Nonito Donaire climbs back into the ring this Saturday in Corpus Christi, Texas, against Vic Darchinyan, his first bout since losing the WBO and WBA super bantamweight title to Guillermo Rigondeaux. The day and night of that loss in April in New York, ESPN The Magazine shadowed Donaire's wife, Rachel, to experience the fight game from a spouse's point of view. Here's how it went.
On the day her husband defends his two title belts, Rachel Donaire wakes up in the cool air of Le Parker Meridien, Suite 3801. Through the thin light, she sees her hubby, Nonito, asleep on the couch, his feet elevated to prevent swelling. She slips out of the bed, careful not to wake him. On the day of a fight, nothing is more precious to a boxer than rest.
Hungry, Rachel heads downstairs to the hotel restaurant. It's full, so she retreats to her room. There, she relaxes on the brown leather love seat. Orders room service. And as Rachel stares out the window at the expanse of Central Park, a powerful sense of familiarity starts to envelop her. Not deja vu -- but sameness. Since they met in 2007, she has been by Nonito's side for each of his 13 fights, in places like San Antonio; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Quezon City, Philippines. Yet no matter the country or the city, the day of a championship bout is very much the same for a fighter, and therefore a fighter's wife. The sameness -- routines, rituals, details -- helps everyone feel safe, comfortable and in control.
Yet complete sameness does not exist on this April Saturday. When Rachel goes to answer the door, she feels a twinge in her belly. It's not a pang of hunger or fight-day jitters. It's the kick of Jarel, her soon-to-be first-born child.
The hotel restaurant. A four-top in the far corner. Rachel holds court with two well-heeled beauty and fashion publicists. Last May , Rachel launched a cosmetics line called Secret Agent Beauty, samples of which -- lip gloss, eyeliner, mascara -- are laid out on the tablecloth. "People just love the Foreign Intelligence Flirt," says one publicist. While Rachel wants to remain as close as possible to her husband, and help manage his camp, she knows not to crowd him. So, she things, why not be productive on the side? Though Rachel is very much Nonito's rock, she has her own drive and priorities. She'd been a collegiate and military taekwondo champion before they met.
Over frittatas and Nutella crepes, the three women talk business. Rachel appears calm, loose. She has to be, so that later, she can help Nonito eliminate any doubt or fear he might have about his fight. Confidence is key to winning a fight.
Rachel regales the women with lighthearted tales: How Nonito lost a bet and subjected himself to a Brazilian wax. How he enjoys wearing the clear Secret Agent lip gloss. How, when the two first met at a San Jose nightclub, Rachel thought her future husband was "all up in himself."
An hour later, the three exchange hugs and air-kisses in the marble-floored lobby.
"So great to catch up!"
"Call us when you're back in New York."
"Can't wait for the new products."
None of them ever mentions that evening's fight.
Team Donaire has assembled in the suite for its last prefight meeting. Thirteen bodies in all, including Nonito, trainers, cornermen, a security detail, a strength and conditioning coach, a masseuse and Gerry and Jenny Marcial, Rachel's Philippine-born parents. Rachel serves as ringmaster.
"The first group wants to leave here at 8:30," she says. "So that means everybody being downstairs at 8:20. Not downstairs with people missing."
No one argues. For the next 40 minutes they discuss traffic, the Radio City Music Hall dressing rooms, crowds, postfight interviews, Nonito's entrance to the ring, who's going to carry the Philippines flag, the postfight party, the VIP list. Rachel speaks in the clipped tone of a den mother addressing a group of restless Girl Scouts.
"We're not leaving for four hours," she snaps. "So I want everyone to charge their phones now. OK?"
"Yes mom," jokes one of trainers.
Meeting adjourned. Rachel remains on the couch, Nonito curled up beside her. Wielding a laptop and cellphone, she handles last-minute seating for friends, family and fan club members. Gilbert, a team assistant, brings over a pair of Nonito's Gucci loafers for her postfight party approval. She surfs the web, sends emails and watches a replay of yesterday's weigh-in, where Nonito towers over opponent Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with an 11-0 record.
"People are saying I'm going to knock him out in the second round, but I'm superstitious about the number two," says Nonito. "So I want to KO him in the first."
Rachel also thinks little of Rigondeaux. He's too inexperienced. He lunges. He's mouthy -- and the mouthy ones are usually scared.
The suite door opens. It's Jenny delivering Chipotle for her expectant daughter. As Rachel devours her burrito bowl, the door opens again. It's Frank Gore, the 49ers running back. He and Nonito share a trainer, and he has flown in for the fight. Gore parks his stocky frame across from the champ.
"You get nervous?" asks Gore.
"Not this time," says Nonito. "I know I'm going to beat him."
"After eight years I still get nervous," Gore says. "Like the Super Bowl this year. Except I just wanted to be the guy to not f--- it up."
"I just want to perform. Put on a good show," Nonito returns.
Gore laughs, then leaves, along with Rachel's mother. Nonito heads into the back bedroom for a nap.
"I'm going to take a shower," Rachel announces to no one in particular. She walks off to the bathroom.
For the first time today, the suite is totally quiet.
Dusk. Rachel, in track pants and tank top, sits facing the suite windows. Here on the 38th floor, the streetlamps in Central Park look like fireflies. From a blue bag, Rachel produces mascara, eyeliners, powders, compacts and a tray of eight brushes of varying size and density. For 30 minutes, she applies makeup with the meticulousness of a Kabuki actress.
Nonito, eyes still heavy with sleep, joins her in the living room. He lies down and stretches on a portable massage table. Rachel moves her operation to a full-length mirror beside the bathroom. He leaps up, shadowboxes, then returns to the table. She starts primping her hair. They don't talk.
Time seems to have slowed to a crawl. Both the fighter and his wife just want to get to Radio City Music Hall, get the bout underway. Waiting is excruciating, exhausting.
Curling iron in her left hand, Rachel checks her Facebook account with her right. Pictures from a friend's nuptials appear. Nonito would have been a groomsman if he wasn't about to fight.
Rachel looks up from the screen and into her reflection, twisting one of her locks. "This hair sure takes awhile," she says.
Suite 3801 returns to life as Team Donaire trickles back in, all except Rachel decked out for the evening. Still in sweats, she sits at a dining table doling out the night's payroll. After carefully looking over each invoice, she stuffs an envelope. Some receive a check, others cash.
Nonito appears in jeans and T-shirt. Ready to roll. He rubs her head and gives her a quick kiss. He shadowboxes for a few seconds. Paces restlessly.
"Want to eat something?" asks Rachel.
She finds a box of instant oatmeal. "Want it hot?"
Nonito nods and she pops the Styrofoam bowl in the microwave, gazing at the glowing timer. In theory, this could be her husband's last meal, given what he's about to do. The microwave beeps. She hands the steaming mix to Nonito. "All right ladies and gentlemen," he says heading for the door, "time for another day at the office."
Fifteen minutes later, Rachel emerges from the bedroom. Her outfit for the evening is an impossibly tight red dress. The effect is of a snake that's just eaten a gopher. Returning to the full-length mirror, Rachel adjusts her ample cleavage and tosses a curl over her shoulder.
"Your stomach's really showing," says Jenny.
"Thanks Mom. Tell me something I didn't know."
West 51st Street. Rachel emerges from a black SUV. Flanked by her mother and personal security detail -- two off-duty police officers in casual business attire -- she enters Radio City Music Hall through a side door. En route to the elevator, she encounters Melvina Latham, chairwoman of the New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing in the state. They smile warmly and hug. Rachel finds Nonito's dressing room on the third floor. The space is cramped, bright and hot. Cellophane covers the blue carpeting to protect it from sweat and blood. Rachel sits on a chair. She posts a picture of her red-dress self on Instagram. Observes as her husband stretches, shadowboxes and has his back cracked. After his hands are wrapped, Nonito bounces up and over to his wife. He crouches down and addresses her midsection. "Hey there, baby," he whispers. Rachel puts her hand on his shoulder. "I'm going into the ring for the first time since you've been here. I'll be OK. I love you."
Husband and wife then go to a corner of the dressing room and bow their heads. They pray that God gives Nonito the strength to do what he's trained for, that his guardian angels look out for him, that he remains safe. They never pray that he wins.
Minutes later comes the hardest part of the night. Rachel must leave her husband. She walks over to him, plants a quick kiss on his cheek and heads for the door. No drama.
Rachel finds herself in the front row, directly behind her husband. The red corner. In all of sports, perhaps nothing is more difficult than watching a loved one in the ring. Boxers' wives and girlfriends have been known to cover their eyes or weep or run out of the venue. In 1982, the wife of former WBC featherweight champion Bobby Chacon killed herself because he refused to stop fighting. Rachel has better coping mechanisms. Her stoicism hides her emotions. She plows her energy into keeping the team organized.
The bell rings for Round 1. Rachel is perched on the edge of her seat. Questions begin to flood her head: Has Nonito warmed up enough? Is he sweating? Moving well? Is his timing sharp? As she does every fight, she clutches a St. Michael necklace, a gift from Nonito.
By Round 2, the bout begins to take shape. It is more chess match than slugfest. The customarily dominant Donaire -- The Ring magazine's 2012 Fighter of the Year -- seems reluctant, unsure and unable to connect cleanly with the slick Cuban southpaw. While he's not getting beaten up, for the first half of the fight, the Filipino Flash is being beaten to the punch.
As Rachel watches her husband, her eyes sometimes narrow. She occasionally claps. She never takes her eyes off the action. Near the end of the sixth round, Donaire eats a hard right hand. "C'mon babe," says Rachel, her fingers rubbing the necklace as if she hoped a genie were inside.
Gradually, Nonito awakens. In Round 9, he pushes the action. In Round 10, he lands a perfect left hook and drops Rigondeaux. Rachel jumps up, her arms raised. She knows her husband will go in for the kill. He's a finisher. "C'mon baby," she implores as she sits back down and rubs her belly.
Yet the kill never comes. After a promising 11th round, Nonito fades in the final stanza. He backs away. Protects a swollen eye. Rigondeaux pounces, battering the champ around the ring. Rachel remains stoic. At the final bell, she stands and puts her hands on the railing in front of her. Could Nonito have lost? No. He's the champion. He hasn't lost in more than 12 years. Fighters of the Year don't lose like this.
"We have a unanimous decision," says Michael Buffer. "From the blue corner ..." Rigondeaux waves his fists triumphantly. Fans quickly head for the exit. Except Rachel. She stands immobile, for the next 10 minutes, just staring into the ring.
Rachel returns to the locker room. She finds an empty chair and carefully places her St. Michael's necklace in her purse. While the room is crowded -- officials, Top Rank staff, security -- no one stands near the fighter's wife. Nonito arrives with Team Donaire. The former champ looks as if he's been dropped out of a moving car onto his face. "Give me a f---ing break!" he steams. "I won that fight by being aggressive." No one really buys it. Nonito takes Rachel's face in his still-wrapped hands. "Sorry," he whispers as he kisses her.
The former champ is examined by a doctor. "See this white part of his eye," he explains to Rachel. "If it turns red, he'll need an X-ray."
"She'll handle it," says Nonito. "Remember, happy wife, happy life."
By 1 a.m., the energy in the dressing room starts to drain. Bags are packed. People trickle out. Yet Rachel waits. Nonito must provide both blood and urine samples for the New York State Athletic Commission. As he fills out paperwork, Rachel distracts herself with a few phone calls.
Thirty minutes later, the final sample is sealed.
"Let's roll," Nonito says.
Security detail in tow, Rachel makes for the door. Nonito leads the group to the stairs where the silent procession snakes down two flights to the side entrance. The door opens with a snap and Rachel follows her husband into the cool New York night.