MANILA, Philippines – As the two sat around at opposite ends of the room, waiting for Thursday’s final press conference to begin, you’d never imagine that they were among the handful of best 105-pound boxers in the world.
Merlito Sabillo, adorned in a Philippine flag jacket and clutching his WBO strawweight title belt, made small talk with his ALA Boxing teammates, while interim champion Carlos Buitrago, in a similarly themed Nicaraguan jacket, sat patiently at a front row table alongside other Hispanic boxers whom he was doubtlessly meeting for the first time.
Sabillo (23-0, 12 knockouts), of Bacolod City, Philippines, and Buitrago (27-0, 16 KOs), of Managua, Nicaragua, will meet in the main supporting bout of this Saturday’s double world title event at Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines, which will be headlined by WBO junior flyweight titleholder Donnie Nietes’ defense against Mexico’s Sammy Gutierrez.
Nietes, who has reigned for six years as a titleholder over two divisions, assumes top billing by virtue of tradition, but his opponent who hasn’t fought since being stopped in three rounds nearly a year ago, is seen by most as a safe tuneup for Nietes’ rematch with Moises Fuentes next year.
With few expectations coming from that bout, it’s Sabillo-Buitrago that is expected to bring the fireworks.
Sabillo, 29, won the title in March when he traveled to Colombia to upset Luis De La Rosa by eighth round technical knockout, then defended the belt in July with a ninth round knockout of Jorle Estrada in July.
Sabillo faces the 21-year-old Buitrago not by choice but mandate, as the Nicaraguan earned the sanctioning body’s interim title in his last bout, beating Julian Yedras in his opponent’s home country of Mexico by unanimous decision.
Despite being the challenger, Buitrago is rated a notch higher in THE RING’s ratings at No. 7, while Sabillo, who was a virtual unknown a year ago, is at no. 8.
“For Sabillo at 29, this is it,” said Michael Aldegeur, Sabillo’s promoter of Buitrago. “The guy is at the age, he’s waiting for this. Right now this will define his career. We felt it had to happen now. It could either make or break his career, but I feel if he goes through this, we’re looking at going up in weight because he’s a big 108 and we’re looking at getting the big names.”
Sabillo came to boxing at the relatively late age of 19, having but a handful of amateur fights before taking his hand skills to the Bacolod City marketplace, where he engaged in unsanctioned street fights for money.
Games and Amusement Board chairman Ramon Guanzon saw him perform at a local amateur event and set him up in his first pro fight. In just a few short years, Sabillo has gone from brawling in marketplaces to defending a world title in the same venue which hosted Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s third fight, which is considered by many to be the greatest fight in history.
“There’s definitely a big difference, and I can feel that pressure,” said Sabillo, an aggressive southpaw whose style isn’t unlike that of an early Manny Pacquiao. “But along the way I really prepared myself that I would be reaching this kind of venue. That’s why I’m excited and at the same time also nervous and ready for it.”
Buitrago, by contrast, has been around boxing his entire life, being the son of Mauricio Buitrago, a former national amateur champion in Nicaragua. When Buitrago first stepped in the gym at age nine, his father’s friend and boxing legend Alexis Arguello told his Dad that his son was going to be a success in the ring.
“It’s something in the blood,” said Buitrago, pointing to his veins as he explained how he became a top contender.
Buitrago says that he had 175 amateur fights but never had the opportunity to compete in the prestigious Central American Games because he turned pro at 16.
Now challenging for his first world title, Buitrago said he hopes to join his stablemate Roman Gonzalez as the country’s second world titleholder.
“It’s a good challenge fighting with a world champion,” said Buitrago. “To come to fight on this land, I’ve prepared myself in excellent condition. I want to put Nicaragua on the top of boxing.”
Sabillo and team say they have studied tapes of the aggressive but awkward Buitrago and will be familiar with his fighting style when they enter the ring on Saturday night.
“The style of Buitrago, he’s a skillful boxer, he’s strong, he’s tough but we’re tougher,” said Sabillo’s trainer Edito Villamor. “I know he will prevail because of his unlimited prevail.”
Nietes-Gutierrez and Sabillo-Buitrago will be supported by a slew of bouts, which include THE RING’s no. 10 flyweight contender Milan Melindo (29-1, 12 KOs) against Jose Alfredo Rodriguez (29-2, 18 KOs) of Mexico, plus junior welterweight prospect Jason Pagara (31-2, 19 KOs) against Vladimir Baez (19-1-2, 17 KOs) of the Dominican Republic.
The show will be aired by local network ABS-CBN.
Photo / Ryan Songalia
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. 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.