Johnriel Casimero: The best boxing champ you've never heard of
MANILA, Philippines - Johnriel Casimero has been among the best fighters from the lighter weights for the past several years. Yet despite being a two-time world champion, you won’t see him endorsing any major products in his native Philippines. He barely registers on the list of most popular athletes in his country, and his most recent fight, a fourth-round knockout of undefeated Thai Amnat Ruenroeng to win the IBF flyweight title, wasn’t televised in the Philippines.
None of that seems to matter for Casimero as he pounds away on the punch mitts at the top floor gym of Victory Mall in Caloocan City, Philippines. There is no fanfare, unlike that which accompanies each Manny Pacquiao workout. He slips on puddles which leak from the porous ceilings while hitting the punching bag. He trains like a fighter still eager to make it because, on some level, he still hasn’t.
The Philippines isn’t a boxing country; it’s a basketball country which produces great boxers, of which only Pacquiao is particularly beloved. Casimero is still waiting for his due.
“Let’s face it: Philippine television will just come to you later when you’re already a superstar champion. That is a very frustrating side of being a Philippine champion sometimes,” says Sammy Gello-ani, promoter of the 26-year-old IBF flyweight titleholder Casimero (22-3, 14 knockouts) of Ormoc City, Leyte, Philippines.
“I know later when we can prolong our title, they will be coming to us.”
His next step on a seemingly endless road to respect comes against Charlie Edwards on Saturday, September 10 (Sunday Manila time) at the O2 Arena in London, England. Edwards, a pro for less than two years, is a former amateur star with an 8-0 (3 KOs) record. Despite his relative inexperience, Casimero’s team isn’t taking chances with the 23-year-old boxer-puncher.
“I don’t underestimate this guy because he’s a good boxer. He has good footwork, he has speed. He has a chance to [defeat] Casimero,” says trainer Jun Agrabio.
“I will really show my power and my abilities. There really is going to be a knockout,” said Casimero.
Unlike many boxers, Casimero wasn’t pressured into the sport by family or grow up wanting to emulate boxing heroes. Rather, he says he tried every other sport available and found boxing to be what he did best. The middle of 3 children born to a father who worked as a porter at the local pier and a stay-at-home mother, Casimero took the sport at age 12 and joined Palarong Pambansa competitions. He attended high school until his second year and turned pro in 2007 at age 17.
By 2009 Casimero had already made his mark on the international scene, knocking out Cesar Canchila in 11 rounds in Nicaragua to win the interim WBO junior flyweight title.
Fighting in his opponents’ hometowns became a trademark of his career; have gloves, will travel. He has since fought in 8 different countries with the help of international matchmaker Sampson Lewkowicz. England will be his ninth.
He lost his next two fights, to Ramon Garcia Hirales (split decision in Mexico) and to IBF flyweight champ Moruti Mthalane (5th round technical knockout in South Africa) as his maturity caught up to his level of competition. Casimero became a champion for the first time in 2012, knocking out Luis Lazarte in 10 rounds to win the interim IBF junior flyweight title (became the full title when Ulises Solis vacated) in Argentina.
What should have been his brightest moment became an ugly scene as hometown fans rioted, throwing chairs into the ring and attacking Casimero and his team.
“I knocked him down 5 times and the people said we really lost this so they beat us up,” said Casimero, who hid under the ring for an hour afterwards.
“Everything started when somebody threw bottled water, then suddenly it’s now coins, then chairs flying on top of the ring and I have to protect Casimero,” remembered Gello-ani.
“I don’t want to throw back to the guy with my punches. If I’ll be the one to throw punch to the guys running after Casimero, I might be charged and I will be staying in Argentina. I told the guys, just defend yourself, don’t throw punches. I instructed Casimero just to hide and I’ll protect you.
"When Johnriel hid under the ring and I went down, people were kicking me. You cannot see who is kicking you because even the security is not doing anything. They just turned their back as if they didn’t see anything.”
Casimero escaped with the belt and made 3 defenses before losing the title on the scale after missing weight for a rare outing in his home country (a first round knockout of Mauricio Fuentes) in 2014. After an easy knockout win in Mexico, Casimero went to Thailand to face Amnat Ruenroeng, a two-time Olympic boxer who had beaten highly regarded fighters Kazuto Ioka and Zou Shiming in defenses.
The fight in June of 2015 was marred by inept refereeing by Larry Doggett, plus constant holding and body slams by the notoriously dirty fighter. Casimero lost a unanimous decision.
“Amnat fights very dirty and I could not get his moves because he was hitting randomly. Then he would kick my foot and hold me,” said Casimero.
The controversy kept him as the highest rated contender and Casimero would have to wait 11 months to get revenge. In May of this year Casimero got just what he sought, knocking Ruenroeng down twice and out in round 4, standing over his defeated rival and sticking his tongue out.
The plan for Casimero’s team is to get past Edwards and make another defense of the title before stepping up to 115 pounds to chase a showdown with 3-division champion and current pound-for-pound king Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez of Nicaragua. Gonzalez (45-0, 38 knockouts) will step up to the junior bantamweight division the same night Casimero fights Edwards to face Carlos Cuadras for the WBC title,
“I want to fight Roman Gonzalez,” Casimero said in English to be clearer of his intentions. “After my fight if I win, I fight Chocolatito.”
“He wanted Gonzalez because Gonzalez will fight toe-to-toe, that’s what he wants. A fighter who will really stay and get inside, that’s what he prefers. That’s why he doesn’t like fighters running. We are expecting Charlie Edwards to run,” said Gello-ani.
A stellar showing against Edwards, with the crew from HBO in attendance to televise the main event between middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin and welterweight titleholder Kell Brook, could bring him to the front of the line for a showdown with Gonzalez. It’d be a dream matchup for the young man from Ormoc City who continues to fight for respect, regardless of whether anyone is watching or not.
“Of course I want to be pound for pound like Manny Pacquiao before. Because among boxers we really are proud of that pound for pound achievement,” said Casimero.
“I cannot say what will really happen. Whatever God will give me, if we will be the next Manny Pacquiao, it’s up to God.” – 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.