NEW YORK -- Anyone who follows boxing knows Nonito Donaire is already considered one of the five best fighters in the world, one of the sport's finest little men since Ricardo Lopez in the early 1990s.
Whether he can be a superstar is a different question altogether.
Donaire successfully defended his WBO and WBC bantamweight titles Saturday night, outworking and outclassing Omar Narvaez over 12 rounds before a near-sellout crowd at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
The result extended Donaire's run of 26 consecutive victories, a streak that reaches back more than seven years. But despite winning every round on all three judges' scorecards, Donaire felt obligated to apologize for failing to close the show.
"The crowd didn't deserve this," said Donaire (27-1, 18 KOs), who was unable to build on the momentum from February's scintillating second-round knockout of Fernando Montiel. "I'm sorry it didn't come out the way we wanted. [Narvaez] didn't come to fight."
But while Saturday's underwhelming outing may have slowed Donaire's climb from established champion to marketable star with pay-per-view potential, the 28-year-old -- who was born in the Philippines before moving to Northern California when he was 10 -- knows he did everything imaginable to coerce an unaccomodating dance partner into a fight.
Donaire tried opening up the challenger with combinations to the head and body and attacking from different angles -- even leaving himself open in an attempt to lure Narvaez inside -- but couldn't crack the code against an opponent who didn't throw more than 32 punches in any round.
Narvaez (35-1-2, 19 KOs) was no walkover, despite the 8-to-1 odds against him. A two-time Olympian for Argentina, he was a two-division champion who made 16 successful defenses of the WBO flyweight title over a seven-year span before vacating it in 2010 to campaign at junior bantamweight. He was eight years older and four inches shorter, but a slick southpaw with a sturdy chin whose counterpunching was supposed to keep things competitive.
And though he impressed with a clever defense that flummoxed Donaire all night, Narvaez was unable to make the champion pay for any of his misses. The Argentine connected on a mere 74 of 299 punches (25 percent), according to CompuBox, while Donaire landed 99 of 666 (15 percent).
The inactivity left the disgruntled crowd chanting "This is bulls---!" early in the 12th round.
"This was bulls---!" cried Donaire to press row after the final bell.
It was a downer ending to a night of unabashed Pinoy pride, where many of the 4,425 in attendance made themselves known hours before the main event. Many were there to see the East Coast debut of Donaire, the first Filipino boxer to fight at the Garden since Gabriel "Flash" Elorde lost his lightweight title bid against Carlos Ortiz in 1966. Early on, a Manny Pacquiao imposter added to the party-like atmosphere, drawing sizable crowds and fooling spectators and security alike.
Saturday marked Donaire's first and last defense of the bantamweight titles he won against Montiel. He'll next move to the 122-pound super bantamweight division, where WBC titleholder Toshiaki Nishioka awaits. He's already talked about moving to featherweight, where lucrative showdowns with fellow pound-for-pounders Yuriorkis Gamboa and Juan Manuel Marquez loom.
Here's hoping those fights will raise pulses more effectively than Saturday's snoozer.
"It happens," Arum said. "But it doesn't reflect badly on Nonito. It reflects badly on Narvaez. He came for his check."
Longtime Philadelphia boxing icon George Benton, who passed away last month, used to tell fighters: "Win this fight, look good in the next one."
That's a philosophy Donaire can't afford to follow in the long term, but one he'd be well advised to remember as he plots his next step.