Don Abnett: Filipino boxers can end 25-year Olympic drought in the sport

Australian coach to the Philippine boxing team predicts squad - with Eumir Marcial, Irish Magno, Carlo Paalam and Nesthy Petecio - can medal at the Games and finish on top of the podium

Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Four Filipino "pugs" – Eumir Marcial, Irish Magno, Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam - are set for a showdown come July 2021, with a bag full of hopes to fulfill the nation’s dream of winning its first gold medal at the Olympic Games.

Magno and Marcial secured their spots through the Asia Ocean Boxing Olympic Qualification tournament in Amman, in Jordan, last year while Petecio and Paalam confirmed their slots by virtue of their rankings in Asia. The team are just one boxer short of the delegation sent to Tokyo 1964, the host nation's first summer Games.

“All of [these boxers], I think they are all going to get a chance,” the Philippine team’s Australian consultant coach Don Abnett told Tokyo 2020.

Abnett had originally envisioned having six boxers at Japan's second Summer Games but COVID-19 got in the way of the coach's plans.

"We were hoping of getting one or two more at the world qualifiers, but the world qualifiers were cancelled because of COVID-19," the 59-year-old coach said.

Nonetheless, these four boxers are all ready to come back to the ring after a year of waiting for the rescheduled Olympics - hungry to pack a punch and end the Philippines’ 25-year Olympic drought in Tokyo.

The last Olympic medal in the sport was won at Atlanta 1996 when Mansueto Velasco secured a silver medal in the light-flyweight category.

In total, the Philippines have won five medals in boxing: 2 silvers (Atlanta 1996, Tokyo 1964) and 3 bronze (1932 Los Angeles, Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992.

Coach Donald Walter Abnett

But on to Tokyo 2020 and with pure confidence in his team, Abnett who has been at the helm of Team Australia in two Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and 10 World Championships, went on to say that this squad is the best one he’s had for years.

“I'm very excited because this is my third Olympics I've been involved in. The four athletes that I've got now have the determination and willingness to commit to training and they are a lot more competitive."

“They're a lot easier to work with and I see the team doing very well at an Olympic Games,” Abnett added.

And it’s not just the athletes that Abnett singled out for praise, he also gave a nod to the quality of coaching from Filipino coaches, one of whom happens to be Ronald Chavez, a former Olympian who competed in Barcelona 1992 and incidentally twice defeated Justin Roswell, a local boxing hero in Abnett’s hometown in Australia.

“You've got a very good coaching staff in the Philippines. I got good support staff in the Philippines, the structure [is] very good.

“You know there’s a big history there. I've been coming over here [the Philippines] probably at least once a year since 2009. We've worked with the athletes and coaches closely in camps, preparing for a major tournament for our Commonwealth Games or Australia's Commonwealth Games, and also with the Philippine team preparing for the Rio Olympics as well.”

Aside from Chavez, Abnett also works with Elmer Pamisa, Nolito Velasco and Reynaldo Galido who make up the Philippine boxing coaching team.

Getting back on track

With COVID-19 sweeping across the Philippines for most of 2020, training for Tokyo took a backseat for both boxers and coaches. However, as soon as 2021 started, Abnett and the team were back on track.

Except for Marcial who was in the United States, Magno, Petecio and Paalam all went into bubble training in Calamba, Laguna, in the Philippines, in January.

Abnett says that the training was an important step to recondition after a year of no competition, with some athletes out of shape.

“The first two weeks was training at their own pace [and] on their own. We were lucky enough, the Sports Commission made available doctors, physio {therapists] and masseuses. We had them medically and physically screened to see whether the head had existing injuries or we needed to modify their training. Then, after the first two weeks, we started the first 10-week block.

"And then we started to get into more contact training. The general training was lifted up. The rounds got a little bit harder and the strength [training] was a little bit tougher. And then we got into a lot more contact with specific training," Abnett explained.

Nesthy Petecio
Picture by ©Philippine Olympic Committee / Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines

Thailand training camp

The three boxers are now in a Thailand training camp to elevate their level for Tokyo 2020.

In Thailand, Abnett says the team can up their game even further as they get to spar with world-class Thai athletes.

"We were very lucky that we're here in Thailand. Nesthy [Petecio] has the number five in the world in the 60 kilos to try and spar with and also has [someone] in the 57kg, [who is] number 5 five in the world. So she's got two very good sparring partners," Abnett said.

Petecio, who is the reigning world champion after winning the 2019 AIBA Women’s Boxing World Championships world title, is one of the Philippines' best bet at Tokyo 2020 in the women's 57kg category.

Back in April, Petecio vowed to do her best at the Olympic stage after she received confirmation that she had qualified for the Games.

"The Olympics is the peak of our careers. For me, your career as an athlete is not complete until you play in the Olympics," Petecio told Rappler.com.

"Athletes dream of this. This is our last dream," she added.

Irish Magno and Eumir Marcial
Picture by ©Philippine Olympic Committee / Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines

According to Abnett, both Paalam and Magno are also doing well in their training as their sparring partners are also either world champions in their categories and/or Olympic hopefuls like them.

"Carlo [Paalam] boxed the silver medalist at the qualifiers and is sparring the boxer who beat the Rio 2016 gold medallist," he said.

Paalam, who came from humble beginnings and was a scavenger in his hometown before he was discovered for his boxing talent, is currently number 12 in the world and won the light flyweight gold in the 2019 SEA Games. He will be competing in the 52kg flyweight division in Tokyo.

As for Magno, who qualified as the first female boxer from the Philippines (now joined by Petecio), Abnett said she's beefing up her training and strategy for the 51kg flyweight division, which is one of the toughest women's category ever in the Games.

"It's a very tough weight division Iris is in, [but she's] putting together tactics to all of our opponents as well alongside head coach Velasco," Abnett said.

The three athletes in Thailand are also planning to participate in a local competition put together by their hosts.

Whilst Abnett is happy that the team's training is really underway, Abnett still hoped that Marcial could be with them.

Marcial is touted as the country's next Manny Pacquaio. The 2015 Asian Games gold medallist turned pro in 2020 but also recently won bronze in the Asian Boxing Championships in Dubai this March. In the Olympics where pro boxers are now allowed to take part, Marcial could compete even though he has pro experience.

However Marcial couldn't get the right visa on time to train with the team in Thailand after his bout in Dubai, so he's training separately back in the USA, where he was originally training last year for his pro boxing debut.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have Marcel with us and he missed a pretty important blockage," Abnett said.

"He is joining a training camp with the US [in Colorado] and other teams and we have sent a coach over with him."

However, with Marcial also in pro-mode, Abnett wants to make sure that Marcial's training is focused on the Olympics.

"The professionals training are a lot different than the amateurs in our training plans. We've put together training plans to pick the right tactics for their opponents in the Olympic Games."

Carlo Paalam_Fly wt 52kg

Fighting chance at Tokyo 2020

The Philippines prides itself on being a top boxing nation - as the sport has had a long history in the Philippines as far back as the 1920s. Recently, its reputation has been bolstered by the athletic feats of Manny Pacquaio, who is considered to be one of the greatest boxers in the world.

But in terms of the Olympic Games, there's still so many things that the country could achieve not only in terms of winning medals but also widening its scope.

"We need to get our systems right in the Philippines. We need to probably do some good talent scouting out there and for possibly some of the bigger weight divisions in the men and the women," Abnett said.

Aside from that, he also thinks there's room for improvement in terms of the athletes' confidence going into international fights.

"I actually observed before I came here to work as a consultant coach, was the confidence of the Filipino athletes when they came up against the bigger countries, they didn't really believe in themselves, and that was a negative from the start.

"And that's the one thing rather than interfere with the coaching, because there was nothing wrong with the coaching. So the main thing I worked on was confidence," he said.

Communication, according to Abnett, is the key. He talks to the athletes and the coaches constantly to ensure that they get into the right mindset.

Now he's seeing some positive changes, most of all in Petecio.

"Nesthy [Petecio] has won a gold medal in 2019 in the Women's World Championships in the 57kg, but Nesthy in the past, she's allowed distractions to affect her performances. But I can tell you at the moment, I'm hoping that's going to go all the way through to to the Olympic Games - her mental side of it and the physical side of it is spot on," he said.

All of [these boxers], I think they are all going to get a chance

With the physical and mental side all coming together, according to Abnett, all of the squad are improving and showing a solid promise for Tokyo 2020.

'All the athletes have had a lot of international experience, and Irish [Magno] herself has struggled through a few of the fights in the qualifiers, but she's made a lot of improvements here and she's very dedicated to the training. So I'm expecting something special from her in the Olympics.

"Carlo [Paalam] has improved a lot. He's got a lot fitter. He's down on his weight and he's training hard. He's very, very competitive over here in his sparring so I'm expecting that he's going to do as well."

Asked who might have the best chances to medal at the Games, Abnett has this to say:

'It's probably an unfair question to pick one out from all of them. I think they are all going to get a chance, and also predicted, "I reckon there are three [with] really good chances of podium finishes," Abnett said.

With the whole of the Philippines behind them, if any of these boxers can crack the Olympic code and win gold, they can expect just one other thing - coming home not just as Olympians but heroes to their nation.

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