HOURS before squaring off with Thailand’s Pungluang Sor Singyu for the vacant World Boxing Organization bantamweight championship, Alex John (AJ) 'Bazooka' Banal arrived at still barren Mall of Asia Arena to conduct an impromptu ocular inspection of the ring. He touched the canvas and, seeing that this writer was on the scene, said: “She’s my wife, you know.”
Athletes are known to observe rituals before the biggest fight of their careers, and Banal is no exception. Introduced to boxing at age nine by his uncle who used to box for ALA Boxing Promotions, Banal turned professional in 2005 and the ring has since become his second home.
But for the showdown with Sor Singyu, Banal felt he needed to be more intimate with the ring. He was headlining the first world boxing title fight at the MOA Arena and was the heavy favorite against his Thai adversary. Banal, 28-1 with 20 knockouts going in, was bidding to become only the fourth Filipino world bantamweight champion after Luisito Espinosa in 1989, Gerry Pe?alosa in 2007 and Nonito Donaire, Jr. in 2011. As he touched the canvas and called the ring his “wife,” it was clear that Banal was planning to put on a special performance.
Unfortunately, little did Banal realize that he was in for a nasty 'divorce.'
Banal actually got off to a good start against Sor Singyu, effectively jabbing with his right hand and wisely moving counter-clockwise to avoid coming into full contact with the Thai’s dreaded right straight. The southpaw Banal dished out some left straights that could have levelled a condemned building, but it became evident as the fight progressed that Sor Singyu was unlike the previous Thai patsies Banal had feasted on. Fighting out of a crouch and perpetually moving forward, Sor Singyu had a chin made of adamantium. He barely winced as he swallowed Banal’s hardest punches and kept the pressure on by sticking to the Filipino like an additional chest hair.
An accidental clash of heads in the third round opened a cut on Banal’s right eyelid and literally changed the complexion of the fight for the Filipino. Banal was clearly bothered by the cut and Sor Singyu found all the motivation he needed to accelerate his attacks.
Unlike Banal who offered a more varied offense, Sor Singyu relied solely on his right hand. But with Banal’s vision impaired, Sor Singyu’s right straights started landing with alarming frequency. Banal came out swinging in the eighth round, finally rocking Sor Singyu with some vicious uppercuts and hooks. As it turned out, it was Banal’s last hurrah.
In the ninth round, Sor Singyu pinned Banal along the ropes and landed a solid right hand that nearly corkscrewed the Filipino’s head. Banal fell down and the knockdown was initially ruled a slip. But as he got back on his feet, Banal was visibly woozy. Sor Singyu went full throttle on offense and officially floored Banal with a vicious combination. Banal got up at the count of seven, but when he wobbled and turned his back, referee Weeks immediately stepped in and waived the fight off.
As Sor Singyu celebrated with his cornermen, a battered and bloodied Banal unabashedly wept in his corner. Medical personnel tried to put the oxygen mask on Banal, but the Filipino refused any medical attention.
With the smashing win, Sor Singyu (43-1 with 28 knockouts) continued his winning ways against Filipino fighters. Before Banal, Sor Singyu had posted 16 victories against Filipino boxers. The local pugs who succumbed to Sor Singyu’s assaults were Bryan Vicera, Monico Laurente, Javier Malulan, Jayson Layson, Eden Sonsona, Jilo Merlin, Elmar Francisco (twice), Joel Rafols, Freddie Martinez, Paul Apolinario, Marvin Tampus, Nathan Bolcio, Danilo Pena, Rey Migreno, and Ricardo Roa.
Born Panya Utok in Uthai Thani, Thailand, Sor Singyu turned pro in 2004 and went unbeaten in his first 23 fights before losing to Stephane Jamoye on a split decision in May 2009. Sor Singyu has since registered 20 straight victories, with the biggest coming at the expense of Banal.
Banal absorbed his first defeat since July 2008, when he was stopped by Rafael “El Torito” Concepcion of Panama in 10 rounds for the World Boxing Association interim super flyweight crown. In the Concepcion fight, Banal was having his way when he inexplicably ran out of steam.
Banal has a lot of soul-searching to do after the devastating loss to Sor Singyu. For one, he has to figure out how to fight through adversity. Banal clearly lost his composure after he got cut.
Banal must realize that getting married to a sport like boxing has its ups and downs, too. But like in a real relationship, it’s all about not giving up and being prepared to go the full distance.