NEW YORK -- What was the turning point in your career? It's a stock question, one every good fighter gets. For some it's the addition of a trainer, for others it's a defining win or the excision of a vice. The question rarely yields a deep or penetrating answer, yet when exploring the arc of a star in boxing, it almost always must be asked.
On Wednesday, sitting at a table inside the lobby at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, Nonito Donaire carefully considered the question. To his right sat his wife, Rachel, his rock, the soon-to-be mother of his son. He glanced at her, flashed a quick grin, before turning and locking eyes with a reporter.
"It's funny, it might sound corny to an extent, but the turning point for me was finding my partner, Rachel," Donaire said. "Because of her, I learned to love boxing."
Rachel Donaire's most vivid memory of meeting her husband was that, well, she didn't like him. In 2007, Rachel, an accomplished taekwondo fighter, was celebrating a win at the U.S. Nationals at a San Jose nightclub. A mutual friend invited Nonito, a brash, outwardly confident Filipino who was fresh off knocking out Vic Darchinyan to win his first major title. Inside the club, the two were introduced.
"He shook my hand and then turned his back on me," recalled Rachel. "I told my friend 'He's cute, but he's totally into himself.'"
Said Nonito, "I don't know what she said, but I was very polite. I was in a conversation with another guy so I had to turn around. When I turned back, she was gone. I thought she was a stuck up little girl."
Later, at an after party at Rachel's house, things didn't get much better. When Rachel put on a video of her fight, Nonito asked if that was really her. "I remember thinking, 'God, does this guy think I am showing video of a girl who looks like me just to impress you?" Rachel said. When Rachel sat down at the piano and started playing Righteous Brothers' 'Unchained Melody,' Nonito crashed her performance and belted out the lyrics.
"He didn't want to be outdone," Rachel said. "But then after that, I just couldn't get rid of him."
Indeed, Nonito was hooked. The next day, he came over Rachel's house to hang out. And the next day. And the next. A few days after the party, Rachel got sick. She told Nonito she didn't want to see him. He showed up with a jug of orange juice and made her chicken soup. The courtship was, at times, clumsy -- one of his 'moves,' Rachel said, was placing the DVD case of the Darchinyan fight on the piano and asking her to watch it -- but Rachel admired his persistence.
In the fall of '07, Nonito left California for the Philippines to train for a fight. Rachel figured the relationship would flicker out. Instead, Nonito called her every day, racking up, Rachel said, "a pretty impressive phone bill."
"I though he might just disappear," Rachel said. "But he made such an effort. That really impressed me."
Yet as Rachel would discover, Nonito's life was troublingly layered. Growing up in the Philippines, Nonito was picked on relentlessly. It continued when he moved to the U.S. when he was six. He was called Dumbo for his big ears, punched and kicked because of his slight frame, whipped by family members for reasons he still doesn't understand. Inside the outwardly confident kid was a scarred soul so badly beaten down by the horrors of childhood that at 10 he attempted suicide.
It was on Rachel's first trip to meet Nonito's parents that she began to understand what he had been through. In the car, Nonito struggled to explain his family dynamic. His parents were still married but, Rachel said, his father, who was also his trainer, was living with another woman. His family was traditional, and Nonito was afraid of how Rachel, a strong, confident American-born woman, would be received. In fact, within a month of dating Rachel, his father told him he had to stop seeing her.
"And I said 'no,'" Nonito said. "I told him I would quit boxing. It was the first time I defied my father, when I said 'I want to be with this woman.'"
Rachel's strong personality was exactly what Nonito needed. He proposed after four months and they were married less than a year after they first met. "She was everything to me," Nonito said. And slowly, Rachel's presence changed him. For years, Nonito feared going into the ring. Not because he was scared of his opponent, but because of what might happen should he fail. "I didn't want to see the sadness in my family's faces if I lost," Nonito said. Even after splitting with his father, in 2009, and hiring acclaimed trainer Robert Garcia, he felt it: In 2011, before his fight with Fernando Montiel, Nonito asked members of his team if they would still stick with him if he lost.
Today, things are different. Rachel can't pinpoint exactly when Nonito escaped the fear, when he began fighting because he loved it, when he began fighting for himself. But, they both say, he absolutely does now. He is still inwardly shy, still a pleaser, but that's what Rachel is there for. She is the yin to Nonito's yang, willing to be forceful when Nonito will not.
When an offer isn't high enough for a fight, it's Rachel who turns it down. When he defers to friends about where to go to dinner, it's Rachel telling him to let everyone know what he wants. During a meeting with Top Rank president Todd duBoef a few years back, Nonito got so nervous about asking for opponents that he left the room to throw up. When he returned, it was Rachel telling him to let his promoters know who
"If it was a contest of aggression," said promoter Bob Arum, "I'd rather go up against Nonito than against her."
Sitting in the upper level of Radio City Music Hall, where Nonito (31-1) will defend his WBO super bantamweight title against WBA champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (11-0) on Saturday night (HBO, 11 pm), Rachel Donaire laughs as she recalls how far she and her husband have come. She is six months pregnant with the couple's first child and, like most expectant mothers, is ready for her baby to pop out.
"[Nonito] likes to say when he is moving, he is punching," Rachel said. "I just want him to stop."
Their family is stable, both financially -- Nonito has become a $1 million-plus fighter headlining HBO shows -- and emotionally. If Nonito beats Rigondeaux he will likely move up to featherweight, where more challenges and more money awaits. From the depths of depression, Nonito has found peace in his life.
"I have accomplished more than many other fighters have in the boxing world," Nonito said. "[But] to me the most precious moments I have is feeling this kid kick. To be there and to witness every movement and every kick -- I am really happy."