Mark Anthony Barriga finds lost hunger ahead of title fight against Jonathan Gonzalez
Mark Anthony Barriga believed he had thrown his last punch several years ago. He was just 25 years old, but was already 20 years into a boxing journey, and had grown disillusioned with the sport by the time he suffered his first pro defeat in 2018, a split decision loss to Carlos Licona for the vacant IBF strawweight title.
Boxing had given him so much, helping him rise from an impoverished background in the mountainous Philippine city of Panabo to become a nationally known figure as the country’s lone boxer at the 2012 Olympics. As an amateur, he won gold at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, and bronze at the 2014 Asian Games, before spending time in Italy to compete in the AIBA semi-pro league the World Series of Boxing.
He had been bullied for his diminutive stature as a child, but those same bullies had later become his fans.
The one thing boxing couldn’t give him back was the time he had spent away from his family while traveling the globe as an elite amateur and a pro contender. And with the closest person to him on this planet, his mother Melita Barriga, suffering from a heart ailment, he didn’t want to be away from her side any longer.
He attempted a comeback in 2019, but left training camp in his manager’s home country of Slovenia after her health had made a turn for the worse. He had another fight scheduled in November of 2020, but withdrew after she died the week before his fight.
“I considered retiring because I want to forget everything in boxing because I lost my number one fan,” said Barriga, now 29.
It took time for Barriga (11-1, 2 knockouts) to process his grief, but a conversation with his manager Hinko Kostanvejec helped put his career into perspective.
“He told me don’t think too much because all of us are gonna die some day,” said Barriga.
Soon after, Barriga’s career underwent a rebirth, with a pair of wins in the Philippines to lesser opponents last year. Now he is set for his second attempt at a world title this Friday when he faces WBO junior flyweight titleholder Jonathan “Bomba” Gonzalez (25-3-1, 14 KOs) at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Fla.
Barriga says this bout, which is promoted by Pro Box Promotions and All Star Boxing, is different from his first attempt at a world title, which was a swing bout which took place in an empty arena an hour after the first meeting between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder in Los Angeles.
“It’s a big difference because in that fight with Licona I’m not in my head. I had a lot of problems,” said Barriga, a 5’2” southpaw.
Among the problems was making the 105-pound limit, which he said was detrimental to him after years of competing at 108 pounds as an amateur.
“I’m not weak in this weight category, but at 105 I was so dry. I was always super dieting,” said Barriga.
Barriga says he has trained for five months in Slovenia under the guidance of his brother Sadam Barriga and co-manager Jan Zaveck, a former IBF welterweight titleholder.
The unusual pairing of a Filipino strawweight with a retired Slovenian welterweight and his business partner came about after Kostanvejec had spent several years in the Philippines managing Global FC, a now defunct soccer team in the Philippines. Kostanvejec had traveled in 2018 to Cavite City, just outside of Manila, to meet with the mayor to discuss opportunities to collaborate on sports opportunities. He met Barriga there, but the two parties began working together after a later conversation, when Barriga said he had split with his management team.
“When we got him, he was in a state of flux. He was despondent with boxing. He was couldn’t believe that he could find anybody that was above board and we showed him a different way,” said Kostanvejec.
Toppling Gonzalez, 31, is no easy ask. The Puerto Rico-based native of The Bronx, N.Y. has lost three times by knockout to much bigger punchers than Barriga, a stylish counter puncher who relies more on frustrating opponents with his defense and showboating than blowing them away with power.
Gonzalez had rewritten his own narrative as a talented underachiever when he upset Elwin Soto last October by split decision to lift the title.
“Gonzalez is a good fighter, he’s not the kind of boxer that is easy to beat. His style is similar to my style also,” said Barriga.
Barriga has a special motivating factor pushing him towards victory in this fight: a promise he made to his biggest fan.
“This fight is very important for me because this is my promise to my mom when she passed away,” said Barriga.
“If I will win this fight, it will be life changing.”