MANILA, Philippines – Sitting directly across from each other at a rectangular conference table, bantamweight contenders AJ Banal (28-1-1, 20 knockouts) and Pungluang Sor Singyu (42-1, 27 KOs) await the beginning of a photo shoot at Philippine television station ABS-CBN on Wednesday afternoon in Manila. Neither of the two contenders, who will face each other for the vacant WBO bantamweight title on October 20, makes any acknowledgement of the other.
Banal, 23, of Cebu City, Philippines, passes the time between shoots by playing with an iPhone app that allows you to edit a person’s face to appear older, while the non-English speaking Sor Singyu, 24, of Bangkok, Thailand, enjoys small talk with the only Thai-speaking person in the room, his liaison, Michel Do.
“It’s OK to fight here, no gloves, it’s OK,” jokes Banal, who is flanked by trainer Edito Villamor and several staffers from his handler, ALA Promotions.
Both Banal and Sor Singyu appear confident, belying the burden that each carries. For Banal, the shadow of his lone defeat to Rafael Concepcion in 2008, where he appeared to be coasting towards a victory before taking the ten count on his knee in the tenth round, lingers as a career-defining moment he hopes to replace.
There have been hiccups, like his controversial disqualification win over former titleholder Luis Perez two years ago, where he claimed a punch on the break left him unable to continue. Yet Banal, THE RING’s no. 10-rated bantamweight, says his confidence is at an all-time high after improving his stamina through working with domestic fitness guru Pio Solon.
Banal is getting this shot at the belt vacated by Jorge Arce after winning 11 straight.
“Before when I lost, my mindset is so sad,” said Banal. “But it’s been four years and I feel different and it’s out of my mind. I’m very confident because every journey is about my family and daughter and ALA Promotions, that’s why I’m confident and proud.”
Sor Singyu is fighting outside of his native Thailand for just the second time in his career. The only other time, in 2009 against Stephane Jamoye in Belgium, represents his only career defeat. The promotional angle being pushed for this event is the 14 Filipino opponents Sor Singyu has felled, though none rise above the level of the hot-and-cold Eden Sonsona.
Sor Singyu is a former Muay Thai fighter who fights out of a pronounced crouch and throws hooks and rights from odd angles (often without a jab) and dreams of the fame that a world title victory can bring.
“I fight first for my family and future, but I think that I want to be a famous world champion like my idols, [Manny] Pacquiao and Oscar [De La Hoya],” said Sor Singyu through a translator.
Banal expressed pleasure with having the fight on his home turf, a rarity as it’s usually Filipinos traveling abroad for world title opportunities. To ensure an even playing field, WBO Asia-Pacific VP Leon Panoncillo announced Tuesday at a press conference that neither the referee or judges will be from Asian countries.
“It’s a better opportunity in Manila because Manila has very honest judges and referees,” said Banal. “Thailand is very dirty. It’s very difficult with the judges and referees, unlike here.”
Sor Singyu is indifferent, perhaps preferring not to feed into any trepidation and recognizing that a ring has four corners in any country.
“I don’t worry about this,” said Sor Singyu. “The referee is from outside, but to make sure I will knock him out.”
Photo / Ryan Songalia
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel and can be reached at email@example.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.
You can vote for Songalia in the Outstanding Filipino Americans of NY Awards media/publishing category via Facebook: http://bit.ly/VOTE4RYAN