For good reason, junior featherweight titlist Nonito Donaire was the consensus 2012 fighter of the year. He fought four times -- more than is typical for an elite fighter these days -- and powered his way to convincing victories against quality opponents while moving up in weight from bantamweight to win a pair of 122-pound world titles, although he wound up vacating one of them.
Donaire outpointed former titleholder Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. to claim a vacant belt (despite an injured hand), broke Jeffrey Mathebula's jaw in a lopsided unification victory, punished former titleholder Toshiaki Nishioka (who had never lost his belt in the ring) in a ninth-round knockout and concluded his campaign by blasting popular former titleholder Jorge Arce in three rounds.
Not only did Donaire dominate quality opponents, he knocked all of them down. In those four 2012 fights, Donaire scored seven total knockdowns.
On Thursday night in New York, Donaire made an appearance at the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner to pick up his fighter of the year trophy.
So what's an elite pound-for-pound champion to do for an encore?
All Donaire did was sign up for the toughest style fight he could make in his weight class -- a bout against fellow titleholder Guillermo Rigondeaux, the decorated Cuban amateur superstar, who won two Olympic gold medals and is widely considered to be one of the best amateur fighters in boxing history.
"Coming off a spectacular year, Donaire wanted to keep the momentum rolling in 2013," Top Rank president Todd duBoef said. "We are pleased that two of the most skilled athletes in the sport are reaching for their biggest challenges."
They will meet to unify their world titles on Saturday night (HBO, 11 ET/PT) at the iconic Radio City Music Hall in New York in a fight to determine supremacy at 122 pounds. The card is just the second in the 82-year history of the famed showroom; a prime Roy Jones Jr. defended the light heavyweight championship there with a shutout decision against David Telesco in 2000.
"Nonito is a great tactician and has enormous power, so I think it's going to be an exciting fight," Rigondeaux said through a translator. "At this point, it is the most important fight of my career. This fight will determine the best in the 122-pound weight class."
Although Donaire will face Rigondeaux, he was really the second choice. Donaire preferred to unify titles with Abner Mares.
But the prospect of that fight was slim to begin with because of the promotional war between Top Rank, Donaire's promoter, and Golden Boy Promotions, which handles Mares. Although Golden Boy offered Top Rank a junior featherweight-record $3 million fee to deliver Donaire for a June fight, it was done in a heavy-handed manner and the sides never came close to making a deal.
When it was clear that Donaire-Mares was not going to happen, Mares -- who wanted to fight Donaire as much as Donaire wanted to face him -- vacated his title and is moving up to challenge for a featherweight belt next month. Then Donaire changed his tune about facing Rigondeaux, which was a far easier fight to make because both fighters are represented by Top Rank.
It's a fight that Top Rank chairman Bob Arum has wanted to make virtually since the time Rigondeaux signed with the promoter in 2010.
"I am really looking forward to Nonito and Guillermo," Arum said. "I have thought about this fight for a real long time and I think it's going to be a classic battle."
During all of the chatter about the possible Donaire-Mares fight, some accused Donaire of trying to avoid Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs), 32, who defected in 2009 and now lives in Miami.
Although Rigondeaux has relatively little professional experience, his amateur pedigree makes up for it. He had around 400 amateur bouts and was the star of the powerhouse Cuban national team for years.
A southpaw with power and speed, Rigondeaux is far superior than his pro record might suggest, because of all his amateur experience. But at first, Donaire (31-1, 20 KOs), 30, a native of the Philippines who settled in San Leandro, Calif., said that he believed that Rigondeaux needed to earn his shot against him by beating somebody with a big name, which Rigondeaux hasn't done despite winning a world title in 2012 and making two defenses.
"In the beginning when I followed Rigondeaux, I wasn't impressed with the Ricardo Cordoba fight [for an interim belt in November 2010]," Donaire said. "But the more that I watched him fight, I realized he is more worthy of it. But first things first: I wanted to go Abner Mares first, then Rigondeaux. But that fight didn't happen and now that I have been watching Rigondeaux, the more formidable I see him [being]. I am seeing that he is a really tough guy.
"Not only does he have speed and power, but he does well mentally, so I am really excited about the fight. When you do this for awhile, like I have, you tend to be motivated by having a good fighter in front of you, and that is why I disregarded Rigondeaux in the beginning -- because of the Cordoba fight. So when the fight with Mares didn't happen, Rigondeaux was the next guy in line. The more that I watched him fight, the more excited I got about the fight. He has a lot of talent."
Rigondeaux, for his part, wanted to fight Donaire all along.
"I think this is what the world wants to see -- the top two boxers in the world in this weight class," he said. "This is what I came to America for. I think this will be a great battle. Nonito is one of the top boxers in the world and a gentleman. I'm looking forward to getting in the ring with him. We are both at the peak of our careers."
While Rigondeaux heaped praise on Donaire, his manager, Gary Hyde, did the trash talking.
"I think Nonito's confidence must have been boosted by his 2012 victories," Hyde said, "but when he feels Rigo's power, from angles he has never been hit from, the doubts that have haunted him every time he hears Rigo's name will be there again. But it will be too late to avoid Rigo then."
After Rigondeaux struggled in a split decision win against Cordoba, he then traveled to Ireland and crushed Willie Casey in the first round to defend the interim belt. Then came a knockout win against Rico Ramos to win the belt outright, followed by a five-round, five-knockdown obliteration of Teon Kennedy and a lopsided decision against Robert Marroquin in September.
"He fought better and progressed as he fought different opposition," Donaire said. "As much as I can say he hasn't fought the guys at my level, the more he fought, the better he got. That was worth the determination of me working hard.
"He's an incredible fighter. Having only 11 fights and becoming world champion, he's an elite fighter. That's why after Mares fell through he was the next guy in line. We want to fight the best. We want to clean up this division. That is the goal my team has."
Donaire trained for the fight with a lot on his mind. His wife, Rachel, is pregnant with their first child and due this summer. Donaire is very excited about the impending birth and plans to take time off after Saturday's fight. Don't expect four fights from him this year.
"To me, the most precious moments I have is feeling this kid kick," Donaire said. "To be there and to witness every movement and every kick, I am really happy. But once I get inside that ring, my focus is to win."
He said his wife's pregnancy has not been a distraction during his training camp.
"Not at all," he said. "As much as I like to spend time with my wife, when I am inside that ring, I have been performing well against my sparring partners and getting ready for the fight."
For all of Rigondeaux's amateur and pro success, Donaire is leaps and bounds better than anyone he has on his résumé, and he gives him respect.
"A victory over Nonito would show the world that I can compete against the best in the world in a professional capacity," Rigondeaux said. "I have great respect for Nonito. His record speaks for itself and what he has done as a professional boxer. I believe that I belong at this level, and if I am going to be the best, I believe you've got to beat the best."
Rigondeaux said beating Donaire would be bigger to him even than winning two Olympic gold medals.
"If we beat him, we can say we are true professionals," Rigondeaux said. "He can stop talking about me as an amateur. A win absolutely would be a bigger accomplishment than the gold medals.
"Obviously the public does not respect me because of the number of fights I have had. Nonito has three times the experience I have at the professional level, so the public has chosen Nonito as the favorite."
So it will be up to Rigondeaux to change that perception Saturday and start a bid for his own fighter of the year candidacy.