LAS VEGAS, United States - It just so happened by chance that Filipino lightweight contender Mercito Gesta would be getting the opportunity to become a world champion in the same venue where Manny Pacquiao first made his mark on the American boxing scene 11 years ago, when he knocked out Lehlohonolo Ledwaba at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
The 25-year-old Gesta, who is a native of Mandaue City but now resides in San Diego, California, will be facing IBF lightweight titleholder Miguel Vazquez, 25, of Guadalajara, Mexico in a twelve-round undercard bout of Pacquiao's fourth clash with arch rival Juan Manuel Marquez this Saturday, December 8 (Sunday, Manila time) in a bout that will be televised live on HBO pay-per-view throughout the United States.
For the unbeaten Gesta, the opportunity to be showcased on one of the biggest boxing events of the year is at once overwhelming and invigorating.
"I don't know, all of a sudden it's just like... this. I didn't expect this," said Gesta, whose record stands at 26-0-1 (14 knockouts). "This is like big, big in my career to fight underneath two legends of boxing, big names of boxing. It feels really great and I'm so blessed. I just feel excited and happy."
At the official weigh-in on Friday, December 7, Gesta weighed in at 134 lbs, a pound lighter than Vazquez, who checked in at the division's weight limit of 135 lbs.
An aggressive southpaw like Pacquiao but lacking in the one-punch power that defines the aforementioned legend, Gesta has emerged as a prospect to watch in America over the last few years, rising from the local club circuit in Southern California to sign last year with boxing kingmaker Top Rank, which also handles Pacquiao and multiple-time world champion Nonito Donaire, Jr.
Signing with a major promoter fast-tracked his career, but Top Rank CEO Bob Arum is careful not to create inflated expectations for the young upstart.
"Remember, there's only one Manny Pacquiao," cautioned Arum. "Donaire is a special person and he has great ability and great communicative skills. Gesta can develop that and become a big attraction. And remember, Philippine television is really doing very well with showing Philippine fighters like Donaire and if Gesta wins the title there will be a lot of bidding for his first fight."
Gesta must contend with Vazquez, a mobile, frustrating boxer who has held his title for two years and is unbeaten over the last four years of his career.
Though relatively "under the radar" in the sport, Vazquez's three defeats couldn't have come against better opposition: he has twice lost to current WBC junior middleweight titleholder Saul "Canelo" Alvarez and dropped a decision to current WBO welterweight titleholder and Pacquiao conqueror Timothy Bradley.
Vazquez represents a big step-up in competition for Gesta, whose recent opponents Ty Barnett and Oscar Cuero pale in comparison to Vazquez's level of opposition. Gesta's manager and trainer Vincent Parra said that they have long wanted to face the division's elite, and are now excited to finally do so.
"It wasn't so much about anyone in particular, we just wanted to test ourselves against the best guys in the world," said Parra. "Nobody wanted to fight Miguel Vazquez, and I don't even know if [Top Rank] wanted us to fight Miguel Vazquez. This was a fight that we wanted to take as a statement."
Despite Team Gesta's displays of confidence at the press conference on Thursday afternoon, December 6, Vazquez's team remains unfazed.
"I think [Gesta] is OK, he's strong, no disrespect to him but I think Miguel has fought a lot better fighters," said Vazquez's manager Richard Mota. "I think we should pull the win off convincingly no problem, but you never know what could happen in the ring."
All for family
Once fighters get their first big checks, most buy cars or even houses. For Gesta, his big purchase was bringing his father, mother and brother over to America from the Philippines, having them join him in his high-elevation training camp at Big Bear, California.
Gesta's sister is already in the United States, living with her family in Miami.
"I'm thinking that having my family here and helping my family, I couldn't ask for more from that," said Gesta. "It's a perfect timing for a title fight for all my family to watch me here. It gives me motivation that they're watching and they were there in my training camp. I'm really mentally, physically 100 percent right now."
"We're confident of our plan. We're just going to stay focused on that one." - Rappler.com
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and is a columnist for The Ring magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.