SEA Games boxing matters little, but Philippines doesn't mind the medals
MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine boxing team will look to do more with less at the upcoming Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia.
This year, host country Malaysia has decided to eliminate or alter a number of events it doesn't perform well in, including boxing. Boxing, which has been part of the Olympics since Ancient Greece, consisted of 7 men's divisions and 4 women's divisions in 2015, but it has now been cut to 6 men's divisions, with women's boxing completely eliminated. Among the casualties was Josie Gabuco, the 4-time SEA Games gold medalist and AIBA world champion from the Philippines, who won't get to compete.
"The women's category has been scrapped because they don't have women boxing," Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines (ABAP) executive director Ed Picson told Rappler. "Malaysia is really making it difficult."
Still, the Philippines figures to be a favorite as they put forth a strong team consisting of returning 2015 SEA Games gold medalists Eumir Marcial, Ian Clark Bautista, and Mario Fernandez, 2016 Olympian Charly Suarez, plus rising talent Carlo Paalam (fresh off a gold medal win at the President's Cup in Kazakhstan), and Filipino-British John Nobel Tupas Marvin.
The elimination of the lightweight division means Suarez will move up to junior welterweight and Marcial moves from welterweight to middleweight (75 kg). Paalam will compete at light flyweight (49 kg), Bautista at flyweight (52 kg), and Fernandez at bantamweight (56 kg).
Marvin, the Philippines' first Fil-foreign national team boxer since Christopher Camat at the 2004 Olympics, was in the right place at the right time to make the team as a light heavyweight (81 kg).
Marvin, a Londoner born to a British father and a mother from Pampanga, is a dual citizen who had competed for the British Army team. Malaysia brought back the light heavyweight division, where they'd had success in the past, and Marvin happened to send feelers to ABAP.
"We have a hard time recruiting welterweights, let alone light heavyweights," said Picson.
"In the SEA Games normally when it comes to light heavyweights and heavyweights, we normally have 3-4-5 entries, and that gives you a huge opportunity to win a medal. If there are only 4 boxers in a weight category, then you're assured of a bronze. Since everyone from [the Philippine Sports Commission] and [Philippine Olympic Committee] are into counting medals, I said, 'Okay, might as well, come over and let's see what happens.'"
Though the Philippines often dominates in SEA Games boxing, the tournament has little significance on the world stage other than regional bragging rights. The gap in competition sometimes leads to absurd matchups, like Marcial, a former AIBA junior world champion, knocking out a Singaporean novice with about 20 amateur fights to his credit in the 2015 welterweight gold medal match.
But the boxers love the tournament, because it's often the easiest gold they'll see all year. Marcial, who narrowly missed out on an Olympic spot last year, qualified for the more important AIBA World Championships taking place August 25 to September 2 in Germany but withdrew to compete in the SEA Games instead.
"Because people look at the SEA Games and don't look at the world championships," explained Picson. "Everyone's crazy about the SEA Games, I don't understand it.
"Even the boxers, they'd rather fight at the SEA Games than at the world championships because it's easier to win the gold and the incentives are more than at the world championships."
From ABAP, the boxers will earn a P300,000 bonus for gold, P200,000 for silver, and P100,000 for bronze at the SEA Games, plus a separate package from the PSC, said Picson.
Bautista, whose one-punch knockout of a Laotian opponent in the 2015 semifinals was one of the competition's highlights, said his favorite tournament is the SEA Games, though a trip to the Olympics would supplant that.
"I like [the SEA Games] because I bring pride to my country," said Bautista.
Rogen Ladon, a 2016 Olympian and bronze medalist at the 2015 World Championships, and Dannel Maamo will head to Germany to represent the country at the highest non-Olympic competition in the sport.
In 2015, all 10 boxers the Philippines sent to Singapore earned a medal, with 5 winning gold. The biggest concern for the Philippines in recent years has been the judging.
"I told the [POC] after Myanmar in 2013, we have to rethink our position on these SEA Games. We got a lot of raw deals in Myanmar in 2013. They're blatant," said Picson.
"Myanmar won two gold medals at the expense of two Filipino boxers that they definitely did not deserve. And to prove it, right after those gold medal wins, we never saw those boxers again in any other competition. If you're the gold medal winner in the SEA Games, you'd at least try for the Asian Games. They stole those gold medals from us."
Nolito Velasco, the head trainer of the men's team, is also leery of matters which are beyond his control.
"I cannot be sure because in the hands of the referee and judges, you're the winner like Pacman, winner na talo pa (he won but then lost)," said Velasco.
"I'm not good at predicting how many golds we're gonna win," said Picson, before adding: "We're in 6 events, we'll go for the gold in 6 events. We think we have a good chance of winning the gold but I'm not gonna stick my neck out and say we're gonna go win 3-4-5. We could go home empty-handed. I don't think that's gonna happen but the possibility is always there."
Both the SEA Games and World Championships squads are currently in Guangzhou, China for a 16-day training camp where they'll spar with Chinese boxers, plus members of the Korea and Kazakh national teams. They'll return July 23 to their base in Baguio City, Philippines.
The boxing competition begins August 20 and will take place at the Malaysian International Trade and Exhibition Center in Kuala Lumpur. – 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.