Nonito Donaire was on top of the world heading into his April junior featherweight title unification bout with Guillermo Rigondeaux.
The reigning fighter of the year was coming off a breakthrough, four-fight campaign in 2012 and was just about universally recognized as the third-best fighter in the world -- pound for pound -- when he fell victim to the technical wizardry of Rigondeaux by unanimous decision.
After a seven-month layoff following shoulder surgery and the birth of his first child, Donaire, 30, returns to face Vic Darchinyan (39-5-1, 28 KOs) in a rematch of their 2007 flyweight bout, won by Donaire via fifth-round TKO.
Both fighters will be making their debut at 126 pounds Saturday (HBO, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT) at American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. The card will be headlined by Rocky Martinez's junior lightweight title defense against Mikey Garcia.
Donaire (31-2, 20 KOs) took time away from training camp last week to tell ESPN.com about his mindset entering Saturday's return:
For how active you were in 2012, your seven-month gap between fights feels like an eternity. How has the time away from the ring helped you?
"It has been great. It has made me try and think where I want to be in boxing. When you spend a little bit of time with your family, you kind of know where you want to be and which direction you want to take. It has been a really good time off for me."
You mentioned an injured shoulder immediately following your loss to Rigondeaux and took a heavy amount of criticism from those who felt you were making excuses. But how hurt were you in that fight?
"In January, I had an MRI on my shoulder. The doctor told me not to fight because I had a full tear in my rotator cuff. But I wanted to go in there anyways. It didn't matter, regardless, whether the doctor said I was really bad and injured or I shouldn't fight. I chose to be in there, and that was the mistake that I made. In terms of the severity of the injury, right after the fight, I got it fixed and I was out for about two months."
In hindsight, how would you rate your performance against Rigondeaux?
"It was not me at all. I couldn't throw a right hand and that's pretty much the main weapon for a left-handed fighter, and I couldn't do that because of the injury. We tried to lay off of it as much as we can so we would be able to throw it in the fight. But without practicing it in the gym, you just don't have the muscle memory to throw it right away. So, instead of throwing it, I was arguing with myself about not throwing it. So that was a problem in that I kept it to the point where I started trying to heal it during the time when I was training. And I started to hold it instead of throwing it."
Was there any part of you that was surprised at how sharp Rigondeaux was that night?
"I wasn't surprised because I was able to catch up with him. It's just my body wouldn't throw the punches that I wanted to throw. It was just more of myself -- I didn't pull the trigger. I just argued with myself most of the time rather than throwing the punches. We expected him to be a little bit difficult, but it was just a thing that I couldn't do it. If I would have been able to, it would have been a different situation. That's the next fight that will happen to show what I'm capable of. For that fight, there's really nothing more I can say."
Based upon how quickly your critics tried to make the case you were exposed in the Rigondeaux fight, do you feel you have a lot to prove [on Saturday]?
"Not really. I just go out there and fight each fight. I don't look back on the people that I beat, and I don't look back at the people that beat me. I go fight by fight and improve the best that I can. I never really put any thought into the pound-for-pound rating and was just honored that I was part of it. That's pretty much how it's going to be. I leave those opinions to people that want to have that opinion. If they think that I'm done, I don't think that I'm done. I feel strong. I feel young. I feel good. So this is how human nature is: We hit a roadblock and they think it's the end of the world, but to me, it's not."
How do you feel physically as you enter a new weight class at featherweight?
"I feel great. When I was sparring or training before, I was training to lose weight. This time, I'm training for a game plan, training for speed. I'm training for things I need to do inside that ring rather than before when I was training to lose weight. I feel good. Hopefully, my body will adjust to this division well. So far, it has been great. Speed has been coming back to me. It has been good."
How motivated do you think Darchinyan is going to be in this rematch?
"Very motivated. This is his last attempt. This is a life-and-death situation for him. This is where everything leads for him. Every fight the one before has led him to here. This is the most important fight for his career. It isn't when he was undefeated or got all those championships. For him, this is the biggest fight of his life. This is the fight that he needs to clear his name."
Your first fight against him in 2007 was the one that really put you on the map. How important was that fight to your confidence at the time?
"I realized that I wasn't afraid of the world champ. I wasn't afraid when I went inside that ring. I wasn't afraid of the guy who was at the top of that division. I wanted to fight that guy. I started to realize that I'm capable of being where I'm at and being a world's champion. You start to get that confidence to start winning fights. Your name just gets bigger and bigger because now everybody is looking at you because you knocked out the guy who everybody feared in the division. And they know you have one-punch power, and I was given more opportunities to showcase my ability and my power."
When people talk about potential big-name fights for you, inevitably the name Mikey Garcia is going to come up. It's a very unlikely bout because the two of you share the same trainer, but is it one you could ever see yourself interested in?
"I don't want to go there. For me, I have respect and love for the Garcia family. They've been great to me. To me, that's not even a question of whether that fight will ever be."
What are your thoughts on the featherweight division in general?
"It has been interesting. They had the [Ukrainian] kid [Vasyl] Lomachenko, who everybody has eyes on him. For his pro debut, he was impressive. He went and did what he needed to do. You also have the rugged [Orlando] Salido. You have Chris John as well, a good champion for a long time. There's a lot of good fighters in the division."
If you get past Darchinyan, would you be interested in a rematch with Rigondeaux?
"Definitely. If I have to fight him, it's not for revenge. It's to showcase that I'm capable of much more than what I showed the last time."
Do you think you would have any difficulty securing a rematch?
"They will come. When they are not getting anything, they will come. I'm the biggest guy out there for them. When he fought me, he got the biggest pay and it would be the same way again. They will come. Once they are done running around, they'll come to me."