Boxer Jether Oliva hopes second chance at title is the charm

Ryan Songalia

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Jether Oliva's trip to South Africa to face former champion Moruti Mthalane this weekend came with no fanfare. He'll have more attention on him should he return with a championship belt

UNDERDOG. Jether Oliva shoots a look between rounds while sparring at the Sanman Gym in General Santos City. Photo by Ryan Songalia/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Unlike star athletes from other sports, world champion boxers aren’t plucked from high school teams and recruited to collegiate programs where the marketing machine turns them into a star before they’ve even competed on the world stage.

Save for the few competitors that rise to the level of stardom in the niche sport, professional boxers in the Philippines often compete under a cloak of anonymity, fighting in provincial covered courts and barangay gymnasiums, far away from the glitz of big casinos and the big purses that come along with them.

Jether Oliva’s experience in boxing has thus far been in line with the norm for pugilists in the Philippines. There was no fanfare that accompanied his flight last weekend to South Africa, where the General Santos City native will face former IBF flyweight titleholder Moruthi Mthalane this Saturday, March 15 at the Durban International Convention Centre.

The 26-year-old Oliva (20-1-2, 10 knockouts) is a long-shot underdog to win against the highly-regarded Mthalane (29-2, 20 KOs). The second tier International Boxing Organization (IBO) flyweight title will be at stake, and a win could put him in line for a shot at one of the bigger world titles.


Oliva began boxing as a teenager, inspired by his uncle Zarlit Rodrigo, a former pro during the 90s. Oliva won numerous amateur titles, including a Palarong Pambansa gold in 2004, as well as 3 national tournament championships and 2 Batang Pinoy golds.

He turned professional in 2007 under manager Jim Claude Manangquil, a local teenager from a well-to-do family who was running a fledgling amateur program at the Sanman Gym.

“I was managing bum amateurs at that time and didn’t know anything,” says Manangquil. “Everybody was shocked that he signed with me because he was a very accomplished amateur tons of gold medals and he signed with a 14-year-old.”

Oliva ran his record to 17-0-1 before he got his first crack at a world title in 2011, but lost a decision to IBF junior flyweight titleholder Ulises Solis in Mexico. The $15,000 purse went a long way towards helping his family, however, and he used the money to buy a motorcycle for his father’s popcorn business, plus two more for his brothers to commute to work.

After that, Oliva didn’t fight for nearly two years. By that time he and Manangquil had split, as his manager left to the United States to study. So Oliva followed suit, enrolling in Hi-Tech Institute of Technology in General Santos City, finishing two-year courses in Computers, Electronics and Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Afterwards, Oliva found himself back at square one financially. “All of my money had run out and I didn’t know where I spent it,” said Oliva.

In need of money, Oliva returned to the profession that he knew best, reuniting with Manangquil in May of 2013 with a first round knockout of Ronnie Sunido in Lanao del Norte. Oliva has won three fights and drew once in his latest incarnation, but none of those opponents have been on the talent level of Mthalane.

Little big man

Mthalane is no stranger to Filipino boxing fans. The 31-year-old from Johannesburg, South Africa burst onto the world scene in 2008, giving then-IBF flyweight champion Nonito Donaire Jr. some nail-biting moments before being stopped in the sixth round. A year later Mthalane won that same belt when Donaire moved up in weight, decisioning Julio Cesar Miranda for the title.

Mthalane made four defenses of that title, including a fifth-round knockout of current IBF junior flyweight titleholder Johnriel Casimero of Ormoc City, Philippines.

Jether Oliva poses after training as trainer Rene Gabawa looks on. Photo by Ryan Songalia/Rappler

Issues outside of the ring were Mthalane’s toughest opponent, however, and he lost his title without throwing a punch when he failed to face mandatory challenger Amnat Ruenroeng of Thailand last year. The belt was vacated and Ruenroeng won the belt earlier this year by decisioning Pinoy Rocky Fuentes.

Mthalane hasn’t fought since September of 2012, which Manangquil thinks will work to their favor.

“I’m looking for Jether to win against a rusty Mthalane,” said Manangquil. “No question Mthalane is great champ but he has 4 fights in almost 4 years. Plus, Jether is so motivated.”

To prepare for the high altitude of South Africa, Oliva has been training while wearing an elevation mask to simulate conditions that he may encounter in the ring. Oliva says he has sparred 100 rounds in training, many of which were against super flyweight prospect Daryl Basadres (10-1-1, 7 KOs). 

Win or lose, Oliva says he has trained sufficiently and will have no excuses either way. But he still thinks that the 20-hour flight back home will be much more pleasant after a victory.

“I feel that I have a big chance of winning this one,” said Oliva. “Mthalane picked the wrong guy to fight as a tuneup opponent.” –

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 An archive of his work can be found at Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.


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