Pressure has become something AJ Banal is accustomed to, but the 23-year-old bantamweight contender is still working on dealing with it consistently.
At just 18 years of age, Banal had already fought on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather Jr-Oscar de la Hoya, the highest grossing non-heavyweight pay-per-view event in history. The opponent he defeated that night, Juan Alberto Rosas, would go on to win the IBF super flyweight title a few years later.
Banal (28-1-1, 20 knockouts) has so far had a rockier road to that plateau, despite early praise as a potential successor to the Pacquiao throne. The southpaw from Cebu City, Philippines is four years removed from his lone loss, an upset technical knockout to durable brawler Rafael Concepcion for the interim IBF super flyweight title. Ahead on all three scorecards in the tenth round, Banal succumbed to the pressure and took the 10 count on his knee.
Two years later, Banal came under criticism again during his seventh-round disqualification win over former world titleholder Luis Perez. Perez hit Banal on a break, causing Banal to stumble about the ring. Banal was ahead at the time the bout came to an end, but his inability to win decisively failed to ameliorate perceptions of him.
That’s when he and his team became proactive about their issues, hiring a nutritionist, conditioning coach Pio Solon and even sports psychologist Lee Tajonera to try and maximize their potential in hopes of finally getting over the hump. The psychologist in particular has been crucial in helping Banal overcome his mental lapses and aiding in the recovery following his traumatic in-ring experiences.
“Yeah, he’s very good, he helps me think positive,” Banal tells RingTV.com of his psychologist, with whom he works with for an hour each day. “Sometimes, my mind is not positive, that’s why I’m so hot-headed. I don’t know how to fight 12 rounds before.”
Since hooking up with his doctor a year ago, Banal has gone 4-0 against (mostly) solid opposition. In one of those bouts, against previously unbeaten Mario Briones, Banal successfully completed the 12-round distance for the first time in his career, winning a unanimous decision.
This Saturdayat the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City, Philippines, Banal will put his progress to the stress test when he faces Thailand’s Pungluang Sor Singyu (42-1, 27 KOs) for the vacant WBO bantamweight title. Sor Singyu, 24, from the Onesongchai Gym stable, has himself lost just once (by decision in Belgium) but has not faced the level of competition Banal has en route to a No. 2 ranking with the World Boxing Organization.
Banal, rated no. 1 by the WBO, is also rated No. 8 by THE RING at 118 pounds.
Banal appeared relaxed during the ALA Boxing Promotions public workouts at SM Mall locations throughout the Metro Manila area earlier this week, seemingly disaffected by the unprecedented amount of pressure he carries to the ring this weekend. Banal said his opponent is “a flat-footed boxer but he’s smart.” He also confidently declared he would emerge victorious.
Michael Aldegeur, president of ALA Boxing, said the journey in bringing Banal back to this point has been a slow and difficult process.
“I would say it’s been very difficult,” said Aldeguer, who negotiated with Sor Singyu’s team for months to bring the fight to the Philippines. “AJ is a fighter with tremendous talent, then after one fight, boom. When he lost that fight, he had to face the media and face the public, it was very difficult. We understood that he was very young at that time, he learned from it, he’s more mature and we feel it is the right time.”
Aldeguer says he was in favor of bringing the sports psychologist on board. “(Banal) went through a traumatic experience when he lost that fight, said Aldeguer. “What he went through was something that had to be dealt with. We want to make sure that all angles are covered.”
Aldeguer, whose company also promotes WBO light flyweight titleholder Donnie Nietes and RING-rated flyweights Milan Melindo and Rocky Fuentes, is experimenting for the second time in the last year with the Manila market after the company his father Antonio Aldeguer created built a solid base in Cebu.
Few boxing events sell well in Manila, due in large part to the proliferation of free events in the area which have largely ruined the market. Even top fighters like Brian Viloria have not sold out in Manila.
“It took us a while to bring the fight here to Manila for that reason but I think it is time,” said Aldeguer. “You have to lay the groundwork here first. Hopefully in the next few years, Manila will be the next great city for boxing in the Philippines. It’s definitely different, Cebu has a lot of history of great events.”
This event, entitled Pinoy Pride XVII, will be the first boxing event ever at the newly-constructed MOA Arena, which seats an estimated 20,000 for boxing. To try and fill the venue, ALA has booked arguably their most popular draw Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista (33-2, 25 KOs) of Candijay, Bohol, Philippines against Daniel Ruiz (27-5-1, 19 KOs) of Los Mochis, Mexico.
Bautista, 26, has been to the “big dance” headlining an HBO Boxing After Dark card in 2007 against then-WBO super bantamweight titleholder Daniel Ponce de Leon. Bautista was knocked out in the first and has himself struggled to return to form despite winning 10 of his last 11 since then. Bautista lost a one-sided decision to former title challenger Heriberto Ruiz in 2008, but avenged the defeat last year.
Ruiz is coming off a bizarre fight with Will Tomlinson in Australia in his last fight out, when after seven rounds, a power failure prematurely halted the bout, sending it to a technical decision won by the unbeaten Tomlinson.
Bautista’s last fight wasn’t without its own controversy when a fighter with the same name as former title challenger Genaro Garcia made his way to Bohol to face Bautista in the main event of his first hometown fight this past March. Turns out, that Garcia wasn’t the fighter who had challenged champions Hozumi Hasegawa and Toshiaki Nishioka, but rather a 10-11 journeyman who fell down whenever Bautista moved his hands. ALA Boxing offered all in attendance a full refund for the mishap.
Aldeguer says he hopes to bring the Pinoy Pride series to America and says he has spoken to several promoters, including Top Rank, about entering that market. The venture would look a lot better with a Banal victory on Saturday.
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.