It has become a tradition for Top Rank to highlight rising Filipino boxing talent the night before a Manny Pacquiao card in Las Vegas, capitalizing on the large Filipino contingent that has come from near and far to see “The PacMan” ply his trade in person. It’s a pretty smart business strategy; Pacquiao won’t fight forever, and perhaps one of these upstarts will catch the audience’s eye and grow into a star.
So far, however, none of the fighters given the ball the night before Pacquiao have run very far with it.
Now it’s unbeaten lightweight prospect Mercito Gesta’s turn.
“I’m really excited, but it doesn’t pressure me with a lot of people watching that fight,” said Gesta (23-0-1, 12 knockouts), an unbeaten 24-year-old southpaw who will face experienced trialhorse Ricardo Dominguez (34-7-2, 21 KOs) on Friday at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, Nev. “Right now my emotions are excited and I can’t wait to be in the ring. I’m ready.”
Gesta, a native of the Philippine province of Cebu now residing in San Diego, Calif., is a rising star in the sport, a fighter whom many are putting stock into as the light that will shine on after Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire hang up their gloves somewhere down the line. But, in all of the anticipation, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Gesta is still a young fighter, and is a continued work in progress.
At no time was this more apparent than following Gesta’s last outing in September, when he overcame a sluggish start to overpower a determined Manuel Perez in Arizona. Gesta was a step behind Perez for the first two rounds, but his superior conditioning and punching power told the story over the final eight rounds en route to his first distance victory in five fights.
“My performance is not the one that I wanted, but I went to a decision and I think that’s good for me in the long run,” said Gesta. “I’m not really satisfied, but I’m happy. In a way I’m still glad that I won that fight and I had that experience to get that decision because it’d been a while since I went to the decision. The next fight I want to show more.”
His next opponent, Ricardo Dominguez, is expected to be another step up in competition, all with the direction of guiding Gesta towards a title shot next year. Dominguez, 26, of Tucson, Ariz., is a two-time world title challenger, having lost unanimous decisions to lightweight titleholders Miguel Vazquez and Humberto Soto. Against the latter, Dominguez stunned him briefly with a right cross in the second stanza and caused him fits with his long boxing style, before fading to Soto’s pressure.
Dominguez also dropped a close split decision to current WBA lightweight beltholder Brandon Rios, a fellow California resident with whom Gesta seems to be on a path towards.
“I think what it does is show [Top Rank CEO] Bob Arum and the boxing public where he stands,” Vince Parra, Gesta’s trainer and co-manager, said of the Dominguez fight. “I think Dominguez has gotten better and he’s got over 40 fights. He hasn’t been able to win the big ones and we feel Mercito is capable of fighting the elite in the lightweight division. It’s an opportunity to make his case to get this title fight that he wants. Being on such a big weekend, it’s his coming out.”
Tough fights are nothing new to Gesta, who has been fighting in some fashion or another since the age of 7. Gesta grew up in Mandaue City, an urbanized neighborhood in Cebu that also produced recent junior flyweight titleholder Rodel Mayol. Gesta describes his neighborhood as “a squatter area,” marked by families living in close quarters. Gesta would often overhear his neighbors fighting through the thin walls, and walk by people drinking openly on the side of the road.
“It was a kind of hard life,” remembers Gesta. But me, I just have family there. We grew up with good discipline, unlike some of our neighbors who don’t think about futures.”
Gesta became involved in Muay Thai and kickboxing at the age of seven, inspired by his father Anecito, who was a professional Muay Thai fighter and kickboxer, in addition to working on a cement truck. By the age of 14, Gesta had dropped out of school in the seventh grade with dreams of becoming a boxer.
“When I stopped school my mom was sad, asking why did I stop,” said Gesta. “She wanted me to go back to school. My dad said, ‘OK, you stopped school, you better have plans.'”
“I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll try boxing.”
Gesta walked into the Stonewall Boxing Gym in Cebu at 15, and without having a single amateur fight turned pro at 16 in 2003. Gesta said he went into the sport thinking that if he lost his first fight, he would quit and go back to school. It hasn’t happened yet.
Respect for his father has come easy for the younger Gesta. After all, at 48, Anecito Gesta still finds time to get in a few rounds with his son.
“We do it hard, since I was a kid,” said Gesta, laughing at the camaraderie and the absurdity of it. “Especially right now because I grew up, he says, ‘I think you have hard bones now, so I can hit you hard.’ I went to Cebu last year, he can take it. He just keeps scoring on me. I can’t believe he’s still like that. I thought I could beat my Dad, I’m undefeated but I can’t.
“He’s a tough guy, he’s my idol. I look at him like I want to be like him.”
Gesta’s training situation is more complicated than just sparring with his Dad; Parra has taken on the role of lead trainer as Carl Penalosa, with whom Gesta trained with for most of his American stay, works on his visa issues with the Philippines. Penalosa had left San Diego to help his older brother Gerry Penalosa train for his final fight, only to find visa issues once he tried to return to California.
The door is always open for Penalosa to return, particularly if Gesta is fighting for the title, says Parra.
“We’ve always worked based on the fact that Carl would come back one day,” said Parra. “We haven’t really done too much with his style.
“Carl is something Mercito wants, and me too because I want this guy to get credit. I did not start this guy, he was perfect when I got him.”
The Dominguez bout will tell the public much about Gesta’s preparedness for a title opportunity; Team Gesta doesn’t seem to need any convincing at all.
“We’ve spoken to Bob Arum about fighting Brandon Rios, and we said from day one we’re down with that,” said Parra. “We’re just really aware of what Gesta is capable of doing. I think Rios’ people know we’re open to it; it’s more so on them saying that they’ll approve it.”
Gesta is slightly less particular.
“I don’t really care who I fight for the title,” said Gesta. “If it’s Rios, it’s Rios. Even Juan Manuel Marquez if he goes back down (to lightweight). Next year, I’m ready for a title.”
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.
Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank