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NONITO DONAIRE is hungover but he is smiling. His head is banging. A big night out in Las Vegas has him in a more vulnerable state than any of his 26 opponents have. And on the surface of things the beer-induced haze is the only thing he really needs to worry about in life as he welcomes me into his Sky Suite atop the Aria, Vegas' newest
skyscraper. It's not so much a suite as a top-deck two-floor mansion. It's nearly 60 floors above the heaving Strip and the full-length windows that line both the upstairs and downstairs of the apartment allow a complete inspection of the city.
The amount of glass that allows cascades of sunlight to pour through unobstructed is incredible. The furnishings are shiny metals and soft wood. The floorboards cushion your steps. Everything is top-of-the-range. Mac computers, a fully-stocked fridge-freezer, expansive flat screen TVs everywhere you turn and the lavish open-plan layout incorporates a dining room, living room, bar and a study area. The spiral staircase flows up to another bar that hosts a pool table. There is a separate room for haircuts, a luxurious bathroom and the master bedroom. The flick of one switch opens blinds and curtains that stretch the height and width of the vast space and there are more surely unparalleled views of the desert city.
Of course, there is plenty more to this staggering setting, not least His and Hers bathrooms, matching en suites. They are around twice the size of most people's front rooms.
Staff members are constantly checking on the diminutive Filipino. It is the type of place that would fit in at the high-end of those shown on the MTV Cribs series and seems almost wasted on such a small man, who fills but a fraction of each massive room.
But this is what you get when you are one of the world's best fighters. Donaire nestles anywhere between numbers three and six on most pound-for-pound lists. You have a glamorous wife (Rachel), amazing places to stay, fame and riches. He is not a bad looking guy, either. Certainly not when you consider he was bullied as a youngster for being small, chubby, having big ears and goofy teeth. Two things stand out, however, when I look at the 28-year-old who sinks snugly into a beige leather sofa that runs at a right angle to the one I perch on. Donaire likes this lifestyle but it doesn't really suit him. He rattles around in the place rather than owns it. You couldn't dislike the suite and he clearly doesn't. Yet he is an understated man with simple requirements that seem massively overwhelmed here.
Secondly, there is an apparent void that no material wealth can fill. It seems that no matter how much he goes on to achieve, whether he defeats dual (WBC and WBO)
bantamweight belt-holder Fernando Montiel on February 19 in one of 2011's most enticing match-ups, flattens Vic Darchinyan again or ends up beating the winner of Showtime's Super Four tournament later this year, something will be missing. There is a hefty weight on his petite shoulders. The feud that separated him from his father/trainer two years ago (or three fights ago) runs bitterly deep. He deals with it but it doesn't leave him.
Nonito Donaire Jnr always strived to please his parents. He lived his life for them.
“All my life, I have done everything for my family,” he says, leaning forwards and with an expression that shows the opulent surroundings actually count for very little. “Even my subjects in school, it was them who picked my subjects, it wasn't me. Everything that I did was for them. Anything and everything they've wanted me to do I have done. I was one of those kids who wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted my parents to be happy. I didn't want to be a burden to them. I have never been in trouble at all. And when
I finally became my own man, they were not ready to accept that. When I chose my wife, they were not ready to accept that. They did not want me to get married, they just wanted me to keep doing things that I've done for them and they wouldn't accept my wife.”
The words sound bitter but they are not uttered with a great deal of resentment, merely with a sad resignation that he won't, or can't, be who they want him to be.
“I love my wife. She's done so much for me and when my dad...” he stops to consider his next words carefully, then they tumble out. “You see, the thing is, he was an old-school kind of guy, you know. So we got into it because he just commands and commands and commands. That's the type of military mentality he has. You are always going to be wrong. There's nothing you can say. Regardless if the whole world thinks you're right, in my dad's eyes I know it's going to be wrong. And I've always been wrong in his eyes. That's why I stuck to boxing, because I didn't want to disappoint my dad. And it's fine because I got to where I'm at now.”
Donaire subscribes to the ‘everything happens for a reason' philosophy in life. His brother Glenn, a light-flyweight who retired in 2008 after losing to Ulises Solis for the IBF title, opened his younger sibling's eyes to the sport. Nonito was only 10 but instantly craved the respect and recognition Glenn got from fighting.
“He was getting all the attention,” sighs Nonito. “To be honest with you, growing up, I didn't think I could do anything. I was always bullied, people always made fun of me and I was afraid of everyone. I was the little boy who was going to grow up as nothing. In my head I had nothing. I never thought I would be something. I was pretty much one of those kids that has no future. I never believed I was able to do anything, I was always incapable of doing everything and people around me have always told me, ‘You're worth nothing'.
“Then my brother started boxing and, growing up, my family have always said, ‘Glenn's good-looking. Glenn's better than you, Glenn's this and this. Glenn's the best.' Filipinos tend to compare their children and being in the middle – me and my sister are in the middle – my older brother was the favourite. People loved him. Aunts loved him. They thought he was the best at everything and I wanted to be like him because he was just everything to my family.
“Then my sister is the only daughter, so of course their attention is going to go there. And my younger brother, who is three or four years younger than I am, is the baby, so I was left in the middle. I felt like I was trash and I never asked for anything from my parents because of the fact that I didn't want to burden them. That's how I felt. And all my life I wanted to be recognised by my parents, especially my dad. I hated boxing and I hated fighting but I did it because I saw the attention my brother was getting.
“You can go one of two ways in life. The one who is being oppressed is either going to be nothing or they're going to go beyond means so they can express who they are, so people know who they are. And I think that's me.”
Glenn, who now drives for a living and is married with two children, looked out for Nonito when they were growing up. In fact, the younger of the two admits Glenn was more of a father figure to him than their dad. That did not really help Nonito, though, who simply pined for his father's affections.
Still, he followed the instructions Nonito Snr laid out until one day it all became too much. His father broke him.
“There was an incident in training for the Moruti Mthalane fight [in November 2008] and I had an asthma attack,” recalls Donaire Jnr. “I couldn't go past 10 rounds in sparring and he wanted me to go 12. So he was yelling at me in front of everybody like I was a little boy.
“I couldn't do it and he was screaming at me and I've been brought up where I can't talk back to him at all, regardless of anything. Even if you are just suggesting something you can't talk back so I just dropped my head and said, ‘I can't do it. I don't know why'. He didn't know I'd had an asthma attack, he just kept pushing me and pushing me until my body couldn't do it. He was yelling at me and I just walked out of the gym. I went to a doctor and he said I had an asthma attack and that's why I have inhalers with me all the time now. And that was my last fight with my dad.”
The thing with Nonito Jnr is, he has self-respect now. He is humble but proud of the man he has become. The road has been hard.
He had his first fight when he was 11, five years after his family moved to California. He was so nervous he wet himself beforehand and then he got punched in the head.
“A switch went off in me,” he says, his eyes focusing intently on me. “All of a sudden, this kid who was nothing and couldn't believe he could do anything just flipped. And I was beating the crap out of this kid and gave him three or four eight-counts and battered his face up and at the time I wondered how I did it. I felt bad for the kid and I went to him and said, ‘I'm sorry for hitting you'. I never knew that I had it.”
Turns out the useless kid could fight a little. Unfortunately, outside the ropes it was back to square one. It did nothing for his confidence. He was still trying to please other people and remained dreadfully unhappy if he did not accomplish that sadly complicated goal.
“Outside that ring I was still the same old me.” He shakes his head. He has tried hard. Despite the win, he was still picked on. “Kids are very cruel because of the lack of knowledge,” he says.
The way he felt about himself was not helped by bullies or his family. It was worse when he was bullied by his family.
“Even they would call me the ugly duckling,” he continues, finding it as hard to say as I do to hear. “And that's harsh to be told that by your parents, by your aunts. It's hard to hear, ‘Hey, you're the ugly duckling'. I mean come on, I'm a little boy and you're going to tell me I'm ugly? So it really hit me and even in high school I had no confidence at all.”
For what it was worth at the time, he may as well have stayed in General Santos City in the Philippines where he lived until he was six. It was a ghetto. Crime was rife and thieves plied a rampant trade. His father was in the military and so never around much. His mother was a teacher and Donaire was three educational years behind boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao at the same school. They did not know each other then, but Manny's assistant trainer Buboy Fernandez took Nonito under his wing.
“He was the guy who looked after me,” smiles Donaire. “Buboy was my mum's student so for him to get a better score, he had to take care of me. That's how I've known them for a long time.”
The protection of Fernandez did not restrict the poverty the Donaires lived in. Nonito can recall harvesting rice, cutting it up with a knife, but he earned more money by climbing trees and plucking grapefruits and pomellas. He would skin them and sell them to his classmates so he could buy lunch. In the summer he and his mother would make homemade lollipops to provide a little extra income.
“We didn't have much,” Donaire says, clenching his fingers together to make one big fist as he sits back. “We lived in Bohol, a village where people would pretty much walk everywhere. There were motorcycles and that kind of stuff but at that time there was no electricity and I remember every night we would light candles and stuff like that.
“Sometimes when we were doing our homework I'd get too close to the paper I was reading and lean forward and burn my hair. But I remember when we rationed our food between the siblings and, of course, I'd get the smallest share. That's why I think I take care of what I have because I'm blessed with what I have and I know how hard life was growing up. We had shoes but we would never use them much because if we did we were afraid of wearing them out. It was the same with slippers. We would rather walk barefoot than use slippers. When we were with our friends when we went to school we could use them and say look, ‘We got new slippers.' And those slippers would cost only like a quarter [25 cents] or 50 cents.”
It is quite phenomenal to see him in the grandeur of today when you think of the hardship of yesterday. His past forces one to consider the magnificence of the suite. It's not really him. He could afford it, and might consider it if he was treating his wife to a few days away for her birthday. But it is his godfather's, a “high-roller” who employs a staff Donaire is friendly with. He's the same man that puts on a private jet for Donaire to leave Vegas for his home in San Francisco the next day.
“It's amazing,” he admits. “It's a totally upside-down world where you don't have anything at all and then you can afford nearly everything. When I go to the Philippines everybody recognises me. I can't really walk to the malls without people taking pictures and stuff like that, which I am truly blessed about. It's just amazing how my life has changed from nothing to something and being a young kid who never believed I could be anything to someone who maybe can inspire others.”
Nonito flew ‘home' to the Philippines, the place that he has always felt magnetised towards, a day or so later.
“There's always the feeling that I want to go home. You get spoiled over there and it's something you can't get over here.”
It is there where his super-stardom shines brightest, where his position in the adopted family of the president allows him to mix with the elite of society and where he finds an acceptance he never had from his own flesh and blood.
Life is not bad as the country's second best fighter, though one wonders if he would be more famous if he did not fight out of Pacquiao's shadow, or whether he is as eminent as he is because Manny blazed the trail.
“For me, it's not about being the most famous Filipino or anything like that,” he shrugs. “It's more about bringing pride and believing what I believe in and if people say you're the best or you're the second best, ‘Thank you,' I'm truly honoured that they have accepted me and acknowledged what I have done and feel that they are part of me when I'm in the ring. I bring my flag out proudly and express who I am and that's a Filipino
fighter. If people don't think that's enough then it's not enough. But I'm there to represent who I really am, what I am and I'm going to do the best I can, regardless of if they recognise me or not.”
He is still friendly with Buboy, and Manny likes him, too. But finding time to socialise with Pacquiao is tough.
“We actually have lunch sometimes but the man is very busy,” Donaire smiles. “He's a very, very busy guy and when we do hang out we talk about everything. Last time it was about acting because I was playing his cousin in the comedy series he does in the Philippines. But we talk about showbusiness, politics and sometimes boxing. The sport is huge in the Philippines. Manny can stop crime. When he fights the rebels and the military
usually have a truce for that day only and that's incredible. That's like a war going on and for one day it's like, ‘Hey, time-out. Let's go and watch Manny and let's have beer together'. That's how boxing is in the Philippines.”
Nonito has no interest in following in the 31-year-old Congressman's political footsteps, opting to inspire his people by simply being the best man and fighter he can be.
It was a mild December night in Las Vegas when his countryman inspired him and made him realise he could do similar things. It was the night Pacquiao destroyed Oscar De La Hoya, a man Donaire had always tried to emulate. He was scared for Manny “until his speed showed up”. But something rose out of Donaire that night. It dawned on him that there are no barriers in life other than the ones you construct in your mind. He thought he could do what Manny did. “I felt there was something like that burning inside me after that.”
It burns brighter than ever today. His only defeat was in 2001, a dodgy points loss over five rounds. He is now 25-1 (17) and he's looked sensational several times since beheading Vic with a perfect fifth-round left hook in 2007.
Despite the desire to please someone he perhaps never will, Donaire has never been happier. He might carry that burden with him outside the ring but inside the ropes he is finally free. He does not have to box to his old man's orders. He can express himself. His father would have hated him turning lefty against Hernan Marquez, but he did it because he could. Nonito Snr would have disliked his boy updating his Facebook status in the dressing room before he thrashed decent Wladimir Sidorenko earlier this month (“Just got done with my prayer. Will b in the ring in 2 fights”). Covering that fight for us, Jack Hirsch wrote: “Donaire made this fight look like an exhibition... At times, it looked like he was experimenting, trying new things.”
He was simply doing what he has always wanted to do but had felt shackled from doing. He gets on famously with new trainer Robert Garcia and would love a huge fight with Juan Manuel Lopez in the future. The era of no soda, sex or sweets is over. Nonito Jnr has surrounded himself with love. His wife is always by his side. He counts on his friends.
“I enjoy boxing now. I have never enjoyed boxing in all of my career, maybe because my dad was too hard on me and there was so much pressure. Boxing wasn't fun. I was dreading every day of it. But now I've learned to love the sport. Now, when people are around me, it makes me fight harder. It makes me stronger. I'm a very quiet guy.
I mean, I'm loud when it comes to my friends and I love to make them laugh and smile. But I want to know who is there for me, regardless of if I have nothing. I know that all the people I am with are the people that are willing to give me a home when I don't have one, who are willing to feed me when I'm hungry. So that is my way in life. I grew up rough and I grew up to see what life is about and what people are capable of. I'd rather stick to the people that are there for me, and I'm there for them.
“Every fight now is for everyone who supported me and believed in me. That's why I truly enjoy the game now.
“And I'm getting better because I'm able to express who I am so you will see the talent in me. When it was placed on me I didn't care if I lost. When they took the decision away from me in my second fight I didn't know how to react. I didn't want the sorry feeling in people's faces and the sadness in their eyes following me. I didn't like that at all, and that's why, for 10 years now, I haven't lost, because I don't want people pitying me.”
Time gets on and the interview is officially over. But we keep talking. We play pool as dusk arrives and The Strip beneath us begins to glow. He grabs us a beer each and orders us up a pizza. He beats me in the first game. There's not much in it and I think he's going to crack under the pressure of a three-ball onslaught. “You can tell everyone you kicked Donaire's butt,” he jokes. But he fires back, flukes one and then earns a handy victory. The second frame goes to the black. He sinks it but then the white drops into another pocket. One frame each; a draw. Only the second blemish on his record. We talk about his dad some more.
“I can bury him with what he has done. But he's my father. I have so much respect for my father,” he says with a passionate mix of disdain and sorrow. His heart longs for a reconciliation, but it does not mean he likes Nonito Snr. Nor does it mean he will ever be complete without his father telling him he is proud of him.
Nonito Jnr might never get his dad's approval. But he can express himself, be himself and make his country proud.
The smile might hide the hurt but at least, hungover or not, there is plenty to smile about.
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Boxing News 04 April 2013
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