MANILA, Philippines – In 2012, Mark Anthony Barriga fulfilled a dream by representing the Philippines at the London Olympics. Four years later, Barriga will chase another dream as he makes his professional debut Friday, June 24, at the Philippine Marine Corps’ Jurado Hall in Taguig City, Philippines.
The 23-year-old boxer from Panabo, Davao del Norte will face JanJan Santos (1-6) of General Santos City in his first pro fight, which will be scheduled for 8 rounds instead of the typical 4-round distance. The fight will be part of an event promoted by JS Sports and broadcast by Rappler on a delayed basis.
It’s an ambitious start for Barriga, but one he says he’s been ready to begin for a while now.
“After the Olympics in 2012, I dreamt to be a professional. I should have been a professional a long time ago, but the coaches there stopped me, saying…’You need other techniques before turning pro,'” said Barriga, a southpaw boxer standing at 5-foot-2.
“I insisted, ‘Enough. I’ve had enough of the amateurs. I want to be a professional already since it’s my dream.'”
Barriga’s decision to leave the amateur ranks was helped along in part by the qualification of Rogen Ladon – previously Barriga’s light flyweight back-up on the national team – for the Rio Olympics.
More than just being a fighter with nowhere left to go, Barriga’s decision is being met with excitement in the Philippine boxing community as it’s rare for top amateurs to leave the comfort of their government stipends and stake it out as a free agent.
Neither Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco nor his brother Roel Velasco, the last two Filipino boxers to medal at the Olympics, turned professional. Most of the national team boxers who eventually go pro are back-ups who never make it to international competition.
Barriga was no B-team boxer. At the 2011 World Amateur Championships, he made his name on the international scene by outpointing Paddy Barnes – the 2008 and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist from Ireland – before dropping a points decision to the eventual gold medalist Zou Shiming. The upset over Barnes earned him a top 3 ranking in the world, providing him with confidence as he debuted at the Olympics the following year.
He was the Philippines’ only boxer at the London Games, and the country’s best medal hope. After defeating an Italian foe in his first bout, he lost a razor-thin decision to a Kazakh opponent.
He can’t recall how many fights he’s had since he first put on gloves at age 5, but estimates he has over 100 fights to his name.
Before boxing became a career, it was a necessity. The dimunitive Barriga, whose size earned him the nickname “Bulilit,” found himself harassed by neighborhood bullies, who called him a “weakling” and tried to discourage his dreams. Barriga first got his retribution by defending himself with his hand skills, then found his success to be an even more potent revenge.
“That bullying, I used that as an inspiration to myself that not because I’m small, I can’t fight fair even with bigger opponents,” said Barriga.
“When the time came that they knew I was boxing, they kept on bullying, saying that I was small or that I wouldn’t be famous. I proved them wrong. So I persevered – trained hard. I reached the national team until I became an Olympian. So, all the bullying to me was invalidated because of what I have done.”
Barriga’s boxing skill earned him a name on the national level, but also enabled him to pursue a college education and a career in the military. He enrolled in UM Panabo College and should’ve graduated in April with a degree in Commerce and Marketing, but he said his duties with the national team got in the way.
“When you’re in college, the time is completely different from high school. I had a hard time because it causes conflicts with our training time. So what happened is I didn’t finish college. I sacrificed that along with time with my family just for boxing – for being part of the national team. I regretted that a bit too, because I should’ve graduated by now. That’s the only thing no one can get from me – my studies,” Barriga said.
He spent 3 years in the Philippine Air Force, rising to the rank of A2C – an airman, second rank. He filed for his discharge earlier this month to pursue a pro career, but left on good terms so he could return one day.
“I do miss it. To tell you the truth, it’s lifetime work, being part of the AFP. But of course, I need to sacrifice that for my dreams,” said Barriga.
“I smoothed out my departure so in case my run here doesn’t go well, I could return there.”
Word spread quickly among Philippine boxing promoters of Barriga’s interest to turn professional. Joven Jimenez, the trainer whom Barriga had aligned himself with, approached Jason Soong, a businessman with a soft spot for boxing who was still involved in managing Aston Palicte, the junior bantamweight with a 20-2 (17 knockouts) record who headlines Friday’s show in a 12-round rematch against Vergilio Silvano (21-6-1, 12 KOs).
Soong accepted the offer to manage Barriga, and isn’t looking to waste time in making something big happen with the little fighter.
“Five fights,” Soong said of his timetable to bring Barriga to a world title fight. “We’re gonna base it after Vasyl Lomachenko (the two-time Olympic gold medalist who won a pro title in his third bout).
“What we told the [Games and Amusements Board] was, ‘this guy did this so we can do it also.'”
Soong and Barriga had to receive special clearance to make his debut in an 8-round fight, a level which boxers typically only reach after 10 fights. At Thursday’s weigh-in, Barriga weighed 108 pounds while Santos weighed 107.
Soong said he’s already been in communication with American promoters who are interested in promoting his fights abroad. He also expects Barriga to fight for a major promotion by his fourth bout.
Despite Barriga’s class, there is still much for him to overcome. The professional game, with its longer fights, and grizzled fighters punching with meaner intentions, offer few guarantees. To make good on his potential will require greater dedication than ever before. But it’s a gamble that Barriga is willing to make, knowing how much he’s beaten the odds so far.
“My goals here in the pros are, first of all, to help my family through my skills and then, I want to be a champion. That’s really my dream. I turned pro because I want to be a champion. I know that my manager, Sir Jason, will take care of me. I know he’ll be there supporting my needs,” Barriga said.
“So on my part, I do my best in training. Slacking off in training won’t do since the amateurs are different from the pros. Training like an amateur won’t cut it.” – 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.
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