ABOUT a year ago, somewhere in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, Milan Melindo entered the ring and looked like a beaten man even before he threw his first punch against a young Mexican named Maximino Flores. The boxers had agreed to a catch weight of 110 pounds, but a visibly bloated Melindo showed up nearly five pounds overweight. Huffing and puffing, Melindo was cut on the left eye and barely escaped defeat with a technical decision win after seven rounds.
The chorus of boos from ringside clearly targeted Melindo’s pedestrian performance. The Flores fight was Melindo’s second straight lackluster outing as he barely eked out a split decision win over Victor Olivo some six months before. Melindo was trying to build a new roadmap after suffering his second world title fight loss to then IBF light flyweight (108 lbs.) champion Javier Mendoza in May 2015, but the ho-hum wins over Olivo and Flores seemed to suggest that his career had hit a huge manhole.
Make no mistake, Melindo was a sure bet for a world title in 2012, when he knocked out in just one round former world champion Jesus Geles of Colombia. But the foundation started to crumble in July 2013, when Melindo absorbed his first defeat at the hands of then world flyweight champion Juan Francisco Estrada of Mexico. Melindo actually stood his ground against the talented Estrada and lost only on points.
The loss to Estrada was initially dismissed as an aberration, what with many believing that Melindo learned a lot from the fight and was likely to emerge a better fighter. But after Melindo lost again to Mendoza in his second title shot, just about everyone gave up on the Filipino pugilist.
Well, everyone except Melindo.
The first step in Melindo’s return to form came when he decided to abandon the flyweight (112 lbs.) division and return full-time to the light flyweight (108 lbs.) class where he held several regional titles and carried more pop in his punches. Melindo stands barely 5-2, and the physical handicap was evident in the heavier flyweight class. Returning to the light flyweight class on a full-time basis meant training in earnest and getting back in shape, and Melindo committed himself to the tough grind. “Never give up po talaga tayo,” he often told this writer.
Last November, in his first appearance after the Flores fight, Melindo weighed in at a svelte 108 pounds and convincingly whipped Thai Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr. in 12 rounds for the interim IBF light flyweight crown. This writer was at ringside to provide color commentary and Melindo turned in his best performance in years. Melindo’s counterpunches, particularly his counter left hook, were fluid and his conditioning superb.
The win over Fahlan earned Melindo a third crack at a regular world title. Ranged against IBF light flyweight king Akira Yaegashi, Melindo reported for battle in Tokyo, Japan knowing fully well that his career was on the line. Yaegashi, a two-division champion who brawled with Nicaraguan knockout artist Roman Gonzalez in 2014, darted out of his corner looking to impress his countrymen with an abbreviated win.
A known brawler, Yaegashi crowded Melindo on the inside and tried to initiate the hostility, but Milan dutifully covered his face and countered with a terrific left hook that sent the champion crashing to the canvas. Yaegashi got up, only to lock lips with the canvas two more times. The third and final knockdown came courtesy of a short left/right straight combination from Melindo.
After a seemingly eternal search for a world title, Melindo officially became a world champion by obliterating Yaegashi in just 145 seconds of the first round. He became the third Filipino to become a world champion on a first-round knockout, following Roberto Cruz (March 1963, first round knockout of Battling Torres for the world junior welterweight title) and Luisito Espinosa (October 1989, first-round knockout of Khaokor Galaxy for the world bantamweight title).
“Na shock kami kasi hindi naming akalain na ma-knockout si Akira because he is a durable and tough champion,” Melindo’s trainer Edito ‘Ala’ Villamor, told this writer. “Milan used a short range left hook then followed it up with a right straight to get the first knockdown. Alam na namin na nasaktan kaya ang ginawa lang ni Milan patience and follow-up na suntok sa head and body. Hindi na talaga niya pinakawalan.”
Melindo, 29, improved his record to 36-2 with 13 knockouts. Some twenty-three years after his father Melindo Sr. gifted with him a pair of boxing gloves in their native Cagayan de Oro City, Misamis Oriental, Milan finally has a real world title belt to match the mitts. It did not come easy, what with the two heartbreaking title losses, but Melindo knew all along that there is no shortcut to success; that one must be willing to make the required sacrifice. Melindo rededicated himself to his craft and kept the faith. By the time he received his third title shot, Melindo was ready to deliver more harm than charm.