Bantamweight titlist Nonito Donaire woke up Wednesday, one day closer to what he thought would be a world title unification fight with Zolani Tete in the semifinals of the World Boxing Super Series.
It was a far cry from where Donaire had been, having lost a decision at featherweight to former titlist Carl Frampton last April. Many left Donaire’s career for dead after that defeat but then he decided to move down two divisions to bantamweight, where he had not boxed since a 2011 title defense against Omar Narvaez, to join the eight-man tournament.
It has proved to be something of a rebirth for the four-division world titlist at age 36. In the November quarterfinals in Glasgow, Scotland, Donaire defeated the favored Ryan Burnett by fourth-round stoppage when Burnett could not continue because of a torn oblique muscle on his right side.
“It felt great winning another title against Burnett,” Donaire told ESPN. “It felt great being in a division I am comfortable in, but mainly I enjoy boxing a lot and I pretty much accomplished everything in boxing except for an undisputed title. It’s a great joy for me to keep beating these kids, and fighting and winning. That’s why I am in this tournament. I want to sustain this and do it as long as I can. This is where my excitement comes from.”
“It felt great winning another title against Burnett. It felt great being in a division I am comfortable in, but mainly I enjoy boxing a lot and I pretty much accomplished everything in boxing except for an undisputed title. It’s a great joy for me to keep beating these kids, and fighting and winning. That’s why I am in this tournament.”
Donaire had hoped to add to his probable Hall of Fame résumé by unifying belts with Tete and was due to face the powerful South African southpaw Saturday (DAZN, 9 p.m. ET) in the co-feature of the junior welterweight semifinal between titlist Kiryl Relikh and Regis Prograis at the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Donaire had arrived in Lafayette on Saturday to put the finishing touches on his training with Kenny Adams and his father, Nonito Donaire Sr., and had been hearing rumors that Tete was hurt. With Tete also in Lafayette for fight week, Donaire said he didn’t give it much thought.
When Tete did not go through with a workout for the media Monday, Donaire began to think something was up.
“People were saying a lot of stuff, but I didn’t pay attention and the fight was good — until [Wednesday] when we had a team meeting and my wife [Rachel] broke the news to me,” Donaire said.
The news was that Tete (28-3, 21 KOs) had suffered a right shoulder injury during training. World Boxing Super Series promoter Kalle Sauerland said the injury had deteriorated to the point where he would be unable to compete. Tete had come to the fight site hoping to be able to work through it but was unable to.
Suddenly, Donaire’s dream of unifying two of the 118-pound titles was down for the count, but the show will go on as Donaire will make his first defense against Stephon Young, a tournament alternate who was due to fight on the undercard but now will take over Tete’s slot in the semifinals.
Rachel Donaire, who is both her husband’s manager and works as an assistant in his corner, said she had been hearing about a possible injury to Tete.
“We brushed it off because we don’t know what kind of games they’re playing, but we know the WBSS had somebody lined up in case something happens, which is smart,” she said. “Nonito is more irritated that the belt [Tete has] is out of the tournament than he has a new opponent. He wants all the belts and now this one is gone. So now he’s going to have to chase it later, but Nonito understands everything happens for a reason. If I were Tete would I chance fighting Nonito Donaire with an injury? Hell, no.”
Though Donaire is in the twilight of his career, 12 years removed from his sensational knockout of Vic Darchinyan to win his first world title at flyweight and eight years removed from his 2011 ESPN knockout of the year against Fernando Montiel to win two bantamweight belts, he now goes from being the underdog against Tete to the favorite against Young. Whatever his status to the oddsmakers, Donaire is relaxed and happy to be in the tournament but disappointed to have to make such a dramatic change days before the fight.
“We trained very hard for this fight and we were very, very confident in beating Tete. We dissected his style, his flaws, his strengths, but things happen,” Donaire said. “That’s something I will look forward to — unifying the belts. Just not this fight. I will for that after this fight. But the main thing is to win the tournament.
“The main thing is I still get to fight on Saturday. After the fight with Burnett I came into the gym in November thinking [the semifinals would be in] January, but they were pushed back to March and then April. So I have been ready to fight. I am here to win no matter who I am fighting. I have trained hard and have friends and family coming in for the fight. So this is just one of those things you have to be prepared for. I’ve faced so many fighters, so many styles, it’s something I can adapt to.”
Donaire (39-5, 25 KOs), a Philippines native, said his father and Adams immediately began to look for video of Young (18-1-3, 7 KOs), 30, of St. Louis, who now gets the unexpected opportunity of a lifetime.
“I was walking in circles for 10 minutes, eyes full of tears of joy. I felt amazing with the news,” Young said of finding out he was going to move into the tournament and get a world title opportunity. “It’s a real dream come true to be in this position. It doesn’t matter who I fight. I’m coming in to win versus anyone I step in there with. My mindset is strong. I have the utmost respect for Nonito. He is a great fighter and from what I see he’s a classy fighter outside the ring as well. I feel I will handle the big stage quite well and I rate my chances very, very good.”
Donaire didn’t want to insult Young but said he had never heard of him until he was told he would be the fighter replacing Tete.
“I have no knowledge other than he is a southpaw,” Donaire said. “I have not heard of him, but you can’t underestimate anyone. Right now we’re just gathering information and video to see what he does. I know he’s a southpaw, which is easier for me because we’ve been training for that since November because Tete is a southpaw. But Young is not as tall and rangy as Tete.
“It’s something I have to adjust to. Anyone can be dangerous, but the main thing is get through this guy and move on to the next fight and win the tournament.”
The Donaire-Young winner will meet the winner of the fight between titleholder Emmanuel Rodriguez and secondary titlist Naoya Inoue in a unification bout in the final this summer. Rodriguez and Inoue meet on May 18 in Glasgow, Scotland.
“I’m grateful for all the accomplishments and opportunities,” Donaire said. “There is not a doubt in my mind I will be a Hall of Famer — titles in four divisions, fighter of the year, knockout of the year, unified champion, not to mention the good guy award [in 2018 from the Boxing Writers Association of America]. What else can you ask for? I am very decorated and I want to claim some more, give it all I got in the career I enjoy and that gave me everything.”