From barangay covered courts to the Las Vegas strip, another year of Philippine boxing has entered the books. By all accounts it was an eventful, entertaining year, but you had to pay close attention to tell.
The year of 2016 saw Manny Pacquiao “retire,” be elected to the Philippine Senate, then un-retire to win a welterweight belt.
The year also saw the emergence of two first-time champions – Marlon Tapales, who pulled himself off the canvas twice to knock out Thailand’s Pungluang Sor Singyu to win the WBO bantamweight title in July. Then in September, Jerwin Ancajas cashed in his long-awaited mandatory shot at IBF junior bantamweight champion McJoe Arroyo, flooring him once before winning a unanimous decision.
In May, Johnriel Casimero became a two-division champion when he got his revenge against Amnat Ruenroeng, knocking him out in the fourth round in China to win the IBF flyweight title and sending the Thai back to the amateurs. Donnie Nietes also retained his WBO junior flyweight title by putting a beating on Raul Garcia in front of his hometown fans in Negros Occidental before vacating and moving up to 112 pounds.
It wasn’t all good for Filipino boxers. Nonito Donaire Jr lost his WBO junior featherweight title to unbeaten lefty Jesse Magdaleno on the Pacquiao-Jessie Vargas undercard. At the Rio Olympics, both Charly Suarez and Rogen Ladon lost in their opening bouts of the tournament.
Along the way the sport lost a huge figure in veteran reporter Ronnie Nathanielsz, who passed away at age 81 while in the US for Pacquiao’s fight versus Jessie Vargas. He was tireless in his work even as he aged; he told it like it is and held people in power accountable. He cared about boxing and about boxers, and the void is felt immediately today.
The sport is in a crisis in the Philippines, in danger of moving from the country’s most accomplished international sport to the fringes.
The 3 fighters who won world titles for the Philippines this year – Tapales, Ancajas and Johnriel Casimero – did so without being broadcast on terrestrial television. The only way you’d know they were world champions is if you really wanted to know.
The number of pro boxers in the country has reportedly dipped to just 652, down from about 1,500 a few years ago, according to new GAB head Abraham Mitra. Boxing thrived in the country as a way to facilitate class mobility, giving people a reason to believe that they could literally fight their way out of poverty.
If not for cheap venues like Makati Cinema Square or the Navy Gym, who knows if promoters could afford to host boxing matches. Something isn’t right when fighters are risking their lives to advance their careers in front of audiences of 50 people.
Everybody must do their part. The GAB must cut down on allowing mismatches and force real fights to be made; promoters must get out and actually promote, putting asses in seats and eyes on their fighters; fans should make their way out to the fights and buy tickets to shows which still sell tickets.
We must not accept that boxing in the Philippines is dying. Now on to some awards.
Fighter of the Year: Manny Pacquiao
Yes, even as interest in his fights dipped, he still had a pretty good year by general standards.
Pacquiao opened the year saying his third meeting with Timothy Bradley Jr would be his final fight. Few believed him and anticipation was low for a fight against a fighter he’d really beaten twice before (forget what the judges say). Virtually all interest in the fight disappeared when a video of him making anti-gay statements went viral online, costing him his relationship with Nike.
The fight itself went as well as he could have hoped despite the nearly year-long layoff after the Floyd Mayweather Jr fight. Pacquiao knocked Bradley down twice – including one where Bradley’s feet went over his head – and won an easy decision.
After winning a 6-year term in the Philippine Senate in May, Pacquiao announced his return to the ring – surprise, surprise – and was booked to face Jessie Vargas, who picked up the title Bradley vacated when he decided to fight Pacquiao instead of a rematch with Vargas.
It’s easy to view Vargas only through the lens of his fight with Pacquiao, but Vargas was 10 years younger, had only lost once previously and was coming off a great knockout of Sadam Ali. Pacquiao toyed with him for 12 rounds in early November, knocking him down in the second and winning a decision.
He may not be the Pacquiao of 2009 but he’s still pretty good. Here’s hoping he can make fights in 2017 which the public is more enthusiastic about because, at age 38, time is of the essence.
Runner-up: Johnriel Casimero
The patience that Johnriel Casimero exhibited, staying out of the ring for a whole year to await Amnat Ruenroeng’s next mandatory title defense, was monastic. It paid off for the Pride of Ormoc City as he marched into China and bulldozed the previously unbeaten Thai in four rounds, dropping him twice and hovering over him after the final blow. After their contentious first fight in 2015 where Ruenroeng used every conceivable dirty tactic to hold the Filipino off, all’s well that ends well.
Casimero followed that up by taking on another unbeaten fighter, Charlie Edwards of England. After giving the brave Englishman a beating, Casimero finally finished him in the tenth round.
Casimero has since vacated the flyweight title with intentions on moving up to 115 pounds where the likes of Roman Gonzalez and Naoya Inoue reign. And he’d fight them too because he has balls of steel.
Fight of the Year: Mark Magsayo TKO6 Chris Avalos
Cebu City Sports Complex, Cebu City, Philippines
This would get more consideration for Fight of the Year for all of boxing if it happened in America.
Magsayo, unbeaten but untested, started out red hot, winging double left hooks on the former world title challenger from California. Magsayo made Avalos do the stanky leg in the second round with a right hand high on the head and then tried to finish by winging hard bombs from both sides and up the middle but Avalos survived and put Magsayo down hard with a left hook, the first time the Tagbilaran City, Bohol banger had ever been down.
Magsayo’s legs were completely gone and it appeared that one solid punch would put him out for good but he somehow survived and, in the fifth round, turned the fight around for good with a big left hook to Avalos’ chin. Magsayo again went into Tazmanian Devil mode but Avalos barely survived to the next round. After another violent flurry, Avalos’ corner threw in the towel.
Afterwards, Magsayo’s wife Frances, who had been nervous leading into the fight, still appeared shaken while having post-fight dinner. I told her, “See, what’d you have to be worried about? Piece of cake.”
Runner-up: Marlon Tapales vs Pungluang Sor Singyu
One of the 10 best fights to happen in all of boxing and it wasn’t even shown on Philippine TV. Seriously, this is why we aren’t seeing new stars emerge.
Tapales (29-2, 12 KOs) seemed finished in round 5 after getting hit with a right uppercut to the pit of his stomach which he didn’t see. Tapales rose up and was put down once more, seemingly for the count. He rose up once again and took a tremendous pounding to the ribs for the rest of the round.
But, showing a resolve to survive, the southpaw from Lanao del Norte put Sor Singyu down with a right hook of his own. Tapales continued to push the fight against the fading incumbent, who was pinned to the ropes at the end of the round and his head used as a punch mitt for Tapales’ left cross.
Sor Singyu finally collapsed in the eleventh round after a left cross to the mouth convinced him to save some of himself for another day, blemishing the Thai’s 20-0 record against Filipino fighters. At just 24, Tapales could be a force for years to come.
Upset of the Year: Cesar Juarez KO8 Albert Pagara
San Mateo Event Center, San Mateo, California
It looked like Pagara, the chosen one of the ALA Boxing stable, was about to get a boost of street cred at the expense of an uneven Juarez, who had given Nonito Donaire Jr a tough challenge in 2015 but followed that with a split decision loss to an unknown trialhorse named Giovanni Delgado.
In the first round, “Prince” Albert pierced Juarez with a short left hook which put him down and seemed to spell an early end for Juarez. Juarez got back up and slowly fought his way back into the fight with his relentless pressure. Pagara couldn’t keep up with the intensity and was finished by the end of the seventh. He came out for the eighth round and was promptly put down by a 4-punch combination which he couldn’t recover from. Pagara was later taken to the hospital for observation and was released.
Pagara is just 22 years old but a ho hum showing against Raymond Commey in his comeback bout in November makes you wonder if even the most powerful promotion in the company can put him back together again after that beating.
Runner-up: Jimmy Paypa SD12 Bernabe Concepcion
Ynares Sports Arena, Pasig City, Philippines
ALA fighters also pulled a few upsets of their own in 2016. Paypa of Lanao del Norte (they build them tough there) was considered an after-thought against Concepcion, the former title challenger known for his big right hand. Paypa showed Concepcion he could punch a bit himself, dropping Concepcion in round one with a right hand just as Concepcion was pulling straight back. Paypa outfought Concepcion the rest of the way to the split decision win and is now 19-3-1 (7 KOs).
Knockout of the Year: Arthur Villanueva KO2 Juan Jimenez
StubHub Center, Carson, California, USA
It was a rematch that didn’t really have to happen but did any way but it made for great footage on Villanueva’s highlight reel. After knocking out Jimenez with a headbutt in their first fight in May, Villanueva put Jimenez’s lights out with a right hand that looked as sweet as an Andrew McCutchen home run swing. It was so hard that it made Jimenez turn over while he was on his way down.
Runner-up: Jonathan Taconing TKO10 Salatiel Amit
Elorde Sports Complex, Paranaque City, Philippines
Taconing put the disappointment of his failed title try against WBC junior flyweight champ Ganigan Lopez behind him with a knockout of compatriot Salatiel Amit. Amit had taken heavy shots all fight long but seemed capable of making it to the final bell. That was until a pair of Taconing left hands knocked him clean out of the ring.
Prospect of the Year: Jesse Espinas
The 24-year-old from Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental looked destined to be a domestic-level fighter after his 2015 knockout loss to Christian Araneta (who is also someone to watch for). That perception began to change in January of 2016 when Espinas (16-2, 11 KOs) knocked out Joey Canoy in 5 rounds, then traveled to Thailand to beat up Paipharob Kokietgym, who entered with a record of 32-0, and stop him in the eighth round.
Espinas scored two more knockouts in Thailand before coming home for a December brawl with tougher-than-old-tapa Lito Dante, winning on a technical decision.
With top 15 rankings in all 4 of the major sanctioning bodies and a slick southpaw style reminiscent of Pacquiao at his most versatile, promoter Sammy Gello-ani has found another winner.
Runner-up: Reymart Gaballo
Gaballo also tacked on 5 wins in 2016, and although they weren’t against the best opposition, he’s shown the raw abilities to be someone to watch for. The 20-year-old from General Santos City moved from junior bantamweight to junior featherweight, bringing with hm big right hand power and an improved jab and body punching. Promoter Jim Claude Manangquil tells me Gaballo will begin campaigning in the United States in 2017. Remember where you heard about him first.
Road warrior of the year: Jonas Sultan
For the 25-year-old Sultan, home is wherever he laced his gloves in 2016. The Tampilisan, Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines native tore apart Tatsuya Ikemizu in Osaka, Japan in March, dropping him twice in the second round. In May he then went to Bacolod City and blasted Romel Oliveros with one right hand. Sultan capped off the year with a second round knockout of world-rated fighter Makazole Tete to win the IBF Inter-Continental super flyweight title in December.
Screwjob of the Year: Omari Kimweri SD12 Randy Petalcorin
The Melbourne Pavilion, Flemington, Victoria, Australia
Incompetent officiating, dirty tactics and a judge who is married to the referee.
This is what Petalcorin was up against when he faced Australian-based Tanzanian in Flemington, Australia last April.
Petalcorin scored 4 knockdowns which were not credited by referee Malcolm Bulner (who even let Kimweri off with a warning instead of a knockdown in one instance). Samantha Bulner, the wife of the referee, was one of the two judges who scored the fight for Kimweri, who is handled by the event’s promoter Brian Amatruda.
A 48-second video compilation of the missed knockdowns I shot on my cell phone in front of a laptop screen went viral, and one person associated with the promotion said it was his “intellectual property” and asked me to remove it. When I declined, citing Fair Use, I was blocked from further messaging (he messaged me first).
“Nice cut and paste there mate your (sic) just missing 1 word. Morals,” said the person. Morals, interestingly, is what should prevent someone from turning a blind eye to an injustice as grievous as what happened between Petalcorin and Kimweri.
WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman admitted that the referee missed the knockdowns, telling this writer: “There were actions considered as knockdowns but also it is easy to see it was wrong mechanics and not bad faith actions from ref.”
The decision stood but Petalcorin retained his number two ranking at 108 pounds with THE RING and has since won two fights. Kimweri has not fought since then.
If someone wanted to see the definition of home cooking, tell them to watch this fight. – Rappler.com
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@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.
Previous year-end editions