- Ron Borges
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NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, people used to pick on Nonito Donaire. It would be wise not to try that any more.
It's difficult to imagine a time when one of the hardest-hitting flyweights in the world would be victimized by bullies, but such was the life of the IBF champion as a young boy in the Philippines. He would, he has been told, wake up at night in tears, crying because he was fearful of what awaited him the next day once he ventured outside his grandparents' home.
This went on for three years, until not long after he and his three siblings rejoined their parents in San Leandro, Calif. It was there that Donaire discovered boxing, and through boxing the world discovered someone not even he knew existed.
"I was always being picked on," Donaire said Tuesday over lunch at Gallagher's, the Manhattan steak house. "I still think I have that [meek] personality outside the ring but boxing gave me confidence."
His father took him to the gym when he was 11 because he wanted him off the streets. His older brother Glenn was being recruited by gang members at the time.
"If he'd joined I would have followed his path," Nonito says, "but he boxed so I followed that path. I think it helped us become better kids. Once we got serious it was all about being in the gym every day. It made me disciplined. It was like my home."
Fourteen years later, that path led him to a world championship after only 19 fights, a championship that came to him because the boy who used to cry at night now makes others go to sleep. At least on the nights they have to fight him.
That was the fate of a cocky champion named Victor Darchinyan, a man who had the wrong impression of himself when he entered the ring on July 7. Or the wrong impression of Donaire.
Darchinyan had not only already beaten Donaire's brother, he left him with a broken jaw. He sent another challenger, Victor Burgos, to the hospital with a concussion. He was undefeated and thought he was going to bully the next kid the way other people used to back in the Philippines.
Then Darchinyan got hit with a perfect counter left hook in the sixth round and sank to the floor like he'd been hit with a two-by-four. He struggled to get up, but his face stayed plastered to the canvas as the referee counted over him.
When he finally pushed himself upright, Darchinyan's mind did not rise with him and he staggered blindly forward, walking right into the ropes. Had they not been there he would have walked straight into the crowd.
"When he hit his face on the floor the second time I knew I was a world champion," Donaire (18-1, 11 KOs) said only a few days before he will make his first title defense against Luis Maldonado as the opening fight on a Showtime card that headlines former champions Antonio Tarver and Vernon Forrest in far less challenging affairs.
"That was a great feeling."
It was far better than the one he used to have as a lonely boy, afraid to go outside or as a reluctant warrior trying to convince himself that one day he might like to box.
"I didn't like it," Donaire said of his early exposure to the sport. "I was always scared in the amateurs, but the minute I got in the ring it was like another person took over. I become more vicious. In there I love to hurt people. Outside I can't hurt a bug."
That's a break for the bugs and for any unsuspecting civilian who might decide to approach the 112-pound champion with mayhem on their mind. For if the Nonito Donaire who will be in the ring at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut on Saturday night was walking around in public with the same attitude he carries in the ring, there'd be an outbreak of concussions from San Leandro to Manhattan.
"Speed is power in boxing and this guy has very fast hands," says promoter Gary Shaw. "Darchinyan underestimated him because he had it easy with his brother. I told him one brother doesn't have anything to do with the other but he thought he was indestructible."
Darchinyan was wrong about that. Still, the one-punch power Donaire showed left some feeling there may have been an element of luck involved in landing that blow. The facts, however, don't seem to support that claim; Donaire has stopped or dropped every opponent but the only one to beat him, a kid named Rosendo Sanchez. Sanchez decisioned him in his second pro fight.
Donaire could be offended by the doubters, but he seems to hold no animosity toward them. Skeptics abound in boxing, as they do on the Internet where Donaire has an entirely different persona, and in both places he has a calm way of looking at doubters.
"People call me a nerd because I like to spend time on the computer," Donaire said. "I love playing games. I can be silly there. My Internet friends who I play games with say, 'This guy's a fighter?' I'm the last person they expect to be a fighter.
"In the amateurs I had some power but I didn't fight the way I do now. Once I turned pro I started dropping guys. By the fourth or fifth knockout I started to get the confidence, I could drop anybody but there are a lot of things I still need to prove.
"I guess that knockout wasn't enough to prove my talent is equal to other fighters so I'll do what I can to take Maldonado out."
That attitude is what made Donaire a world champion four months ago and it's what will put Maldonado at risk Saturday night. Maldonado is 37-1-1, his only loss coming by knockout to Darchinyan a year-and-a-half ago when he was still champion, and he proved his mettle when he fought highly-regarded Christian Mijares to a draw in Mexico the fight before he lost to Darchinyan. He is an able challenger who Donaire knows nothing about.
Then again, he knows what he'll carry with him into the ring and, frankly, that's good enough for him.
"I was never a pampered fighter," Donaire said. "I had to find a way to make people notice me. I get in the best shape I can and adjust during the fight. In the pros, it's you who decides the outcome. The best feeling is to win by knockout. Why take longer if you can do it early?"
Good question, for which Nonito Donaire has only one answer -- no reason he can think of.
Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.
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