Mixed Martial Arts

2017: The best of Philippine boxing

Ryan Songalia
2017: The best of Philippine boxing
Jerwin Ancajas has a breakout year, while champions and contenders rise up on the ever-changing scene of Philippine boxing

MANILA, Philippines – In years past it may have been said that, as Manny Pacquiao goes, so goes Philippine boxing. Yet, just as has been the case for the past century, wherever there were opportunities for young men to literally fight their way up the ladder in life, they did so. With the spotlight coming off Pacquiao, other fighters stepped in to make their names.

Jerwin Ancajas, the IBF junior bantamweight titleholder, was the fighter who generated the most excitement in 2017, making 3 defenses of the belt in 3 different countries, scoring knockouts against each challenger. There were two other Filipino fighters who added world titles, with Donnie Nietes capturing the vacant IBF flyweight belt with a win over Komgrich Nantapech, joining Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire Jr as the only boxers from the Philippines to win championships in at least 3 divisions, and Milan Melindo, the hard-luck warrior from Cagayan de Oro City who made good on his mandatory shot, stopping Akira Yaegashi in the first round to win the IBF junior flyweight belt.

The Philippines also lost title belts, with Pacquiao dropping a shock decision to Jeff Horn in Australia for the WBO welterweight crown, and Marlon Tapales being stripped of the WBO bantamweight belt after he missed the 118-pound weight limit before stopping Shohei Omori in April. The 25-year-old Tapales did not fight again the rest of the year after being out of the ring for 9 months before that.

Was 2017 a “Passing of the Torch” year? It’s hard to say, though the recent success of Ancajas has given some hope that fans may be ready to coalesce around a new fighter. With Pacquiao now busy in the Senate and winding down his career, there is an opening for that next great boxer to cheer for. Could Ancajas fill that void? Perhaps, he’s certainly young enough and has shown he has the nerves to win in other fighters’ backyards, and TV networks are beginning to warm up to him. Hell, even top-rated fighters rarely make the news cycle here, but Ancajas is beginning to crack the mainstream barrier and becoming a person of national significance.

Donnie Nietes overcame a tough Thai fighter to win a world title in his third weight class. Photo by Darryl Mangubat/Rappler

And what of that next generation of fighters who are on the cusp of breaking out? Mark Magsayo, the heavy-handed Boholano from the ALA stable, is the undefeated number two rated featherweight contender with the WBO and has looked explosive in spots, though his hard-fought win over Shota Hayashi in November suggests there is still room for improvement with the 22-year-old. Genesis Servania, the former ALA prospect, emerged from his shell in Japan to give WBO featherweight champ Oscar Valdez a scare in September and assert himself as a serviceable contender there. And let’s not forget the Southeast Asian Games squad led by Eumir Marcial and John Marvin bringing home gold in Malaysia.

Some of the biggest achievements in the sport have come outside the ring as the Games and Amusements Board, led by chair Abraham Mitra, relaxed rules to allow fighters to compete abroad if they’ve won two of their last 5 fights, instead of mandating that they have won 2/3, allowing more fighters to get opportunities internationally. The GAB also pushed through its partnership with the Department of Health to provide free medical screenings as part of licensing requirements, eliminating a significant expense and potentially boosting enrollment in the sport.

2018 already promises much, with Melindo set for a unification bout on New Year’s Eve against WBA titleholder Ryoichi Taguchi, Mercito Gesta getting a second shot at a championship against WBA lightweight titleholder Jorge Linares on January 26, and Nietes looking to defend his belt against mandatory challenger Juan Carlos Reveco early in the year. There is also the recently-announced fight between Donaire, part of the old guard of PH boxing, against Carl Frampton in Belfast on April 7 which could be an exciting matchup of ex-champs hungry to reignite their popularity.

I have said that Pacquiao has nothing left to accomplish in the sport, but he is the only one who can decide what he wants to do with his life and career, and has earned the respect of fight fans to do as he sees fit. But boxing has existed before, it will continue to exist in the future, even if Pacquiao never throws another punch. And one way to ensure that is if fans plug in and support the fighters, television networks recognize the potential of the athletes and put them on the air, and promoters get out and push their future stars. Now, let’s hand out some awards.  

Fighter of the Year: Jerwin Ancajas

What a year Ancajas had. Following his convincing win in 2016 against McJoe Arroyo to win the IBF junior bantamweight title, Ancajas took his career on the road: first dismantling Jose Alfredo Rodriguez in Macau, then pummeling mandatory challenger Teiru Kinoshita in Australia on the Pacquiao-Horn card, before heading to enemy territory and launching a punishing body assault on Jamie Conlan to rack up another defense. Television is beginning to catch on – albeit slowly – and ESPN 5 just recently aired the Conlan the fight, though a month delayed.

When I first saw Ancajas 6 years ago at the now-defunct Jupiter Boxing Gym, Ancajas was noted for his skill but the one knock on him was his lack of power. As he’s matured into his body the power has developed, and he’s developed a real killer’s instinct in how he concentrates downstairs on his opponent. Much credit is deserved to trainer manager Joven Jimenez, who has stuck with Ancajas, working painstakingly on improving his tactics instead of impressing himself with fancy padwork. Also big credit is due to matchmaker Sean Gibbons of MP Promotions, who kept Ancajas busy wherever there was action.

He’s no Manny Pacquiao, regardless of what Bob Arum says, but he has the same humble appeal of the young Pacquiao. Who could forget him smiling bashfully on the way to the ring in front of thousands in Brisbane, with an “aww shucks” look on his face before playing a Keith Moon drum solo on Kinoshita’s ribs. And after signing a 6-fight, two-year deal with Arum’s Top Rank, he’ll remain busy and, presumably, get bigger fights to capitalize on his success.

Runner-up: Milan Melindo

He didn’t take a soft first defense, and he isn’t taking a soft second defense. Regardless of how 2017 ends for Melindo, he can forever be called a champion. And he may end the year as just the third Filipino boxer to unify titles (Donaire and Brian Viloria have also done it).

Fight of the Year:  Milan Melindo SD12 Hekkie Budler

Waterfront Hotel and Casino, Cebu City, Philippines
September 16

Regardless of who you had up on your card heading into the 12th, everyone can agree the fight was close and that both men needed to make a strong final impression to sway it their way. Melindo, despite being cut over both eyes, once by a headbutt and the second by a punch, got the final push he needed, scoring a knockdown in the twelfth round and retaining his IBF junior flyweight title by split-decision. It was an ambitious first defense for Melindo, and a real treat for fans watching in Cebu and on TV via ABS-CBN’s Pinoy Pride series. 

“I see a little bit only because the blood is running in my eyes. Then the color is yellow,” said Melindo afterwards, in a statement that harkens to the battles of Arturo Gatti a generation ago.

It had blood, a knockdown, controversy, and close scores. Can’t ask for much more than that in a fight.

Runner-up: Mark John Yap TKO4 Kentaro Masuda

Sumiyoshi Ward Center, Osaka, Japan
July 30

For knockdown, drag-em-out action, hard to find a better fight than this anywhere in the world. Masuda, a former Japanese champion, had lava hands, and every time his right touched Yap’s face, the Filipino fighter was nearly knocked cold. Yap went down in 4 times in the first round – only 3 were counted as knockdowns – beginning in the opening minute with a right hand that had Yap’s legs doing the dipsy doodle.

Yap’s heart kept him in the fight, and by the fourth round it was Masuda who was having trouble taking the punches. Yap scored the first knockdown with an assault that started with a left hook, and after the second knockdown the referee waved the fight off as Masuda remained flat on the canvas. What a career turnaround Yap (28-12, 14 KOs) of CDO City has had since relocating to Japan.

Prospect of the Year: Mark Anthony Barriga

It was a tough call, but I had to go with the “Bulilit” one, who has shown flashes of artistic experience in his 8 fights since turning pro. The 2012 Olympian looked like the second coming of Floyd Mayweather Jr in his bout against Wittawas Basapean in Beijing this past September. He’s a southpaw with deep amateur experience and is as smart as they come. My hope is that he can evolve from this safety-first style and build upon his advantages toward stoppages, instead of being content to potshot around the ring. Because, as we saw with two judges giving Glenne Calacar 3 out of 10 rounds against Barriga in December, sometimes judges will score rounds for the guy who comes forward.

Anyhoo, he’s rated number 5 and number 6 at 105 pounds by the IBF and WBO, respectively, and Sean Gibbons expects him to be in a title fight some time in 2018.

Runner-up: Romero Duno

Duno had always been a big puncher, what he didn’t have was the missile system to deliver the payload, so to speak. After a few months working with Rodel Mayol at Wild Card, he was ready to shock the world, or at least the matchmakers at Golden Boy Promotions. His knockout of Christian “Chimpa” Gonzalez earned him a deal with Oscar de la Hoya’s company, and will make his second appearance on the undercard of a Linares title defense. Makes you wonder if they’re building up to something.

Upset of the Year: Jonas Sultan UD12 Johnriel Casimero

Waterfront Hotel and Casino, Cebu City
September 16

In what was a rare – and refreshing – Filipino vs Filipino fight, the Filipino won (imagine that). The reason why most probably felt Jonas Sultan would lose was they probably hadn’t heard of him. He was not featured on the Pinoy Pride cards, though I and others had felt he was one of ALA’s top prospects despite his 3 early defeats, and much of his success had come overseas in Japan and South Africa. Casimero had been a champion in two divisions and seemed ready to march into a showdown with Ancajas. Instead, Sultan used his jab to keep Casimero at range, and backed him up strategically, knowing Casimero doesn’t fight well off his backfoot, to win an uneventful decision. And now Sultan is the number one contender for Ancajas, if he wants to take his title shot.

It did Casimero no favors to be inactive for most of the year, then crash down in weight (I’m told he was well overweight when he began training) for the 115-pound fight. Those who stay ready usually beat those who have to get ready.

Knockout of the Year: Jhack Tepora KO2 Lusanda Komanisi

Orient Theatre, East London, South Africa
September 22

Prior to the fight Tepora had an unusual distraction: an HIV test that came back positive erroneously due to a mixup in the laboratory. Once Tepora put that behind him, it was Komanisi’s turn to go head over heels, this time in the ring. The Cebuano landed a cracking right hook in the second round on his South African opponent which sent him down. At first it looked like Komanisi was going to fall face-first, only to have his momentum swing the other way, like a bad pro wrestling bump.

All things considered, going to South Africa was much better for Tepora’s career than the one-round blowout of an overmatched Indonesian earlier in the year, and hopefully Omega Pro Sports can market Tepora as a rising contender because he can really be something.

Runner-up: Romero Duno KO2 Christian Gonzalez

Belasco Theater, Los Angeles, USA
March 10

The first knockdown was a looping overhand right that caught Gonzalez between punches. The second and last was a looping overhand right to the temple which sent Gonzalez down, looking starry-eyed. That’s real power, the kind you have to be born with.

Honorable Mention: John Marvin RSC1 Adli Hafidz Mohd Pauzi

Note to Adli Hafidz Mohd Pauzi: blocking punches with your face is not an effective form of defense. Following a number of suspicious refereeing and judging calls in favor of host nation Malaysia at the 2017 SEA Games, John Marvin made sure there would be no room for funny business, winning the light heavyweight gold medal in what were 21 painful seconds for Mohd. Marvin’s gold, plus the middleweight one added by Eumir Marcial, somewhat made up for the unfortunate robbery suffered by Carlo Paalam and the host nation’s decision to gut the boxing competition of most divisions, and abolish all of women’s boxing.

Trainer of the Year: Rodel Mayol

Mayol had made his name as a fighter earlier this millennium, winning the WBC world light flyweight and battling many of the top fighters of the lightest divisions. But the 36-year-old “Batang Mandaue” has reinvented himself as a rising trainer out of the Wild Card Gym, helping Filipino prospects Romero Duno and Aston Palicte for their fights in the United States, and bringing marked improvement to their games. 

For Duno, he helped bring out his jab and make this heavy-handed slugger a better rounded fighter. The way he used his feet to find the spacing for his first knockdown of Gonzalez, that was all Mayol. And for Palicte, he showed much improved balance in his 5th round TKO of Jose Alfredo Rodriguez in Texas in December than he had for his previous fights, allowing him to land uppercuts with surgical precision.

Something tells me Mayol’s greatest contributions to the sport may not be in the ring, but in the corner.

Event of the Year: Pacquiao vs Horn

Say what you want of the decision – and we have – but to have over 50,000 fans watching a Pacquiao fight is an event. Once you get past the surrealism of it all (He’s fighting who, and where?) it was a unique experience for any Pacquiao event. For one, Brisbane is a wonderful little city, and don’t let any discontent with the verdict blind you to that. Secondly, the whole region of Queensland was seemingly behind Horn, with many Filipino OFWs living in Oz coming out to support their nation’s greatest athlete.

The highlight of fight week was Duco Events’ head Dean Lonergan calling out Pacquiao for texting during the press conference, which tells you how competitive the fight was expected to be, and the floor seating caught flak for having white lawn chairs on the pitch.

The air of incredulity that surrounded the words “And the new…” was something to behold in itself. Those who scored the fight for Pacquiao – as most in international media did – are left to wonder what would have been if Pacquiao came out for the 10th the way he ended the 9th. Oh well, at least Ancajas got massive exposure in Top Rank’s first showing in their new deal with ESPN, and Pacquiao seemed to really enjoy holding a koala.

Comeback of the Year: Ivan Soriano

It’s one thing to come back from a loss in the ring; it’s another to resume a career after missing 4 years due to an abnormal electrocardiogram (ECG) scan. That’s what happened with the General Santos City-bred fighter Ivan Soriano (17-1-1, 8 KOs), who got a second lease on his career after securing his medical clearance and promptly ran off 3 wins in 2017, capping it off with a 12-round decision over Jaysever Abcede to earn the interim OPBF light flyweight title, and presumably, a shot at the winner between champion Edward Heno and Merlito Sabillo, which takes place February 17 in Bacolod City.

The boxer-puncher is trained by Jhun Agrabio at Victory Mall in Caloocan and could be making his move toward world title contention in 2018. Not bad for a guy whose career had effectively been ended several years ago.

Prospects to watch for in 2018: Reymart Gaballo, Jesse Espinas, Christian Araneta, Vince Paras, Jade Bornea. – Rappler.com

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