Donnie Nietes: From janitor to under-appreciated champ
“Ahas,” the Tagalog word which Donnie Nietes has emblazoned on his trunks, has come to mean much more than just a nickname. It was his foot in the door at the gym, his calling card for the public to remember him, and has come to symbolize his approach to his craft.
“Ahas” translates to “snake,” the reptiles he tended after when he first arrived at ALA Gym in Cebu City, Philippines at age 19. Long before anyone could imagine the undistinguished amateur boxer becoming a pro champion, he was brought over by his uncle Dan Nietes, a former Philippine flyweight champ, to work as a janitor, sweeping the floors at the gym and taking care of the pythons which were housed at the gym.
Later, when he told the gym’s boss that he wanted to quit mopping floors and become a pro fighter, fans would remember him as the guy who walked to the ring with a snake on his shoulders.
He feels he is one with the snakes, down to the way he plies his craft in the ring.
“I’m a Burmese Python, because like a Burmese Python, the snake is quick when it attacks, and the grip is strong on its prey when he catches it,” says Nietes, a former WBO strawweight titleholder and junior flyweight champ and owner of two pythons, a traditional Burmese and an albino variety, named Don 1 and Don 2.
Now, 13 years into his career, Nietes opens the next chapter this Saturday, when he steps up to the flyweight division to face former titleholder Edgar Sosa at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. The fight will be shown in the Philippines on ABS-CBN pay-per-view and in the US on TV Azteca and BeIN Sports.
Nietes (38-1-4, 22 knockouts) has left the comfort of 108 pounds, where he recently held THE RING title and had made nine defenses of his WBO belt, in pursuit of a lasting legacy abroad.
Now ranked number one by the WBO at flyweight, Nietes is chasing a world title in a third division. Despite having held one title or another for the past 9 years, few outside of the sport’s hardcore fans know of him. He hopes to change that soon.
“There to clean the gym”
Nietes first started boxing at age 12 in his hometown of Murcia, Negros Occidental, Philippines. During lunch time, he and his classmates would put on gloves and spar, returning to class sometimes with bumps and bruises. Despite his family’s involvement with the sport, it was nothing he had ever taken seriously. He had about 50 fights, he says, and lost maybe two or three. When his uncle came calling, it was his broom skills, not his hand skills, that were in demand.
“He was really there to clean the gym,” said ALA Boxing president Michael Aldeguer, who remembers Nietes studying the fighters at the gym like Edito Villamor (who is now his trainer), Gerry Penalosa, Rodel Mayol and Jun Gorres in the gym. “He was just there watching the fighters. He was there silent, he knew what he wanted to do.”
Nietes recalls not being encouraged to jump into the ring when he first turned pro. He was a 105-pounder at the time, a division that isn’t particularly marketable, but he paid his dues, fighting on small shows and going abroad a year later for 3 straight fights in Indonesia, including his lone defeat to Angky Angkotta, a future title challenger who came in 6 pounds over the weight limit and still only managed a split decision in his hometown.
Despite his consistent winning, Nietes was overlooked when Golden Boy Promotions came to the Philippines and signed up popular local fighters Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista and Z Gorres.
“[The people] recognized the snake more than him,” said Aldeguer.
Even after winning his first title by a unanimous decision over unbeaten Thai Pornsawan Porpramook in September of 2007, he received little mainstream recognition. Part of the reason for his lack of celebrity in the Philippines is that basketball dominates the sports scene, with only Manny Pacquiao, and to a lesser extent Nonito Donaire Jr, becoming major stars.
Part of that also has to do with the small weight class Nietes fights in and his reserved, humble personality. But blame on his lack of dominant victories, being the type of fighter who’d win 7 or 8 rounds out of 12, and the lack of big names on his resume’.
That reputation changed in his star-making knockout of Moises Fuentes in May of 2014 when he dropped the respected Mexican 3 times before winning by ninth round technical knockout, setting aside doubts about their split-draw a year earlier.
“You could see the difference in the respect he got when he knocked out Moises Fuentes. That was something where people started to like him. You could see the media around the world was able to talk about that fight, it was a a spectacular win. The only thing is it wasn’t held in America,” said Aldeguer.
Since then Nietes has been on a tear, dominating Francisco Rodriguez Jr in a mandatory defense in July of 2015 and blitzing former titleholder Raul Garcia in a homecoming defense in Negros Occidental in his last fight in May, stopping Garcia for the first time in his career.
Nietes has earned his reputation as one of the sport’s most under-appreciated fighters but acclaim on American shores remains the last frontier for him to conquer.
At 37, Sosa (52-9, 30 KOs) has seen better days, holding the WBC junior flyweight title for two busy years before losing the title to Mayol in 2009. Recent years have not been as kind, as he lost to Akira Yaegashi in 2013 and was blown out in two by Roman Gonzalez in 2015. Sosa has fought just once since, defeating a trialhorse in Mexico in a 6-rounder in February before taking this fight.
Nietes has been in Los Angeles at the Wild Card Gym training for this fight since August 20, while sparring with Ricardo Rodriguez and Zou Shiming, and getting tips from Freddie Roach. He’s now the number one ranked flyweight with the WBO, whose title was recently vacated by Juan Francisco Estrada as he looks towards campaigning at junior bantamweight. Nietes and Aldeguer had been speaking about Estrada for over a year, and a follow-up text message to Aldeguer seeking comment about the development was not answered at time of this story’s publication.
Estrada is now set to face Filipino journeyman Raymond Tabugon in a non-title fight on October 8 at a 116-pound catchweight.
Nietes knows he must beat Sosa first – and impressively – to get the attention of American fans and become an in-demand attraction. Prior to Estrada vacating, Nietes had said he hoped a win over Estrada would earn him recognition as a “legend.”
Another title could be in his future, but that career-defining fight may remain as elusive as it ever was.
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to THE RING magazine. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RyanSongalia.