HOLLYWOOD — As Manny Pacquiao ended his legendary career losing to Yordenis Ugas, protege Mark Magsayo shined bright on his idol’s undercard with a vicious come-from-behind knockout victory against Julio Ceja.
Pacquiao officially retired from boxing in September, and although there will never be another Pacquiao, there’s an opening for a fellow countryman to be the new flag bearer for Philippine boxing.
Nonito Donaire was destroyed in two rounds by Naoya Inoue in June, and the nearly 40-year-old is being urged to retire. Donnie Nietes, 40, will fight Kazuto Ioka on July 13 for the super flyweight title, but his best days are behind him. Jerwin Ancajas’ five-plus year reign as world champion ended in February.
Jayson Mama suffered his first career loss in a world title opportunity against Sunny Edwards in December. John Riel Casimero was accused of sexual abuse and stripped of his WBO bantamweight title in May after failing twice to fight in scheduled bouts.
There is also Rene Cuarto who — until recently — was the IBF strawweight title holder, but the Philippine fighter who appears to have the makings of the country’s next top fighter is Magsayo.
The 27-year-old Magsayo (24-0, 16 KOs) is the WBC featherweight champion, a title he earned after beating Gary Russell Jr. in January. Magsayo is promoted by Pacquiao, and the pupil will look to further prove his promise and potential when he makes the first defense of his title on Saturday against former world champion and mandatory challenger Rey Vargas (35-0, 22 KOs).
Magsayo’s tough test will take place at the Alamodome in San Antonio, the same venue where Pacquiao made his breakout performance in 2003 with a stunning stoppage win against Marco Antonio Barrera.
Watching on TV in the Philippines that night was an eight-year-old Magsayo, who decided to pursue a professional boxing career immediately following the fight.
Magsayo went on to accomplish his goals and even wound up training and fighting alongside Pacquiao, who made his pro debut in 1995 — six months before Magsayo was born.
“It’s an honor to be following in the same path as Manny Pacquiao,” Magsayo told ESPN in an interview following a recent workout in Griffith Park.
“My dream came true when I won the world title,” he said. “I am even more motivated now as a world champion. My new goal is to become a unified champion. I know I have to work harder to improve.”
Soon after ending Russell’s seven-year title run, Magsayo, his wife Frances and Sean Gibbons, president of Pacquiao’s MP Promotions, flew to Makati City to visit Pacquiao at his home.
During the 23-day trip to the Philippines, the Bohol-bred Magsayo discovered he’d evolved into a star.
“Wherever we went, everything stopped,” Frances said. “Children were running up to him and asking for photos. It was not normal for him, but he’s happy that the people are receiving him warmly and are proud.”
“There’s a little bit of pressure when they look up to me like that,” Magsayo admitted. “I’m proud to bring honor to my country. I’m so happy that they support me. I have to make my own name in boxing, and I will do my best with every fight and opportunity.”
Pacquiao explained during the meeting how proud he was, and reaffirmed that hard work would push Magsayo to new stratospheres. The group also watched fight tape on Vargas.
“I was so happy he made time to talk with me,” Magsayo said. “It was surreal. He told me the key to beating Vargas is working on footwork and head movement, staying humble and praying. I believe in God, and I believe in Manny Pacquiao.”
Magsayo is trying to mimic the same formula that made Pacquiao a generational fighter. He trains at the Wild Card Boxing gym with Hall of Fame coach Freddie Roach, who cornered Pacquiao for two decades. His career is being shaped by Pacquiao’s longtime handler Gibbons. He even does the same workouts that Pacquiao made famous in the hills of Hollywood.
Of equal importance: In order to become a fan favorite and can’t-miss commodity, Magsayo is following in Pacquiao’s footsteps and taking on all comers of all sizes.
Vargas is a physically imposing Mexican slugger who will sport a near five-inch height and three-inch reach advantage against Magsayo. The 31-year-old Vargas was a super bantamweight champion and defended his title five times, but he’s fought just once since July 2019 — a 10-round decision win against Leonardo Baez in November.
“Recent activity is going to be a big key in this fight, and Mark is sharper than sharp,” Gibbons said. “Mark’s demeanor and work ethic hasn’t changed and he’s more determined now than he was when he beat Russell. Success hasn’t gotten to his head.”
Gibbons tapped into a group of sparring partners featuring Juan Carlos Burgos, Eduardo Baez, Bryan Chevalier, and Dominique Crowder to emulate Vargas’ rugged style.
Magsayo’s team also includes Roach disciple and fellow Philippine assistant coach Marvin Somodio, dietician and nutritionist for Philippine Olympians Jeaneth Aro and strength and conditioning coach Pedro Garcia. Frances is the key cog behind the scenes playing the hybrid role of wife, manager and problem solver.
Roach envisions Magsayo fighting at close quarters and unleashing combinations in order to score the win against Vargas.
“The journey has been a lot of fun,” Roach said. “He’s a great worker and trains very hard. Mark’s improving all the time, getting stronger and hitting harder. He’s working the body better. He listens to me pretty well. When I tell him to finish the fight strong, it’s all business and he knows exactly what that means. Vargas doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses, but if we break the body down and take the legs away, Vargas will fall.”
Magsayo has not made it look smooth, however, showing some wrinkles in his game each time he has stepped up.
“We’ve found out in the last two fights that Mark has what it takes to be a world champion,” Gibbons said.
Against Ceja, Magsayo was dropped and down on the cards en route to a decision loss when he rebounded to score a remarkable 10th-round knockout.
In the Russell fight, Russell suffered a shoulder injury in the fourth round and was outlanded 150 to 69. Yet Magsayo still managed to sneak by the judges’ cards via majority decision with scores of 115-113, 115-113, and 114-114.
Should Magsayo get by Vargas, Gibbons’ plan is to pit Magsayo against four-division champion Leo Santa Cruz later this year.
Magsayo understands the magnitude of the upcoming matchup.
“I need to win this fight against Vargas,” he said.
If Magsayo can beat Russell, Vargas and Santa Cruz in 2022, he’ll certainly be a frontrunner for fighter of the year — an honor the BWAA bestowed on Pacquiao three different times.
Magsayo believes his breakout year will take him even further, and punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame should he beat the trio.
“Winning the title doesn’t set a fighter for life professionally or financially,” Gibbons said. “He’s making solid money right now, but the next one [potentially against Santa Cruz] could be life-changing. Then he can start living the American dream.”
Magsayo is already pre-approved for a loan, and he wants to use his earnings to ditch the Hollywood apartment he’s renting and buy a home in Los Angeles, just like he’s done in the Philippines.
He already holds the title of world champion. A priceless and prestigious title that once belonged to Pacquiao could also be earned should the wins keep coming.
“I think he’s the next face of Filipino boxing,” Roach said.
Gibbons doubled down on the statement.
“He’s like Manny Pacquiao — grounded, humble and a man of the people,” he said. “It’s his destiny — Pacquiao passed the torch to Mark. I really firmly believe that. If he beats Vargas, he’s absolutely going to be the new face of Filipino boxing.”