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The Lady Trains A Champ: When Rachel Donaire speaks, Nonito listens

03
Jun

The milieu was perfect to do some convincing. It came over a couple glasses of red wine, over a long dining room table, under a chandelier in mid-July 2020. Nonito Donaire was in his best-selling mode. His wife, Rachel, was in her best reluctant mode. She tapped on the mahogany table with her index finger and stared her husband in the eyes, needing to be assured that if he was going to make this move, she would be treated with respect.

She wasn’t about to take the bulk of the heat as she’s done before. More responsibility meant more heat—and she knew it. Nonito promised that he would listen; that he would be willing to work as a team.

That’s why he uttered, “Be quiet, let me hear her,” between the second and third rounds of his revitalizing victory over Nordine Oubaali on Saturday to win the WBC bantamweight belt and become the oldest bantamweight titlist in history.

Rachel and Nonito Donaire may be the strongest, and best power couple of boxing. They’ve been married for 14 years now, with two sons, Jarel, who is 7 and Logan, 6.



Nonito teasingly calls her “The boss lady.” In many ways, she is. Nonito does the fighting, Rachel does everything else.

And as of Saturday, their 15-year relationship took another major turn when Rachel took on the role as lead trainer for the first time. She’s been in Nonito’s corner before, when he lost to Carl Frampton in April 2018 for the vacant interim WBO featherweight title.

She’s always been in his corner, yelling encouragement and what he needs to do.

What pushed Nonito (41-6, 27 knockouts) to reshuffle his corner came after his loss to Naoya Inoue in November 2019, which was the universal 2019 Fight of the Year. “The Filipino Flash” gave Inoue his toughest fight to date and it took 18 months before he was in the ring again.

Nonito Donaire needed a change after losing to Naoya Inoue in The Ring’s 2019 Fight of the Year.

Something, however, had to change.

At 38, Nonito had to look at things differently.

“Rachel works with me on everything,” Nonito said. “I create the work strategy and Rachel refines it, and she makes everyone in my corner to understand it. She’ll make adjustments and we’ll have a conversation to make a better game plan.

“To be honest, I always wanted Rachel to be in the corner, she just wasn’t comfortable with it. She always felt uncomfortable, because I shut everyone else out talking in the corner. It’s her voice I always tuned into and her ability to see fights has been noted, because she’s great at looking at fight and seeing where adjustments have to be made.

“She never felt comfortable being the head trainer in the corner. She worked on the Inoue fight, and you saw that in the last fight against Oubaali. I know how to fight. I put the game plan together. She reminds me what I need to see, and we understand each other really well.”

It was Nonito who approached Rachel. Instruction was flying past him in previous fights. Nonito didn’t exactly “tell” Rachel in the corner, he “asked” her, letting her know what he needs to do. Rachel has a deep taekwondo background, having won gold at the 2002 National Collegiate Taekwondo Association championships while majoring in communications at the College of San Mateo.

She knows distance and punching radius.

For the Oubaali fight, Rachel worked with Nonito’s cutman, Michael Bazzel, and the co-trainer was Tony Diaz and his chiropractor, Cameron Fort. Moving on, Nonito has given her the role as “Head trainer, because no one else is making it happen but her.

Rachel helped with the The Filipino Flash’s game plan versus Nordine Oubaali (Photo by Esther Lin / SHOWTIME).

“I would have beaten Inoue if Rachel was in my corner for that fight,” Nonito said. “I didn’t have to force anything against Oubaali. I needed more head movement. I needed to use feints more and I have had the habit of being drawn into wars. I’m 38, there are just some things I have to smarter about.

“I needed to listen to Rachel and she reminded me to stay and have leverage, constant head movement and use my feints when I needed to set up. I had to be reminded of that and she helped me focus on just that—and sticking to the game plan. I wasn’t going to brawl, I had to be smart and stay out of the corners.”

Last July, when Nonito approached Rachel about working as lead trainer, she needed some convincing. She’s tiny, 5-foot, maybe 110 pounds, though never underestimate her. She has a strong voice and she’s strong willed—and she’s a fourth-degree taekwondo black belt.

“We needed to have a deep and honest conversation about me taking over as head trainer,” admitted Rachel, who became a black belt at 13. “I didn’t yes right away. I told him above everything else, ‘You need to listen to me. Otherwise, what good would I be? If you just want me to give you your water, okay, but I was going to be heard if you want me to be your lead trainer.’

“Everything shifted with the pandemic. Nonito was in San Francisco with his dad (Nonito Sr.) and Bazzel last March. When the first Oubaali fight was cancelled, he had to train to stay in shape. I trained with him, and we worked on some things together, he kept his weight down, and in July, we started talking about training.

“He didn’t want to bring his father back with the COVID-19 quarantine and that’s when he brought up training. I wasn’t going to hold mitts for him, because I’ve seen him hit mitts and it would break my hands. That wasn’t happening. He wanted to be faster, stronger and better during camp.”

In July, Rachel and Nonito spoke. It was a lengthy face-to-face conversation in their Las Vegas home. The boys were asleep and Nonito was on one side of the dining table and Rachel on the other. She refused to be a hood ornament. If she was going to be lead trainer—she was going to be the lead trainer.

“Nonito entrusted me and it feels like you have his life in your hands and the wrong game could be detrimental,” Rachel said. “I wasn’t going to yell at him like old-school trainers. I made that clear. When we were getting ready for the (postponed) Oubaali fight in December, I went to him with certain clips about him and what to look for about Oubaali.

“Nonito has so much experience that he could have easily went to any respected trainer in Vegas and he would have had them—and he trusted me and listen to me about game plan. You hear fighters all of the time second-guess their trainers. It’s rare you have fighters trust their trainers, and a lot of it is because a trainer will tell their fighter, ‘Do this, because I told you so,’ without explaining why.”

Rachel and Nonito agreed to have an understanding to discuss everything. She even served as Nonito’s makeshift sparring partner, because she’s short, so they agreed to have walkthroughs of the fight plan.

“I know about fighting,” said Rachel, who was in the U.S. Air Force for five years. “I know that there are men out there that will question, ‘What does she know?’ I know I can bring out the best of my husband, who I love, and I know Nonito looked really good. I need to do more research and homework when it comes to completely be the chief trainer behind the scenes. I know there are things I can improve on.

“And I know my husband won—and looked good doing it. He won. I’ve always been comfortable training him. Now instead of talking through game plans and handing the game plan off to someone else, I don’t have to have the approval from anyone else anymore.

“It’s just me and Nonito.”

As it should be.

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.

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