NEW YORK -- Nonito Donaire came to the Big Apple this week and on Thursday night accepted his 2012 fighter of the year award at the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards banquet. But Donaire, regarded as one of the top few pound-for-pound fighters in the world, won't be back next year to accept the 2013 award.
Instead, it was underdog Guillermo Rigondeaux, the former two-time Cuban Olympic gold medalist, who scored his biggest professional victory with a tight, but often boring, unanimous decision against Donaire to unify two junior featherweight world titles on Saturday night before a sellout crowd of 6,145 at Radio City Music Hall.
"Everybody says I was just an amateur," Rigondeaux said. "But I was a star as an amateur, and I am a star as a pro with 12 fights."
He was happy to win but overstated things. Rigondeaux is extremely talented, but his defensive style won't make him a star. The electricity that ran through the arena for most of the night and in the first few rounds of the main event turned stale and quiet as the fight wore on, with Rigondeaux -- a southpaw -- boxing, moving and spending long chunks of the fight going backward.
It wasn't fun to watch, but it was quite effective -- while drawing regular booing from the crowd.
"I apologize. I wanted to deliver," said Donaire, now a former three-division champion. "There is a lot of pressure, not just with the baby [his wife, Rachel, is expecting this summer], but -- and I'm not taking anything away from Rigondeaux -- I needed surgery on my shoulder. No excuse. I give everything to Rigondeaux. But I'm going to go back to the drawing board, get the surgery. He played a beautiful boxing game, and it was my mistake for not changing up."
The judges all had it for Rigondeaux, 116-111, 115-112 and 114-113. ESPN.com also had it 114-113 for Rigondeaux, who won the main event of only the second boxing card at the 82-year-old iconic theater; the first was a prime Roy Jones Jr.'s light heavyweight title defense against David Telesco in 2000.
"We fought the Cuban boxing way -- hit and don't get hit -- and we made Donaire look very bad," said Pedro Diaz, Rigondeaux's trainer and former Cuban amateur coach.
As hyped as the fight was, it wasn't a shock that it didn't excite, given Rigondeaux's history.
"It was not a very engaging fight," Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said. "If Rigondeaux would stand and fight, (he) has a lot of power and a lot of skills, but running the way he does really makes it not a watchable fight."
Boring or not, Rigondeaux was pleased by his performance.
"I told you I was going to do my job, and I did it," said Rigondeaux, who is widely considered one of the best amateurs ever after the two gold medals and some 400 amateur victories he compiled before defecting, settling in Miami and turning pro in 2009.
"The people that know boxing saw that this was a very good fight, it was quality," he said. "I made him look the way he looked, which was bad, and I looked great. I used boxing, movement."
The early rounds were filled with tension as they sized each other up and would then unleash fast punches and equally quick counter shots. Rigondeaux, who earned a career-high $750,000, seemed to hurt Donaire, who made a career-best $1.32 million, with a right hand in the opening round, but there wasn't much action.
The most exciting moments of the fight came in the closing seconds of the fourth round, when the fighters put together a burst of toe-to-toe exchanging and Donaire wobbled Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KOs), 32, whose chin has always been a bit suspect.
The fight really went downhill in the sixth round, when the fighters more or less stared at each other and circled. The crowd didn't appreciate it. Rigondeaux, defending his version of the 122-pound title for the third time, went into a defensive shell and rarely engaged after that.
"Rigondeaux was moving in a smart way," said Robert Garcia, Donaire's trainer.
Donaire's biggest moment came in the 10th round as he brought the crowd to life by landing a clean left hand on Rigondeaux's chin. Rigondeaux went down, but he popped right back up and didn't seem hurt. Moments later, Donaire (31-2, 20 KOs), making his fourth defense, threw and missed with a three-punch combination and Rigondeaux mocked him by shaking his head. It was that kind of frustrating night for Donaire, 30, a native of the Philippines from San Leandro, Calif.
"He's an excellent fighter, he is a great fighter," Rigondeaux said. "But with one punch, you can't win a fight. But Donaire is a disciplined and a great fighter."
As bad as the night had gone for Donaire, it got worse in the 11th when a left hand badly swelled his right eye.
In the 12th round it was closed, and Donaire spent the round with his hand held up closely against his eye to try to protect it.
"In the last two rounds, I got stupid," Donaire said. "I didn't feel his power until the last rounds. I got carried away. I wanted to take him out so bad and I fell in love with that. I only have much respect for Rigondeaux for the beautiful boxing that he gave me. We just have to go back to the drawing board."
Donaire, after struggling to make weight, will now likely move up to featherweight to pursue another title.
"He had trouble making weight and he has to go up in weight," Arum said of Donaire. "He blew off the [HBO] fighter meeting and had to sweat it out to make the weight, so he probably has to go up in weight."
Donaire probably won't have a problem finding interesting, lucrative and fan-friendly fights at featherweight. But what can Rigondeaux do? Who will want to fight him? Who will want to televise him?
"I'll fight against whomever comes up who wants to challenge me," Rigondeaux said.
But it's going to be hard to find top opponents.
"I don't know what I'm gonna do," Arum said. "I have to look for someone to fight him. He's one of the best defensive fighters I've ever seen, but it's not a very pleasing style. He's a very good fighter, but it's not pleasing, so we will have to see."