THEY both grew up in Bacolod City and dabbled in different sports before settling for the art of fisticuffs. By some coincidence, they found themselves hugging the spotlight at the plush Solaire Resort and Casino in Pasay City last Saturday for the 21st edition of the popular boxing series Pinoy Pride.
Fighting before an audience that included celebrities from network giant ABS-CBN, World Boxing Organization (WBO) minimumweight champion Merlito ‘Tiger’ Sabillo and super flyweight contender ‘King’ Arthur Villanueva did not disappoint as they turned in eye-popping performances.
Appearing in the supporting main event, Villanueva collared the vacant WBO Asia-Pacific super flyweight (115 pounds) diadem with a smashing fourth-round technical knockout of Mexican knockout artist Arturo Badillo. Thereafter, in the main event of the evening, Sabillo capped a winning campaign for Filipino fighters in the card by retaining his WBO world title with a one-punch, ninth-round knockout of Colombian challenger Jorle Estrada.
For Villanueva and Sabillo, the road to the glitzy Solaire Resort and Casino started in potholed streets. Sabillo played basketball and tried his hand at BMX racing and karate before realizing that he could make easy money as a bare-knuckle fighter. For a handful of pesos, Sabillo took on and beat up foes much bigger than him.
One of twelve children, Villanueva tried his hands at chess, volleyball and taekwondo before accidentally developing an interest in boxing. Villanueva was around 16 years old when he accompanied a friend who wanted to try out in an amateur boxing competition. Villanueva liked what he saw and before he knew it, he was hooked.
Villanueva (23-0, 13 knockouts) turned pro in 2008, two years before Sabillo. He got off to a sizzling start until he was forced to take a break after injuring his hand in a freak accident (he almost severed his middle finger while slicing an apple). He has since resumed his winning ways, with the latest victory coming against Badillo.
Mexican Badillo came in with an imposing record of 21-4 with 19 knockouts. Of the 19 knockout wins, 12 came within the first two rounds. Villanueva tried to stick the jab early in the fight to keep Badillo at bay, but the Mexican gamely worked his way inside and bombarded the Filipino with an assortment of punches. Profusely bleeding on the forehead after an accidental clash of heads in the second round, Badillo was holding his own until he absorbed a huge overhand right from Villanueva in the fourth canto. A follow-up flurry from Villanueva floored Badillo and the Mexican was never the same fighter. Badillo was absorbing a heavy shelling along the ropes when referee Danrex Tapdasan stopped the fight at the 2:04 mark of the round.
In winning the WBO Asia-Pacific super flyweight title, Villanueva brought home his second regional belt. Last December, he recovered from two knockdowns to beat Japanese Taiki Eto in Tokyo for the Orient-Pacific Boxing Federation (OPBF) plum.
While he turned pro late, Sabillo rose faster than Villanueva. He was already the OPBF minimumweight king in October 2011 and last March became a world champion by beating Colombian Luis De La Rosa for the WBO belt. Sabillo did not receive serious opposition in his first defense as Colombian challenger Estrada spent most of the time running away from the champion's punishing combinations. The fight actually resembled a cat-and-mouse chase with Sabillo doing all the pursuing.
Sabillo unloaded searing body punches in an attempt to slow down the fleet-footed Estrada. In the ninth round, Sabillo finally caught Estrada with a debilitating left to the breadbasket. Estrada went down and was in agonizing pain when referee Raul Caiz Jr. counted him out at 1:09 of the round.
Sabillo and Villanueva both kept their immaculate records intact. More importantly, their victories provided a welcome respite to the heart-breaking setbacks Filipino fighters have lately been suffering.
As WBO king, Sabillo is now looking to clean out the 105-pound division. Villanueva, for his part, has vowed to live up to his alias ‘King’ by nailing a genuine world crown down the road.