This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.
The ALA Boxing Gym in Mandaue City is an unusual facility. Constructed in 1985, the compound seems more like an army barracks than a training ground. About 30 professional boxers—from prospects to contenders to world champions—live there in close quarters, sleeping in bunk beds military-style.
Like soldiers, they wake up at dawn to run up to ten miles each morning, before doing a variety of training exercises that range from strength-building weight lifting to sparring, or fight simulations, that can last up to 12 rounds. The workouts often don’t end until after sunset.
“The average person couldn’t do what these guys do every day,” said Edito Villamor, head trainer at the gym and himself a former world title challenger.
There are boxing rings, a basketball court and an outdoor track; there are also three crocodiles in pens, a number of different species of monkeys, as well as hawks and a giant Burmese python.
Among such exotic environs, three men—Donnie Nietes, Merlito Sabillo and Milan Melindo—stand as head of the pack. The three fighters have a combined record of 83 wins against only 2 defeats, with 41 of those wins coming by knockout.
Nietes, 31, and Sabillo, 29, represent two of the three remaining champions from the Philippines (International Boxing Federation light flyweight titleholder Jhonriel Casimero is the third), while Melindo, 25, is one of the world’s highest regarded flyweight contenders. All three are in good position to fill parts of the attention void that will open up in the near future.
Boxing in the Philippines is in what can most optimistically be described as a transitional phase. In 2012, the nation was enjoying what many believed to be its greatest prosperity in the pugilistic arts. World champions seemed to jump on the radar every other month, new contenders entered the title discussion with promise, while veteran mainstays defended their belts with pride. Manny Pacquiao—whose world title wins in a record eight separate divisions expanded the limits of what a Filipino boxer could achieve—shared the number one spot on The Ring magazine’s list of “pound-for-pound” best boxers list, while Filipino-born, American-raised lightning bolt Nonito Donaire Jr. was fast behind at number four.
The recession started in June of 2012, when Pacquiao lost a controversial split-decision to American Timothy Bradley. Even though 52 out of 55 media members polled afterward thought Pacquiao deserved the victory, his glaring lack of a “killer instinct” during the times Bradley appeared hurt opened the suggestion that he was on the decline.
It seemed at first like a hiccup in the middle of Pacquiao’s career; it would turn out to be a harbinger of things to come.
Six months later, as Pacquiao looked to restore public faith in his abilities against his greatest rival Juan Manuel Marquez, Pacquiao’s vaunted killer instinct returned—though fleetingly so. As the seconds wound towards the end of the sixth round, Pacquiao lunged in to throw his signature left cross. What met him halfway was a counter right from Marquez, knocking him flat on his face, where he remained for several minutes as medical personnel worked to revive him back to consciousness.
Initially, it appeared that Pacquiao’s fall from the summit would clear room for Donaire and Brian Viloria—long considered talented if overshadowed champions of Filipino lineage—to ascend to center stage. Yet in subsequent months, Donaire dropped a decision to Guillermo Rigondeaux in New York, while Viloria was outslugged by Juan Estrada in Macau.
Just as Pacquiao’s rise ushered in this glorious era, his defeats seem to have dragged it out as a tide to the shore. Though Pacquiao was dominant in his unanimous decision victory over former lightweight titleholder Brandon Rios in November, he’s 35 years old now, and with over 60 fights to his ledger, it is not unfair to say that his best days are behind him.
The Philippines has always been a fighting nation, having produced 38 boxing world champions dating back to the great Pancho Villa, who became Asia’s first world champion when he knocked out legendary Welshman Jimmy Wilde in 1923. Where there is poverty, there will always be those willing to fight their way to a better life. “There’s a lot of boxers that have big potential to become like me,” offers Pacquiao. “What they need is to just focus and pray to God, and of course, we need to help them.”
Logically, Cebu is the first place one should look for the next Filipino boxing stars. Most of the top gyms are located there, and fighters from all over the country trek there to train for their fights due to the abundance of quality sparring partners. It’s in this fertile environment that the ALA Three have thrived.
Underdog. Merlito Sabillo wasn’t even on the radar when he burst onto the scene in 2013 to win the title.
Though not the most experienced, Sabillo of Bacolod City is the most exciting of the bunch. The left-handed Sabillo, whose record stands at 23-0-1 (12 knockouts), won the World Boxing Organization’s strawweight championship last April when he traveled to Colombia to knock out his opponent in eight rounds. Just getting to the venue was a fight in itself.
The fight was scheduled for Saturday, so Sabillo left on Sunday with his trainers Villamor and Michael Domingo. First stop was Hong Kong, where they would secure a Colombian visa. Only problem was, it was Sunday and the embassy was closed.
“Where will we sleep?” thought Villamor. It was midnight, and without a hotel reservation, their options were slim. So they slept on the floor of the Shun Tak Center and waited for the embassy to open. The temperature was near freezing, and Sabillo’s hands began to numb, but that didn’t stop him from training the next day after resting.
“I feel cramps in my fingers but I told God, ‘It’s yours,’” said Sabillo.
Cebu is the first place one should look for the next Filipino boxing stars. Most of the top gyms are located there, and fighters from all over the country trek there to train for their fights due to the abundance of quality sparring partners. It's in this fertile environment that the ALA Three have thrived.
After securing a visa, Sabillo and team made four additional flights before arriving in Colombia, accomplishing the difficult task of taking the title in the opponent’s hometown.
The journey was the culmination of a long journey from Sabillo’s humble beginnings. Sabillo, who didn’t walk into a boxing gym until the advanced age of 19, was quickly shooed out of the gym because he couldn’t afford the 50 peso daily gym dues.
Instead, he took his gloves to the Center Market in Bacolod, challenging locals to spar for practice. He soon found that others were willing to wager on the exhibitions and saw a way to make some quick cash. Each Saturday, Sabillo would brawl with less-experienced local toughs, placing bets on himself to win. Sabillo would pummel his opponents into submission, winning up to P1,000 for an unsanctioned fight.
“There’s no referees, no licensing and the ring is pavement,” said Sabillo of the fights.
Police soon caught wind of the illegal activities taking place on public property. When word got back to Sabillo that local authorities were planning to raid the market, he tried to warn his friends to steer clear. They wouldn’t listen, and ten of his buddies spent a week in lockup before making the P2,000 bail.
Shortly after, Sabillo returned to the gym, this time training under Reverend Henry Guanzon. In addition to boxing, Guanzon would teach his pupils the Bible, and it was just the direction the young wild man needed.
“Before that, I didn’t believe in God and about mistakes, the right and wrong,” said Sabillo. “My work is very dangerous, that’s why I need God to guide me and to protect me with all I’m doing in my career.”
Guanzon’s brother Ramon Guanzon approached Sabillo after one of his nine amateur fights, and told him to stay in the gym because he was interested in placing him in one of his professional events the following year. It was what he had been hoping for all along.
“That’s why I talked to God, ‘Thank you very much God, this is the time for my dream. I ask you to give this fight,’” said Sabillo. “That’s why all the time, I give to boxing. No girlfriends, no barkadas.”
Each Saturday, Sabillo would brawl with less-experienced local toughs, placing bets on himself to win. Sabillo would pummel his opponents into submission, winning up to P1,000 for an unsanctioned fight.
Sabillo joined the ALA stable in 2011, and so far, has had much to be grateful for. After winning the title, Sabillo made his first defense against Colombian Jorle Estrada in July 2013, knocking him out in seven rounds in the headlining bout of the first boxing event at Solaire Resort in Pasay’s Entertainment City.
His second defense wouldn’t be so simple. Facing WBO-mandated challenger Carlos Buitrago (27-0-1, 16 KOs) at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City last November, the two battled back-and- forth for twelve rounds, with each on the verge of being knocked out at times. In the end, one judge thought Sabillo won, another thought Buitrago deserved the victory, while the third and deciding judge scored it even. A draw, which means Sabillo retains the belt.
A rematch is inevitable, and will be a defining moment in both of their careers. Sabillo’s promoter says he will return in April or May with a voluntary defense, before facing off with Buitrago once more.
Underrated. The often overlooked two-division world champion Donnie Nietes has quietly amassed one of the more impressive resumes in recent boxing history.
Nietes, who personifies the adage of doing one’s talking in the ring, is by far the most accomplished fighter in his stable. For the past six years, the Bacolod City native has reigned as a champion over two divisions for the past six years, winning the World Boxing Organization’s strawweight (105 pounds) belt in 2007 before moving up three pounds to capture the organization’s light flyweight belt in 2011.
Born into a family where his father and uncles were all boxers, Nietes followed in the family business at age 12. At 19, he joined the ALA Gym, paying his dues as the in-house custodian, sweeping the floors before his workouts. He earned the nickname Ahas because he was one of the few fighters unafraid to care for the gym’s mascot.
Nietes also hasn’t been afraid of fighting abroad. Three times Nietes has defended his world title in Mexico. His only defeat—a 2004 split decision verdict in Indonesia—came after his opponent unfairly weighed in six pounds over the agreed upon weight.
Despite being one of only eight Filipino boxers to win title belts in multiple divisions, and only one year behind the great Flash Elorde’s record for longest world title reign, Nietes remains the country’s forgotten champion.
“You can’t pick charisma,” says Aldegeur of the soft-spoken Nietes. “I think Donnie’s style of fighting is not enticing to some of the fans. He’s also in a smaller weight division and his personality is not that very charismatic. But if you know boxing, you know he’s one of the best in his division.”
The public’s general disregard of scientific boxing was best summed up by Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam: “Most fight fans would not spend a dime to watch Van Gogh paint sunflowers, but they would fill Yankee Stadium to see him cut off his ear.”
What Nietes has lacked in his career were defining fights against well-known opponents who will elevate his career. In Moises Fuentes—a former 105-pound champion from Mexico who managed a draw with Nietes in March—“Ahas” may have finally found that dancing partner.
The two fought tooth and nail at Cebu’s Waterfront Hotel, with Fuentes’ aggressive style complimenting Nietes’ Matador-like style. At the end of 12, one judge had Nietes up by two points but was overruled by the other two who scored it even.
With Fuentes on his mind, Nietes returned to the ring this past November at Araneta Coliseum for a title defense against Mexico’s Sammy Gutierrez. In round one, Nietes dropped the rugged challenger twice before finishing him off with one right hand in the third round.
Nietes will likely face Fuentes again in April or May, said Aldegeur, with Macau or Singapore being looked at as a possible location. Nietes doesn’t care much where the fight takes place; he just cares about the unfinished score left to settle. “I know that I won our first fight,” Nietes says. “Next time, it’ll be much better to knock him out.”
Method Man. "El Metodico" Milan Melindo may be short in stature but he's big in heart and skill. The flyweight contender learned valuable lessons in his first world title opportunity that will come in handy when he gets his second crack at a belt.
Melindo, a native of Cagayan de Oro, hasn’t won a title of his own, but he might not be too far off from that pinnacle. After spending close to two years as the mandatory challenger for the WBO’s flyweight title, Melindo finally got his shot in July 2013 against Juan Estrada, the man who beat Viloria to become champion.
Melindo held the advantage early, but Estrada’s size and skill eventually overcame him, leading to a unanimous decision victory for the Mexican champion. Asked afterwards how he survived the hellacious twelfth round, Melindo responded “I kept standing for my country.”
A skillful but aggressive fighter, Melindo’s style is somewhere between that of Nietes and Sabillo. “The Method Man,” as he’s known, won his first 29 fights with 12 knockouts before dropping the decision to the division’s champion and remains in striking distance for another shot in 2014.
“I gained more experience from that fight,” said Melindo. “It’s not only tactics, it’s not only how to get to win that fight, I experienced what boxing is. Boxing is not only to be a great fighter, or a legend in the sport. Boxing is now a fight of science, it’s a fight of business, it’s a fight for your career, your life.”
In Melindo’s last performance, he outslugged and outbrawled a tough Mexican challenger named Jose Alfredo Rodriguez on the undercard of the Sabillo and Nietes world title fights.
Outside of the ring, life is fun and games for Melindo. He’s known as the joker of the gym, able to break the levity of the serious work at hand with one of a playful barbs.
“I always joke to them, ‘You’re ugly,’ and they laugh and say ‘You’re ugly also,’” said Melindo. “When you are very lonely here, we become like brothers. But if my jokes are getting to them, I’ll take it easy.”
It’s a small wonder that Melindo takes boxing so seriously. As a child, he had always thought of the sport as a game, something that made his father smile when he would put on gloves and fight with neighborhood children. “It’s not in my mind that I’d become a boxer,” said Melindo. I thought that it’s only a game of children.”
Melindo was just six years old when his father first bought him a pair of gloves. His father would pick his young son up on his back and carry him to the gym, where he would pay his son and his sparring partners five pesos each to do battle. Sometimes they would spar outside on a clear patch of soil; sometimes they would wear shoes, and other times they’d wear only sandals.
After high school, Melindo wanted to pursue college but was unable to obtain a scholarship for boxing. When he was denied a spot on the 2004 Olympic squad because he wasn’t on the National team (despite having 600 amateur bouts), Melindo turned pro in 2005. So far, he has beaten two world champions (Carlos Tamara and Muhammad Rachman) and a slew of top contenders.
At only 5-foot-2, Melindo is usually the smallest guy in the room no matter where he goes. That hasn’t hindered from thinking big. “Lots of people told me that I’m little, I can’t be a world champion because I’m small,” said Melindo. “They thought like that when I was young, up to when I be like this. But I always put in my mind that there’s no little in life. It’s always you because if you heard in the Bible, David and Goliath, David is little but he won the fight against Goliath.”
Whether the Philippines is on the verge of a second boxing Renaissance or if the past decade was just an anomaly, the sport seems to be healthy and thriving in this country. At time of print, The Ring magazine ranked 11 Filipino boxers in the top ten of their divisional rankings, a figure surpassed by only a handful of nations. On average, three to four club level events take place per month in the Metro Manila and Cebu regions. Filipino boxers stand to benefit from the sport’s growing popularity in Macau, where a lack of world class Chinese boxers means boxers from other Asian nations must fill the void for the time being.
Don’t count out the Philippines just yet.