Nonito Donaire was the 2012 consensus fighter of the year on the strength of four notable victories, including his unifying of junior featherweight belts.
But 2013 brought two shaky performances, including his first defeat in a dozen years. "The Filipino Flash" lost his 122-pound title via unanimous decision to Guillermo Rigondeaux in an April unification bout, and he suffered a facial fracture and struggled mightily before authoring a come-from-behind ninth-round knockout of Vic Darchinyan -- an opponent he had dusted to win a flyweight title in 2007 -- in his November featherweight debut.
"Last year I got away from what made me successful and I paid the price for that when I met Guillermo Rigondeaux," Donaire said. "And even when I knocked out Vic Darchinyan in our rematch last year, that wasn't the best me."
So will we see the 2012 Donaire or the 2013 version when he climbs into the ring to challenge Simpiwe Vetyeka for his featherweight world title on Saturday (HBO, 4 p.m. ET/PT, same-day tape delay) at the Venetian Macao's Cotai Arena in Macau?
Donaire said he is determined to be at his best and to reach what he believes is untapped potential, even after so much accomplishment. He said he took this fight more seriously than any in recent memory, including during his fighter of the year campaign.
"Mentally, we're different in terms of going in there now," Donaire said. "Before, it was just a process. Now I'm taking it more seriously. I'm going beyond just the minimum I have to do. Before, I would train and I would feel good and I had this feeling that I was doing enough and I kept it that level. I didn't learn new things and I pretty much relied on that one punch, that left hook. Training that way was enough for me.
"Every time I won, I was winning with that punch and I kept winning with the same amount of effort. But you saw what happened to me in 2013. This time we are going beyond just this being a process. I realized after Darchinyan and almost losing the fight that I really had to go back to where I was, to how I trained, mentally and physically. I need to make a statement in this fight and show people if I have it or not."
"I agree with Nonito 100 percent," said Nonito Donaire Sr., his father and trainer. "Nonito got away from what made him great -- his speed and footwork in combination with his power. Last year he just came forward, didn't move his head and relied too much on his power, and that's exactly the wrong way to fight a pure boxer like Rigondeaux, as we all saw.
"This camp we went back to Nonito's bread and butter -- creating a mix that combines speed, movement and power. I have never seen a fighter work harder and totally dedicate himself to his tasks than Nonito did during this training camp."
Although Donaire, 31, grew up in Northern California and lives in Las Vegas, he trained for the fight in his native Philippines under the guidance of his father, who had trained him for most of his career. But they were estranged for several years until a reunion before the fight with Darchinyan, for which the father was part of the corner, along with head trainer Robert Garcia.
Donaire (32-2, 21 KOs), who has won world titles in three weight classes (112, 118, 122), said his father will be in charge in the corner Saturday, although he said he expected Garcia, who is in Macau with one of his other fighters, to serve as a second and to also wrap his hands. Donaire said returning to train in the Philippines with his father was the right thing for him.
"It was amazing. I wish we had more time to work, but I'm starting to get back my old mentality and rhythm that I lost," Donaire said. "I know what I have now is much better than what I had.
"I feel that I got lucky with the right people that I fought [in 2012], who succumbed to my left hook. I still have that left hook. It's always going to be a scary hook. It was strong back then but now it's like a bullet."
Following Vetyeka-Donaire, the telecast will move to live coverage of the rematch between unified super middleweight titleholder Carl Froch and British countryman George Groves from Wembley Stadium in London.
The card in Macau, dubbed "Featherweight Fury," also features two other featherweight title bouts. Titleholder Evgeny Gradovich (18-0, 9 KOs), 27, of Russia, will be making his third title defense (all in Macau) against mandatory challenger Alexander Miskirtchian (24-2-1, 9 KOs), 28, a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia who lives in Belgium. And secondary titleholder Nicholas Walters (23-0, 19 KOs), 28, of Jamaica, will make his second defense against former flyweight and junior bantamweight titleholder Darchinyan (39-6-1, 28 KOs), 38, a native of Armenia based in Australia. The fight will be Darchinyan's first since the loss to Donaire.
Gradovich-Miskirtchian, Walters-Darchinyan and most of the rest of the undercard will stream live on Top Rank's website (www.toprank.tv) beginning at 6 a.m. ET Saturday.
The winners of those fights loom as possible opponents for Donaire, should he prevail.
"If he's successful, he has built-in opponents ready to go," Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said.
One of the undercard bouts not available via the live stream is the junior featherweight title eliminator between Chris Avalos (23-2, 17 KOs), 24, of Lancaster, Calif., and Yasutaka Ishimoto (24-6, 7 KOs), 32, of Japan. That bout will air on same-day tape delay on UniMas' "Solo Boxeo Tecate" at 11 p.m. ET/PT. The Avalos-Ishimoto winner will become the mandatory challenger for 122-pound titlist Kiko Martinez of Spain.
Donaire said he is taking the relatively unknown Vetyeka, 33, seriously because he views him as similar to himself before the breakout win against Darchinyan in 2007.
"Vetyeka is a really strong fighter. He can box, he has power," Donaire said. "He's not a walk in the park. He did what I did in making my name in the first place, when I knocked out 'Raging Bull.' That was me, what he did."
What the unheralded Vetyeka (26-2, 16 KOs), of South Africa, did was win his title in upset fashion by knocking out Indonesia's then-undefeated Chris John in the sixth round of a dominant performance in Australia in December. John had been boxing's longest active titleholder, having held his belt since 2004 and making 18 defenses. Had John retained the title against Vetyeka, the 19 successful defenses would have tied him with Hall of Famer Eusebio Pedroza for most in featherweight history.
"That's why we take this fight seriously. I know what he did," Donaire said. "He has power and good speed. And he has a lot of tools. I think he's a little taller than me and he's slightly bigger than I am, but that doesn't matter. I'm ready for bigger guys."
Said Vetyeka: "It is an honor to be on such a special card featuring three world champions from the same division. I have a great deal of respect for Nonito Donaire but I have no fear of him. I'm glad he accepted to challenge me but he is not going beat me. This is my title and more importantly this is my time."
Arum has big plans for Donaire -- whom he said signed a two-year contract extension with the company as part of the deal for the fight -- if he shows he can handle 126 pounds and win a title in his fourth weight class. Arum is doing regular cards in Macau and has plans to expand to Singapore later in the year, not to mention bring fights to pay-per-view in China. He hopes to make Donaire a big part of his Asian promotions.
"This is a very, very important fight for him because my goal is to make him a huge star in Asia," Arum said. "We have the opportunity now and the resources to make him a star such as he couldn't possibly become in the United States because there's a limit how far you can go with a guy like Nonito in the United States. But in Asia, it's unlimited because he's Asian and there is a great affinity for lighter-weight fighters in Asia compared to in the United States, and that he is Filipino is very helpful.
"I think he can be huge because as the market begins to accept him, he can be a big star in Macau, in Singapore and we can start having his fights shown on closed circuit and pay-per-view in the Philippines and in China. I can make him a lot of money, which is not something I could do in the United States."
Donaire said he appreciated Arum's plan but he's not thinking about it, only about beating Vetyeka and getting back on track.
"My motivation is about reaching my potential," he said. "I want to win this title and clean up the division and show what I am capable of.
"Whatever comes with that potential being reached, I'm with it. I just keep reaching, keep moving and looking forward. I want to keep getting better and reaching that potential I know I have."