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By Rene Bonsubre, Jr.

12 Jul 2013

Merlito ‘Tiger’ Sabillo already had five wins under his belt when ‘King’ Arthur Villanueva made his pro debut by stopping Alan Magno in three rounds at the Goldenfield Commercial Complex in Bacolod City. This marked the first time they fought on the same card. Sabillo was an eight rounder and beat Ruther del Castillo by unanimous decision.

Fight fans in Bacolod would get to see them together half a dozen times before they were featured as co-headliners at Goldenfield’s PAGCOR Hotel and Casino and fight for vacant Philippine titles on August 1, 2010. Sabillo beat Jetly Purisima by unanimous decision for the Phl. minimumweight title in one of the most action packed local fights that year while Villanueva, who was then sporting the moniker ‘El Matador’, tamed the rough and tough Brix Ray enroute to a 7th round TKO win for the Phl. flyweight crown.

They would star together two more times before Villanueva got his first taste of a big “PINOY PRIDE” boxing promotion on April 9, 2011, when he beat another up and coming Filipino prospect, Mark Anthony Geraldo by 6th round technical decision. The headliner was Donnie Nietes, back then the WBO minimumweight champion, who knocked out Armando Vasquez Vasquez of Mexico in a single round.

ALA Promotions was looking for topnotch local talent to fight under their ‘Pinoy Pride’ series and Villanueva’s smooth boxing skills made him an obvious pick.

There was a bit of uncertainty for Sabillo, who took up boxing relatively late. He was an exciting non-stop puncher but still raw and deficient in defense.

But Sabillo got his first big break on the undercard of ninth edition of ‘Pinoy Pride”, when he beat Rodel Tejares by unanimous decision for the vacant OPBF minimumweight title at the University of St. La Salle gym in Bacolod. Villanueva was supposed to fight on this card but he suffered a hand injury and he watched from the sidelines as his substitute, Albert Pagara beat Tanzanian Shabani Madilu. Sabillo and Villanueva’s provincemate, Donnie Nietes would win his second world title by dethroning WBO lt.flyweight champ Ramon Garcia Hirales of Mexico.

Villanueva and Sabillo would continue to appear separately on ‘Pinoy Pride’ undercards. Villanueva got his shot at a regional title last December and came off the canvas twice to beat Japanese Taiki Eto by unanimous decision for the OPBF superflyweight title in Tokyo. He would have another career best performance against another unbeaten local boxer, Marco Demecillo in Davao City. In a splendid display of skill and ring generalship, Villanueva prevailed by unanimous decision; his impressive showing brought back memories of former two division champ Luisito Espinosa.

But it would be Sabillo who would get his first shot at a world title. Against all odds, he traveled all the way to Colombia last March and beat Luis dela Rosa by 8th round TKO. This was initially for the interim title but the southpaw Sabillo was recognized as the regular world minimumweight champion by the WBO last April.

Games and Amusements Board (GAB) Chairman Juan Ramon Guanzon told this writer that the PINOY PRIDE XXI card this Saturday is “a dream come true” for him. Way before he was appointed to head the GAB, he was involved in developing boxing talent in Negros Occidental and he fondly recalled ALA Gym patriarch Antonio Aldeguer requesting him to look for amateur fighters with potential. Sabillo was one of the boxers he spotted and brought to Aldeguer’s attention and Villanueva followed a short time later.

The unbeaten Negrense duo will continue to make history this July 13. Sabillo (22-0, 11 KO's) will defend his world title against challenger Jorle Estrada of Colombia at the Solaire Resort and Casino. Villanueva (21-0, 11 KO’s) will be on the supporting main event and he faces Mexican Arturo Badillo for the vacant WBO Asia Pacific superflyweight title.

Villanueva’s showing against Eto and Demecillo demonstrated that he has the character and heart to match his skill. Now, he is being touted as the next world title hopeful. The way Sabillo and Villanueva’s careers have intertwined, it would not be such a surprise if ‘King’ Arthur does rule the world.

TOP PHOTO – Arthur Villanueva (left) and Merlito Sabillo during the31st Sportswriters Association of CEBU -SMB Awards last March

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