Luisito Espinosa is widely considered as one of the greatest Filipino fighters ever. Like Dodie Boy and Gerry Peñalosa, he held two titles in different divisions. Espinosa won the WBA bantamweight title on a first round knockout over Khaokor Galaxy in Bangkok in 1989 and claimed the WBC featherweight crown via a decision over Manuel Medina in Tokyo in 1995.
There were several milestones in Espinosa’s checkered career. He repulsed seven straight challengers in defending his WBC featherweight belt. Some of the challengers he victimized were Mexico’s Alejandro (Cobrita) Gonzales who was hospitalized after suffering a knockout in Guadalajara, Japan’s Nobutoshi Hiranaka who capitulated in eight in Fukuoka and US Olympian Kennedy McKinney who was bowled over in two in Indio, California.
Another highlight of his career was defeating Mexico’s Cesar Soto before a crowd of about 250,000 at the Luneta in 1996 – a record attendance for an outdoor fight. Former Secretary of Education Jesli Lapus recalled organizing the Espinosa-Soto fight with President Ramos’ go-signal. He headed a three-man committee that staged the event. The others in the committee were Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and Games and Amusements Board chairman Dominador Cepeda. The fighters were brought to the Luneta grandstand from the Manila Hotel in horse-drawn “calesas.”
Lapus recalled that he managed the project with the goal of not losing money for the government. Unlike the 1975 “Thrilla In Manila” which left a huge unpaid debt of P30 Million to the Philippine National Bank, the Espinosa-Soto fight turned in a profit. It was to Lapus’ credit that the Luneta project was a huge success not only in terms of the bottom line but also in terms of generating national pride as Espinosa retained the title via a unanimous decision.
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Espinosa turned pro in 1984 and fought his last bout at 37 in 2005. His career spanned 21 years and he finished with a record of 47-13, with 26 KOs. Espinosa lost his last two outings by knockout to Carlos Navarro in 2004 and to Cristobal Cruz the next year. He dropped six of his last nine assignments, including a setback on points to Soto in a rematch where he yielded the WBC featherweight title in 1999. Espinosa attempted to regain the throne but was thwarted by Guty Espadas Jr. on a technical decision in Merida, Mexico, in 2000.
What was painful in Espinosa’s career was in 1997, he was not paid for retaining his WBC featherweight title via a sixth round stoppage of Argentina’s Carlos Rios in Koronadal. South Cotabato Gov. Larry de Pedro signed a promissory note to guarantee the payment of Espinosa’s purse of about $120,000 but never came across. Efforts to force De Pedro to pay went for naught.
Today, Espinosa works as a carpet cleaner at the Lucky Chances Casino in Daly City near San Francisco. The casino is owned by Filipino Rene Medina. Espinosa said he takes home about $2,000 a month but has to pay $400 for a room in a friend’s home and $300 for child support to his former wife Mariecherie who now lives in Arizona with another family. Espinosa has three children with Mariecherie and all of them live in Manila with their grandmother. The children are John Louie, 20, Janica, 12 and Niko, 7. Espinosa also has a child Miguel Luis, 4, with a Filipina Martes Santos from Pangasinan.
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Espinosa, now 45, takes time off from work to join Manny Pacquiao’s entourage whenever he has a fight in the US. For the Timothy Bradley bout, Espinosa said he was given $3,500 by Pacquiao. Through the years, Pacquiao has never refused Espinosa when he asks for help.
“Manny has always been kind and generous to me,” said Espinosa during a recent interview in Las Vegas. “I couldn’t ask anything more from him. But my problem now is I have a left ear defect. There’s a bone pressing on my eardrum and the danger is I could die if it breaks through. I’ll need surgery in the ear and Manny told me he’ll help in paying for the operation. I plan to go home and visit my children but I don’t know where I’ll stay.”
Espinosa was given a green card to live in the US because of his status as a “special talent.” If he comes back to Manila, it won’t be a prolonged stay. Espinosa said he’ll eventually return to the US because he wouldn’t know what to do in the Philippines. Once a famous world champion, Espinosa is now down on his luck and relies on dole-outs from friends like Pacquiao to get by. He doesn’t mind cleaning carpets because it helps to pay the bills and at least, he works for a Filipino but nobody would’ve imagined he would end up this way during his reign as one of the most feared world champions of his era.