PASAY CITY, Philippines – Before he won the WBO strawweight title, Merlito Sabillo made his living as a street fighter in the marketplace of Bacolod City, Philippines, earning the equivalent of $20 from wagers on his own bouts. Jorle Estrada, too, came from unassuming beginnings in San Pelayo, Colombia, where he milks cows when he isn’t boxing.
Only in the world of boxing – where paupers routinely rise to princes in one of the few examples of meritocracy – can men from these backgrounds headline under the bright lights of a luxurious venue such as the recently opened Solaire Resort and Casino in Pasay City.
Sabillo, 29, was making the first defense of the title he won in March with an eighth-round knockout of Luis De la Rosa in Colombia. It’s increasingly rare that a Filipino world titleholder gets the benefit of defending his belt in his home country, but through a confluence of Sabillo’s promoter ALA Promotions’ long-standing relationship with Filipino TV giant ABS-CBN and Solaire’s eagerness to host boxing events, Sabillo was granted just that honor.
And disappoint he would not.
Fighting in front of a crowd of 1,500 that included many of his nation’s top celebrities, like Bea Alonzo and Jake Cuenca, Sabillo asserted his dominance, beating an overmatched Estrada around the ring before knocking him out at 1:09 of the ninth round with a thudding left hand to the body. Estrada immediately slumped over to the floor as concerned referee Raul Caiz Jr. administered the count.
With the win, Sabillo (23-0, 12 knockouts) offered a brief reprieve to Filipino boxing, which has reeled over the past year following the losses sustained by Manny Pacquiao, Nonito Donaire, Brian Viloria and several others. Sabillo joins WBO junior flyweight titleholder Donnie Nietes and IBF junior flyweight titleholder Johnriel Casimero as the only world titleholders from the archipelago nation.
Estrada (17-7, 6 KOs) snapped a four-fight winning streak with the loss, and sustained his fourth loss by knockout in his five-year career.
Sabillo, 104 pounds, came out at a measured pace, pushing through with straight left hands to the midsection of Estrada, 103, in the first round. Sabillo kicked it up a gear in Round 2, landing a few more right hooks to Estrada’s head, which served to make the Colombian tentative to Sabillo’s feints. Sabillo had become so confident that by Round 4 he was content to remain in a corner performing a rope-a-dope, picking off Estrada’s flails with his gloves and offering back a smile before roaring out with five straight right hooks to the head and body.
As Estrada backed out of the exchange, Sabillo landed an overhand left that would’ve finished off most opponents. From that moment, it was just a matter of time.
“It was a dream come true,” said Sabillo, of the opportunity to successfully defend his title in his home country.
Michael Aldegeur, president of ALA Promotions, said that they have no opponent in mind for his next fight, but that he will likely be back in action in October on a fight card promoted in Dubai. “He has a voluntary defense, anybody in the top ten, then maybe something bigger,” said Aldegeur. “For a person who has never been seen in the main event spotlight, with all the stars in attendances, I think it does it all. Sabillo is for real.”
Aldegeur said he had spoken immediately afterwards with ABS-CBN chairman Gaby Lopez III and Solaire COO Michael French, both of whom were pleased with the show, which was the first ever at Solaire, the first of four casino properties to be completed in what is dubbed Metro Manila’s Entertainment City.
“They feel that over the years that Philippines should be the boxing Mecca of the world,” said Aldegeur. “Why go to Las Vegas when we have the best fighters in the world? We have Manny Pacquiao, we have Nonito Donaire. We’re looking for more events here. I think people have seen what’s in store for the Philippines.”
The event, titled Pinoy Pride XXI, will be aired domestically on ABS-CBN channel two on Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m., and will be replayed on Studio 23 at 11:30 p.m.
In the event’s co-featured bout, Arthur Villanueva (23-0, 13 KOs) of Bacolod City, Philippines, added another notch to his belt with a fourth-round technical knockout of Arturo Badillo. The stoppage came at the 2:03 mark, as referee Danrex Tapdasan stepped in to rescue the game Badillo from a barrage of unanswered blows.
Villanueva, who is rated No. 8 by THE RING at 115 pounds, started off the bout working in his right crosses on the shorter Badillo. A headbutt in Round 2 threatened to abort the bout prematurely, producing a cut high on Badillo’s head that clearly bothered him. Badillo charged on confidently, however, landing his share of body shots in an attempt to take hold of his fate. Badillo once again got the worse of a head clash in Round 3. Once again, he charged back, making matters uncomfortable as he was able to bull Villanueva to the ropes and land heavy body blows and right hands.
That would prove to be Badillo’s finall hurrah, it turns out. From that moment, Villanueva had Badillo dialed in, and the end began to manifest itself when a right hand high on Badillo’s temple left him disoriented moments into Round 4. Villanueva immediately pounced on Badillo, dropping Badillo with follow-up rights. Badillo arose but was a stationary target for Villanueva, who missed many shots in his exuberance, running the risk of punching himself out. Luckily for Villanueva, Badillo had had enough.
“In the first round, his jab gave me problems,” admits Villanueva, 24, who was once an aspiring pro chess player before turning to boxing at age 16. “It’s a very snappy jab but I can manage his style. In the fourth round, I saw him get groggy so I pressured him.”
Aldegeur said there is no rush in getting Villanueva into a title fight, adding “I think he still has a few more years before he’s ready for that.”
Junior bantamweight prospect Albert Pagara (17-0, 11 KOs) had a taste of “Pad Thai” to kick off the televised portion of the card, knocking out the overmatched Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth (9-5-1, 5 KOs) at 2:29 of Round 2.
Pagara, who is the younger brother of fellow unbeaten prospect Jason Pagara, started off tentatively, but was a bull out of the gate in comparison to Wor Wisaruth, who threw “don’t hit me” punches from the bell.
Pagara, a native of Maasin City, rocked the Thai with a pair of right hands at the end of Round 1, which was a portent of things to come. He asserted his left jab more in Round 2, backing Wor Wisaruth into a corner, where he was defenseless against a fusillade of right hands. A glancing blow to the back of the ear finally dropped the unstable Thai.
If the first knockdown was inconclusive, the second one is likely to show up on a YouTube highlight reel. Timing Wor Wisaruth’s dip to the right, Pagara zeroed him in with a left jab that was followed by a perfect right cross to the jaw. Wor Wisaruth rose to his feet but the fight was stopped immediately.
Also on the televised card, former world title challenger AJ Banal (29-2-1, 21 KOs) rebounded from his disappointing loss to Pungluang Sor Singyu last October, stopping Abraham Gomez (18-8-1, 9 KOs) of Mexico after the second round of a junior featherweight bout. Gomez, who was plagued by a cut caused by a clash of heads in round one, simply quit after the second round with no apparent justification.
The second outing of former amateur standout Jessel Mark Magsayo (2-0, 2 KOs) was just as brief as his first two months ago. The 17-year-old from Tagbilaran City, Bohol, Philippines stopped Jamjam Ungon (1-4, 1 KOs) at 1:55 of the first round, with a solid left hook to the ribs being the coup de grace.
Magsayo, who began boxing at age 8 and amassed 200 fights as an amateur, thrilled the crowd with a post-fight back flip in the ring.
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.