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By Maloney L. Samaco

12 Apr 2009

“Thrilla in Manila” is worth remembering not only because of the clash of the two boxing titans Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila, but because it was the stepping stone to greatness of the third man in the ring of the classic fight, Carlos “Sonny” Padilla, Jr.

Padilla grew up in the movie industry because it runs in the blood of the Padilla family. He is the son of Carlos Padilla, Sr., an actor. He is also the nephew of Jose Padilla, Jr., Ateng Osorio, Amado Cortez and Roy Padilla, the father of Robin Padilla, all had been involved in the motion picture industry.

Sonny is also the father of the famous actress-singer Zsa Zsa Padilla. His granddaughter Karylle is now a rising singer, having sung the Philippine National Anthem during the Pacquiao-de la Hoya “Dream Match.”

Padilla started out as a child actor, later became a teenage matinee idol, and eventually a celebrity as a movie star. When his movie career was plummeting he rejoined the world of sports and became a boxing referee. He has great love for boxing simply because he was an amateur boxer in his younger days.

He got the biggest break of his career as a referee and his second opportunity to return back to fame with the “Thrilla in Manila.” The former President Ferdinand Marcos used all his power and influence to bring the match in the Philippines. The classic encounter could win international recognition and somewhat advertise the peace and order situation in the country brought about by the declaration of martial law.

The Philippine government thought that it would be a great honor to have a Filipino referee for the celebrated match. The ideal choice was Carlos Padilla Jr., young and handsome, being a well-known actor, who could project the competence and charisma of the Filipinos. Although he was told about his being chosen to act as the referee of the “Thrilla” only a day before the match, he lived up to the big challenge.

Padilla was at first criticized by some personalities in the international press who thought at 160 pounds he was too small to control the fight. But Padilla did an excellent job in that fight, frequently pulling down Ali's arm everytime he wrapped it around Frazier's nape. He even gave a warning to Ali for holding and not too many referees were able to do that to “The Greatest.”

With the encouragement of boxing promoter Don King who was amazed by his performance at the “Thrilla,” Padilla migrated to Las Vegas, Nevada. He worked as a bartender at Caesar’s Palace and become a top-ranked international referee. He appeared as the third man in the ring of the famous fights of celebrated boxers.

Among the renowned boxers he was able to officiate are Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Alexis Arguello, Salvador Sanchez, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Tommy Hearns, Wilfred Benitez, Julio Cesar Chavez, Hector Camacho, and other world champions.

Subsequently, he became a figure in the big fights in the United States. His last stint as a referee was when Manny Pacquiao stopped Nedal Hussein of Australia in the 10th round in Antipolo City in 2000.

Padilla, 74, now works as a driver at the Harmon Medical and Rehabilitation Center. Sonny said he retired from working Las Vegas fights because of too much politics in big-time boxing. But he has already carved out a famous name in world boxing as the greatest Filipino referee.

Top photo: Filipino referee Carlos Padilla, Jr. works out in one of the fights in the United States.

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