Nonito Donaire remembers what it was like for Filipino fighters before Manny Pacquiao emerged as the best fighter in the world and the sport’s biggest star.
“Early in my career I could not get a fight, I was the one that was chosen (to take a fight) on two days notice,” the talented IBF flyweight titleholder said during a conference call earlier this week. “When I tried to sign with managers in the past I was told that Filipinos were not marketable.
“When I would go on message boards on the internet I would read things like ‘Filipino fighters can’t break an egg,’ but Manny has helped change all of that and we are thankful for everything he has done for the Filipino boxing world.”
As Pacquiao gradually evolved into the most accomplished and popular fighter ever from the Philippines, the multi-division champ paved the way for other talented Filipino boxers to not only ascend to the world-class level of the sport but to do so with the support of the fans he brought to boxing.
The proof is in Donaire’s popularity in the Philippines, where 15,000 packed Manila’s famous Araneta Coliseum for his last fight, and the fact that he’s headlining a Top Rank pay-per-view event from the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nev., next Saturday.
The co-featured bouts of the Aug. 15 show involve two Latino fighters -- Mexican-American featherweight titleholder Steven Luevano and Panamanian Rafael Concepcion, a former 115-pound beltholder who will take on Doanire -- but Top Rank isn’t calling it a “Latin Fury,” the company’s pay-per-view brand that caters to the vast U.S. Hispanic boxing market.
Top Rank, which has promoted 10 Latin Fury pay-per-view shows so far, is calling the Aug. 15 show “Pinoy Power 2” because of Donaire’s presence and Luevano’s challenger, Bernabe Concepcion, who is also from the Philippines.
Donaire co-headlined the first Pinoy Power pay-per-view show with Filipino-American junior flyweight Brian Viloria in April. Donaire looked sensational defending his flyweight title by knocking out previously undefeated Raul Marquez in the main event of the show that took place in Manila.
Now he is back to headline Pinoy Power 2 against Concepcion, a rugged brawler who should make things interesting during their interim junior bantamweight title bout. Top Rank plans to have Donaire (21-1, with 14 knockouts) headline future Filipino-themed shows as he climbs through the bantamweight and featherweight divisions.
A U.S.-televised boxing series that focuses on Filipino fighters would have been unheard of at the start of the decade when Donaire turned pro and the 26-year-old flyweight standout knows who to credit for the paradigm shift.
“I am thankful of Pacquiao’s achievement,” Donaire said in near reverential tones during Thursday’s conference call. “There is not much the rest of us can do because we are overwhelmed by what he has done.
“Every (Filipino fighter who comes along) will be tied to Pacquiao. He is a great champion and for me it is an honor to be a part of that. I think that showing my talent and being able to share that with an elite fighter is great.”
The sometimes fanatical followers of Pacquiao share the same pride that Donaire feels.
Fans aren’t dissing Filipino fighters on message boards anymore. In fact, some of the biggest boxing websites are Filipino destinations like Philboxing.com, a heavily visited boxing portal that is home to perhaps the most passionate forum on the internet, “PacLand”. Sites like Philboxing practically worship Pacquiao but they also cover other notable fighters from the Philippines as well as general boxing news and rumors.
There is no denying that Pacquiao has created a market for Filipino fighters in the U.S. The big question that American promoters and Filipino fighters must ask themselves is will the market remain once Pacquiao hangs up his gloves.
The answer, according to boxing insiders, is yes and no.
The Filipino fan base Pacquiao created in America and worldwide won’t disappear when the Filipino icon retires but it won’t be as strong as it is now, either.
“Manny is a superstar right now and when a boxer reaches that stage he has fans who are only into boxing because they are interested in him, just like Muhammad Ali had his fans and Mike Tyson had his and Oscar De La Hoya had his,” said Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s longtime trainer. “Once Manny is gone some of his fans will cross over into general boxing fans, but a lot of them won’t.”
Is it possible for a Filipino fighter to come along with the right blend of talent and charisma to eventually pick up Pacquiao’s mantle?
Could Donaire, and incredibly gifted fighter who has the size and skill to compete at higher weight classes, be that fighter?
Roach doesn’t think so.
“It’s foolish to look for the next Manny,” he said. “I don’t care who it is, Filipino or not. I laugh when I hear commentators and media ask if a young fighter is another Manny Pacquiao. We won’t see another Manny Pacquiao for at least another decade. Fighters with Manny’s ability don’t come around very often.
“Donaire’s a terrific fighter, he’s got a lot of talent and I hope he continues to have success, but I doubt he’ll ever be as popular as Manny is among Filipinos. I think part of it is because he grew up in (San Leandro) California. One thing I’ve learned from spending as much time in the Philippines as I have with Manny is that Filipinos make a difference between those who are from there and those who live in the United States. Donaire was born in the Philippines but he’s seen as a Filipino-American, just like Brian Viloria. It’s a lot like it was for Oscar De La Hoya with the Mexican fans. Some eventually accepted him, but others just won’t do it because he’s Mexican-American.”
Top Rank, which promotes Pacquiao, is high enough on Donaire and Viloria to push them in both the U.S. and the Philippines. And the Las Vegas-based company believes enough in the bourgeoning Filipino market to continue to scout and sign Filipino talent.
Mark Melligen (15-1, 11 KOs) is a newly signed lightweight prospect from the Philippines who will be in action on the televised undercard of the Aug. 15 show.
Viloria is scheduled to defend the 108-pound title he won on the first Pinoy Power card in his native Honolulu on Aug. 29. The Top Rank-promoted show will be televised in the Philippines on the Solar cable network.
Top Rank’s Latin Fury 11, a Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-headlined card that takes place in Mexico, features Filipino junior flyweight titleholder Donnie Nietes in the co-main event.
Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s new Vice President of Boxing Operations, said the company is committed to keeping Donaire busy on pay-per-view cards if U.S. cable networks Showtime and HBO aren’t interested in showcasing him.
“Will Filipino fans back Donaire or another Filipino fighter as much as they do Pacquiao now? I don’t know,” Moretti said. “The proof will be in the pudding. We’ll know for sure once Manny is retired, but I think the numbers are there for us to continue to cultivate the market. We are seeing bigger Filipino communities in the States, (Top Rank) is always getting calls to look at up and coming Filipino fighters, and we’ll see what (the Philippines) produces at the next Olympics.
“I think we’ll see a Pinoy Power 10 and 11 and so on.”
Although Roach doesn’t believe the sport will experience another Pacquiao any time soon he agrees with Moretti that there is a future for Filipino fighters beyond his star fighter.
“Boxing is catching up with basketball as the number one sport in the Philippines,” Roach said. “It’s on TV a lot and there are more gyms there than ever.”
Donaire said those gyms will spawn a new generation of contenders.
“There is so much talent in the Philippines right now,” he said. “I think it is beneficial for managers and agents to be in the Philippines scouting this talent.”
Roach agrees, but he believes the most promising fighters will find their way to the U.S. with or without the help of American boxing insiders.
“They don’t need scouts and agents to bring them over, they’re coming over on their own,” said Roach, who currently trains seven Filipino fighters, up from just two 5 years ago. “They know they have a chance to make it in America and they’re willing to put in the work.
“They’re hungry. I was just talking about this with (former middleweight contender Eugene) ‘Cyclone’ Hart the other day. He was at my gym, watching some of the Filipino fighters train and he told me they reminded him of old-school fighters because of how hard they worked. They’re not lazy.”
The desire of the new generation of Filipino fighters will ensure they remain a presence in the sport long after Pacquiao retires, Roach said. And who knows? They might continue to inspire Filipino fans who will in turn support them.
“It won’t equal the Hispanic support, but the Filipinos can be a factor, a solid fan base,” Roach said. “You won’t have thousands coming over from the Philippines, flying 16 hours, just to be there to see one boxer fight. That won’t happen. Not for awhile, anyway.”