Boxers bask in Olympic glory

Published August 8, 2021, 10:36 AM

by Tito Talao

Carlo Paalam, Nesthy Petecio and Eumir Marcial (AFP)

TOKYO — Four Philippine boxers came to the XXXII Olympiad three weeks ago looking to make some ripples. Instead, two went on to churn up big, silvery waves, with a third probably joining them in the frolicking if not for some unfathomable quirk in the scoring system.

Now Olympic silver medalists Nesthy Petecio (featherweight) and Carlo Paalam (flyweight), and bronze medalist Eumir Felix Marcial (middleweight) have their names etched in Philippine sports as the three PH athletes who joined weightlifting heroine Hidilyn Diaz, who delivered the country’s first-ever gold medal, in completing the nation’s first four-medal performance in Games history.

Petecio’s journey started with a 5-0 demolition of Marcelat Sakobi Matshu of Democratic Republic of Congo in the Round of 32 of the 54-57kg division at the Kokugikan Arena, home of traditional Japanese sumo wrestling.

The native of Davao del Sur followed it up by taking out top seed Lin Yu-Ting, a 5-foot-7 1/2 Taiwanese, via a 4-1 split decision.

The quarterfinals was up and a guaranteed bronze medal at stake.

Showing no fear against Yeni Marcela Arias Castaneda of Columbia, Petecio pounded out a 5-0 decision to assure the country of its first Olympic bronze medal in 29 years since light-flyweight Roel Velasco in Barcelona in 1992, and its first hardware of any color in 25 years after Mansueto ‘Onyok’ Velasco, Roel’s younger brother, took the silver in Atlanta in 1996.

Petecio, of course, wasn’t through.

Having given away at least three inches in height to Lin in the Round of 16, the 5-foot-4 Petecio surrendered a few more to 5-foot-8 Italian Irma Testa in the semifinals, delivering her most memorable performance here in a 4-1 victory that secured the country’s fourth silver medal in Olympic history —  after boxer Anthony Villanueva in Tokyo in 1964, Velasco 36 years later and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The country’s second gold medal — after Diaz’s historic triumph in the 55kg category on July 26 — was at hand, with hometown girl Sena Irie, a bouncy and sprightly  Japanese fighter, who doesn’t possess Lin and Testa’s height and reach, or Arias Castaneda’s punching power, but who has beaten Petecio last year, in an Olympic Qualifier in Amman, Jordan, standing in the way.

The final never approached the level of a boxing final as Irie build up an advantage by throwing feather-light punches and spending much of the three rounds tying up Petecio in clinches and grabs, turning the gold medal bout into a grappling contest

If it was a strategy, then it worked as Irie came away with a 3-2 victory, becoming her country’s first Olympic woman boxing champion.

Petecio, meanwhile, was hailed as a heroine in her own right, having survived the gauntlet of four highly-ranked Olympic qualifiers and putting up a courageous effort by competing on the world’s biggest boxing stage and bringing home the silver medal.

Marcial, the fourth seed here, drew a bye into the Round of 16 and announced his arrival with two bone-crushing victories that went the short route.

He hammered Algeria’s Younis Nemouchi in the quarterfinals in a Referee-Stopped-Contest I decision, with the fight halted at the 2:41 mark in the first round after a clashing of heads left both fighters bloodied.

A vicious right hook by Marcial had dropped the Algerian seconds earlier and the Filipino middleweight was clearly ahead in the scorecards when action was stopped even as Nemouchi’s corner protested.

As impressive a start as that was, Marcial’s best moment in the Games came against fancied Armenian Arman Darchinyan in the quarterfinals, with the winner guaranteed a bronze medal.

The fight was brutal from the opening bell, with Marcial going toe-to-toe with Darchinyan in an effort to assert his will. At the 2:11 mark in the first round, during a fierce exchange near a corner, Marcial caught the Armenian with a jarring right hook just below the ear, spinning Darchinyan around, his legs turning to rubber beneath him with the referee wrapping his arms around his upper body to soften his fall.

Darchinyan protested that he got hit at the back of the head, but footages of the fight showed that the punch that sent him down was legitimate all the way.

The knockout, hailed as the quickest of three stoppages in the tournament at that point, sent the pride of Zamboanga City to the semifinals against the undefeated world No. 1 Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine.

Marcial swarmed over the Ukrainian from the start, delivering crushing blows to the head of the plodding but relentless Khyzhniak, who took the punishment and kept boring in, displaying supreme conditioning and ability to absorb punches.

The first round went to Marcial 3-2, as well as the second 2-1, with two judges scoring it 19-all going to the last round;  one of them, however, astonishingly gave the first two rounds to the Ukrainian.

Faced with the task of overcoming a tireless wrecking machine and some funky scoring, Marcial, who appeared to have punched himself out after two frenetic rounds, tried to coax leftover strength out of him in the closing minute of the fight, as was his plan, but admitted later that he was completely spent.

“Naubusan talaga ako ng hangin,” he said after Khyzhniak was awarded a 3-2 decision, one judge going 0-3 against Marcial, to clinch a berth in the gold medal bout.

The bronze medal was secured though.

Finally, there’s Paalam, an Olympic neophyte blessed with skills and talent that were the result of meticulous training and preparation, according to Don Abnett, the national team’s overall head coach.

Paalam scalped Ireland’s Brenan Irvince 4-1 in the Round of 32 before shutting down Algeria’s Mohamed Flissi 5-0 in the Round of 16, setting up Paalam for his most important fight at that juncture — the quarterfinals against 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan for a sure bronze medal.

Displaying guile and precision ahead of his years, the former scavenger from Upper Carmen, Cagayan de Oro City took the first round 5-0 and was ahead in the cards of 4 of the 5 judges when a clash of heads occurred in the second round.

Ahead 20-18 in four cards, Paalam was awarded the victory 4-0, sending him on a collision course with Japan’s hard-hitting bet Ryomei Tanaka in the semifinals.

There, Paalam put on a boxing clinic, completely taking the Japanese out of his game in a 5-0 decision that set up the gold medal bout with Great Britain’s Galal Yafai Saturday.

Four gruelling matches from the preliminaries, however, appeared to finally take its toll on Paalam, who had to deal with a more seasoned and stronger opponent who executed to perfection a game plan that limited Paalam’s mobility and negated much of his power.

“Kina-cut niya ako. Di ako makagalaw at suntok ng husto,” said Paalam later.

(He cut me off and I couldn’t move.)

A four-punch barrage, capped by a crackling left straight to the face, sent Paalam down halfway in the first round, giving the British all the momentum he needed to claim a 4-1 victory and the gold medal.

The silver was as good as gold for Paalam though as he explained at the Mixed Zone area.

His voice cracking during the post-fight interview, Paalam said, as he cradled the silver medal draped around his neck, “Itong medal na ito, may simbolo din po ito sa buhay ko. Kasi isa akong mangangalakal, at itong medalyang ito ay gawa sa mga sirang gadget po. Sa basura siya galing, kaya nai-connect ko po ito sa buhay ko. 

“Yon po ang pinaghugutan ko para makuha ko ito. Nabago po ang buhay ka dahil dito sa medalya na ito.”

(This medal changed my life. I was a scavenger before and this medal was crafted from old gadgets so a connection is made. It has become a symbol for me.)

Ricky Vargas, president of the Alliances of Boxing Associations of the Philippines, acknowledged the performance of the Philippine boxers and the support they got along the way.

“My gratitude to team ABAP; 4 boxers going home with 2 silvers and 1 bronze, we’re very proud of all of you. Sumbag Pinoy!

“Salamat sa lahat ng supporta PSC, POC at MVPSF. Without your support we could have not achieved this level of performance. Sana nandyan pa kayo in the future.

“Mabuhay, Team Philippines. To God be the glory!”

(Thank you for all the support. Hopefully you’ll still be there in the future.)