New International Boxing Organization (IBO) world flyweight title holder Dave “Doberman” Apolinario knew it won’t be easy to beat the 36-year old South African boxer Gideon Buthelezi. The latter, after all, is an IBO champion in three weight divisions: super flyweight, light flyweight, and minimum weight.
So when the 23-year-old Maasin, Sarangani native released that powerful left straight-right hook combo towards the third minute of the first round of the The 7th Annual Celebration of Madiba as a Boxer event on Saturday, July 30, he was surprised to see Buthelezi drop to his knees, unable to beat the referee's 10-second count. The game was officially stopped at the second minute and 59th second, and Apolinario ended up snagging the IBO flyweight belt.
He expected the win but “Ine-expect ko na mapatumba ko siya sa sixth or seventh round,” Apolinario tells ANCX in a video call. From the screen, we see his belt proudly sitting on his lap. Beside him is his manager Mike Pelayo of Sanman Promotions. The boxer knew the 36-year old Buthelezi would be a tough nut to crack so he really took pains preparing for the fight. And since the Philippines has been left with no reigning world champion, Apolinario was even more determined to end the country’s world title drought.
Both manager and athlete knew South Africa is difficult to beat when it comes to boxing. “The only chance to win [against South Africa] is via knockout,” says Pelayo. “I’m a very firm believer of knockouts kasi it eliminates the judging. Pag na-knockout, tapos kaagad ang boxing.”
To triumph against the decorated Buthelezi, Pelayo’s team set up Apolinario for intense body conditioning. “Sabi ko sa kanya, para mas maging dynamic ang skills niya, he has to cross-train in other sports,” the manager shares. So instead of focusing on the usual boxing drills—training with body bag and speed balls, sparring—the team squeezed in calisthenics and plyometrics in Apolinario’s workout and had him undergo a program for crossfit and triathlon thru coach Gabb Rosario. They also made sure he got proper nutrition.
The plan, consequently, worked. “While I was talking to Dave, sabi ko, ‘Ganun pala. When you really train hard, the fight will be easy talaga,’” Pelayo says.
Pelayo believed his ward had a great fighting chance over Buthelezi. Apolinario had incredible reaction time. “Gideon is known for brawl-style fighting. Ang bilis niya sumuntok. Si Dave naman, papunta pa lang ang suntok, naiiwasan na niya. Talagang hindi siya tinatamaan,” Pelayo says.
In the clash over the world flyweight title, one can see how the Pinoy evaded several blows from the South African. “From Dave’s first professional bout until itong last niya, never nabukulan ng mata si Dave. Talagang poging pogi siya after the fight,” Pelayo says laughing, looking at Apolinario who shyly flashes his pretty boy smile.
The Filipino boxer currently has a record of 17 wins and 12 knockouts. So the game plan for future fights, says the manager, is to develop Apolinario’s killer strength and quickness with his jabbing.
Fake it to make it
The two days leading to the fight felt like luck wasn’t on Apolinario’s side. When Pelayo and his pugilist arrived at East London in South Africa where the fight was to be held, the team found out their star athlete’s luggage—which had all his boxing equipment including shoes, clothes, underwear, mouth guard, fighting pads, and foul protector—was missing. They were told the luggage didn’t arrive from Ethiopia. So because he had no boxing outfit to wear, Apolinario wasn’t able to train right away.
Luckily, there were extra shorts and fighting pads in his carry-on bag. On the day of the fight, he was accompanied by some Filipinos in the quest to find a boxing store around East London. “Ang nabili niya fake Adidas shoes pa. Yun ang ginamit niya sa fight kasi yun lang ang available e,” says Pelayo.
Their opponent lent a foul protector. “Ang pinahiram sa amin, parang garter lang sa taekwondo kaya delikado kung matamaan ako sa baba,” says Apolinario. “Pero sabi ko, ‘Yan na lang, wala ng iba. Laban tayo, boss.’ Ang hirap talaga ng pinagdaanan namin.” He was still jetlagged but he had to proceed to the weigh-in. The following day, Saturday, was the biggest fight of his life.
“Parang against all odds yung nangyari,” Pelayo recalls. “Hindi ko na inintindi na wala akong gamit. Basta ang importante maiuwi ko ang karangalan sa Pilipinas,” Apolinario says, tapping the IBO belt he’s holding.
Suffice it to say, Apolinario, his team, and the Filipinos present at the International Convention Center in East London where the fight was held were ecstatic when the Filipino boxer’s victory was announced. “Sobrang saya talaga, hindi ko ma-explain,” the boxer says.
Meanwhile, it was a painful loss for the South Africans who were expecting Buthelezi to take this fourth IBO division crown. There were about 10 Filipinos at the venue versus a South African crowd of about 500 cheering for Buthelezi. “Kaya iyakan dun sa South Africa nung nanalo si Dave. Makikita mo ang reaction ng crowd, dead cold talaga sila,” Pelayo says.
To Nanay, with love
The Filipino boxer’s joy would have been complete had his mother—his biggest fan and cheerleader—still been around. He lost his mom Lita last March due to a rabies infection after a dog bite.
Apolinario was very much affected by the death that he stopped training for three months. “Gusto kong bumalik sa training pero naalala ko ang nanay ko. Hindi ko maiwasang malungkot pag naiisip ko siya. Kasi araw-araw kaming magkasama dati sa bahay,” says the boxer who has seven siblings.
But it was also his love for his mother that motivated the athlete to return to the ring. It was her dream for Dave to become a world boxing champion and he dedicates his recent victory to her.
“Dahil sa nanay ko, naging matibay at buo ang dibdib ko. Dati, pag may nalalapit akong laban, sinasabihan niya ako na ‘Hindi na kita idol pag matalo ka,’” Apolinario recalls. It was his mother’s way of motivating him to be strong and do his best. “Pag natalo ako, sasabihan niya ako ng, ‘Ah, mahina ka pala e.’”
The boxing champ remembers his Nanay as a brave, feisty woman. “Kapag laban ko, matapang yun. Pag first round tapos lugi ako, aakyat pa sa ring yan. Sasabihin nya, ‘Bumawi ka. Kaya mo yan. Tiwala lang.’ Sobrang supportive siya sa pagba-boxing ko.”
Apolinario was about eight when he started training under the tutelage of his father Pablo, and older brothers, John Mark and Pol. Dave experienced competing in Batang Pinoy, Philippine National Games, and Palarong Pambansa, where he won about 20 gold medals.
The Pacman Cup in 2015 was very memorable for the young man. Mrs. Apolinario made sure she was present all throughout Dave and another son’s fights. “Five days straight ang laban namin,” the boxing champ remembers. “Nag gold kaming dalawa, sobrang tuwa niya. Sabi nya, ‘Hindi pwedeng matalo kayo pag nandito ako.’”
Mrs. Apolinario may not have witnessed Dave’s recent victory in East London but he knows he made his mother proud. He made her dream come true.
Sweet victory for Maasin
Come Wednesday, Apolinario is scheduled to return to his hometown of Maasin in Sarangani province where he is now a source of inspiration to aspiring boxers. “Ang hero talaga diyan [sa province] ay si Manny Pacquiao na talagang iniidolo din ni Dave. Ngayon, may sariling pride na din ang municipality of Maasim,” says Pelayo.
The Filipino boxing world is expecting a long, colorful journey ahead for the 23-year-old Apolinario. After the hero’s welcome, he will take a break for a couple of weeks and return to training soon after. Pelayo says it’s best they’re prepared for any fight offers. “Ang goal namin is makuha ang belts from other sanctioning bodies,” says Pelayo. “Labanan lahat yun para sabihin na si Dave is best of the best talaga ng flyweight division.”
Photos courtesy of Dave Apolinario and Mike Pelayo