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Combat sports thrive amid virus

By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

WHILE the year 2020 was a rough one for Philippine sports and athletes, combat disciplines somehow proved resilient despite the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and even managed to squeeze in performances to cheer about and be hopeful for moving forward.

Boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA) and karate were just some of the combat sports that provided cheer to Filipinos amid what was a down year for sports.

“It’s already an overstatement to mention that the local scene has been greatly affected by the pandemic. By March, it all came into a screeching halt. Fortunately, other athletes were given the opportunity to compete overseas,” said local combat sports analyst Nissi Icasiano in an online interview with BusinessWorld.

He went on to say that there were actually a lot of standout moments in 2020 for combat sports despite the seeming limitations the year presented.

“There were a lot, to be honest. There’s Reymart Gaballo, who took a short-notice fight against Emmanuel Rodriguez and won the interim WBC bantamweight championship. John Riel Casimero turned a lot of heads lately with his antics both in and outside the ring. His marketability skyrocketed. It is fascinating because Mr. Casimero broke the mold of a typical Filipino boxer,” said Mr. Icasiano, also one of the hosts of Tiebreaker Vods’ The Hit List podcast.

Mr. Gaballo took over from compatriot Nonito Donaire Jr., who had to pull out from the Rodriguez fight after he contracted the coronavirus two weeks prior to the event itself. But despite that, Mr. Gaballo made a good account of himself, doing enough to edge Mr. Rodriguez and become the latest Filipino world boxing champion.

Reigning World Boxing Organization (WBO) bantamweight champion Mr. Casimero, meanwhile, made it a successful first title defense in September, defeating Duke Micah of Ghana by technical knockout in the third round. The Filipino champion was supposed to face undefeated International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association champion Naoya Inoue in a unification bout before it was scrapped because of the pandemic and he had to wait for a long time after to find a new opponent. But the Leyte native made it worth the wait with a top-class performance.

“In MMA, you got Rolando Dy who moved up in weight, won two late-notice fights in a new division, was coming off two heartbreaking defeats, didn’t have an established team to prepare him for these fights, and clinched the Fighter of the Year honors [in Brave Combat (CF) Federation]. But the biggest winner in 2020 was [karateka] James Delos Santos. He just raised the profile of forms, which many look down on as an aspect of competitive martial arts,” he added.

Mr. Dy had two straight victories in September and November after months of going without a fight en route to willing himself as one of the noteworthy fighters in Bahrain-based Brave CF and a contender in the lightweight division. His efforts did not go to waste as he was named Brave Fighter of the Year.

Mr. Delos Santos, for his part, was a winner through and through on his way to becoming the world’s number one eKATA player, with 15,710 points. He won a total of 36 gold medals, while scoring hat tricks in e-tournaments he competed in along the way.

Also making waves in 2020 were Olympics-bound boxers Eumir Felix Marcial and Irish Magno, who booked spots in the rescheduled Tokyo Games in March. Mr. Marcial also made his professional debut in December and was a unanimous decision winner over American Andrew Whitfield.

Featherweight boxer Mark Magsayo also returned to the ring in October after more than a year of inaction, winning by split decision over Mexican Rigoberto Hermosillo. It was also a winning start for the Bohol fighter with Manny Pacquiao’s MP Promotions with whom he signed with last year.

Female MMA fighter Denice Zamboanga had two impressive victories in ONE Championship in 2020, making her the number one contender in the promotion’s atomweight division.

Her brother, Drex, meanwhile, made his ONE debut last year and won in impressive fashion, scoring a submission win (rear-naked choke) over Thai Detchadin Sornsirisuphathin.

Moving ahead, Mr. Icasiano said it will still be a slow move back to normalcy for combat sports, but ongoing developments on that front are welcome signs.

“The Games and Amusement Board is now coordinating with several boxing promotions. Pedro Taduran, the IBF minimumweight titlist, will be challenged by Rey Mark Cuarto on Feb. 27 in General Santos City. His stablemate Michael Dasmariñas is now on the radar of Naoya Inoue. That can happen in the first quarter of 2021,” Mr. Icasiano said.

“Jerwin Ancajas, who is now in the States, might share the ring with Kazuto Ioka. On the other hand, Mr. Casimero may be pitted against Guillermo Rigondeaux in a unification early this year. There a lot of things to look forward to when it comes to boxing. In MMA, there are rumors that Joshua Pacio will defend his title against Yosuke Saruta in a rubber match in ONE. Meanwhile, Brave CF is already looking for a dance partner for [Filipino bantamweight champion] Stephen Loman.”

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