Remembering PH Boxing's Unsung Heroes: Part 5 of 5 Featuring Leo Espinosa
By Teodoro Medina Reynoso
Tue, 07 Apr 2020
They never won world boxing championships, some even did not get the chance to fight for one. But during their prime, they were our pambato, our best bet in their respective divisions who carried with them our hopes for international glory in the square arena of professional boxing. They more than held our fort here in Asia but also served as the spearheads or the lead scouts for soon-to-come invasion by future Filipino boxing superstars of the global scene. They failed and fell but their gallant and magnificent fall only served to stoke further the passion of their countrymen for boxing and fortified the resolve of future Pinoy ring campaigners to do even better and eventually to succeed beyond our wildest dreams.
Theirs were the stories that personified the Filipino courage, determination and resilience in the face of great odds. Indeed, alas, many of them emerged at times when the reigning world champions ---like now legends Pascual Perez and Eder Joffre--- were seemingly invincible. And as they ventured away from native shores to establish themselves and hopefully, get a deserved crack at the world crown, they most often fell to that scourge called hometown decision. Complicating matters even further, at times they have to fight other top Pinoy campaigners to determine who was the better local bet. In time, they just fade away. To give way to the new generations of Pinoy boxers who will eventually complete what they failed to achieve at the height of their careers.
In this special series, I will try to relive and recapture the gallant saga of five Pinoy boxers – Tirso del Rosario, Dommy Ursua, Leo Espinosa, Johnny Jamito and Ric Magramo-who in my books, are our other boxing heroes, our unsung heroes.
Leo Espinosa was part of the famous Espinosa fighting brothers who carried the country's cause in international professional boxing while also actively enlivening the local and Asian fight scenes in the 50s and 60s.
He proved to be the more successful of the boxing Espinosa sublings that also included the older Bonnie and the younger Dio, father of Luisito Espinosa, the fighter who would eventually break the long Pinoy futile global championship campaigns in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions.
Incidentally, Leo and his siblings also spent most of their respective career and waged their respective campaigns in and around those aforementioned weight classes.
Though Leo Espinosa finished career winless in three tries at the world titles, he was actually 2-5 (1 KO) against then reigning and future world titlists with wins over Yoshio Shirai and Pone Kingpetch and losses to Shirai, Pascual Perez, Raul Macias, Eder Jofre and Roberto Cruz.
He won a national title featherweight while holding three reigns as OPBF bantamweight champion between July 1954-55; March 1956-October 1958 and November 1958-January 1960 with total of 12 successful title defenses.
Born on November 6, 1930 in Cebu City, Leo Espinosa started his pro boxing in March 1948 with a points loss to then fast up and coming Tanny Campo.
For some reasons, he did not fight again until almost three years later in January 1951 where he lost another decision to another prospect Larry Bataan. Leo will notch his first win two months later decisioning Gon Ladrazo but he will lose two of his next three bouts, including another points loss to Campo who by then was already a 37 fight, five year veteran.
Then suddenly his fortune and career took a drastic turn for the better as he won his next seven fights, including four straight in Japan which even saw him score an upset stoppage win over then world flyweight champion Yoshio Shirai in a non title supposed tune up bout for Shirai.
The United Press International reported:
"6th ranking Leo Espinosa scored an upsetting 7th round TKO over world flyweight champion Yoshio Shirai in a non title 10 round fight tonight, August 19, 1953 in Osaka. Referee Lt Edward O'Brien of the US security forces stopped the fight at the end of the 7th round because of a bad cut over Shirai's left eye caused by a left hook from Espinosa who targeted the injury as the fight progressed, bloodying it worst.
The Filipino also amazed the jampacked crowd at the Osaka Gym when he floored Shirai twice in the fourth round with the bell saving the Japanese from possible knockout loss".
It was really a shocker considering that it was only Espinosa's 13th pro fight and just third outside of the Philippines.
After Shirai had successfully defended against UK challenger Terry Allen October of the previous year, he gave Espinosa a shot at his world flyweight title in Japan on May 24, 1954.
Riding high on his homeground advantage, Shirai avenge his earlier loss to Espinosa via a controversial 15 round split decision from an all-Japanese panel at the jampacked Korakuen Baseball Stadium. Scoring referee Isamu Ito and judge Koniharu Hayashi had it 147-145 and 149-145 both for Shirai while judge Koshiro Abe saw it in favor of Espinosa, 142-141.
The Associated Press reported: "World flyweight king Yoshio Shirai saved his crown Monday night with a split decision over Leo Espinosa which brought howls of protest from the challenger's corner. Even the fans gave the champion only a polite spattering of applause as the decision was announce. Most of them were Japanese who favored Shirai. There were a few cheers for the little Filipino who had taken command in the middle rounds of a bruising struggle only to see the Japanese come back strong at the finish."
AP had Espinosa winning in its unofficial score, 144-140.
Espinosa expressed his desire to fight Shirai again but he would not have another chance as the Japanese would not oblige and lose his title to Argentina's Pascual Perez later the same year, 1954.
Leo would not allow the disappointment to ruin his career momentum as he streaked to a 13 straight win skein, including his first lengthy reign as OPBF bantamweight champion.
That got the attention of Perez who agreed to defend his world title against Leo in Buenos Aires on January 11, 1956. Perez retained his title by unanimous decision.
Back in the Philippines, Espinosa defeated a Japanese on March 4, 1956 but came a sudden notice that he was to fight Raul Macias by the last week of the same month in Mexico for the latter's world bantamweight title.
Not wanting to pass up on the opportunity for another world title crack, Espinosa packed his bag and together with his handlers flew again to South America for his showdown with another of boxing's legendary champion in Raton Macias.
Flight fatigue might have finally caught up with Espinosa apart from the size, experience, skills and power of Macias and he endured only for five rounds in losing by technical knockout.
It proved to be Espinosa's last fling with world championship destiny but he was far from over as a world class fighter to be reckoned with in his country, Asia and other foreign rings where his well earned reputation took him.
From the remainder of 1956 through the early parts of the 1960s, his reputation preceded him as he defended, lost, regained and lost for keeps his OPBF bantamweight title, won, defended and lost the Philippine featherweight title and unsuccessfully attempted to win the OPBF featherweight crown.
In the process, he got to meet and defeat the likes of Pone Kingpetch, Sadao Yaoita, Dommy Ursua, Marcing David, Larry Bataan, Little Cesar and Al Asuncion.
But he also got to face and lost to the likes of Kenji Yokenura who eventually ended his reign as OPBF champion, Roberto Cruz who beat him for the Philippine featherweight title, Eder Jofre in non title fight in Brazil and Mitsunori Seki who frustrated his bid for the OPBF featherweight crown.
With an overall 64-28-3 win loss draw ledger by his retirement in 1968, Espinosa finished his career with a record of 35-19-2 in fights outside his native land.
The author Teodoro Medina Reynoso is a veteran boxing radio talk show host living in the Philippines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone 09215309477.
Click here to view a list of other articles written by Teodoro Medina Reynoso.
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