The last six months have been disappointing for Filipino boxing fans. The country lost all of its world boxing champions, which, on the face of it, feels like a disaster. Most recently, Nonito Donaire Jr. was shockingly knocked out by Naoya Inoue in the second round of their unification bout in Japan. Come July 9, Mark Magsayo suffered his first defeat and relinquished his WBC world featherweight belt. On July 13, Donnie Nietes lost to Kazuo Ioka via unanimous decision in a battle for the WBO world super flyweight crown. Even though the events are not connected, some fans reacted as if something was wrong with Philippine boxing.
There was, however, a bright spot in Dave Apolinario claiming the International Boxing Organization flyweight championship by sending Gideon Buthelezi to dreamland in the first round of their match-up. However, the win came with an asterisk, as the IBO is not one of the four “main” boxing entities respected worldwide. Those are the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization. The WBA, based in the US, was founded 101 years ago, and was, for the longest time, the only recognized world boxing body. In the last few years, however, the WBA came under fire for its multiplicity of titles. The WBC, headquartered in Mexico, came into prominence in the 1980’s, particularly in lower weight classes. The IBF similarly made a name for itself out of Asia the same decade. Most recently, the WBO attracted many big names in boxing, fighters who found it less complicated to win world titles there. Manny Pacquiao was a favorite of the WBO. For much of its existence, though, the WBO was not immediately accepted as a “legitimate” world body. If Apolinario can cross over to one of those groups, he will be universally accepted as a world champion.
Let’s look at the big picture, where we are. Asia is made up of 49 countries and territories, with about 4.7 billion people. Geographically, even Russia is in Asia. Almost half of all world boxing champions come from the continent, particularly in the lowest weight divisions. Three of the top 10 boxing countries in the world have been Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. Pre-pandemic, an average of more than 2,000 boxing events were held in Asia every year. Japan alone has over 200 boxing shows annually. Their citizens generally choose not to have children, thus, the demand for live entertainment is very high. Donaire and Nietes both fought and lost in Japan on a weekday, something local fight fans are not accustomed to. There is a lot of competition.
But we should take heart in the knowledge that there is always hope, always an upcoming contender, always a bright spot. On average, 30 to 40 Filipino pugilists are in the world rankings every month. That is a substantial number. Many more – legally and illegally – take huge risks in fighting overseas, where all the advantages accrue to their opponents. Nietes is one of very few Filipino champions to have successfully defended his world title multiple times in Mexico.
What Philippine boxing needs is more promoters willing to spend to hold world title fights for the big four organizations within the country. Realistically, that would be half the battle won. Unknown to many, Japanese stables actually pay to have their fighters come to the Philippines to fight locals, learn and pad their resumes. Now that the pay-per-view and online betting markets are more developed, it may be worth it for local promoters to hold more large-scale boxing shows in the country. If they can tap into the US pay-per-view market (holding the fights in the country lunchtime on a Sunday), it will make all the difference in the world.
The Philippines could also pioneer in collaborating with emerging Asian boxing markets like China, India and others, building up the market, as it were. Historically, this has been difficult because of the multiple language barriers. But if anybody can do it, Filipinos can.