The Bantamweight division is one of the most complex right now, with a host of fighters in and around world level. It's unfortunately a bit of a mess due to how many contenders there are floating about, and the fact that both the WBA and WBC have really mismanaged their titles this past year, but with the WBSS under way we should see the division being sorted out through 2019.
Nonito Donaire (39-5, 25) - WBA "Super" (0 defenses)
Filipino veteran Nonito Donaire became a champion once again this past November, just 2 weeks before his 36th birthday, when he defeated Ryan Burnett, who had to retire in the corner with a back injury. That win saw Donaire claim the WBA "super" title, that Burnett had held, and put himself in line for major bouts down the line. Although not the fighter he once was Donaire is still a tough, dangerous, experienced fighter who has a devastating left hook. Even prior to the injury for Burnett we saw Doniare having success against the younger, quicker man, and it seems like the move back down to Bantamweight may well give his career one last burst of life. Sadly though we wonder what his body still has left in it and whether he could really go 12 rounds at a good pace.
Naoya Inoue (17-0, 15) - WBA "Regular" (1 defense)
Although Donaire is the "super" champion it's probably fair to suggest that Naoya Inoue is the division's #1 fighter. He has fought just twice as a Bantamweight, but demolished both Jamie McDonnell and Juan Carlos Payno in those fights, stopping both men in the opening round. Inoue really made his name at Light Flyweight and Super Flyweight, winning world titles in both weight classes in 2014, and has notched up a string of notable wins during what has been a short and very exciting career. Dubbed the "Monster" Inoue is an incredibly scary fighter in the ring, with incredible power, timing and speed. The only questions he needs to answer are related to his durability, and he has had a history of hand problems during his career.
Zolani Tete (28-3, 21) - WBO (3 defenses)
Talented, yet frustrating, WBO Zolani Tete is a big of an enigma at Bantamweight. He moved to the division a few years ago and and quickly took the WBO "interim" title, by defeating Arthur Villanueva in a dire and forgetable fight. He then followed that up by smashing Siboniso Gonya in 11 seconds before being defending his belt in unmemorable bouts with Omar Andres Narvaez and Mikhail Aloyan, going 12 rounds against much smaller men. Tete is getting a reputation as a talented fighter who lacks killed instinct and is happy to just get wins, rather than get real attention from fans. The win over Gonya, and prior to that a win over Paul Butler, showed he was a talented puncher, but the reality seems to be that he struggles to create his own offense, and depends more on countering lesser opponents. Future bouts could see him settle at the weight, and he does have size advantage over everyone in the division, but it will take a change in mentality to change his growing reputation as a nightmare to watch.
Emmanuel Rodriguez (19-0, 12) - IBF (1 defense)
Unbeaten 26 year old Puerto Rican fighter Emmanuel Rodriguez is next in line to face Noaya Inoue, as part of the WBSS, and will be looking to build on recent wins over Paul Butler and Jason Moloney. In both of those bouts Rodriguez proved he was a talented fighter, with solid power, nice movement and solid all round technical skills. Sadly though, like Tete, he appears to lack killer instinct at the top level and against Moloney we were left with serious questions about his stamina and his potential weakness to body shots, something that would be a major problem against Inoue. He's proven to be very solid but we are waiting to see him answer a lot of questions and genuinely do look forward to seeing him in his next bout of the WBSS.
Reymart Gaballo (20-0, 17) - WBA "interim" (0 defenses)
One of the "forgotten" men of the division is WBA "interim" champion Reymart Gaballo, a hard hitting and unbeaten 22 year old Filipino who really came of age in March when he dominated the previously unbeaten Stephon Young. Gaballo lacks quality wins, other than the one over Young, though showed his ability recently against Julias Kisarawe, who lasted less than 3 minutes with Gaballo back in September. The "Assassin" is one of the division's dark horses, and whilst we all dislike the interim titles we do hope it leads to Gaballo getting good fights in the new year, sadly however the belt hasn't yet helped him get a notable foe, and he's yet to defense the title despite winning it back in around 9 months ago.
This past Saturday fans saw the popular Nonito Donaire (33-2, 21) claim the WBA Featherweight "super" title with a technical decision victory over the tricky South African Simpiwe Vetyeka (26-3, 16). The victory saw Donaire claiming a divisional "world title" in his 5th division and saw him becoming one of the few men to successfully move through so may divisions bridging from Flyweight to Featherweight.
Whilst the victory appears to be an excellent one on paper, beating the guy who stopped Daud Cino Yordan and retired Chris John, it's one that has left many questioning the referee, Luis Pabon and the legitimacy of the result. I'm not saying Donaire didn't deserve the victory, far from it in fact I feel that if the bout continued Donaire would have stopped Vetyeka, but the ending certainly left a nasty taste in the mouths of many including myself.
Rather than focus on the past I would like to take this opportunity to instead towards the future and try to see what Nonito Donaire's next step is, where his options lie and what would be the right move for the "Filipino Flash".
The obvious move, and one that does seem plausible given poor ending to his last fight, is a rematch with Vetyeka. Donaire himself hinted at that being something he wanted in the ring after the bout, it's a bout that makes sense and gives the chance for the Filipino to remove the bad taste that we have lingering on our tongues and down our throats.
It's a bout that makes sense to everyone. Donaire, as mentioned, gets to put the bout beyond doubt, Vetyeka gets a chance to avenge the loss, fans get to see the bout come to a natural conclusion and promoter Bob Arum gets to have a rematch of a fight that almost everyone wants to see again. The only man who loses face is Luis Pabon but in all honesty the damage to his reputation is already done and he'll certainly not be getting an invite back to Macau for a major fight any time soon.
Whilst this bout appears to make sense there is always some issues in boxing. This time around those issues could be the WBA who may want to force Donaire to fight someone else, after all they haven't had a Featherweight mandatory title fight since, er...anyone? You just know that after a while without a mandatory someone will be given one just to screw up a bout that makes sense.
There is also an issue regarding purses with Donaire possibly not getting the biggest payday to fight Vetyeka, especially compared with a number of fighters stateside who can draw more money than the hard to market South African.
Having mentioned the WBA briefly above it makes sense to perhaps second guess them and assume they'd want to see Donaire fight their "regular" champion Nicholas Walters (24-0, 20).
Walters, who stopped Vic Darchinyan on the same Macau show that Donaire beat Vetyeka on, is a big puncher though one with little in terms of hype and marketing. Hailing from Jamaica he's not got much of a loyal fan base and doesn't bring in big purses, despite his fun to watch KO's.
If the WBA want to force Donaire to fight Walters it makes sense for them, as they get a nice chunk of the purse and effectively "free up" a title, ergo have a revenue stream that may produce more money than Walters. It's also a bout that the WBA will feel is an easy sell to the promoter of both men, Bob Arum. Arum loves in house fights and this one which would easy to make from his side.
The purse wouldn't be great for Donaire and the bout certainly has danger written on it due to Walters's size and power but if the WBA order it then it could be a difficult one to avoid, especially given that they have the same promoter.
If the WBA is willing to leave Donaire alone then we have several other options that could bring in a lot of attention and possibly even go to pay per view in the US. Pay per view would mean a nice tasty purse for Donaire and a bigger payday for his promoter Bob Arum.
Possibly the most logical unification bout would see Donaire fighting against IBF champion Evgeny Gradovich (19-0, 9), another of Arum's Featherweights who featured on the recent Macau card. The bout would have a lot of sub stories and not just be a basic unification bout. Both men have been trained by Robert Garcia, though there is speculation that Garcia has had little involvement in Donaire's recent training camps and this could either be used as an excuse not to make the bout or as a story used to sell the bout.
If a bout with Gradovich can't be made due to Robert Garcia's relationship with both fighters then the next logical unification bout would be with the monstrously hard hitting Mexican Jhonny Gonzalez (56-8, 47), the current WBC champion. This is the sort of bout that everyone in boxing would be interested in as it pits two solid punchers against each other, both of whom can box and both of which are highly regarded in their division. This would be more than just a typical unification bout, this would be more like the #1 and #2 guys in the division meeting and that doesn't happen very often.
A third option would be a unification bout with the WBO champion. At the moment there is no WBO title holder though on June 21st Vasyl Lomachenko (1-1, 1) will be fighting Gary Russell Jr (24-0, 14) for the vacant belt. Lomachenko is yet another Arum fighter which would make that fight easy to make if the Ukrainian beats the currently unbeaten American. If Russell Jr wins that bout then Arum may pull out the stops to force a unification bout with the purpose of "getting revenge" over Russell Jr and their team with them having out bid Arum for the promotional rights for that fight.
Any of those 4 match ups would be great to see, they'd make sense in the US, they'd help clear up the division, and could all possibly pass for PPV. They'd likely offer bigger pay days than bouts with Vetyeka or Walters and, on the whole, they'd be easy to make.
If Donaire is the biggest name at 126lbs right now then the nearest "rival" is Abner Mares (26-1-1, 14) who appears to have had his path to a Donaire fight opened up by the recently separation of Golden Boy Promotion and their former CEO Richard Schaefer. Schaefer had refused to work with Top Rank, Donaire's promoter, though with Schaefer now gone we could end up seeing Top Rank Vs Golden Boy fighters on a regular basis.
With that in mind what better fight could be made than this one between the two biggest draws in the division?
It's a bout that has been mooted for a while though was always trapped in the political minefield of American boxing. Offers had been made back and forth but a deal was never likely to be made. Now however with the door open this bout could be the biggest Featherweight clash in years. It's just a shame that since the bout was first mooted both men have lost. Donaire was of course out pointed by Cuban slickster Guillermo Rigondeaux whilst Mares was stopped, in a round, by Jhonny Gonzalez, despite those losses it's still a bout almost everyone wants to see and it's the perfect way for Golden Boy and Top Rank to begin what could be a fruitful relationship.
Of course these aren't Donaire's only options but to me they are the ones that make the most sense and seem the most likely. They aren't guaranteed to happen but they do illustrate the fact he has a lot of options out there and, which ever choice he makes, will be a great choice that many fans will likely whilst a small minority will question. He's one of the very few fighters in boxing who has so many options that he really can take his pick based on what he wants rather than what the promoters want, a very powerful position for a fighter to be in right now.
(images courtesy of:
Top Rank -Donaire, Gradovich, Lomachenko and Walters
Boxrec.com-Vetyeka and Mares)
Takahiro Onaga is a regular contributor to Asian Boxing and will now be a featured writer in his own column where his takes his shot at various things in the boxing world.