MANILA, Philippines – Before Merlito Sabillo was WBO strawweight champion, he was the champion of the Bacolod City marketplace. Sabillo (22-0, 11 knockouts) is scheduled to make his first title defense this Saturday against Colombia’s Jorle Estrada (17-6, 6 KOs) at the luxurious Solaire Resort and Casino in Pasay City, Philippines, which is a far cry from the scenery where he honed his craft.
Sabillo, who didn’t walk into a boxing gym until the age of 19, had a modest amateur career of seven fights, which neither suggested future prominence nor experience. He had hoped to earn money to support his parents and two sisters, but didn’t have enough to pay his gym dues. As amateur medals don’t put food on the table anyways, he sought out a form of combat with more immediate returns.
“I bought my own gloves and began street fighting in a market,” explained Sabillo, 29.
Once an electrician student at Capital Institute of Technology, Sabillo found himself fighting for his family’s daily meals in a world where “only the strong can survive,” as he puts it. He did more than survive; he excelled.
Matched against street toughs who didn’t have his boxing training, Sabillo became a local celebrity in the Bacolod City marketplace, displacing opponents from their senses on a regular basis. There were no judges, no timekeeping or safety measures to speak of; just two men with ten-ounce gloves swinging away as bettors cheered and shouted as if present at a cockfight.
Sabillo owned a mouthpiece, but wouldn’t wear it if his opponent did not have one as well. “That’s the honest thing to do,” said Sabillo.
Of Sabillo’s 30 or so street fights, his highest take was 1000 pesos, or a little over $25 U.S. dollars, which he earned by betting on himself with even odds. His activities soon after began to catch the attention of police, who were aware of the fighting but not the illegal gambling aspect. Scheduled to fight one day, Sabillo backed out on a tip from a police officer friend who warned of a raid planned for that day.
Sabillo was not present when police swarmed in and arrested his friends, who wound up spending a week in jail before making bail.
Sabillo was 22, and with few options left, turned back to boxing for hope. While competing in an amateur match in Bacolod City, Sabillo caught the eye of Juan Ramon Guanzon, a local boxing patron who years later would become chairman of the Games and Amusement Board (the national boxing commission in the Philippines).
“He told me, ‘You practice always because this year I have a professional boxing promotion in Bacolod.’ That’s why I focused on my career,” remembers Sabillo.
Sabillo turned professional at age 24 in 2008, and began winning fights on his raw aggression and southpaw power. Within two and a half years, he was the Phillipines champion at 105 pounds. In October of 2011, Sabillo was given a tryout by ALA Promotions, the preeminent boxing company in the Philippines. Scheduled against Rodel Tejares with the regional Oriental Pacific Boxing Federation (OPBF) title at stake on the undercard of Donnie Nietes vs. Ramon Garcia Hirales, Sabillo pounded out a decision to take the belt.
Three months later, Sabillo was booked against Indonesian Sofyan Effendi at Waterfront Hotel in Cebu, where ALA holds most of its boxing events. Sabillo pounded out an eight-round unanimous decision by the scores of 78-74 on all three cards, but had a few tense moments to overcome. It was there that assistant trainer Edmundo Villamor first witnessed Sabillo’s potential.
“He was groggy, but then came back strong,” said Villamor, whose brother Edito holds the title of head trainer. Sabillo’s training team is rounded out by former fringe contender Michael Domingo.
A series of fortuitous events conspired to earn Sabillo his crack at the vacant interim WBO title. Originally scheduled to fight Hekkie Budler in South Africa for the lower-rent IBO version of the title in February, Sabillo had to withdraw with a hand injury. Meanwhile, the WBO strawweight titleholder at the time, Moises Fuentes, was scheduled to move up in weight to face Sabillo’s stablemate, Donnie Nietes, for the 108 pound title, leaving his status at 105 pounds in limbo.
Luis De la Rosa, a Colombian challenger whose only prior loss came in a title fight versus Raul Garcia, needed a dance partner for the interim title fight on March 9. With his hand now recovered, Sabillo accepted the fight in Colombia. Despite being uncertain about fighting outside of his home country for the first time, Sabillo overcame his opponent in a back-and-forth war, knocking De la Rosa down twice en route to an eighth-round stoppage.
After drawing with Nietes, Fuentes announced his intentions to remain at 108 and campaign for a rematch, thus installing Sabillo as champion.
With the purse, Sabillo paid off debts incurred by his late mother, who passed away last year. With the Estrada defense, Sabillo is hoping to put some money away to help his father, two sisters and three nephews.
Estrada, 24, of San Pelayo, Colombia, has yet to register an eye-catching win, but has faced contenders Pedro Guevara, Carlos Velarde and Carlos Buitrago in losing efforts, with all three defeats coming by knockout.
When asked whether professional fighting or street fighting was more difficult, Sabillo seemed more secure in the safer environs of the prizefighting ring.
“Street fighting is very difficult because no license in GAB, no rules and regulations and no discipline for your condition, your body,” said Sabillo. “Boxing is easy because you have three months to train your body, your techniques and your resistance. You have time to rest your body.
Then, as a smile crept over his face, Sabillo continued: “You also have a good purse to fight. My name is big all over the world.”
Sabillo-Estrada, plus unbeaten junior bantamweight contender Arthur Villanueva against Arturo Badillo and AJ Banal against Abraham Gomez, will air domestically on ABS-CBN Channel 2 on Sunday starting at 8:30 a.m., and will be replayed on Studio 23 at 11:30 p.m.
Video / Ryan Songalia
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected] An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.