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Penalosa might surprise doubters

24
Apr

The fact Juan Manuel Lopez beat Daniel Ponce DeLeon didn't cause a stir within the boxing world; the WBO 122-pound beltholder was tough and heavy handed but at best a crude slugger. It was the way the Puerto Rican prodigy dismantled the proud Mexican veteran.

Lopez annihilated DeLeon in one round to earn his first world title and establish himself as a bona fide junior featherweight contender. Nobody had ever come close to knocking out DeLeon before Lopez zapped him last June.

Not Celestino Caballero, THE RING’s No. 2-rated junior featherweight and No. 9 fighter pound for pound.

And not Gerry Penalosa, THE RING’s No. 6-rated bantamweight, who will challenge Lopez in the main event from Bayamon, Puerto Rico this Saturday on HBO.

Caballero handed DeLeon his first loss in a rousing 12 rounder back in 2005. Penalosa dropped a controversial decision to the awkward banger in 2007.

However neither veteran separated DeLeon from his senses the way Lopez, a technically sharp and deadly accurate southpaw puncher, did.

And Lopez (24-0, 22 knockouts) made it look easy, as he did in his two title defenses last year — against solid journeyman Cesar Figueroa in October and RING-rated contender Sergio Medina in December. Neither challenger made it out of the opening round against the fierce-hooking Boriqua.

Which is why it’s hard to find a fan or boxing writer who will give Penalosa much of a shot of upsetting Lopez.

Maybe it’s because at 36, Penalosa is 11 years older than Lopez. Perhaps it’s the belief that the Filipino veteran’s 62-bout pro career, which has spanned 20 years, has taken its toll on his body.

If the perception is that Penalosa is an “old man,” fans who tune into the Boxing After Dark broadcast might be in for a surprise.

Penalosa (54-6-2, 36 KOs) is one of the sport’s most well-preserved world-class veterans. The Philippines-born southpaw is a complete fighter with skill, technique and athleticism that is on par with elite advanced-age fighters like Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez and Shane Mosley.

Penalosa also possesses a warrior’s heart that matches those pound-for-pound entrants, and he truly believes his combination of skill, experience and courage will be enough to upset the young KO artist.

“Lopez has never met a boxer like me,” Penalosa said. “He’s never fought anyone with my experience. I think he’s had easy opponents until now. This time is for real. He’s fighting a real a fighter. I’m a real veteran of boxing.”

That’s an understatement.

Penalosa won his first world title, the WBC 115-pound belt, in February of 1997. Until he lost that title on a split decision to In-Joo Cho in South Korea in April 1998, he was THE RING’s No. 2 junior bantamweight contender (behind only future hall of famer Johnny Tapia).

The loss to Cho was by split decision, as was their rematch — also in Cho’s native South Korea — in January 2000. Penalosa dropped a razor thin unanimous decision to Cho’s Japanese conqueror, Masamori Tokuyama, in Japan in September of 2001. He lost the rematch to Tokuyama, which was also in Japan, by split decision in December of 2002.

Penalosa, who was still rated by THE RING at the time, decided to retire in 2003. It’s easy to understand why he had had enough of the sport. Of his five losses, four were by split decision. All of them could have gone his way.

However, Penalosa didn’t stay away for long. He returned to the ring in late 2004, not with the goal of regaining a world title but of helping a young boxer he’d gotten to know at the gym he was running in Manila — Michael Ferenas.

“Michael had come to Gerry to ask him for help in getting his pro career started,” said Penalosa’s manager, Billy Keane. “Gerry told him ‘I can do more for your career as an active fighter’, so he returned to the sport.”

Penalosa’s return bout was the headliner of the card that Ferenas made his pro debut. The 24-year-old featherweight prospect is currently promoted by Top Rank.

Penalosa didn’t do that badly for himself, either. After winning five straight bouts, he was signed by Golden Boy Promotions and granted a shot at DeLeon.

“Golden Boy has done well by Gerry,” Keane said. “Nobody wanted to sign him when we brought him to the U.S., but they took a chance on him and gave him two title shots.”

Many ringside observers thought Penalosa outclassed DeLeon in their 12-round bout, which took place on the undercard of the Marco Antonio Barrera-Juan Manuel Marquez fight in March 2007, but the judges liked the superior workrate of the Mexican titleholder and gave him a unanimous decision.

However, Penalosa got a second chance against bantamweight titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez that summer and made the most of his opportunity. He stopped the gangly puncher with a single body shot in the seventh round to win his second world title an astounding 10 years (to the month) after he had lost his first.

Penalosa defended the title once, against faded Thai veteran Ratanachai Sor Vorapin in the Philippines last April, but inactivity and an unwillingness to defend his WBO belt against young up-and-comers (Abner Mares and Nestor Rocha) prompted the Puerto Rico-based sanctioning organization to strip him of the title.

“They said they weren’t going to strip him, but they did anyway,” said Keane. “I told Gerry, ‘It’s their belt, you were just borrowing it.'”

It’s not that Penalosa had any fear of Mares or Rocha. He just objected to the amount of money that was offered for those fights, and he didn’t think the young guns represented much of a challenge.

“He saw those as easy fights, and he didn’t want any easy or stay-busy fights,” Keane said. “He wanted big fights, significant fights against top fighters that he respected. He told me he wanted (Israel) Vazquez, (Rafael) Marquez and (Vic) Darchinyan.”

Once Lopez emerged as a potential world beater, Penalosa told Keane that he would be willing to fight the feared puncher that most veterans with world titles wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

Of course, now that he’s been stripped of his title (Fernando Montiel and Eric Morel will fight for the vacant belt) the stakes are even higher for Penalosa this Saturday. Without anything to fall back on, a loss to Lopez could relegate him to gatekeeper status.

However, Penalosa hasn’t looked like a gatekeeper during his sparring sessions at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., where he trains under the watchful eye of Freddie Roach (who will break Manny Pacquiao’s camp to work his corner in Bayamon this weekend).

The speed and activity Penalosa had in his prime has dropped a notch, but that’s it. His legs look fresh, his reflexes are sharp, his punches are solid and accurate, and he’s as smooth as he ever was when he bobs and weaves his way in and out of his sparring partners’ punches.

His conditioning seems superb.

“Manny can’t keep up with him when they run,” Keane said.

He slipped punches, and blocked and countered with jolting effectiveness during a sparring session that took place last Wednesday, just before the boxing press converged on the gym for Pacquiao’s Media Day.

“He’s working on starting quicker,” Keane said. “He’s not going to run. Freddie thinks that the way to avoid getting caught is to take the fight right to the kid.”

Penalosa believes he can beat Lopez in a number of ways.

“I will surprise him,” Penalosa said of Lopez. “We have a plan A, B and C. I could fight him for 15 rounds if I had to.”

Many hardcore fans and knowledgeable boxing writers don’t expect Penalosa to last 12 rounds.

However, Penalosa has never been knocked out or even knocked down in his pro career.

And a true veteran like Penalosa can never be counted out.

Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]

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