TO understand the historical significance of Donnie Nietes’ recent ascension to a third division throne, simply consider this timeline: From June 1923 (when Pancho Villa won the world flyweight title and became the country’s first world boxing champion) to April 2017 (when Nietes defeated Komgrich Nantapech for the world flyweight title), only three Filipino fighters have succeeded in winning regular world titles in at least three weight classifications.
The world of boxing crowned its first three-division champion on November 25, 1903, when British fighter Bob Fitzsimmons scored a 20-round decision win over George Gardner for the world light heavyweight (175 lbs.) title. It was Fitzsimmons’ third division title overall, as he had previously won the middleweight (160 lbs.) crown in 1891 and the heavyweight title (200-plus pounds) in 1897.
In August 1938, American slugger Henry Armstrong won a 15-round decision over Lou Ambers to win the world lightweight (135 lbs.) title. It was Armstrong’s third division crown, as he had previously captured the featherweight (126 lbs.) title in October 1937 and the welterweight (147 lbs.) title in May 1938. What made Armstrong’s feat unique was the fact that at one point, he held all three undisputed division crowns simultaneously. Armstrong eventually vacated the featherweight crown in September 1938, lost the lightweight title in August 1939 and the welterweight title in October 1940.
Around the time Armstrong was making history, a Filipino named Eleuterio Zapanta, fighting under the ring name Little Dado, made a bold move to become the Philippines’ first multi-division champion. Dado, who turned pro in Manila before relocating to Hawaii in 1937, won recognition from the California boxing commission as world flyweight (112 lbs.) champion when he defeated fellow Filipino Small Montana by decision on November 30, 1938 in Oakland, California. On February 21, 1941, Dado outpointed Jackie Jurich to win the National Boxing Association’s (now known as the World Boxing Association) bantamweight (118 lbs.) title. Dado went down in the record books as the first Filipino to become a two-division world champion. Dado contemplated on campaigning in the featherweight ranks to become the first Filipino three-division champ, but he decided to retire after losing the bantamweight crown to David Kui Kong Young in 1943.
The Philippines could have produced its first three-division champ as early as the 1960s, if only Gabriel ‘Flash’ Elorde succeeded in adding the featherweight and lightweight crowns to his junior lightweight (130 lbs.) diadem.
On January 18, 1956, Elorde suffered a controversial 13th-round technical knockout loss to American Sandy Saddler for the world featherweight title. Elorde, who had beaten Saddler in a non-title bout in Manila in 1955, was holding his own when referee Ray Flores stopped the fight after the Filipino suffered a bad cut.
Elorde went on to win the world junior lightweight title in March 1960 by knocking out Harold Gomes. In February 1964, while still the junior lightweight king, Elorde fought Carlos Ortiz for the world lightweight crown but was stopped in 14 rounds. Elorde figured in a rematch with Ortiz in November 1966 but lost anew by 14th-round knockout. Realizing his limits, Elorde settled in the junior lightweight ranks and continued to defend the crown until he was dethroned by Yoshiaki Numata in June 1967.
On March 15, 2008, Manny Pacquiao became the first Filipino to be officially crowned three-division champion when he outlasted Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez for the WBC junior lightweight (130 lbs.) crown. Pacquiao’s first division title came in December 1998, when he poleaxed Thai Chatchai Sasakul in eight rounds for the WBC flyweight (112 lbs.) tiara. Pacquiao collared his second division title in June 2001, when he stopped Lehlo Ledwaba in six rounds for the IBF junior featherweight (122 lbs.) title. Pacquiao could have won a third division title as early as November 2003 when he knocked out Marco Antonio Barrera, but Barrera had refused to accept the WBC featherweight title he won after beating Erik Morales in June 2002 and reported to the Pacquiao fight as a ‘lineal’ champ only, with no official recognition as champion from the sport’s governing bodies. This explains why Pacquiao is not recognized as featherweight champion by the WBC. Some historians, however, consider the Barrera fight as Pacquiao’s third division title, with the WBC junior lightweight crown as the fourth. Overall, Pacquiao owns a record eight titles in as many weight divisions (6 regular titles, two ‘lineal’ versions).
On February 4, 2012, Nonito Donaire Jr. followed in the footsteps of Pacquiao by winning this third regular world title opposite Puerto Rican Wilfredo Vasquez Jr. Donaire hammered out a 12-round split-verdict over Vasquez to capture the WBO junior featherweight crown; his third regular division crown after he previously won the flyweight (2007) and bantamweight (2011) championships. Donaire actually captured the WBA junior bantamweight (115 lbs.) title in 2009, but it was only an interim version of the crown and he was never promoted to regular champion. Donaire added a fourth regular world title in 2014, when he defeated Simpiwe Vetyeka for the WBA featherweight crown. Overall, Donaire has four regular division crowns and one interim version.
Nietes became the latest Filipino three-division regular champion on April 29 when he pounded out a unanimous decision win over a game Nantapech for the IBF flyweight bauble. Nietes previously won the WBO minimumweight (105 lbs.) crown in 2007 and the WBO light flyweight (108 lbs.) tiara in 2011. All three titles of Nietes are regular titles and duly recognized by boxing’s generally recognized sanctioning bodies.
As can be deduced, it is never easy to become a multi-division champion. The idea of a fighter leaving his comfort zone and taking on heavier adversaries makes for a Herculean task. Nietes joining Pacquiao and Donaire in the list of Filipino three-division champions thus deserves nothing but a solid place in Philippine boxing history.