The Rise And Fall Of Pinoy Boxing [UPDATED]

To look at Pacland over the weekend, you’d think apocalypse had been visited upon the Philippines. A series of boxing matches that very weekend prompted the dour mood. Featherweight Bernabe Concepcion and junior featherweight Eden Sonsona lost by knockout. Flyweight Brian Viloria won, but in a closer-than-expected decision over a journeyman. Only junior bantamweight Nonito Donaire won impressively, albeit against a hopeless opponent.

The reviews were pretty sad sack: “Donaire saves the day on heartbreak Sunday.” “The Concepcion debacle: Whose head should roll?” “Do we have someone worse than Concepcion?” “Viloria fails to impress, escapes by split verdict.” “The time has probably come for us to take Brian Viloria for what he is.”

And you know what? It is indeed a bit on the dismal side for Pinoy boxing. It wasn’t so long ago that Filipino boxers were holding a slew of alphabet belts and filling the ranks of promising young prospects. Now, it’s just pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao (as if “just” is the right word to describe such a gift to the Philippines) plus Donaire and a long list of fallen Filipinos.

So how’d it get that way?

Up front, it has to be said that these things are cyclical. When Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales slipped as elite boxers, then Antonio Margarito had his hand wrap scandal, Mexican fans fell into a state of despair over its stable of pugilists. The declines of Oscar De La Hoya and Juan Diaz left the state of Mexican-American boxing in disarray, even.

Even with American boxers inhabiting six spots in my pound-for-pound top 10, you’ll find plenty of boxing fans who think things are a dire for American boxing. You’d have to say things are going pretty well for Puerto Ricans, by contrast, often at the expense of Pinoy boxers, with featherweight Juan Manuel Lopez knocking out Concepcion, Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr. taking a junior bantamweight belt against Filipino Marvin Sonsona, junior flyweight Ivan Calderon beating Filipino Rodel Mayol in their rematch and junior middleweight Miguel Cotto resurgent after his loss to Pacquiao.

And it’s not as if Filipino boxers didn’t have a good run. Viloria knocked out the highly-regarded Ulises Solis, even if his follow-up title run was short-lived. Marvin Sonsona’s title run was brief, too, but it happened. Most people think bantamweight Gerry Penalosa deserved the win over Eric Morel in his latest fight. Even Concepcion got a quality win over Mario Santiago.

But the truth is the run has reversed itself. Viloria, the Sosonas, Mayol, Penalosa, Concepcion, junior featherweight Rey Bautista, bantamweight A.J. Banal, flyweight Richie Mepranum… all have plummeted in esteem, from a little to a lot. Among the bigger-name Filipino boxers, only welterweight Mark Melligen remains untarnished outside Pacquiao and Donaire. [UPDATED: There are a few “untarnished” names that I failed to mention, per commenters’ astute remarks below — strawweight titlist Donnie Nietes, junior flyweight contender Johnriel Casimiro and junior bantamweight Drian Francisco tops among them.]

Consider this, by way of impolitic explanation: Were any of the names I mentioned ever that good? Viloria might be the most talented, but he has had mysterious stretches of his career where he came up empty. Marvin Sonsona might be next most talented, but he actually confessed to not liking boxing very much and his laziness was his undoing. Penalosa is a borderline Hall of Famer, but he’s never been a pound-for-pound guy owing to a tendency to fight too conservatively at times; sometimes, the judges have screwed him, but too often, he’s given them an excuse to do so. Concepcion is pretty one-dimensional. Bautista’s chin looked shaky against weak competition, so once he stepped up his chances were bad. Banal lost in his first step-up fight, although he still has believers. And Melligen strikes me as a knockout loss waiting to happen.

You can also blame poor handlers. Too often, it seems like the younger Filipino boxers were thrust into fights where they suddenly were encountering way, way better competition than they’ve encountered before. Bautista got decked by the lightly-regarded Sergio Manuel Medina, so his team put him in next with… Daniel Freaking Ponce De Leon, one of the purest punchers in the sport at the time? A 1st round knockout loss was virtually inevitable. Who exactly had Banal fought to prepare him for the likes of Rafael Concepcion? Who on Bernabe Concepcion’s resume, prior to Steven Luevano? It hasn’t always worked out that way, of course. Sonsona stepped up big against Rafael Concepcion and came up big. But that’s the exception, not the rule. I always got the impression some of the more cynical promoters, managers, etc. were trying to capitalize on some of these Filipino fighters while Pacquiao was in the spotlight and putting his country on the map, turning it into a boxing-mad land.

You’ll find a fair amount of blame on this front, actually, for Pacquiao adviser Michael Koncz and MP Promotions, Pacquiao’s promotional firm. Some of it seems fair, and it’s not as if anything Koncz says or does comes off as “trustworthy” or “competent.” Some of it isn’t. In his career, Concepcion probably never was going to and probably never will get a bigger paycheck than the one he got from fighting Lopez, so he’d be a fool not to take it, even if everyone rightly suspects that Top Rank Promotions was merely using Concepcion to fatten up Lopez; therefore, I don’t blame Koncz there.

The good news is that the boxing revival in the Philippines that began with Penalosa and exploded with Pacquiao probably means that some prospect is someday going to cross the threshold and stay there the way Pacquiao and Donaire have. The numbers just work out that way. There are so many more boxers still entering the pro ranks from the Philippines that there will inevitably be a gem or two.

Maybe some of the fallen Filipinos rebound, too. Most of them are ridiculously young. Some have rebounded before. The 22-year-old Concepcion returned from his loss to Luevano to defeat Santiago. Viloria had gone through a bad spell prior to his win over Solis; Mayol recovered from the Calderon loss to pick up a title. I’m not saying all of them or even most of them recover — a fighter as limited as Concepcion doesn’t inspire me with optimism for his future.

So yes. “Pacquiao Watch: Donaire left to carry torch” was a valid headline among the many over at Pacland. Today, things aren’t so great for Filipino boxers. But yesterday wasn’t so bad. Who’s to say what happens tomorrow?

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.