In late summer every year, tropical storms threaten to wreak havoc on the West of the Atlantic, as devastating winds originating in the Caribbean sweep their way North to the United States. The damage is of course concentrated in the East, but this year, America’s West Coast felt the full force of a Category 5 hurricane. The eye of the storm hit the StubHub Center in Carson, California, on October 18th.
Jamaican featherweight sensation Nicholas Walters came of age with a sixth-round knockout of four-division champion Nonito Donaire, dropping the Filipino veteran in the third round and dominating en-route to the emphatic finish. That came with a gale-force overhand right that rendered Donaire semi-conscious and face-first on the canvas; he narrowly beat the count, but staggered into referee Raul Caiz Jr’s arms and the official wisely brought a halt to the contest.
Walters became the WBA “super” champion at 126lbs, having entered the bout as holder of the sanctioning body’s “regular” crown. But over-complicated boxing politics aside, there were more important reasons why the win was the most significant of the 28-year-old’s career so far. In his American television debut on HBO, the manner of Walters’ victory ushered in a new star in the talent-rich featherweight division.
Donaire had never been knocked down before, let alone stopped and certainly never physically dominated like he was by Walters. In the wake of the fight many observers pointed to the former champion’s age (thirty-two on November 16th) and his size disadvantage, but Donaire himself made no excuses when interviewed in the immediate aftermath. The former flyweight, who was arguably at his devastating best as a Fighter of the Year winner at super bantamweight, was incredibly gracious in defeat and full of honest praise for his conqueror.
“He knocked the f*****g sh** out of me!” Donaire told HBO’s Max Kellerman in his post-fight interview, “He’s an amazing fighter, amazing champion man, I take my hat off to him.”
“I thought that I’d be good in this weight class as I’m getting older, but I’m not going to take anything from Walters, I was at my best. I’ve never trained this hard, I’ve never, ever, ever trained this hard, I was away from my family because I knew the power he has and the type of person he is inside that ring. He overwhelmed me and knocked the sh** out of me.”
Walters is no doubt freakishly big at the weight, standing 5’7” and with a 73” reach that gave him a five-inch reach advantage over Donaire, which was evident from the continued dominance he enjoyed with the jab. The man from Montego Bay landed fourty-four jabs to Donaire’s four throughout the six rounds and used that leverage to set up his concussive power shots. In the final three rounds, Walters out-landed Donaire sixty-four to twenty in total punches. The writing was clearly on the wall after the first knockdown came towards the end of the third.
That was scored with a short right uppercut that landed directly on the button and dropped Donaire to his knees, to register the first knockdown of the Filipino Flash’s fabled career. Donaire’s reliable chin withstood the onslaught that followed, at least for the best part of the next three rounds, but it was only a matter of time. With one second remaining in the sixth and with Donaire on the attack, Walters showed great reflexes to pull back and avoid his opponent’s vaunted left hook, before delivering the fight-ending right that landed behind the ear and literally chopped Donaire down.
It was an appropriate finish from a fighter who has become known as the ‘The Axe Man’, with a right hand that has been felling featherweights like Californian Redwoods. Now unbeaten in twenty-five fights, twenty-one of Walters’ victims have not survived the scheduled distance. Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who co-promotes Walters with Leon Margules of Florida-based outfit Warriors Boxing, was understandably excited about the pop that his fighter possesses.
“I have never seen a featherweight with as much power as Walters,” Arum said. “I’ve seen featherweights with a lot of power but nothing with the concussive power this kid has. The one question I had was could he take a punch and he proved he could.”
Arum was referring to the one moment of vulnerability that Walters displayed in the fight, when at the end of the second round Donaire landed a left hook that momentarily staggered him. It was the kind of trademark shot that Donaire has frequently finished guys with, at least at lower weights, but by the time he returned to his stool Walters had already recovered and simply switched up a gear when the action resumed in the third.
“I got a little bit confident and he caught me with a good shot,” the Jamaican said. “Boom! I recuperated from the shot but it was a very good shot. He caught me clean. But I had a job to do and I got it done.”
Walters’ homeland has previous when it comes to producing fearsome punchers. Former three-weight world champion Mike ‘The Body Snatcher’ McCallum hails from the island and Jamaica was the birthplace of Canada’s Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock. For the past decade or more, Glen ‘The Road Warrior’ Johnson had largely carried the nation’s pugilistic hopes. That was at least until Walters arrived, and arrived now he has.
The featherweight division is stacked. A week before Walters cut down Donaire, Welshman Lee Selby scored an impressive stoppage of unbeaten Joel Brunker to become mandatory challenger with the IBF. Their champion, unbeaten Russian Evgeny Gradovich, defends his title against rising Puerto Rican Jayson Velez on November 29th, with the winner expected to defend against Selby in the new year. Formidable veteran Jhonny Gonzalez occupies the WBC crown in the midst of a career resurgence since icing the much-hyped Abner Mares inside a round, whilst Mares himself is now on the comeback trail and targeting a rematch. Then there’s the WBO titleholder, Vasyl Lomachenko.
Widely considered to be the greatest amateur boxer of all time, Lomachenko made waves in the sport last October when he turned professional and earlier this year challenged for a world title in only his second pro bout. He dropped a close decision to the teak tough veteran Orlando Salido, but the Mexican champion lost his title on the scales and Lomachenko would fight Gary Russell Jr for the vacant crown – dishing out a boxing lesson to the precocious American to become a titleholder in what was officially his third paid outing.
As the Ukrainian hotshot is also handled by Top Rank, Arum is plotting a collision course for Walters and Lomachenko now that he has the planet’s two most prominent featherweights within his stable. Fans have begun to salivate at the thought of the match-up, though if boxing fans know Arum, they know he’s likely to let it ‘marinate’ for a little while.
In the meantime however, there are plenty of appealing fights that can be made for Nicholas Walters. Argentinean Jesus Andres Cuellar – who likely sent Juan Manuel Lopez into retirement with a brutal second round knockout in September – could well be next as the WBA’s mandatory challenger, in what would pose to be exciting clash between two heavy hitters.
Whoever Walters is matched against, he’s a frightful prospect for any featherweight. His kind of power has not been seen at 126lbs since Prince Naseem Hamed in the nineties, he looks to have a reliable chin and possesses a solid defence backed up with great reflexes that lend to his ability to counter punch. For a relatively inexperienced fighter also, at least at the top level, he attacks very patiently and rarely falls victim to over-eagerness. To magnify all of that, his sheer size at the weight is perhaps his most frightening attribute.
Walters would have a massive eight-inch reach advantage over Lomachenko and has a significantly longer reach than any of his other top featherweight contemporaries. Ring Magazine’s Doug Fischer is on record as saying that Walters is the biggest featherweight he’s ever seen. The Jamaican is somehow able to boil a lightweight frame into a featherweight body and at the same time maximise his greatest assets.
Can Walters go on to rule at 126? Lomachenko would no doubt be the favourite, but Walters has laid a marker down as the most dangerous challenger to the Ukranian’s number one standing in the division. Whether the fight happens or whether the Jamaican star takes his heavy hands up through the weight classes, ‘The Axe Man’ has certainly arrived and has a bright future in the sport.