This weekend’s Pinoy Power card features in its main event one of the two finest Filipino boxers in the world, junior bantamweight Nonito Donaire (second only to Manny Pacquiao), but alas, he’s in something of a mismatch on paper. Gerson Guerrero is a heavy hitter, but he doesn’t have a single win of note and he’s lost to the only highly-ranked fighters he’s fought. Donaire, three years after his star-making performance against Vic Darchinyan, hasn’t had a marquee fight since then yet, and by that I mean a fight against a fellow elite boxer or against a boxer who has a big name — and while Donaire’s team is talking about fighting Jorge Arce and a sequel with Darchinyan in 2010, we’ve heard that all before.
Fortunately, the undercard of Pinoy Power 3 — technically, the card is named Pinoy Power 3/Latin Fury 13, what with Pinoy fighters going up against Latin fighters — features at least two significant, competitive fights on paper. Eric Morel and Gerry Penalosa are two elder statesmen bantamweights, with Penalosa holding a title strap in the division until last year. Mario Santiago is rated #6 at featherweight by Ring magazine, and Bernabe Concepcion has the potential to be a top-10 talent. Morel-Penalosa stacks up as a meeting of sharp boxers on the verge of one last title shot. Santiago-Concepcion stacks up as the better scrap of the two, and the winner gets a second chance at a title shot. (I’m not sure if Fernando Montiel-Ciso Morales at bantamweight will be competitive, given Montiel’s periodic shakiness and Morales’ inexperience.)
ERIC MOREL – GERRY PENALOSA
The last time Penalosa was on the big stage, he put on one of the bravest losing performances you’ll ever see, a stoppage loss to young power-punching stud Juan Manuel Lopez at junior featherweight. Lopez racked up records for power punches landed in a 122-pound fight, but still Penalosa kept coming and having bursts of success. Penalosa’s world-class trainer Freddie Roach wisely pulled the plug, and encouraged Penalosa to stop fighting altogether. Roach changed his mind when Penalosa moved back down to 118 and said he’d retire if he lost his next fight, because he’s still training Penalosa, who will be coming off a nearly 10-month layoff from that beating.
At age 37 and after that fearsome beatdown, it’s fair to wonder what Penalosa — the godfather of the Filipino boxing movement currently led by Pacquiao — has left. I’ve always liked Gerry because he’s such a smart fighter and as good as he is on defense and with counterpunching, he’s also aggressive offensively. But he was never in the Lopez fight, really. He’d land the occasional big counter shot, but mostly he was just absorbing blows from the relentless and physically bigger youngster, to the point that Penalosa’s normally sharp defense was overwhelmed. Prior to that fight, he’d looked pretty good for an old man, beating some good vets after upsetting Jhonny Gonzalez to take his alphabet title belt in 2007 and outboxing Daniel Ponce De Leon that same year in a fight where he lost widely on the scorecards but deserved the narrow decision.
Eric Morel is getting up there in age, too, at 34. Finding footage of fights since his comeback in 2008 is difficult, and none of his wins have come against top-notch opposition, so it’s hard to say whether his claims that he’s taking the sport much more seriously these days are accurate. Prior to his layoff from boxing while he served time for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, against his three most recent top opponents, he’d lost to Martin Castillo in 2005 and Lorenzo Parra in 2003, but he beat Denkaosan Kaovichit in 2002. Morel is a nice boxer, with good movement, an educated jab and counterpunching ability. He has faced accusations of being a safety-first type, and given his lack of power, he can be a bit boring — but he’s skilled enough that he has been in line for fights with Montiel, Z Gorres and Hozumi Hasegawa before they all fell apart for one reason or another.
For Penalosa, the key will be getting close. Penalosa struggles with “movers.” Gonzalez flummoxed him with a moving style before Penalosa caught the Mexican with a well-placed body shot. In 2000 and 2001, Masamori Tokuyama twice defeated Penalosa with moving and boxing. In sparring, Penalosa reportedly had trouble even connecting one day recently on super-prospect and pure boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux, and Roach reports that the usually iron-chinned Rigondeaux “shook” Penalosa. At 5’4″ and with a 65″ reach, Penalosa is little, and he’ll be giving away two inches in height and five whopping inches of reach to Morel. For Morel, the key will be staying busy enough to win close rounds while not opening himself up to big body shots. From the pre-comeback footage of Morel, it looked far easier to hit him in the body than in the head. And Penalosa has a couple body shot KOs on his resume.
This fight is a tough one to call because we don’t know what Penalosa has left, we haven’t seen Morel in against anyone as good as Penalosa for nearly five years and it’s a difficult style match-up to predict anyhow. I’ve gone back and forth on whom I think will win, but I’m going with Penalosa for the following reason: Gonzalez was moving but he also was keeping Penalosa occupied, and I don’t think the cautious Morel is going to be doing enough to keep Penalosa occupied. I see Morel doing well with movement early before Penalosa uses body punching to catch up to him late, enough to take a close decision win. Whoever the winner is, he gets a shot at Montiel next.
MARIO SANTIAGO – BERNABE CONCEPCION
It’s not always a good idea to compare how two boxers did against a common opponent. There are some key differences in how Santiago and Concepcion fared against Steven Luevano, and in why they did. Santiago came up with a draw against Luevano, so Luevano retained his title belt. Concepcion was disqualified against Luevano in a fight he was losing on the scorecards, and as such Luevano retained his title belt. Luevano fought Santiago far more boldly than he did Concepcion, swapping shots with the Puerto Rican but steering clear on the outside against the Filipino. But I think it’s instructive here.
The HBO broadcast team repeatedly described Santiago and Luevano as left-handed counterpunchers. They were enough alike that they gave one another trouble. Santiago is a more aggressive, harder-hitting version of Luevano, but a somewhat less tricky and slick one. Santiago had a speed edge, too. He’s a good boxer-puncher, in other words, with fewer knockouts that I might expect — 14 in 21 wins — considering his apparent heavy hitting. Since the Luevano draw in 2008, where both men hit the canvas, Santiago has fought twice against opponents of little repute. But before that he had a nice amateur pedigree and came up via ShoBox, which tests prospects well when they arrive on the big stage.
Concepcion is more in the puncher mold, but he’s not without boxing ability. He’s got deceptively quick hands and feet, and his 15 KOs in 27 wins don’t take into account that he has scored more knockouts in recent fights than in early ones. At just 22 years of age, and with Freddie Roach in his corner, he’s still growing as a fighter, and the Luevano fight showed that he has a lot more growing to do still. Luevano outboxed him, and Concepcion couldn’t or wouldn’t let his punches fly. Only in the 7th did Concepcion begin to get aggressive, and when he did, it went well for him. Then he got too aggressive, letting loose a big right hand well after the bell that resulted in a DQ. Concepcion, by the way, may be a good boxer on the offensive end, but defensively he has lapses.
At any rate, Concepcion really struggled with a left-handed counterpuncher. And as I mentioned, Santiago is faster than Luevano. That Santiago is more aggressive than Luevano actually has a chance of backfiring against Concepcion, who hits hard; if Luevano can deck Santiago, Concepcion sure can. Concepcion may have an age advantage here — Santiago is 31 — but as in Morel-Penalosa, there’s a big size disparity, too, with the Filipino being two inches shorter at 5’4″ and with a five inch reach disadvantage at 66″. I don’t see this one going the distance, whatever way it goes, but I’ll pick Santiago by knockout in the middle rounds. And the winner gets Juan Manuel Lopez, most likely, according to promoter Bob Arum’s plans — who’s just coming off a win over Luevano, giving the victor a chance to avenge himself by proxy.
(Playing the TQBR prediction game? Don’t forget the rules. These will be the last two fights in the trial run, by the way.)