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Once bullied, Donaire now stares down Rigondeaux and fears

NEW YORK - For close to two minutes, Nonito Donaire Jr. and Guillermo Rigondeaux stared one another down, unwilling to concede one iota of trepidation ahead of their WBO/WBA junior featherweight title unification fight this Saturday (Sunday, PHL time) at Radio City Music Hall in New York. What is usually a perfunctory photo opportunity turned into a test of manhood between Donaire (32-1, 20 knockouts) and Rigondeaux (11-0, 8 KOs) at Wednesday's (Thursday, PHL time) press conference, raising the stakes to suggest that looking away would be tantamount to a mental lapse in what is expected to be a high stakes game of speed chess.
Finally, the two broke away to speak with the press, but it left "The Filipino Flash" Donaire with a good feeling about what most expect to be his most difficult trial to date.
"Today was my moral victory," said Donaire, a former four-division world champion and current holder of the WBO junior featherweight title. "The only reason I looked away was because he broke his stare at me and started to look at my nose and my mouth. He felt my energy, and maybe that's why he looked away from me, because I was starting to get heated. That's my alter ego; the warrior inside of me starts to come out. I'm a very peaceful, happy guy, but when I'm in that mode my alter ego comes in."
Donaire's trainer Robert Garcia later recounted that Rigondeaux was being coached by his trainer Pedro Diaz to maintain the stare, commanding him in Spanish, "Don't turn until he turns first."
"When you have the fighter in front of you being guided by the guy in front of you, that don't mean he's the one, that means it's the trainer who wants to keep the stare down," said Garcia. "Nonito is tough, I've seen it in sparring. When he has to be, he's tough. But he doesn't need to show it because he's so smart and powerful."
The confrontational, fearless Donaire is a far cry from the fragile youngster growing up in San Leandro, California after moving with his family from Bohol, Philippines at age 11. "I've gotten where people would just run in front of me and jump kick me or just grab my neck and knee me in the playground and I'm on the ground gasping for air. Or somebody would just come up and flick my ears or just smack the back of my head," said Donaire, who also suffered from asthma as a child.
Picked on because he didn't understand English, Donaire often felt depressed at the hopelessness of his situation. "There was a time when I would just come home crying thinking 'My life is worthless, why am I here?."
Donaire picked up boxing at age 11, following in the footsteps of his older brother Glenn, who also challenged for a world title as a professional. Nonito admits to being scared out of his wits prior to his first amateur bout, but quickly found his survival instinct. And then moments later, his killer instinct. Life began to turn around for Donaire in high school when he was featured on ESPN during a National Junior Olympic tournament, and, as he puts it, "I became kinda cool."
"Throughout the years you learn to become brave, you learn to become strong, you learn to become confident. But one thing is for sure, you learn to become who you are," said Donaire. "When I'm inside that ring, I kinda psyche myself out thinking it's a gladiator ring. It's the last day I'm going to be on Earth if I don't win."
Now, Donaire's life is full of purpose, as he and his wife Rachel are expecting their first child - a boy they've already named Jarel - who is due on July 22. Donaire is also coming off the busiest, most accomplished year of his career in 2012, having won four title fights and earning himself the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) Fighter of the Year award.
Still, Donaire insists that all accolades pale in comparison to the joy of becoming a father.
"My baby, that's the thing I think about most every morning and every night," said Donaire. "I talk to my baby every night before I go to bed, and when I wake up in the morning I talk to my baby. To me, that means so much in my life."
As he collects title belts, awards and prepares to be a father, life is good, says the 30-year-old. Yet, as former middleweight champion Marvin Hagler once famously said, “It’s hard to get up and do roadwork when you’re wearing silk pajamas.” Complacency is something Donaire can ill afford against Rigondeaux, 32, of Miami, Fla. 
Rigondeaux, who won gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics before defecting from his native Cuba in 2009 in search of a better life and professional glory, is considered the no. 1 contender at 122 pounds by The Ring magazine, which rates Donaire as the recognized champion. Rigondeaux is also coming off an impressive year in 2012, having knocked out Rico Ramos to win the WBA version of the junior featherweight title, then defending it twice in impressive fashion.
Donaire is aware of the danger that comes with a fighter suddenly receiving everything he had ever dreamed of, and is determined not to become another cautionary tale.
"At this time a champion is vulnerable," said Donaire. "He has accomplished titles, and he has accomplished Fighter of the Year and having a baby. It's still difficult if you're doing this for quite a while and been on top for a bit, your mind starts to think differently. I guarantee, you'll get the best out of me in this fight.
"Keeping myself motivated is having that stare-down right now." - CLP, GMA News

Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel and can be reached at An archive of his work can be found here. Follow him on Twitter too.