It was kind of a coming out party for Naoya Inoue on November 7, 2019. Inoue had been built as a sort of boxing superhero with Tyson-like power and Mayweather-like boxing skills.
He fought veteran Nonito Donaire that night in Saitama, Japan for the IBF-WBA bantamweight belts. Donaire was a measuring stick, of sorts, long established as one of the great lightweight fighters in boxing history.
Donaire’s full resume included a pair of wins over Vic Darchinyan and wins over Nicholas Walters, Fernando Montiel, Jorge Arce, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. and Hernan “Tyson” Marquez among many others.
The hype surrounding the undefeated Inoue was so high, however, that it turned out to be something of a coming out party for Donaire. Inoue broke Donaire’s orbital bone early in the fight, but Donaire not only fought bravely, but also superbly. Many had it as the fight of the year 2019.
They will meet in Saitama on Tuesday in a long-awaited rematch for the unified bantamweight title, and although Donaire fought brilliantly the first time around, there are plenty of changes in effect.
Most notable is in the corner, where Donaire’s wife, Rachel, will serve as his coach. In 2019, it was the great Kenny Adams, the former U.S. Olympic team trainer and one of boxing’s top teachers, and Donaire’s father, Nonito Sr., working around the corner and calling the shots.
At difficult times in the fight, however, Nonito looked to Rachel, not his corner, for advice. And that made her think.
“In the corner, they were both talking,” Rachel Donaire told Yahoo Sports. “Their game plans were different. And they spoke different languages. … They did an amazing job, but I think it was a bit confusing for Nonito.
Rachel has been the only voice around ever since and she made history in the ensuing fight when Nonito stopped Nordine Oubaali to reclaim a bantamweight belt. This made Rachel the first female trainer to work in the corner and guide a male fighter to a world title.
For years, Rachel would shout encouragement to her husband from the ring. And before the fights, they would work together in the living room on what moves he could try in the fight.
But starting with Oubaali, husband and wife agreed that the only voice Nonito would hear during a fight would be Rachel’s. She also worked with him to develop the game plan for Tuesday’s rematch.
He said he expects to be much better on Tuesday after getting caught up in his emotions in the first fight.
“I went in there with so many vulnerabilities and really didn’t care about anything but brawling,” he said. “This time I’m bringing everything I am, from a guy with speed, a guy who can counter, a guy who can think and, yes, a guy who can brawl. I’m going to bring everything that is in my combat skills this time instead of just going out and brawling.
Rachel said she watches a video of her husband’s next adversary, mostly looking for flaws, vulnerabilities and patterns. She comes up with ideas that she thinks will work, but then pitches them to him.
They work collaboratively on things to come up with the plan. But once that’s finalized, Rachel has a way of keeping her husband on point that the others don’t.
He would occasionally be independent in fights under other trainers. But he said the way he works with Rachel and the way they cooperate makes him more likely to stick to the plan.
His father, Adams, Robert Garcia, Ismael Salas and Jonathan Peñalosa were among his other coaches. They were all very accomplished and some of the best in the game, but they couldn’t connect with him on the level that Rachel can.
” To see her [as my trainer] is the biggest weapon I have because I can stay on track with the game plan compared to others,” Donaire said. “They were all great coaches, but they didn’t allow me to focus throughout the fight. But with Rach by my side and working with me the whole time, I know exactly what we’re doing, and she knows how to keep me focused throughout the fight.
He’s much more humble now, he told Yahoo Sports, than he once was. If he has one regret, it’s his defeat in 2013 at Radio City Music Hall in New York against Guillermo Rigondeaux. He was, he said, a handful to deal with.
And it was his attitude, he says, that cost him.
“I was very arrogant at that time,” he said when he faced Rigondeaux. “I was on top of the world, where I thought I was. I just didn’t give myself a chance because of my arrogance. But the thing is, every loss I suffered benefited me. J learned from them and they made me who I am.
And it turned him into a guy with the opportunity to upset one of the most highly regarded boxers in the world, a phenom who some say is already the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
These are the fights that Donaire has regularly sought out, but especially as he comes into the final stretch of his career. He’ll be 40 this year and he doesn’t have long left.
But he’s been struggling with house money for a while and this is another example.
“As a wife, I’m extremely proud of him,” Rachel said. “Not only has he never backed down from a challenge, he’s always sought them out. People should hear those conversations behind closed doors where he always wants the biggest fights.
“He’s not doing this for the money. We are well. We have a few businesses outside of boxing and we’re very comfortable. This is how his name can be cemented in the history books and how he can add to his legacy.
It is inconceivable that Donaire would not be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame the first time he is eligible. Now it’s just a race to see how far he can climb the list of all-time greats before ending the trip for good.