MANILA, Philippines - Former University of San Francisco boxing coach Angelo Merino said the other day the ABAP pool of 14 fighters now training in the US could be the best ever assembled to qualify for the Olympics and picked welterweight Eumir Marcial and lightweight Charly Suarez as the top candidates to make it to Rio.
The ABAP team is on an 18-day, three-city training trip in the US. The first stop was in Oakland where Merino gathered 16 sparmates to work with the Olympic hopefuls. Among the fighters who sparred with the Filipinos were two-time Golden Gloves champion Ruben Villa, US No. 1 amateur flyweight Eros Correa and veteran internationalist Ivan Sanchez.
“We recruited some outstanding sparmates,” said Merino in an overseas phone interview. “We brought in Olympic qualifiers, regional champions and fighters who don’t back down. I’ve worked with the USF boxing team for 25 years so my network in Northern California is solid. I realize ABAP wants to qualify as many Filipino boxers to Rio as possible so we’re doing our best to help out on our end.”
Merino was born in Cebu and grew up in Davao. He once fought in the Palarong Pambansa before migrating to the US. His boxing experience is extensive. Merino has trained amateurs and pros. One of his protégés, Fil-Am Chris Camat, is a two-time Southeast Asian Games bronze medalist as a middleweight and represented the Philippines at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Two other Fil-Am protégés were Adam Fiel and Mico Brina.
“I’ve been friends with (ABAP head coach) Pat (Gaspi) for years and I know the Velasco brothers (ABAP coaches Roel and Boy) very well,” said Merino. “I’m impressed with the skill level of the ABAP fighters and I think it’s the best team I’ve ever seen. It’s a reflection of the support that ABAP gets from the POC, PSC and the ABAP leadership. I know at the last SEA Games, every single fighter in the ABAP team of 10 brought back a medal. That’s quite an achievement.”
Merino referred to Philippine boxing squad that took five gold, three silver and two bronze medals at the SEA Games in Myanmar last year. Of the 10 medalists, eight are in the ABAP pool now training in the US. The eight are flyweight Rogen Ladon (silver), flyweight Ian Clark Bautista (gold), bantamweight Mario Fernandez (gold), lightweight Junel Cantancio (gold), welterweight Marcial (gold), lightflyweight Josie Gabuco (gold), flyweight Irish Magno (silver) and bantamweight Nesthy Petecio (silver). The others in the touring team are flyweight Mark Anthony Barriga, flyweight Roldan Boncales, bantamweight Mario Bautista, lightweights Suarez and James Palicte and welterweight Joel Bacho.
Merino said the sparmates he lined up for ABAP were no pushovers but the Filipinos more than held their own. “Some of the best fighters from Fresno, Gilroy, San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco came out to spar,” he said. “They were a combination of youth and experience. The ABAP boys are in good hands, in terms of both coaching and administration. There’s nothing like focus and support.”
The ABAP team trained with Merino’s sparmates at the Donaire Gym in Oakland. Another Oakland facility where the Filipinos trained was the King’s Gym. ABAP executive director Ed Picson was welcomed by King’s Gym owner Charles King. Former WBA/WBC supermiddleweight champion and 2004 Olympic lightheavyweight gold medalist Andre Ward trains at the King’s Gym. One of the gym’s resident trainers is Virgil Hunter who works with Ward and Amir Khan.
Coaches traveling with the ABAP team are Roel and Boy Velasco, Romeo Brin and Mitchel Martinez. Brin is in the record books as the only Filipino fighter to compete in three Olympics in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Picson said the trip is “all business” for the ABAP team which is scheduled to be back in Manila on March 15. He said the target is to qualify at least six fighters to Rio. At the AIBA World Championships in Doha last October, the Philippines sent Ladon and Marcial with both coming close to garnering Rio slots. Ladon made it to the lightflyweight semifinals but only the two finalists were given Olympic tickets while Marcial was a win away from earning at least a box-off for a slot in the welterweight class.
The next Olympic qualifying window will be the Asia/Oceania Championships in Qian’an, China, on March 23-April 3 with three Rio tickets available in each of the five weight divisions where the Philippines is sending entries from lightflyweight to welterweight. The finalists and the winners of a box-off between the semifinal losers in each division will advance to Rio. Another qualifying window is the APB (AIBA Pro Boxing) and WSB (World Series of Boxing) Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, on May 13-22. Barriga and Suarez will try to qualify through this window for AIBA-licensed pros.
In the women’s category, the qualifying window is the AIBA Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan, on May 19-27. In Rio, there will be 12 slots in each of three divisions – flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. Gabuco, Petecio and Magno are competing to represent the Philippines in the flyweight class.
The last qualifying window is the AIBA World Olympic Qualifiers in Baku, Azerbaijian, on June 7-19. Available tickets for the Philippines are two in lightflyweight and five each in flyweight, bantamweight, lightweight and welterweight.