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It was a coming out party of sorts for Naoya Inoue on Nov. 7, 2019. Inoue had been built up as some sort of boxing superhero with Tyson-like power and Mayweather-like boxing skills.
He fought veteran Nonito Donaire on that night in Saitama, Japan, for the IBF-WBA bantamweight belts. Donaire was a measuring stick, of sorts, long prior established as one of the great lighter weight fighters in boxing history.
Donaire’s extensive résumé 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 unbeaten Inoue was so strong, however, that it turned out to be a coming-out party of sorts 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 2019 Fight of the Year.
They’ll meet Tuesday in Saitama in a long-awaited rematch for the unified bantamweight title, and though Donaire fought brilliantly the first time around, there are many changes in effect.
The most noticeable is in the corner, where Donaire’s wife, Rachel, will serve as his trainer. In 2019, it was the great Kenny Adams, the former U.S. Olympic team coach and one of boxing’s best teachers, and Donaire’s father, Nonito Sr., working the corner and calling the shots.
At difficult moments in the fight, though, Nonito was looking toward Rachel, not his corner, for advice. And that got her to thinking.
“In the corner, both of them were talking,” Rachel Donaire told Yahoo Sports. “Their game plans were different. And they were speaking different languages. … They did an amazing job, but I think it was confusing to Nonito a little bit.”
Since, Rachel has been the only voice in the corner and she made history in the subsequent fight when Nonito stopped Nordine Oubaali to win a bantamweight belt back. That made Rachel the first woman trainer to work the corner and guide a male fighter to a world title.
For years, Rachel would shout encouragement to her husband from ringside. And before fights, they’d work together in the living room on moves he might 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 worked with him to develop the game plan, as well, for Tuesday’s rematch.
He said he expects to be significantly better Tuesday after getting caught up in his emotions during the first fight.
“I went in there with so many vulnerabilities and not really caring about anything else but just 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, yeah, a guy who can brawl. I’m going to bring everything that’s in my skill set to the fight this time instead of just going out and brawling.”
Rachel said she watches video of her husband’s upcoming opponent, mainly looking for flaws, vulnerabilities and tendencies. She comes up with ideas she believes will work but then presents them to him.
They work collaboratively on things in coming up with the plan. But once it’s finalized, Rachel has a way of keeping her husband on point that others do not.
He would occasionally freelance 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 with the plan.
His father, Adams, Robert Garcia, Ismael Salas and Jonathan Peñalosa were among his other trainers. They were all highly accomplished and among the best in the game, but they couldn’t connect with him on the level that Rachel can.
“Having her [as my trainer] is the biggest weapon I have because I can stay on track with the game plan as compared to other people,” Donaire said. “They were all great trainers, but they didn’t get me back to focus throughout the whole fight. But with Rach being by my side and working with me all the time, I know exactly what we’re doing, and she knows how to keep me focused throughout the whole fight.”
He’s far more humble now, he told Yahoo Sports, than he once was. If he has a regret, it’s his 2013 loss at Radio City Music Hall in New York to Guillermo Rigondeaux. He was, he said, a handful to deal with.
And it was his attitude, he said, that cost him.
“I was very arrogant at that time,” he said of when he faced Rigondeaux. “I was on top of the world, or I thought I was. I just didn’t give myself a chance because of my arrogance. But the thing is, every loss I have has benefitted me. I’ve learned from them and they’ve made me who I am.”
And it’s turned him into a guy who has the opportunity to upset one of the most highly regarded boxers in the world, a phenomenon who some believe is already the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter.
Those are the fights Donaire has sought out regularly, but particularly as he’s coming down the backstretch of his career. He turns 40 this year and doesn’t have long left.
But he’s been fighting with house money for a while and this is another example.
“As his wife, I’m extremely proud of him,” Rachel said. “He’s not only never backed away from a challenge, but he’s always sought them out. People should hear these closed door conversations where he’s always wanting the biggest fights.
“He’s not doing this for money. We’re fine. We have a couple of businesses outside of boxing and we’re very comfortable. This is so his name can be cemented in the history books and so he can add to his legacy.”
It’s inconceivable that Donaire won’t be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame the first time he’s eligible. Now, it’s just a race to see how far up the list of all-time greats he can climb before he ends the journey for good.