FACING an adversary who had been stopped just five months before, Merlito 'Tiger' Sabillo was supposed to breeze past Mexican Francisco Rodriguez, Jr. with the ease of a cannonball running over hapless bowling pins. Sabillo, the defending World Boxing Organization (WBO) minimumweight (105 pounds) champion, was the smart money bet to prevail despite the fact that he was defending the crown in Rodriguez’s home turf.
But for some reason, the 'tiger' in Sabillo never got to roar at the Arena Monterrey, Mexico. Rodriguez came out like a house on fire, taking the fight to Sabillo right in the opening round. In the second round, while absorbing a heavy shelling along the ropes, Sabillo was rocked by a solid left hook from Rodriguez. Sabillo was on the retreat when Rodriguez caught him with an overhand right that deposited the champ to the canvas. Sabillo beat the count, but it was evident that he was in for the toughest fight of his career.
Rodriguez dominated the first half of the fight by throwing punches in bunches. Fighting before his hometown fans, Rodriguez fought like a slugger possessed. Sabillo started landing some of his punches in the sixth round and succeeded in drawing blood from Rodriguez’s nose, but his offense was predictable and limited. In stark contrast, Rodriguez always finished strong, stealing several rounds with furious assaults in the dying minutes.
By the eighth round, Sabillo’s left eye began to swell and he complained of vision problems. Just before the ninth round, trainer Edito 'Ala' Villamor, sensing that the fight was slipping away, gave Sabillo one more round to come up with a spirited showing. Sabillo tried to hunt down Rodriguez in the ninth stanza, but with vision issues in his left eye, he swallowed one right hand after another from Rodriguez.
Sabillo still answered the bell for the 10th round, but his fate was sealed. Rodriguez swarmed all over Sabillo along the ropes, wobbling him with just about every punch. Sabillo was on the retreat again when Villamor came to his fighter's rescue by asking referee Eddie Claudio to pull the plug. The fight was officially stopped at the 1:50 mark of the 10th round, giving Rodriguez a technical knockout victory.
Sabillo absorbed his first defeat in 25 fights but offered no excuses. The 30-year-old Bacolod City native just didn’t find his rhythm and never recovered from the second round knockdown.
“Talo talaga tayo, sobrang lakas at tough ang kalaban,” Villamor told Spin.ph. “Nakita ko na wala na talagang chance na manalo by decision or knockout kaya hininto ko na lang kasi ayaw pa ni Merlito at gusto pa talaga niya lumaban hanggang matapos ang 12 rounds. Magaling talaga ang kalaban at saka malakas at matibay.”
Only 20 years old, Rodriguez improved his record to 14-2 with 10 knockouts. Born Jose Fracisco Rodriguez Tamayo in Monterrey, Mexico, Rodriguez dreamed of becoming a football goalie as a kid but turned to boxing after feeling the need to defend himself against neighborhood kids who kept taunting him because of his pogo-stick frame.
Rodriguez turned pro in October 2010 and won his first six fights before dropping a decision to Salvador Arias in May 2012. He won his next five fights before being prematurely fed to Nicaraguan power-hitter Roman Gonzalez in October 2013. Rodriguez was clearly awed by Gonzalez’s power and spent most of the fight on the defensive. However, Rodriguez was still on his feet against Gonzalez when the fight was stopped in the seventh round.
Rodriguez has since won his last three fights, including the big one against Sabillo. In the Sabillo fight, Rodriguez was not as petrified as he was against Gonzalez and threw punches with gusto.
According to Villamor, Sabillo might invoke the rematch clause in the contract and fight Rodriguez again. Should the rematch happen, Sabillo will have to correct some noticeable cracks in his armor. Sabillo’s habit of lunging in with his head dangling made him a sucker for Rodriguez’s short, counter hooks. Sabillo will also have to work on properly planting his feet as there were several occasions when he encountered balance issues before throwing a punch.
“Better luck next time talaga,” said Villamor.
Sabillo, though, will need more than better luck next time; he must show up the better fighter.