By TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO — Flyweight Carlo Paalam combined guile and blinding speed to stay in the hunt for the Philippines’ second gold medal in the XXXII Olympiad Thursday even as middleweight Eumir Felix Marcial saw a critical second round edge vanish against a tireless wrecking machine from Ukraine that mirrored Ivan Drago, losing by split decision 3-2.
Facing the tournament top seed, a longtime undefeated world champion named Oleksandr Khyzhniak, Marcial went full throttle from the opening round of their semifinal bout at the Kokugikan Arena, time and again rocking his opponent with thunderous blows to the head.
But Khyzhniak, both gloves covering his face, took all that Marcial could dish off, plodding on and boring in even after the Filipino took the first round 5-0 and the second barely 2-1, with two scores tied 19-all.
The third round was a war, with Khyzhniak displaying excellent stamina — and a resolve born out of international experience — against the fast-fading Marcial, who was visibly spent from his all-out first round assault and after trading punches with the Ukrainian past the halfway mark of the third.
Khyzhniak moved on to the gold medal bout of the 69-75kg division against Brazil’s Hebert Sousa, who pounded out a 4-1 split decision over Russia’s Gleb Bakshi in the other semifinal, a fight PH boxing’s Australian training director Don Abnett, who masterminded boxing’s Olympic resurgence after 25 years, had intently eyed from a TV monitor inside the Mixed Zone while Marcial was being interviewed.
“Me kulang talaga sa physical ko, naubusan ako ng hangin,” said Marcial, who nonetheless took the bronze medal, the country’s first Olympic hardware of that color since light flyweight Roel Velasco in 1992 in Barcelona.
The pride of Zamboanga had intended to move around, away from the Ukrainian’s damaging punches in the first two minutes of the third before stepping on the gas in the final 60 seconds.
Marcial went for the pedal at the appointed time but got no response.
“Ibubuhos ko sana lahat ng strength ko sa last one minute pero di ko na na-execute,” said Marcial. “Naubusan na talaga ako. Mas malakas siya sa physical nong huli.
“Isa pa, sa last round kasi dun ako na humina nang pag suntok ko sumabay yung ulo niya at tumama sa mukha ko kaya talagang nahilo ako. Nawala yung lakas ko nong tumama yung ulo niya noo ko. Buti nga di pumutok.”
By way of explaining why Marcial was already drained going to the last round, Abnett said they would have preferred to have longer than “six weeks” to work with Marcial.
“He wasn’t in great shape coming back from the Asian Championship in Dubai (last May),” said Abnett.
The loss, coming in the heels of Nesthy Petecio’s silver medal performance in the women’s featherweight division, the early exit of flyweight Irish Magno in the Round of 16 and Marcial’s secured bronze, left Paalam as the last man standing for the boxing team with a shot at the gold.
Paalam, a joy to watch as he glided in and out of range of Japan’s Ryomei Tanaka destructive punches, put on a clinical display of amateur fighting in dominating the hometown bet 5-0 in their 48-52kg semis, never allowing anything — or anyone — to interfere with the outcome.
“That was a boxing match,” said Abnett.
Tanaka had come ready for a brawl. But Paalam sent deep into the science of the sport, repeatedly snapping the Japanese’s head with right straights and weaving out effortlessly when a frustrated Tanaka would go to the trenches in the corners.
“We told Carlo not to counterpunch but to show up, throw 1-2 punches and step back because Tanaka is a strong boy,” said Abnett.
Paalam showed some dazzling footwork and defensive moves.
“Yung strategy na ginawa ko, idinaan ko sa bilis. Ginawa ko kung ano talaga ‘yung laro ko,” said Paalam, from Cagayan de Oro City. “Kailangang pag-isipan mo ‘yung mga galaw mo tsaka tiwala sa sarili. Kaya nga po kami nagte-training, nage-ensayo para po dito. Salamat din po sa Panginoon.”
In the second round, Tanaka, who threw more wild misses than haymakers, scored his best punch: an illegal blow at the back of Paalam’s head.
“Natamaan po ako doon. Kita nyo naman sa second round, binatukan ako, kaya hinawakan ko na talaga ‘yung paa nya,” said Paalam, who seeks to join weightlifting champion Hidilyn Diaz as the country’s gold medalist in Tokyo when he faces Great Britain’s Galal Yafai in the final on August 7 at 1 p.m. (Manila time)
Ranked ninth at light flyweight in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Yafai reached the final by beating Kazakhstan’s Saken Bibossinov 3-2 in the other semifinal.
“Hinihiling ko lang po sa kapwa ko Pilipino na ipagdasal ako. Gagawin ko ang best ko, kasi hindi ko naman hawak ‘yung desisyon, tsaka ‘yung kalaban ko kasi magaling din. Tiwala lang sa sarili. Sana ibigay na sa atin ng Panginoon,” Paalam said.
Tanaka was gracious in defeat.
“I played the best match ever so I don’t regret anything,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “I don’t feel I lost because the opponent was very good; I just lost to myself.”
Meanwhile, over the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Saitama, some 46 kilometers northwest of central Tokyo, the Philippines’ Bianca Pagdanganan fired an even-par 71 on the second round for a 141 total to share joint 27th in the leaderboard, with world No. 1 Nelly Korda of the United States at 9-under Thursday for a 129 after 36 holes, 13-under for the tournament.
Pagdanganan parred the first four holes and gained some ground with back-to-back birdies. But she bogeyed No. 7 and No. 8 to give it all back before closing the front nine with a birdie in the 412-yard par-4 ninth.
She then had two more bogeys and a birdie in the back nine.
Reigning US Women’s Open champion Yuka Saso, meanwhile, made the most of five birdies to climb 13 notches into a tie at 34th with a 3-under 68 for an even-par 142 following a 74 in the opening.
An outside threat looms for the two lady golfers.
Aside from their in-form opponents, Pagdanganan and Saso’s hopes for a comeback are under threat from an approaching typhoon that could force organizers to cut the tournament to 54 holes.
An abbreviated tournament will all but dash the hopes of the two Filipinos in the 60-man field, who will need the two rounds to storm back into contention.
A decision is expected Saturday.
An early morning advisory, meantime, was greeted with much applause by PH Olympians who failed to land a podium finish here.