From depths of depression, Donaire rises to top of his class
One by one he tied the shirts and pants together, creating a makeshift rope from a pile of dirty laundry. He tied one end of the rope to a board above his bottom bunk and cinched the other end tight around his neck. He leaned forward, his chest facing the bed, relaxed his body and tried to let himself slip away. He felt the tingling in his hands. He felt the numbness in his face. At ten-years old, Nonito Donaire attempted suicide.
What would make someone so young, so innocent try to take his own life? For Donaire, it was a lifetime of abuse. Growing up in General Santos City in the Philippines, Donaire was often a scapegoat. Missing money? Blame Nonito. Jewelry? Him, too. Once, Donaire recalls, someone yelled that there was a rabid dog loose in a crowd of people. In the rush for safe ground, Donaire's sister was hurt. Donaire wasn't the one who started the riot but he was blamed for it and whipped when he got home.
He moved to San Leandro, Calif., when he was six, and things didn't get any easier. Undersized with big ears and crooked teeth, Donaire was an easy target for bullies, relentlessly picked on, he says, "for every imperfection." They called him ugly, called him Dumbo, made him wonder why life was worth living if it had to be lived this way. He was the last one picked for basketball, soccer and football games, snickered and sneered at each time. Every day was a new torture, a new hell, eroding his self esteem, making him feel like, he says, "a waste of my family's food."
"I felt like I didn't belong," Donaire said in a telephone interview. "My family didn't have much. We didn't need an extra mouth to feed."
Standing in a gym in the Philippines last week, a bank of cameras trained on him, a thick crowd packed in around him, Donaire could only shake his head and marvel at how far he had come. That he is a professional boxer still confounds him. Growing up, his brother, Glenn, was the fighter in the family. Nonito dove into the sport because he wanted his family's affection.
He became good at it quickly, winning three straight national tournaments between 1998 and 2000 before turning pro in 2001. He won his first title in 2007, knocking out Vic Darchinyan for the IBF flyweight belt. He went on to win titles at super flyweight -- an interim belt -- and bantamweight before moving up to super bantamweight at the start of this year, beating Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. for a vacant strap. It was the first of four wins for Donaire in 2012, cementing his status as a top-five pound-for-pound fighter -- and earning him Sports Illustrated/SI.com's Fighter of the Year.
"To be able to go back to the Philippines and see these kids, a lot of them no one is giving a chance, means a lot," Donaire said. "In me, I want them to see a kid who was made fun of, who was bullied. I want them to see that I overcame it. I want them to think anything is possible."
In a sport starved for new superstars, Donaire, 30, is emerging as one. He is fast, with power in both hands. He can box you from the outside -- see the lopsided beating he gave Jeffrey Mathebula last July -- and punish you when you come to fight. He blasted out Jorge Arce in the third round earlier this month, sending the rugged Mexican star into retirement.
He is clean, too, which in a sport plagued with performance enhancing drug problems is becoming more and more rare. Last August, Donaire began voluntary, year-round blood and urine testing, something boxing badly needs but few fighters will agree to. He has been tested regularly, worldwide the last five months and says he will continue it for the rest of his career. He won't force opponents to be tested but says that "if you decline me, everyone will know you are on [something]."
"I want my fans to know they are supporting a guy who does things the right way," Donaire said. "I want them to know it is from sheer hard work and discipline. I did all this myself."
The memories of that night in his bedroom have faded, though they will never truly be gone. His body weight proved to be too much for the makeshift rope, and it came undone when he tried to let himself go. It wasn't his time, Donaire reasons now. Somebody wanted him to fight. Indeed, Nonito Donaire is the Fighter of the Year for his battles in the ring but he has been winning bigger ones out of it all his life.