HOLLYWOOD-Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista and AJ “Bazooka” Banal are like Old West gunfighters eager to engage in a shootout.
It doesn’t matter that they’re thousands of miles from home.
Bautista and Banal are just two of the young guns eager to follow the huge footsteps of Filipino superstar Manny Pacquiao when they face Mexican fighters for two world titles and the Boxing World Cup worth $500,000 at the Arco Arena on Saturday.
They’ve got itchy trigger fingers.
“I don’t care that my opponent is a world champion,” said Bautista, 21, who looks like a choirboy but punches like his nickname. “I want to fight them all. All of the world champions.”
Mexico defends the World Cup it captured by beating Thailand last year in the first tournament begun by Golden Boy Promotions. This time the Philippines have sent a talented cast of prizefighters to compete.
‘This is very exciting,” said Z Gorres, who may not fight due to an eye injury. “Mexicans have good fighters and we have good fighters.”
The emergence of Pacquiao as one of the preeminent prizefighters in the world has led to a boxing gold rush for the Philippines. Suddenly boxing promoters are scouring the island nation looking for the next Pac Man.
“There’s a lot of good fighters over there,” said Eric Gomez, matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions. “I visited one of the gyms and they had about 100 guys in there.”
Brian Viloria, a Filipino raised in Hawaii, said when he recently trained in the Philippines he was astounded at the raw talent many of the fighters exhibited.
“There are guys that could be better than Pacquiao,” said Viloria, a former junior flyweight world champion. “I really think so.”
Each day about a dozen Filipino fighters gather into cars and drive to the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood to begin their daily routine of boxing drills. They’ve live together in one room for three months.
“Nobody stays alone in their room,” says Gorres, one of the veterans. “We’re all in one room. We play cards, play video or go out and play billiards.”
Inside the large room it’s like being in the Philippines as all of the boxers eat the same food they eat at home and watch Filipino television. But once they go outside its culture shock.
“Whew, I forget sometimes we’re in America,” Bautista says.
Aside from Bautista , Gorres and Banal, veteran fighters like Gerry Penalosa, Bert Batawang, Michael Domingo and Diosdado Gabi lace up the gloves and hit the speed bags, heavy bags and spar with each other or whoever is available.
They’re not choosy.
“We bring them to this country because they can learn to fight against different styles,” says Ala Villamor, one of the head trainers for the Filipino camp. “They learn to fight Mexican style, Black style and all kinds of styles over here.”
The Wild Card Gym has become a magnet for elite fighters anxious to get quality sparring. Formerly owned by actor Mickey Rourke, it's now famed trainer Freddie Roach’s gym and though he expanded it last year by adding another wing, there’s barely enough room for a mouse to zig zag through the maze of fighters.
Lately the Filipino boxers have become the focus for the gym as they prepare for the big showdown with Mexico.
“It’s like Little Manila,” says Roach. “We have a good bunch of fighters in here.”
Bautista heads the pack as he readies to challenge Mexico’s powerful southpaw Daniel Ponce de Leon for his WBO junior featherweight world title. The young Filipino is not flinching.
“I want to be like Manny Pacquiao,” says Bautista (23-0, 17 KOs) with his boyish smile. “I want to have nice cars and a lot of money.”
Bautista is ranked number one by the WBO and though he’s only 21 he’s supremely confident he can out-gun heavy-hitting Ponce De Leon.
“He’s a good fighter but I can beat him,” Bautista says of WBO champ Ponce de Leon. “I’m ready for a world championship.”
Banal, a young southpaw bomber from Cebu City in the Philippines, faces former junior flyweight titleholder Eric Ortiz of Mexico City. It pits the knockout punching power of Banal (13-0-1, 10 KOs) versus the extremely experienced but fragile jaw of Ortiz.
An embarrassed smile crosses Banal’s face when asked about facing a former world champion.
“It’s a beautiful fight,” says Banal, 18, a left-hander with blazing speed.
Michael “Bruce Lee” Domingo, 27, a veteran of 47 pro fights, has one of the tougher matches when he faces undefeated Miguel Roman of Juarez, Mexico.
“My family and my friends know I’m going to win,” says Domingo (31-14-2, 12 KOs) who has crossed paths with Mexican fighters before. “I am fast and fight hard like Manny Pacquiao, maybe I can be like him too.”
The oldest veteran of the clan is Bert “Ninja” Batawang, the current junior flyweight champion of the Philippines. The 35-year-old is facing Mexico City’s knockout specialist Gerardo Verde.
“This is my first time in America,” says the seemingly quiet Batawang (50-6, 34 KOs). “I want to be a world champion.”
Gorres says not to be fooled by Batawang’s shyness.
“He’s a very funny guy,” says Gorres.
After two and a half hours of intense training the crew of Filipino fighters gather their gear, dress and file out the door and down the stairs into the waiting cars to head back to the hotel and their slice of the Philippines.
“They’re following in the footsteps of Manny Pacquiao our national hero,” Villamor says. “There’s big money here.”