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Nonito Donaire looks to defy boxing odds one more time against Naoya Inoue

Nonito Donaire (left) celebrated with Naoya Inoue after Inoue defeated Emmanuel Rodriguez in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament, setting up a finals clash between the two men. EPA/Robert Perry

Nonito Donaire is a lock to get into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. With eight titles won in four weight classes -- from flyweight to junior featherweight -- the "Filipino Flash" will surely gain entry on the first ballot.

Throughout his career, Donaire has been a world traveler. He fought in his native Philippines a few times, headlined in Macao, boxed in Northern Ireland and even made his way to Puerto Rico in between all of his outings across the United States.

But Donaire isn't finished yet. He adds Japan to that list on Thursday, when he faces Naoya Inoue in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight finals. If he's able to pull off yet another upset, Donaire will further cement his status as a true boxing legend.

The matchup stirs memories of an aged Muhammad Ali, thought to be a lamb being led to slaughter, against the young and menacing George Foreman during Foreman's intimidating peak in Zaire back in 1974. But a funny thing happened in that fight: Ali rope-a-doped his way to a stunning, eighth-round stoppage and regained the heavyweight title of the world.

Although this bout doesn't carry the same worldwide attention, the seemingly invincible champion is just as scary, if not more so. When the WBSS final was set, oddsmakers set Inoue as a -2500 favorite. Although that number is down to anywhere from -850 at Resorts in New Jersey to -1600 at FOX Bet, that's more of an indication of bettors trying to get a good value for their money at a tremendous price than a deep-seated belief that Donaire can pull off an upset.

That's clear when you try to find someone -- anyone -- tabbing Donaire to take home the Muhammad Ali Trophy.

Despite his pedigree and Hall of Fame credentials, Donaire is on the wrong side of his prime, and Inoue is at his apex. Inoue is considered to be among boxing's elite, No. 4 in ESPN's pound-for-pound rankings. He's in the stratosphere alongside the likes of Vasiliy Lomachenko, Terence Crawford and Canelo Alvarez.

Inoue's recent run has some believing he is the most dominant fighter in the sport. His past three foes (Jamie McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano and Emanuel Rodriguez) all had major world titles on their résumés. Rodriguez came into his bout with Inoue undefeated, holding the IBF bantamweight title.

None of them could even make it to the end of the second round. In fact, Inoue's past six opponents have been stopped by only one man: him.

Could this fight with Inoue be Donaire's "Rumble in the Jungle" moment? And if so, how can the 36-year-old Donaire (40-5, 26 KOs) upset Inoue (18-0, 16 KOs)?

If he does it, it will happen in the same way he has overcome the odds throughout his entire career.

"There's a lot of possibilities to win fights. I've always believed in a solution to everything," Donaire said. "I felt the same way when I fought Darchinyan the first time. I felt the same way when I fought Montiel. It was a daunting task, against guys who are incredible. I've been there. I know what to do.

"The tougher the fight, the more I show up. That's why I always seek to fight the best, and that's why I've always gone to seek the bigger fights because it always brings out the best in me. This fight [against Inoue] definitely is going to bring out the best of me in every way."


In 2007, Donaire was a relatively unknown prospect from Northern California. He was poised to face Vic Darchinyan (a -700 favorite), who at the time held the IBF 112-pound title and was the most intimidating fighter in the world below the featherweight division. Donaire befuddled his opponent and bested Darchinyan with a picture-perfect counter left hook in the fifth round to win his first world title.

That left hook would soon become Donaire's trademark weapon.

In 2011, Donaire scored a second-round TKO over WBC and WBO bantamweight champion Fernando Montiel with a tremendous left hook to the head. That moment was heralded as ESPN's knockout of the year.

Then, as he defeated the quartet of Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. (SD12) Jeffrey Mathebula (UD12), Toshiaki Nishioka (TKO9) and Jorge Arce (KO3) in 2012, he was recognized as a nearly unanimous fighter of the year, earning that distinction from ESPN, the Boxing Writers Association of America, The Ring, Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports.

"The tougher the fight, the more I show up. That's why I always seek to fight the best, and that's why I've always gone to seek the bigger fights because it always brings out the best in me. This fight [against Inoue] definitely is going to bring out the best of me in every way." Nonito Donaire

It's an accomplishment that he says is his most cherished.

"I was the best in that year, and that's not something a lot of people can say," Donaire said.

Being of Filipino descent meant falling under the considerable shadow of Manny Pacquiao, but for most of his career, Donaire has been able to carve out his own legacy. He went 12 years without losing a fight.

During that period of time, Donaire was a mesmerizing blend of speed and power but not exactly a textbook on the fundamentals of boxing. He was more Roy Jones Jr. than Bernard Hopkins in terms of style and panache inside the ring.

Not many fights below the featherweight class were featured on large platforms in the United States at that time, but Donaire became a regularly featured performer on the sport's biggest stages. Without Donaire, you could argue that there would have never been a Super Fly series on HBO, with televised fights between the best 115-pounders in the world. He made the small divisions matter.

For years, there was a glass floor as it related to the major networks televising the smaller weight classes. Although there would be the occasional featherweight fight broadcast in the States, weight classes below bantamweight were virtually ignored.

The perception was that these divisions were the domain of Latin and Asian fighters, who had major profiles in other parts of the world but were anonymous figures to casual fans in the States.

Beginning with Donaire's breakout performance against Darchinyan, he became a regular staple of HBO, which was the preeminent platform in boxing for decades. If you were a marquee prizefighter, chances are you were showcased on that network. It symbolized a certain elite status in boxing.

Donaire was among the pound-for-pound elite throughout his career, but as he moved up in weight, his momentum was slowly grounded down.

Of his five career losses, four have come above the bantamweight limit. Guillermo Rigondeaux beat him at junior featherweight, Nicholas Walters stopped him in six at featherweight (in Donaire's only TKO loss to date), and Jessie Magdaleno defeated him at 122. In April 2018, Donaire lost a 12-round decision to Carl Frampton at 126.

Since that fight against Frampton, Donaire moved back down to 118 pounds to be part of the World Boxing Super Series tournament. He has scored stoppage victories over Ryan Burnett (who suffered a back injury during that fight and has subsequently retired) and late replacement Stephon Young (who stepped in for the injured Zolani Tete) to reach the final against Inoue.

His road to Inoue, at least to this point, seems like a bit of a mirage -- more good fortune than an actual barometer of the 2019 version of Donaire. Perhaps a healthy Burnett or Tete would have given a more realistic projection of just where he is at the moment. In any case, Donaire's high-stakes finals showdown with Inoue will be something completely different.

If he pulls off an upset, it would be one of the biggest victories of Donaire's career -- a major achievement that would feature prominently among his overall history when Donaire eventually gains permanent residency in Canastota.

Donaire moved up in weight to chase more lucrative opportunities, but coming back down to bantamweight has put him in position for a late-career renaissance. Although it's easy to count Donaire out on Thursday, given Inoue's dominance, Donaire's career record in fights at or below the bantamweight limit is 28-1, with his lone loss coming in his second pro outing against Rosendo Sanchez.

Win or lose, the results point to an obvious conclusion: Bantamweight is where Donaire belonged all along.

"I think that has a lot to do with it because I'm in tip-top shape," Donaire said. "I'm at a level of confidence with my power, my speed, and everything is just coming back."