The biggest fight since Mike Tyson left the sport is the one that never happened: Manny Pacquiao versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. The second-biggest fight in that time also never happened, which was a rematch of the first Pacquiao-Mayweather Jr. fight. And if both of those fights had been made and come anywhere close to fulfilling expectations, the rubber match might have been more important than the first two. It's a sad statement about boxing that since Tyson the fights that have captured our imaginations most are those that failed to materialize.
But on April 13 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, two champions -- Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeaux -- will square off, and we just might get as close as we ever will to understanding what Pacquiao-Mayweather might have been: explosive talent colliding with virtuoso style.
Some of the greatest fights boxing has known we never saw coming. Who knew Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward would make history? What about Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo? When Donaire and Rigondeaux meet, all the ingredients will be there for something unusually special to unfold. On paper, this could be a better fight than Pacquiao-Mayweather ever would have been.
Like Pacquiao not so long ago, Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs) has been annihilating world-class competition with knockout of the year intentions. Nobody has done more to make the lower weight classes of boxing so exciting.
Donaire has become Pacquiao's successor and enters this fight on a spectacular 12-year, 30-fight winning streak. During that time, Donaire has never looked better than in the past 18 months, during which he earned ESPN's 2012 fighter of the year award.
Unlike a lot of other champions, Donaire actually wants to fight often and seems more disappointed than the fans when his fights, through no fault of his own, lack drama and excitement. Back in 2007, Donaire stepped into the spotlight and, as a 7-to-1 underdog, blew out Vic Darchinyan in the fifth round of what was widely hailed as both the upset and knockout of the year. He hasn't fought as an underdog since. Donaire rolls into the Rigondeaux fight coming off devastating back-to-back knockouts of Toshiaki Nishioka and Jorge Arce. As Pacquiao did before him, Donaire continues to press for the biggest challenges available in hopes of creating a lasting legacy.
As it happens, Mayweather often has proven to be the most exciting fighter in the world until he steps inside the ring. And once there, Mayweather possesses what most consider to be the finest skill set of any fighter on the planet. But one could argue that Rigondeaux can do everything Floyd can do -- and he can punch. No opponent Rigondeaux has faced as a pro has managed to avoid being dropped. Although Donaire is often hailed as the more exciting fighter, Rigondeaux, in fact, has the higher knockout percentage (72.0 percent to Donaire's 62.5 percent). Even more frightening than Rigondeaux's power is his punching accuracy, which sometimes gives you the impression that he could flip quarters into a parking meter from across the street if he wanted to.
Yet apart from boxing's most determined observers, Rigondeaux's technical and defensive genius, like Mayweather's before he turned heel, has struggled to find an audience -- a product of the fact that he spent the bulk of his career in Cuba. Nobody seems quite sure how many amateur fights he had before Fidel Castro threw him off the Cuban team for attempting to defect in 2007 (some argue more than 400, others closer to 250). Rigondeaux won everything he could win while an amateur, and he made it look easier than anyone ever has. At age 32, he has only 11 professional fights to his credit.
The Donaire fight is the sort of opportunity that led Rigondeaux to abandon both his country and his family. If he wins big and early, it could solidify not only his place in boxing but that of every great Cuban amateur boxer who turned down huge money to leave the island and turn pro. If Rigondeaux succeeds, Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon suddenly have a much stronger case in their respective mythical matchups, against Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Not long ago, George Foreman granted an interview in which he hailed Stevenson as the most dominant fighter, amateur or pro, of his era.
Rigondeaux stepping into the glare of Radio City Music Hall in New York City for one of the biggest fights in the sport feels a bit like Orlando Hernandez -- remember "El Duque"? -- pitching for the Yankees in the World Series not long after abandoning Cuba and crossing the Florida Straits. With this fight, win or lose, Rigondeaux's career earnings since defecting will pass the $1 million dollar mark. That sends a big message not just to every Cuban athlete, but to every Cuban, period, that if one is willing to fight for it, the American dream still exists. As Mayweather did when he took on Oscar De La Hoya, Rigondeaux is facing an infinitely more marketable, crowd-pleasing fighter and is not only out to win but to steal some of his audience.
Still, Donaire is favored to win by a 3-to-1 margin, a spread that isn't unwarranted. And Rigondeaux's most recent opponent, Roberto Marroquin, exposed a questionable chin. On the flip side, if Donaire tries to exploit that chin and fails, there might not be a more dangerous counterpuncher who has been born to make him pay for it.
Rigondeaux has twice fought more than 100 bouts without losing as an amateur, and he is undefeated so far as a professional. Donaire has strung together a dozen years of dominance. If either takes a risk, each knows he has zero room for error. Yet both fighters also know that in risk lies the opportunity for greatness -- perhaps their only opportunity. Each is tired of waiting, eager to make a definitive statement at the expense of the other man's pedigree.
For Donaire, already a top-five pound-for-pound fighter in most rankings, it's a chance to move into truly rarified air. For Rigondeaux, an opportunity to finally eclipse his amateur legacy by continuing one of the fastest ascents in the history of the sport. For fans of the very best fights being made, it's a decisive win.