The year that was in Philippine Sports: Of heart, heartbreaks
(The Philippine Star) - December 31, 2015 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – In the end, he stood in his corner battered, bloodied, injured but secured in the thought that, as in numerous times in the past, he had given it all, made the nation proud.

When history revisits that storied fight, it will remember boxing icon Manny Pacquiao as he stood there amid the roar and din of that high noon showdown, losing by unanimous decision to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the highly hyped “Fight of the Century” – beaten in the scorecards, but never in spirit, desire and heart.

In a way that somehow described Philippine sports in the year just ended.

It never backed down from a good fight. It took on the big rivals and never wavered in the challenge. It engaged the big players to a mano-a-mano as in the bidding war with China as host of the Fiba World Cup.

There were other setbacks in international fronts as in our struggles in the SEA Games in Singapore despite the winning efforts of some of our athletes like the tracksters, and our missing the chance to make a return trip to the Olympics by yielding to the Chinese in Changsha.

But in all these we displayed our  big fighting heart for all the world to see.

There were golden as well as nail-biting moments to recall like the wushu artists victorious stints in the world conclave and Letran’s magnificent  conquest of multi-titled San Beda for the NCAA crown and Far Eastern U’s emergence as the winningest team in the UAAP, beating UST in sudden death.

And then there’s the continued resurgence of women’s volleyball behind a bevy of beauteous volleybelles, led by Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez.

At the close of the year, the second wave of tennis megastars led by Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams descended on the Mall of Asia Arena to strut world-class tennis in the International Premier Tennis League and Miguel Tabuena topping the Philippine Open.

And so fasten your seatbelts, folks,  as we make another trip to the top 10 events in Philippine sports.

1 . Clash of the Century: Manny bows to Floyd Jr

The world ground to a halt and time stood still for what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.”

After years in the making, the two biggest stars in all of sports, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., finally met inside the ring in what turned out to be the richest fight in history.

Mayweather was sharp and elusive, as always, and ran away with a unanimous decision that helped him preserve his unbeaten record until his retirement, his second, last September.

Pacquiao fought hard, as always, but in the post-fight press conference he revealed a shoulder injury that he had for some time, and aggravated just a couple of weeks before the fight.

The Filipino boxing icon said he hurt his shoulder in the fourth round, but still chased Mayweather the rest of the way , displaying courage and guts but failed to pull off the win.

Pacquiao underwent operation four days after the fight. He hasn’t fought since that night of May 2 at the jampacked MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Pacquiao felt he won the fight and said he gave his best.

In the end, both boxers earned more than they expected, in the hundreds of millions, fat paychecks no other athlete could earn in 10 lifetimes.

Mayweather is now retired and vowed never to fight again.

Pacquiao, on the other hand, is running for senator in the May 2016 Philippine elections. He’s set to return to the ring in April but has yet to choose his opponent.

It’s being billed as Pacquiao’s farewell fight.

Yet, he’s still hoping for a rematch with Mayweather.

“When I’m one-hundred percent,” he said. – Abac Cordero

2 . Gilas yields to China in FIBA Asia tourney qualifier

The members of Gilas Pilipinas during the Changsha FIBA Asia Championship

 For the second straight FIBA Asia Championship, Gilas Pilipinas settled for first runner-up honors, coming up short versus China, 67-78, in the finale before a hostile crowd at the Changsha Social Work College Gymnasium in the Hunan capital city.

The Nationals made a stirring run highlighted by an 87-73 conquest of titleholder Iran during the group plays, but couldn’t beat the tall Chinese side and all the tricks the hosts pulled before and during the gold-medal game.

A consolation for Team Phl is a berth in the Olympic world-qualifying tourney in July.

The Nationals put up a competitive stand from the Jones Cup where they placed second behind the Iranians even minus naturalized player Andray Blatche who had to rush home to the United States to be with his ailing mother as they attended the funeral of his uncle.

An overweight Blatche struggled in Changsha where the Nationals banked heavily on Jayson Castro who was named to the FIBA Asia Mythical Selection for the second time in a row.

Castro also earned a spot in the Mythical Selection in the Jones Cup where Fil-Am NBA player Jordan Clarkson showed up with hopes of suiting up with Gilas in the succeeding FIBA Asia tourney. But the LA Lakers guard didn’t get the nod of the Lakers management.     – Nelson Beltran

3 . Love of the game nearly lifts Phl to host FIBA WC

The Philippine contingent to the Fiba World Cup bid led by Manny V. Pangilian, with Jimmy Alapag, Fil-Am actor Lou Diamond Phillips, Manny Pacquiao and TV5 head Chot Reyes

It was a battle between China and the Philippines for the right to host the 2019 FIBA World Cup and when the smoke settled, Goliath emerged the winner over David who tried to convince the international federation that love of the game is more important than a wealth of resources. In 17 stagings of the quadrennial event, Asia has hosted only twice – in Manila in 1978 and Saitama in 2006. China and the Philippines were picked as finalists by FIBA after Germany, France, Lithuania, Mexico, Russia, Venezuela, Turkey and Qatar were scratched out.

D-Day or Decision Day came in Tokyo where the Philippines delivered a message anchored on the country’s passion for the sport with SBP president Manny V. Pangilinan assembling a presentation team made up of TV5 sports head Chot Reyes, former Gilas skipper Jimmy Alapag and Fil-Am celebrity Lou Diamond Phillips. China’s brass-tacks audio-visual lacked emotion but with the theme “More Than Ever,” highlighted the country’s vast resources and an enormous market based on a population of 1.3 billion. China promised to employ eight venues in different cities with each location boasting a capacity of 100,000 five-star hotel rooms and an infrastructure that guaranteed easy access to practice and competition sites.

The Philippines’ bid was an appeal to the FIBA Central Board’s heart by conjuring a vision of delivering a flawless World Cup with the unique attraction of assembling the greatest, most connected basketball fans on the planet in an unmanufactured environment. The bid also had a social component with a focus on youth engagement. If only heart was the basis of deciding the bid, the Philippines would’ve won hands down. Realistically, there was no way the Philippine tender of 12 Million Euros could match China’s offer which was at least thrice more.

Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, Sen. Sonny Angara, Reps. Manny Pacquiao, Robbie Puno and Rey Umali, Tourism Promotions Board chief operating officer Domingo Enerio and Philippine Ambassador to Japan Manolo Lopez were on hand for the 20-minute mid-afternoon presentations by China and the Philippines at the Prince Park Tower Hotel. The expectation was the fight would go down to the wire and it did. FIBA initially announced the decision would be disclosed at 6:30 p.m. then it was postponed to 7 p.m. and later, to 7:15 p.m. The two delays meant prolonged deliberations before the vote was cast. China eventually won the hosting rights on a vote of 14-7.

Pangilinan said the Philippines’ bold effort to beat a giant was a show of sportsmanship, spirit and passion that he hopes would cement a long-term relationship with FIBA. Phillips said there was nothing to be ashamed of because the Philippines fought a good fight. Alapag said, “FIBA got an even clearer picture of the love and passion we have for the game … in due time, we’ll get there.” Reyes said there were many positives that the Philippines gained throughout the bid process. “The rallying behind Gilas, trending No. 1 worldwide, beating out at least five first-world countries just to get this far, was a huge positive,” he said. “But the biggest victory is for the country. Our FIBA Asia hosting (in 2013), our World Cup stint (in Spain last year) and this bid have brought international acclaim for our battlecry “Puso.’”          – Joaquin M. Henson    

4 . Ailing Tabuena rules Phl Open

Miguel Tabuena

Miguel Tabuena started the week nursing a fever. He ended it on a feverish celebration as the newly crowned Philippine Open champion and Asian Tour winner.

Getting a reprieve when organizers called off the first round due to stormy weather and banking on his familiarity with Luisita’s par-72 course, Tabuena met his date with destiny by scoring a one-stroke victory over Aussie Scott Bar.

“To see my name on this trophy with so many legends is a dream come true,” said the 21-year-old Tabuena, the first Pinoy since Angelo Que in 2008, to win Asia’s oldest N                ational Open.

Slowly recovering as days went by, Tabuena opened with a 67 and followed it up with a 69 to stay in the hunt in the $300,000 season-ending tournament . Saving his best for last, Tabuena closed out with a 66 to zoom past the leaders and complete his Phl Open feat.

It’s now virtually sky’s the limit for the young champ. With a one-year exemption, Tabuena qualified for the big-moneyed tournaments in the Asian Tour and also boosted his shot at Rio Olympics as he cracked the Top 60 of the world rankings at 48th spot.

“I’m glad the Philippine Open is my first Asian Tour title. I played really well here before and I won on this course on the local circuit. I’m without words really. This win changes my schedule next year,” he said.               – Olmin Leyba

5 . Knights shine; Tams emerge winningest

While most teams opt to tap foreign reinforcements to firm up their respective NCAA title campaigns, Letran showed it can win a championship with an all-Filipino crew, beating multi-titled San Beda in three games.

Letran Knights

Their recent title romp didn’t only end the Red Lions’ five-year reign in the country’s oldest collegiate league but also snapped the Knights’ decade-long title spell.

FEU Tamaraws

And the feat proved sweeter as Letran played without a foreign reinforcement but with a gutsy all-Filipino crew headed by the do-it-all troika of Kevin Racal, Mark Cruz and Rey Nambatac.

It was indeed a remarkable campaign by the Knights, who didn’t even make it to the Final Four last year and came into the 2015 season with a decimated frontline.

But coach Aldin Ayo and the Knights bucked overwhelming odds with the former turning a less-fancied squad into a well-oiled unit and a champion team.

But the Muralla-based school’s celebration proved short-lived as the Knights will not only be without Racal and Cruz, who have graduated, next year but also sans Ayo, who decided to cut short his three-year contract with Letran by signing up with La Salle in rival league UAAP.

Meanwhile, the Far Eastern U Tams were a quick-learner. Recognizing the chink that hastened their fall in the 2014 UAAP finals, the Tams shifted their focus on team concept and paced their key players smartly for the long grind in Season 78. 

Mac Belo and Mike Tolomia wholeheartedly embraced the system, agreeing to let go of big-time minutes and super-heavy offensive loads that would’ve jacked up their stats lines for the good of the squad. They did not land in the Mythical 5 but in the end, the graduating duo got the biggest prize of all – the coveted UAAP diadem. Belo was later adjudged Finals MVP.

“It says a lot about the players – putting your team ahead of yourself is really hard especially considering they have a goal of making it to the PBA. But the players sacrificed for our common goal and we were rewarded,” said coach Nash Racela after the Tams beat University of Santo Tomas, 2-1, and validated FEU’s status as the Alpha Team of UAAP basketball with 20 titles overall. 

Although they’re the league’s winningest team, the Tams had agonizingly missed out on the crown nine years running after the 2005 reign of Arwind Santos and Co. The heartbreak was all the more pronounced when they suffered a finals meltdown against National U in Season 77.

“Somebody said redemption from last year’s finals loss, yeah, but for me, it’s a breakthrough in FEU’s basketball program. A lot of people doubted FEU; every year, they were saying negative things about the players. I think it just showed these are not true; our players, our team have been really good ambassadors of FEU,” Racela said.  – Joey Villar/Olmin Leyba

6 . SEAG: Pinoys finish 6th overall

With some of the gold-producing events that were struck out of the preceding Southeast Games in Myanmar reinserted into the program of the 2015 edition, Team Philippines headed to the Singapore SEAG expecting a better haul.

When the dust settled, though, the 466-strong contingent merely matched the 29 gold medals the delegation of 148 bets collected two years before. As consolation, the Pinoys made an improvement on their silver (36) and bronze (69) outputs and moved up a notch in the final medal table at sixth overall.

“There were gold medals that simply slipped away from us,” noted chef de mission Julian Camacho, who predicted as high as 50 mints before the conclave.

There were those that failed to live up to expectations and deliver the golds, like swimming, traditional boat race and archery, and others with near misses.

Athletics and boxing provided the saving grace to a delegation badly in need of precious wins. The tracksters struck for five golds, seven silvers and nine bronzes, anchoring their bid on Rio-bound Eric Shaun Cray, who won the 100-meter dash and retained the 400-m hurdles in record fashion. Boxers punched their way to five golds, three silvers and a bronze.

“While our showing in Singapore was not outstanding, it wasn’t a failure…it was fair,” said Philippine Sports Commission chairman Richie Garcia.  – Olmin Leyba

7 . Valdez, other icons sustain volleyball rise

Volleyball has continued to spike its way to prominence with year-long tournaments keeping the players busy and the sport in the national consciousness all season long. In fact, two leagues have been fighting for limelight and status although one has been around the last 12 years and the other just into the mix the last two seasons.

Still, both the Shakey’s V-League and the Philippine SuperLiga have the same mission – sustain their strong foundation of players and fans at the ground level and raise the level of local play.

The emergence of female icons has also given the sport a shot in the arm with Ateneo’s Alyssa Valdez emerging as the face of the sport with her charisma and brand of play that has been the envy of many a volleyball player and inspiration to budding players.

Valdez lived up to her billing by helping power PLDT Home Ultera to two championships in the year that ended with coach Roger Gorayeb setting a record of sorts by winning all three titles disputed in the V-League this year, including the collegiate championship with the National U.

The formation of the Larong Volleyball sa Pilipinas, Inc. as the national sports association has also cleared the way for a focused approach to growth of the sport.

Ricky Palou, president of Sports Vision, which organizes the Shakey’s V-League, said the promotion of the V-League and SuperLiga is spiking volleyball’s popularity. “Right now, there’s almost no difference between the two,” he said. “The V-League plays three conferences, including one with only collegiate players. The SuperLiga is basically a commercial league but is open to collegiate players after two years in the NCAA or UAAP. Some players are in teams with both leagues so it’s a little confusing to the public. Both leagues also allow imports. We’ll address these issues at the LVPI level,” referring to the national sports association (NSA) duly recognized by the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC) and Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB).

That should pave the way for a harmonious relationship between the two leagues along with the UAAP and the NCAA and other stakeholders of the sport, which has rivaled basketball in terms of crowd support and popularity.  – Dante Navarro

8 . PBA: Changing of the guard

PBA Big Three – SMC’s Robert Non, outgoing chief Chito Salud and commissioner Chito Narvasa

Chito Salud twice surprised everybody in the Philippine Basketball Association when at first he resigned as commissioner then stepped down from a position – president/CEO – recently created by the league board of governors.

Salud’s resignation as commissioner paved the way for the entry of Chito Narvasa as the league’s ninth top honcho after Leo Prieto, Mariano Yenko, Rudy Salud, Rey Marquez, Jun Bernardino, Noli Eala, Sonny Barrios and the younger Salud.

In Salud’s final season in the PBA, San Miguel Beer and TNT reigned supreme, dethroning 2013-14 grand slam champion San Mig Coffee (now Star Hotshots).

The Beermen beat out the Alaska Milk Aces in the finales of the Philippine Cup and the Governors Cup while the Tropang Texters bested the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the Commissioner’s Cup title series.

NLEX took over the Air21 franchise while Kia (now Mahindra) and Blackwater joined the league as expansion teams, bringing to an all-time high of 12 the number of member ball clubs of the country’s premier pro league.

The established ball clubs overpowered the newcomers in the season where San Miguel Beer prized behemoth Junmar Fajardo stretched to a second straight year his reign as MVP.

In the latter part of the season, the league added 15 names in its roster of greatest players of all time to mark its 40th founding anniversary. Making the list are Danny Ildefonso, Willie Miller, James Yap, Asi Taulava, Eric Menk, Kelly Williams, Jayjay Helterbrand, Jimmy Alapag, Mark Caguioa, Arwind Santos, Jayson Castro, Marc Pingris, Kerby Raymundo, Chito Loyzaga and Marlou Aquino.

Boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao, meanwhile, continued to make sporadic appearances as the Mahindra playing coach, coming through with a first field-goal basket versus Rain or Shine during the 2015-16 Philippine Cup elimination round. – Nelson Beltran

9 . Wushu artists strike gold in world tilt

Wushu has always been a traditional source of medals and pride for the Philippines in the international scene.

Divine Wally and Arnel Mandal kept the tradition by striking gold in the 13th World Championships in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Wally, a 19-year-old pride of Baguio City, bested Vietnam’s Luan Thi Hoang to cop the 48-kilogram gold while Mandal, a 20-year-old native of Iloilo City, trounced India’s Uchit Sharma to reign supreme in the 52-kg weight class.

The twin feats capped the country’s strong performance in the annual event as it also bagged two silver medals and a bronze.  – Joey Villar

10 . Rafa, Serena head 2nd batch of IPTL stars

Pinoy fans chanted his name and held up placards the moment Rafael Nadal stepped onto the court at the MOA Arena for the International Premier Tennis League.

“Vamos! Rafa!” said one placard. “Marry me, Rafa!” shouted a female fan.

It’s Nadal’s first visit in the Philippines, and even before he flew out of the country, after treating his fans to two nights of world-class tennis, he vowed to come back.

Nadal suited up for the Indian Aces, and yet he drew fan support like he was playing for the Philippine Mavericks, led by Serena Williams.

Ana Ivanovic, the Serbian beauty, continued to charm Pinoy fans with her good looks and a bouncy attitude on the court.

The Singapore Slammers eventually won the title and the $1 million top prize, sealing the victory over the Indian Aces in their homecourt.

The Manila leg of the 2015 IPTL was a success, and again, tennis fans can begin looking forward to the next edition of the exciting and fast-paced team event.

From Nadal to Williams and the rest of the players, they all agreed that Pinoy fans are one of the best, if not the best they’ve seen in the IPTL.

“You are amazing,” said Nadal.  – Abac Cordero

Special Citations

Phl Azkals start strong but waver in WC elims

The Philippine Azkals got much-needed firepower and reinforcements ahead of their bid in the joint qualifiers of the 2018 Fifa World Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Top prospects from overseas like Iain Ramsay, Luke Woodland, Stephan Palla and Kevin Ingreso came on board while Stephan Schrock and Javier Patiño returned to the fold to hook up with regulars led by Phil Younghusband, Misagh Bahadoran and Rob Gier.

The “strongest squad assembled” played true to form, upsetting Bahrain (2-1) and beating Yemen (2-0) to essay a strong start in Group H. However, it went generally downhill from there.

A 1-5 blowout at home at the hands of Uzbekistan brought the Azkals back to earth before they tackled the grueling back-to-back away assignments in North Korea and Bahrain in October.

Phl XI achieved what was perceived as impossible, holding the North Koreans to a scoreless draw in mystic Pyongyang to stay alive. But successive losses to Bahrain (0-2) and Yemen (0-2) practically closed the door on the Pinoys’ World Cup bid with still two matches left in the group play.

The Azkals have now trained their sights on finishing third in the group as they aim to advance to the next round of the Asian Cup, the continent’s premier competition.

The country also scored a milestone in international club play as Global FC debuted in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.

Global posted a historic first win in the tourney via a 4-1 home victory over Burmese side Yadanarbon in a group game at the new Philippine Sports Stadium.

The year also saw Phl return to action in the Southeast Asian Games’ under-23 football hostilities in Singapore after skipping the meet two years ago. – Olmin Leyba

ALA breaks US barrier

It took ALA Promotions of Cebu around four years to earn a license to stage a boxing card in the United States, particularly California.

Last October, ALA stepped on US soil, and brought its famed “Pinoy Pride” boxing program to the StubHub Center in Carson.

Donnie Nietes, the Filipino light-flyweight champion, headlined the card that included future stars Albert and Jason Pagara and Mark Magsayo.

Michael Aldeguer, president and CEO of ALA, was happy with the result, saying lessons were learned and that hopes remained high for the future.

It’s the first time that a Filipino promoter has staged a fight in the US.

Of course, it won’t be the last.

In partnership with giant network ABS-CBN and its international arm, The Filipino Channel (TFC), ALA has laid out its plans for 2016.

They will stage cards in San Diego in April, Los Angeles in June, San Francisco in August and again in Carson in October. In the second quarter, it’s the Middle East.

In February, Pinoy Pride will have a presentation in Cebu.

“We have a bright future and we’re hoping to put everything in place,” said Aldeguer.  – Abac Cordero

ACIRC CUP LETRAN MANNY PACQUIAO NBSP PHILIPPINE QUOT STRONG STYLE WORLD YEAR
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