Montiel bides his time in bid for glory

Fri, 18 Feb 00:49:00 2011

At times, it seems there are more weight classes in boxing than varieties of soft drinks on sale at the supermarket.

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With 17 weight classes and four major organizations sanctioning world titles, a boxer has a greater opportunity to win belts in multiple weight classes now than at any point in the sport’s 100-plus-year history.

And yet, for fighters who begin their career under 130 pounds, there is a something of a glass ceiling limiting their opportunity to win belts in multiple divisions. Only nine men in boxing history have won world championships sanctioned by the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Organization in four or more weight classes.

Seven of those nine began their careers at 130 pounds or more. Only Leo Gamez, a Venezuelan who won belts at strawweight, junior flyweight, flyweight and super flyweight, and Manny Pacquiao – who has won sanctioning-body titles in seven divisions and had recognition in eight – have started under 130.

Six Mexican boxers, headlined by Hall of Famer Julio Cesar Chavez, have captured three belts. None, though, were able to get that elusive fourth crown.

Though he’s been the lowest profile of the Mexican Super Six, Fernando Montiel may be the one who finally breaks that surprisingly sturdy glass ceiling.

Montiel, ranked 10th in the current Yahoo! Sports ratings, meets No. 9 Nonito Donaire Jr. on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in a can’t-miss bantamweight unification bout shown on HBO.

If Montiel (44-2 with 34 knockouts) gets past the classy Donaire, he’s likely to make the jump to super bantamweight in a bid to chase that fourth belt.

Montiel, one of the finalists for the 2010 Yahoo! Sports Fighter of the Year, has flown largely under the radar, quietly winning bouts in spectacular fashion yet somehow not getting much recognition for it. But a high-profile win over Donaire and a subsequent run at a super bantamweight belt would change all that.

Montiel isn’t prone to boasting, but he has promised to stop Donaire on Saturday.

“I will knock him out before the 10th round,” Montiel said. “I rarely make predictions, but for this fight, for some reason, I really feel good and confident that I will knock him out.”

Far from the spotlight, Montiel is quietly putting together a Hall of Fame résumé and moving up the ranks among his country’s greats. He seems a good bet to finish his career with more than 50 victories and has a better-than-average shot at claiming at least one more championship.

Montiel has carefully plotted his move up in weight and says he believes that’s what will allow him to continue to excel at super bantamweight and possibly even featherweight. He’s only 31 and showing few signs of battle, so it’s hardly out of the question.

Montiel fought at flyweight from the beginning of his career in 1996 through 2001, when he vacated the title to move to super flyweight. Though he had a few bantamweight fights mixed in, he largely boxed as a 115-pounder from 2002 through 2008. And from 2008 until now, Montiel has campaigned at bantamweight.

He didn’t rush up in weight to chase an opponent, preferring to work in the gym to build his body to be ready for the jump.

“To go up in multiple weight classes, you have to be smart, and I think a lot of people haven’t done it right,” Montiel said. “They think it’s just good to jump to the next weight level at any time. But we haven’t done that. We’ve worked and we’ve built and we wait until we feel we can win at the next level. I think I can go a couple of more classes, but for sure, I can at least make it one more to get that fourth. I think I can do five, to be honest with you, but I will do it the way I’ve always done: I’ll take my time, I’ll be smart and I’ll make the move when the time is right.”

Montiel has been active for five more years and has 20 more fights than Donaire, who concedes Montiel’s edge in experience.

The two have maintained a casual friendship and Donaire has, in a way, become a clone of Montiel, using his mind as well as his physical skills to win.

“[His experience] does give him an advantage,” Donaire said of Montiel. “He knows the ring well. His advantage is height and speed. I think I am a better strategist than Montiel. Everybody has their flaws and strengths – and Montiel’s strength is experience – but I also have my strengths.

“His other strength is his ability to adapt to styles; he can be versatile. He has a tremendous punch – a good body punch. But in terms of strength, I have it. In terms of experience, he does, but I have fought enough guys to say I do also.”

Donaire is about a 2-1 favorite, but Montiel shrugs it off. He has been around long enough to know that others’ opinions of the fight don’t mean a thing. He’s had a history of going on the road and winning when no one thought he could.

Montiel won the WBC bantamweight belt as a big underdog in April 2010, when he went to Tokyo and knocked the highly regarded Hozumi Hasegawa out cold in the fourth round. He’s won fights against elite opponents not only in Mexico, but in the United States, Japan and the Philippines.

Winning on the road isn’t easy in any sport, but dealing with that challenge is part of what makes Montiel great.

“It’s a confidence builder, knowing you can go anywhere and win,” he said. “But the reason you can do that is by preparing the right way. I study my opponent. I have my game plan and I know what adjustments I might make. I get into shape. I buy totally into what we’re doing and I know that when I’ve done that, I can go anywhere and win.”

He’s 17-2 with 14 knockouts in world championship fights. Unless you’re a hard-core fan, you may not have heard of him. But after what promises to be a knock-down, drag-out brawl on Saturday at Mandalay Bay, chances are, you won’t miss him again.

It may not be long before Montiel goes down in history as the first Mexican-born fighter to win world titles in four weight divisions. It’s something greats such as Chavez, Salvador Sanchez, Jose Napoles, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Jorge Arce and Juan Manuel Marquez haven’t accomplished.

If Montiel defeats Donaire, he may get to fight the winner of Saturday’s undercard bout between Arce and Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. – which is for the WBO super bantamweight belt – for a shot at that elusive fourth belt.

Mexico has developed some of the greatest boxers in history, but make no mistake: Fernando Montiel belongs on any short list of his country’s best. The title belts in his trophy room will tell you that.

Kevin Iole / Yahoo

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