NEW YORK -- Not since Ricardo Lopez in the early 1990s has boxing seen a little man as dangerous as Nonito Donaire. For years, he's been regarded as one of the world's five best fighters regardless of weight. He was everybody's choice for Fighter of the Year in 2012 after laying waste to four quality opponents, scoring seven knockdowns in those bouts. Donaire isn't just a fearsome puncher -- the possessor of one of the most devastating left hooks in the industry -- he's a highly precise technician with acute timing and counterpunching ability.
But all that went out the window against Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Rigondeaux reduced Donaire to an ordinary plodder over 12 rounds Saturday night at Radio City Music Hall, winning on points to unify the super bantamweight championship before a capacity crowd of 6,145. All three judges had it for the Cuban defector, by scores of 116-111, 115-112 and 114-113. (SI.com had it 116-111.)
Donaire, who was born in the Philippines before moving to Northern California when he was 10, looked sloppy and unprepared. And Rigondeaux, an amateur superstar heretofore unproven as a top-flight pro, was more than capable of making him pay.
Most boxers with 11 pro fights going up against a fighter of Donaire's formidable vintage and body of work would have been distant longshots, but the 32-year-old Rigondeaux is no greenhorn. Oddsmakers had installed him as a 2-to-1 underdog, largely on the strength of his amateur credentials, which are ample. A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Rigondeaux fled to the U.S. in 2009, set up shop in Miami and won a title in his sixth pro fight before finally scoring his high-profile opportunity to date Saturday in Manhattan.
He made the most of it Saturday beneath the soaring proscenium arches and shimmering gold stage curtain of the world's largest indoor theater, which was hosting just the second boxing card in its 81-year history.
"The people that saw this fight, the people that know boxing, saw it was a very good fight," Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KOs) said afterward through an interpreter. "I made him look the way he looked, which was bad."
Rigondeaux's timing, hand speed and footwork were superior from the opening bell as he kept Donaire off balance and, more importantly, stayed out of range of his opponent's TNT-packed left hook.
The 30-year-old Donaire (31-2, 20 KOs) is typically a slow starter, but it was clear by the third round that something was different. The Filipino looked uncommonly timid and underprepared for what clearly was an unfavorable stylistic matchup. He never could find a way to consistently land punches while Rigondeaux, 122 pounds of fast-twitch muscles and Cuban guile, continued to pick his spots and rack up points. Near the end of the round, Donaire finally connected with a lunging straight right -- his best punch of the fight to that point -- though Rigondeaux fired back with a stinging left hook right before the bell.
Rigondeaux was never where Donaire expected him to be: oftentimes it seemed the slippery Cuban was moving in two directions at once, leaving Donaire looking like a man trying to chase down a balloon on a windy day.
The first four rounds played out like the opening strains of a classic: the underdog was winning but the favorite was right on the brink.
But a classic this was not.
The crowd grew restless and booed at several points during the middle rounds as Rigondeaux seemed content to sit on his lead and let Donaire be the aggressor -- a role he seemed reticent to embrace. Rigondeaux was quicker, smarter, busier, craftier and better defensively. He slipped, pivoted, parried and countered with verve. He took away Donaire's offense with his movement. It was his night.
Right up until the start of the 10th round, it was a one-sided performance. That's when Donaire briefly switched to a southpaw stance ? one of the few on-the-fly adjustments he made all night ? and connected with a short left cross that dropped Rigondeaux and stirred the crowd from their torpor.
But just when it seemed like Donaire might have found the window he needed for a smash-and-grab victory, Rigondeaux braced himself and demonstrated the finishing kick of a champion. He dominated the final two rounds with speed and accuracy, hurting Donaire's right eye badly with a straight left in the 12th.
"The last two rounds I got stupid," said Donaire, who landed 82 of 352 punches (23 percent), compared to 129 of 396 (33 percent) for Rigondeaux. "I didn't really feel his power till that last round."
Said Rigondeaux's trainer Pedro Diaz: "We fought a Cuban boxing fight: hit and don't get hit. We made Donaire look very bad."
The loss comes at a strange time for Donaire, who earned a career-high $1.32 million. For the past few years, he's been one of boxing's most active elite fighters, but he'd already planned on taking some time off with his wife Rachel expecting this summer. He had won 29 fights in a row ? a streak that stretched back more than 12 years, including very good fighters like Jorge Arce, Toshiaki Nishioka, Fernando Montiel and Volodymyr Sydorenko ? and now finds himself in the rare position of coming off a loss.
For Rigondeaux, who made a career-best $750,000, the future may be even more uncertain. The boos during the middle rounds ? as he dominated Donaire while seldom throwing a punch ? spoke volumes about his salability (or lack thereof).
It's not that Rigondeaux lacks power ? the grim markings on Donaire's face were not the workings of a feather-fisted slapper ? but he engages so sparingly it calls his marketability into question. Even promoter Bob Arum blushed at questions regarding the Cuban's mass appeal.
"That [S.O.B.] has a lot of power and he has a lot of movement," Arum said, "but running the way he does really makes it into not a watchable fight."
When pressed about the boos, Rigondeaux shook off the criticism.
"Every boxing match has a different plan," the new unified 122-pound champ said. "I punched as much as I could and I won.