I have big ears and they called me Dumbo (laughs). I had buckteeth and they called me bucktooth beaver (laughs). It’s funny now that I’m an adult, but at the time it was really cruel. I was a little boy. I wasn’t looked at as being cool. Even the other kids who people made of made fun of made fun of me. That’s where I stood on the school food chain.
THE RING: How bad was it?
ND: It was really bad. I had no confidence then, none at all. I thought that was the way the world was. I was always afraid of everything. It was mostly a bad emotional time for me. I didn’t feel like I had any friends. It started in the Philippines with my big ears and my teeth and my nose was always dripping. In the United States, it was very different. The cruelty was a lot of different. All these kids were bigger than me. In fourth grade I would sit in the corner because no one would pick me to play different sports. But in sixth grade I started boxing and I was starting to become a better athlete, so I’d get picked over the fat kid in football (laughs). I was always chosen because I had speed. I was really agile, but I still got bullied anyway.
THE RING: Did you ever say anything to your parents about the bullying?
ND: That’s the one thing about kids, they’re afraid to say anything to their parents because they’re afraid something else would happen. I can imagine if I ever brought this to my dad. He would have wanted to go out and fight these kids.
THE RING: Did the bullying ever stop?
ND: When I was still in high school, I started being on TV in my amateur fights. One of the bigger guys who picked on me started showing respect. It was different then. No one challenged me. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore and it wasn’t because I got taller or anything. I was still little.
THE RING: Was there anybody besides your father who encouraged you to box?
ND: Andre Ward, the U.S. Olympian, had a big impact on me. He got me back into the sport. He hadn’t won the Olympics when I first met him, but he was helping me out. He would bring me to do a lot of things with him, like running and training. I didn’t have any money, so he would slip me a 20 to pay for my travel. I didn’t have enough money to go from my house to the gym. Andre and I were always together. He kept telling me, “Nonito, you have what it takes.” He used to tell me if I stuck in the amateurs longer, I would have been an Olympic gold medalist.
THE RING: What finally caused the split between you and your father?
ND: There was a lot of tension building up between me and my father after the Vic Darchinyan fight. But there has always been tension between the two of us. I never felt I had a say in my own training, and it’s not because I’m pigheaded. He’d yell at me when I wasn’t able to go 12 rounds with the mitts. He’d yell at me in front of everyone, and always pushing me, disregarding my pride and what my body could do. He thought he created me, and to make me feel guilty he told me that I was getting bigheaded, that I was big-timing him.
THE RING: I understand that the relationship with your father had an impact on your fight with Luis Maldonado.
ND: The day of the fight and the day before the fight, I was going to quit again. I wasn’t going into that ring. Believe me, I wasn’t going into that ring! Watch that fight again and notice my eyes. They’re really puffy because I was crying the night before the fight and the day of the fight. There were things said that made me want to quit again. I wanted my girlfriend around me – now my wife, Rachel – and my father didn’t want that. He didn’t want her around. It was an old-school thing. He thought I was going to do something fighters aren’t supposed to do before they fight, like have sex (laughs). That’s classic. But it wasn’t just that. There were money issues and trust issues. What made me cry was that he didn’t trust me anymore. My father didn’t trust me and that hurts just saying it. All my life he was the one who programmed me and his remote didn’t work anymore. That pissed him off.
THE RING: Even with all the problems, you stopped Maldonado in the eighth round.
ND: My mom was there and we prayed, and Rachel was there and she helped me through it. I didn’t really want to go into the ring that night. I wouldn’t listen to him when my father told me to do something. Notice me in the corner of that fight. He’s talking and I’m looking straight ahead. He would talk and I didn’t hear him. I thought about quitting and losing, but I just have a lot of pride and I can’t let anyone beat me anymore. I can’t surrender to my father’s pressure and the negative energy that he tried putting in my head. My pride as a Filipino fighter kept me going. I won’t lose again to anyone. But in some old-school circles in the Philippines, they might say it’s being bigheaded that I defied my dad.
THE RING: Did the problems between your father and you also affect your performance against Moruti Mthalane?
ND: I didn’t train hard at all. The aura around me was so negative, and when there’s so much negativity, your body tends to wear out. The fight went on and afterward my father was very disappointed by my performance. I was disappointed too. I know what I’m capable of doing, and it bothered me that I didn’t do it and that my father wasn’t happy. He was disappointed. We were arguing and I wasn’t listening going into the Mthalane fight. He even asked my manager, Cameron Dunkin, what would happen to my career if I lost. Cameron didn’t tell me that until after the fight. I kept asking my father how I did, but he didn’t say a word to me after the Mthalane fight. But I knew he was very disappointed in me.
THE RING: If he didn’t say anything, how did you know he was disappointed?
ND: When he went back to Philippines, all these things started circulating around the Internet about how he wasn’t impressed with the fight and how my wife is to blame. That’s how I found out. He never said anything to my face. Nothing. It was spread all over that I was a bad, ungrateful kid who has a big head. That doesn’t go over too well in the Philippines.
THE RING: Did Rachel get the blame?
ND: Rachel had nothing to do with it, but my father was claiming that Rachel was messing up my training, which was silly. She doesn’t know how to hold the mitts. The only thing I remember was asking her to get me some water, when my father was training some other guy. My father saw Rachel as a threat to him. She was the one who told me that I had to put my foot down. She made me realize I didn’t want to be like other fighters and end up broke. There was money going to my father’s friends for tickets and rooms. I was always being the obedient son, buying people flights and rooms. It had to stop.
THE RING: Rachel changed that?
ND: Rachel is a strong girl and she doesn’t like anyone taking advantage of me. She’s the one who stopped me from giving free tickets and flying people to fights and giving them rooms.
THE RING: It is part of the Filipino culture for the son to do whatever the father says?
ND: It is the culture. But I was dealing with these people who could afford the plane tickets and the rooms. Still, I always said yes. I didn’t want to fight about it. My father has a lot of friends. I felt like I spent all my life making people happy. I suppose that goes with any culture though. They see people on top, and they want to hang on. All I know is that I’m proud to be Filipino. We’re so hospitable that people take advantage of it. People like me and Manny, we can’t say no. That’s where my wife comes in. She tells everybody no (laughs). The money I make now is the money our kids are going to live on and the money I’ll live on for the rest of my life. I grew up with my mother and father fighting over money each morning. I don’t want that to be me.
THE RING: How did you meet Rachel?
ND: She won this Taekwondo tournament, and I went to the after-party on Sept. 13, 2007, my brother’s birthday. I’ll say she approached me, but she’ll say something different. I was in line to get into this club lounge for the after-party and she tried to get me. Someone saw me and they let me in. I walked in and she introduced herself to me. I was talking to someone when she approached me. I said hello and went back to talking to the guy. When I turned back around to talk with her, she was gone. I thought, What a bitch. Later that night, we danced and you could tell the sparks were going.
Rachel (interrupting): All my friends told me he was a world champion. It was my party for winning a gold medal, and I thought it was rude the way he turned his back on me to talk to someone else. He treated me like I was one of his crazed fans, and then he wouldn’t let me alone (laughs). He had his eye on me. He doesn’t like to drive, but he would drive from Sam Leandro to Sam Mateo just to bring me dinner. The funny part is that he was the first to say “I love you.” He said that to me a week after we met (laughs).
THE RING: How has marriage changed your life?
ND: It changed for the positive. I don’t worry about anyone screwing me over for anything. Rachel completely takes care of me and I have my best friend with me. That’s the way I see it. I don’t have to go out and hang out with my friends. I’m happy chilling at home and watching TV or watching a movie. It’s a lot easier for me. I’m moving toward becoming a better person. We are the complete opposites of each other. She tries to apply common sense and logic to things in boxing (laughs), and I tell her to calm down because there isn’t much common sense or logic in boxing. She keeps me straight and firm with decisions. I don’t want to say no to people, and she says no out of common sense.
THE RING: Knocking out Darchinyan was a breakthrough fight for you. What do you recall about that fight?
ND: I wasn’t at 100 percent when I fought Darchinyan. I didn’t spar much. The longest sparring session was seven rounds. I did a lot of running and a lot of work with the mitts. It was the biggest fight of my life, but we didn’t have enough money to go to training camps and stay in hotels for weeks or months. We did most of the training two weeks before the fight, and that’s almost unheard of. Normally, that’s when you slow down and give your body rest.
THE RING: Even with those problems, did you have a good feeling going into the fight?
ND: Yeah, I did. I was confident I would knock him out. People would wonder if I was serious or not. I just had one thing in mind: to beat him and knock him out. That gave me more satisfaction than anything I ever did before.
THE RING: Did Darchinyan say anything to you after the fight?
ND: He didn’t know where he was after the fight (laughs). I may have hit him so hard, he didn’t even know he was knocked out (laughs). Vic is very annoying. He’s the kind of guy you love if he’s on your team and hate when he’s on the other team, and he’s on the other team with me. I’ll be honest. I wanted him to get up after I knocked him down, so I could punch him some more. I like fighting those types of guys because they bring out the best in me. They’re kind of what drives me. Vic didn’t show me any respect. Maybe that’s why I ran around the ring like a lunatic after realizing I’d become a world champion.
THE RING: Would you like you fight Darchinyan again?
ND: Darchinyan is the bully who picked on everyone. I definitely want him again. I want to kill this guy. I want to beat and punish him because he’s a bully. I want to shut him up once and for all. I haven’t ducked him and I haven’t spoke to him at all, because I can’t understand him anyway (laughs). It’s not that I hate him. I respect him as a fighter. He’s cool when he’s a fighter, but the person that I am outside of the ring is different than him. In my mind, he’s still a bully. Maybe he was one of those kids who were bullied too. When he fought my brother, Glenn, he was flexing and all of his people were talking crap. But he was afraid of me because I didn’t back down. I stood tall. He didn’t flex when we weighed in and he didn’t look me in the eye too long.
THE RING: Tell me about your current trainers.
ND: The Penalosa brothers Dodie Boy, Jonathan, and Gerry. They’ve basically extended what my father already has taught me. The big difference is that with these guys, I’m my own man. I’m the one who is getting up in the morning and these guys treat me like a man. They have respect for me. Gerry taught me how to be defensive and tactical, Dodie Boy teaches power and Jonathan teaches speed. They all have a specialty that helps me. If someone has to take the reigns, it’s Gerry. He fought a great fight and showed fearlessness in taking on Juan Manuel Lopez, but his focus now will be on training me. These guys are great not only inside the ring, but outside the ring. I love working with them.
THE RING: How much has Manny Pacquiao’s tremendous success affected you and other Filipino boxers?
ND: Manny is pretty much the Philippines’ Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps all wrapped up into one (laughs). He’s the one who has made the country a big fan of boxing. He’s an icon. It’s impacted me. Manny opened up Filipino boxing to the world. Early in my career, people wouldn’t sign me because I wasn’t Mexican or Puerto Rican. I was just a steppingstone early in my career. Filipino fighters never got the push we’re all getting now. That’s why I’m so thankful to Manny for opening up that door. Without him, it would be so hard for us.
THE RING: Can you see yourself fighting Pacquiao one day?
ND: The guy is a monster. He’s a mutant with super powers (laughs). Every time he gets into that ring, he gets better. For me, he’s the king of boxing. I seek the very best out there, but my loyalty is toward him. You have to show respect to the king. I’ll turn 27 this year and he just turned 30. I can see myself at … 126 in a year or two from now, but it would shut the Philippines down if we ever fought. Manny pretty much does that already by himself (laughs).
THE RING: Do you have a hit list?
ND: Not really. But I would like to fight Daisuke Naito. I told Top Rank to make it happen. I’ll go anywhere or do anything to fight Naito or Pongsalek Wongjonkam. I’ll go to Japan, but Thailand is a different level. That’s a place you’d never win a decision.
THE RING: What kind of reaction do you get in the Philippines when you returned to fight Martinez in April?
ND: It took me an hour or two to go from the media room to my room and back again. It’s a walk that would usually take me 10 minutes. I was mobbed that much. But I’m thankful for everyone’s support. I got a good dose of how much the Philippines loves me at Manny’s fight against Ricky Hatton. If I go to the mall, I’m mobbed. In restaurants, they come and take pictures and stuff. It’s incredible how great the support fighters are getting in the Philippines.
THE RING: What was it like returning to your home province of Bohol?
ND: I got to see all my friends who once made fun of me. They’re the same age as me, but they look really old (laughs). Maybe it’s life wearing them down. They look at me much differently, of course, because I could have been one of those guys. They fish for food or work for a company. Life is taking them down to where their teeth are falling out.
THE RING: Without boxing, where do you think you would be?
ND: I don’t know. I was working on my high school diploma. I’m still working on it. I’m in a good spot right now and I’m thankful for my faith in God and that things happen for a reason. I learned to never give up and do your best every time.
THE RING: What kind of relationship do you have with your father these days?
THE RING: Have you spoken to your father recently?
ND: I last spoke with my father at the Moruti Mthalane fight in November 2008. There is no hatred toward each other. He’s training a lot of fighters now in the Philippines and I’m busy doing my own thing. We’re pretty much alike and I suppose that’s why we butt heads all of the time. We don’t accept our mistakes. But I have to stand up for myself. We’re so alike that we know each other’s personalities.
THE RING: How much longer do you see yourself fighting?
ND: I would like to do this as long as I can, like Bernard Hopkins. I want to accomplish a lot. I want to one day be a Hall of Famer. I want to see how far I can go with boxing. Training keeps me going. I love to box, and it’s the first time in my life that I can say that. So I want to keep it going. I hated boxing at one time because I was forced to it. Now each day I look forward to training. When I’m not training, I get antsy and hotheaded and impatient. This time, I’m boxing for me. Hopefully, me and my father can get this out of the way and be a family again. I’m finally boxing for myself. I’m confident when I enter that ring. There’s no fear. I have a different view of boxing and a different life than before. I’m a happy man.