Marvin Sonsona: The new ‘Bad Boy from Dadiangas’

Former world champion Marvin Sonsona has had his ups-and-downs in his career and life, but the General Santos City native is back in the world title picture after scoring the biggest knockout of his young career

KO KID. Sonsona has his arms raised by WBO Asia Pacific VP Leon Panoncillo and referee Danrex Tapdasan after knocking Shimoda out. Photo by Sumio Yamada

MACAU – Marvin Sonsona knew the moment his fist connected with Akifumi Shimoda’s jaw that the fight was over. The punch – a perfectly timed left uppercut that landed square on Shimoda’s jaw – sent an audible crack through the Venetian Resort’s Cotai Arena in Macau, reversing two rounds of listlessness and earning him a third-round victory over the highly-rated Japanese fighter this past Saturday, February 22.

Shimoda, once the WBA’s junior featherweight champion, dropped instantly, the back of his head smacking violently on the canvas. No count was needed as medical personnel rushed to his aid.

“I knew it was over because I caught him in the middle of the jaw,” said Sonsona, as he nursed a watermelon shake at the Holiday Inn after the fight. “After the punch he went down quick and I knew he was gone.”

In an instant, Sonsona went from cautionary tale to comeback kid, reemerging as a relevant contender for the first time in four years. The shot drew praise from the show’s promoter Bob Arum, who has guided the careers of prodigious knockout artists like Manny Pacquiao and Thomas Hearns.

“That’s one of the best knockouts in all of the 50 years or so that I’ve been in boxing that I’ve seen,” said Arum, CEO of Top Rank. “That’s a classic knockout.”

“That knockout was sensational, he timed it perfect and it landed great,” added former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, who was commentating the fights for HBO. “When I heard his life went down and now he’s coming back up, I’m really going to pull for him.”

Nobody ever questioned the potential of the 23-year-old Sonsona (18-1-1, 15 knockouts) from General Santos City, Philippines; his biggest question mark was focus. It was a question mark succeeded by exclamation marks, followed by a prolonged ellipsis.

Rise and fall

Sonsona burst onto the scene at age 18, knocking out Thai contender Wandee Singwancha with a punch eerily similar to the one that sent Shimoda into momentary convulsions. The performance earned him a shot at the World Boxing Organization (WBO) junior bantamweight title, which was held by Puerto Rican late-bloomer Jose Lopez. Three months later – in September of 2009 – Sonsona won the title with a hard-fought decision victory in Ontario, Canada.

The win made him the second-youngest Filipino to win a world title. Yet, just as fast as his star rose, so too did it come crashing out of the sky. Less than three months later, Sonsona lost the title at the scales, missing the 115-pound weight limit the night before drawing with Alejandro Hernandez. Sonsona would fight for a title once more in his next fight, being knocked out in four rounds by Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. in Puerto Rico.

Over the next three years, Sonsona would fight just three times on small club shows, as whispers of excessive drinking and partying trickled out of GenSan and Cebu, where he had previously been training.

“There were a lot of fights I could’ve made but I didn’t want to fight,” admitted Sonsona. “It was my decision to fight once a year. I was stubborn and didn’t want to train.

“I was very young and so was my mind. My mind was good for boxing but my head was too young.”

Sonsona landing a left cross on Shimoda. Photo by Sumio Yamada

It wasn’t until his house burned down in November – forcing him and the home’s nine other occupants to take shelter in a local gym for three weeks – that he hit rock bottom and realized that he had to make a change.

“It started when my house burned down,” said Sonsona, who is living in the home even as it is being rebuilt. “It made me realize that I need to help my family.”

Sonsona had been scheduled for a fight on the same date in his hometown, organized by the town’s mayor and former two-time champion Gerry Penalosa, but he jumped at the opportunity to fight Shimoda for a bigger payday. 

To Sonsona’s credit, he put in a solid month of training, surviving trainer Jun Agrabio’s hellacious, intensive sparring schedule. After four light days of training to warm up his body, Sonsona sparred eight rounds his first session, ten the second, twelve on the third, 14 on the fourth before maxing out at an unheard-of 16 rounds on the fifth. Sonsona sparred four 16-round sessions with four different opponents switching out, ensuring mental confidence if not taxing his body physically in the process.

Sampson Lewkowicz, the Uraguayan-born, Las Vegas matchmaker who handles him, was smiling from ear-to-ear after the fight, saying that he felt Sonsona was deserving of a world title opportunity after KO’ing the man rated no. 2 in the world by the WBA. “Now he’s matured and knows what is right and wrong,” said Lewkowicz, who handles Sonsona alongside Cebu-based promoter Sammy Gello-ani. “Hopefully Marvin Sonsona knows now what is right for his family, his country and himself.”

Sonsona reacts to his knockout blow as Shimoda slumps to the canvas. Photo by Sumio Yamada

The four major featherweight titles are held by Jhonny Gonzalez (WBC) and Orlando Salido (WBO), both of Mexico, plus Russia’s Evgeny Gradovich (IBF) and South Africa’s Simphiwe Vetyeka (WBA). Sonsona says he’s ready for a title shot, and doesn’t care much who it’s against.

“I don’t care who the champions are. Anybody they put in front of me I will fight.”

The new ‘Bad Boy’

Sonsona’s hard-punching, hard-drinking reputation is reminiscent of another champion from the same neighborhood as himself. Rolando Navarrete, known as the “Bad Boy from Dadiangas,” won the WBC junior lightweight title in 1981 with a brutal knockout of Cornelius Boza-Edwards, holding it for a little under a year before out-of-the-ring issues contributed to his downfall.

Another Filipino great – former flyweight champion Francisco Guilledo AKA Pancho Villa – died at Sonsona’s current age in 1925, the result of a tooth infection exacerbated by a multi-day drinking binge after being ordered to bed rest.

Sonsona’s edge is part of what makes him appealing, however. He isn’t your typical Filipino boxer who blends in with the room’s wallpaper. There is a larger-than-life, rock star aura that follows Sonsona, who has the look of a born-fighter with an attitude to match.

“I don’t care, I was like that before and I stay that way,” said Sonsona. “But I’m not mayabang (arrogant).”

“I need to be overconfident because I had a lot of things to overcome.”

For now, Sonsona appears to be with the program, as he plans to spend three days in GenSan resting before returning to Manila to train at his manager Dr. Rajan Yraola’s gym. As boxing in Asia begins to heat up with the emergence of Macau as a Las Vegas for the East, Sonsona may be in the right place at the right time to bring his career back on track.

“He was a great prospect when he was 19, won a world championship and then went off the tracks,” said Arum, who feels he has the makings of a future star. “He lived a tough lifestyle but hopefully he’s back now and he’s learned his lesson. He has all the talent in the world.

“We have Pacquiao and Donaire, and now hopefully Sonsona.” – 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 ryan@ryansongalia.com. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.