LOS ANGELES — Filipino featherweight Mark Magsayo was starstruck the first time he met his idol Manny Pacquiao on the Philippines senate floor on Dec. 5, 2017.
The moment occurred on his wife and manager Frances’ birthday and a week after he scored his 18th professional win. Pacquiao publicly praised the young fighter by passing a congratulatory bill and gifted him $5,000 out of his own pocket.
Like many fighters from the Philippines, the Tacloban City-born, Bohol-raised Magsayo (22-0, 15 KOs) was inspired to start boxing when he watched Pacquiao become a bona fide star when he knocked out Marco Antonio Barrera in 2003. At the time, 8-year-old Magsayo was selling pandesal and ice cream as a street vendor and had lost his first three amateur fights as a kid.
The Barrera fight is Magsayo’s earliest memory of Pacquiao. After all, Pacquiao made his pro debut in 1995 — six months to the day before Magsayo was born.
Magsayo’s dreams to fight on a Pacquiao undercard will become a reality on Saturday in Las Vegas when he faces former world champion Julio Ceja. The 26-year-old Magsayo, who also has over 200 amateur wins, will take to the ring ahead of Pacquiao’s pay-per-view bout with Yordenis Ugas — a culmination of a circuitous route full of fits and starts.
Months after his first meeting with Pacquiao, Magsayo sat in nosebleed seats in Malaysia to watch the senator fight for the first time in person — a mauling of Lucas Matthysse on July 15, 2018.
By then, Magsayo’s trajectory had slowed after contractual issues with the now-defunct ALA Promotions. Magsayo split from the Cebu-based company and headed to Las Vegas to sign with Now Boxing Promotions. But the company never got him a fight and Magsayo bought out his contract to strike out on his own.
Magsayo and Frances both sat at the MGM Grand crying as they contemplated their future on Christmas day in 2018. He couldn’t have been further from reaching his lifelong dream of fighting on Pacquiao’s undercard.
To stop a 17-month skid, Frances staged and promoted a pair of fights for Magsayo in Asia in 2019. A lifeline from his hero came when Sean Gibbons, the head of Pacquiao’s promotional company, targeted Magsayo as a talent to procure.
Magsayo had finally caught the break he’d sought. He met with Pacquiao and Gibbons at the future Hall of Fame fighter’s house in Makati and signed a three-year contract on March 10, 2020.
“I prayed that one day I would fight on the undercard of Senator Manny Pacquiao, and finally, my dream has come true,” he said. “I need to show the world that I’m the best 126-pound fighter in the world. This is my big shot. This is my stepping stone to become a world champion.”
PACQUIAO BELIEVES Magsayo has the makings to be the real deal.
“He reminds me of myself,” Pacquiao said at the time of his signing. “How we both struggled to come from nothing to a world-rated contender. I love his work ethic and desire to become a world champion and I will do everything to help promote Mark and make his dreams a reality.”
Magsayo now has a dream team guiding him with Pacquiao, Hall-of-Fame trainer Freddie Roach and Gibbons.
He has been training alongside Pacquiao ever since boxing’s eight-division champion arrived in the United States during the first week of July. He’s been learning everything from footwork to discipline at the Wild Card Boxing gym in Los Angeles and during Pacquiao’s famous runs at Griffith Park.
“When you have Manny in your corner it’s good for any fighter,” Roach said. “Mark is a very good fighter and hard puncher. He hits just as hard as Manny did at 126. He might even be a little better puncher than Manny. He has power in both hands. He’s dangerous at all times. He can knock guys out. He’s very prepared for this fight.”
Gibbons said he promised Magsayo a three-fight plan on PBC properties when they first met that would culminate with him fighting on a Pacquiao undercard.
“It’s pretty much rolled out exactly like we talked about, and that’s sometimes difficult to pull off in boxing,” said Gibbons. “Everyone knows what Manny is going to do. Mark is unknown and no one really knows his real potential. This is his stage and coming-out party. Mark is the biggest breakout star we’re waiting on. He’s either going to break out, or flame out.”
Gibbons has reasons for concern following the first fight he served Magsayo.
Magsayo was preparing to end a pandemic-induced 13-month layoff in October by fighting right-hander Jose Haro. But Haro unexpectedly retired a week before the bout.
Instead, he faced a tall, awkward southpaw in Rigoberto Hermosillo on short notice. Magsayo didn’t look his best, but did enough to score a split decision win despite being out-landed 181 to 136.
“He’s a little stationary sometimes because he likes to sit down on his punches, but he’s getting better and better,” said Roach. “He has a high ceiling.”
Roach said Magsayo’s combinations, punching power and footwork have improved fight-over-fight since they first formed a team.
“My punching before was wild. Now I’m more accurate,” said Magsayo. “Freddie is correcting my mistakes. It’s great to have a legendary coach in my corner.”
Magsayo rebounded in April to knock out Pablo Cruz in four rounds. He’s now set up to fight Ceja (32-4-1, 28 KOs), a scrappy and battle-tested former 122-pound titlist.
Ceja last fought to a thrilling split draw against rising star Brandon Figueroa in 2019. Ceja blew weight by 4.5 pounds for that super bantamweight bout and is now making his division debut at 126 following a 21-month layoff.
THE UNHERALDED X-FACTOR guiding Magsayo is his wife Frances, a tattoo artist turned boxing zealot who’s ten years older than her husband.
Magsayo met Frances on March 1, 2014 in the Philippines during his fifth career bout. He went back into the stands to watch the rest of the fights and sat next to Frances. The two were married a two years later in Manila in 2016.
Throughout their relationship, Frances has had to play the role of partner and taskmaster.
“It’s hard to separate being a wife from being professional, but we’re happy together and like best friends,” said Frances. “… At times I have to push him to go run, and not give him more food if he wants it. It’s hurtful for me. But I tell him ‘it’s better to suffer today than tomorrow.'”
Magsayo got ahead of himself during his teens and tattooed a WBO belt on his left arm. Frances, who has inked over a dozen different pieces of art on his body, helped him cover it up.
A future tattoo bearing a boxing belt is possible, but any master plan involves a decisive win over the hard-charging Ceja.
Magsayo is also looking to be the next pugilistic face of Pinoy pride. He aspires to come close to reaching the levels of Filipino legends like Nonito Donaire and Pacquiao.
“The main person watching his fight Saturday night is [PBC head] Mr. Al Haymon,” said Gibbons. “If he gets past Ceja, the sky’s the limit, and we’ll deliver him a beautiful world title fight.”
A win would put Magsayo in prime position to fight the likes of champions Gary Russell Jr. or Leo Santa Cruz. Magsayo is already ranked in the top five by the WBC, WBO and IBF, and he plans on fighting at 126 until he captures a crown.
“Can he win titles in eight divisions like Manny Pacquiao?” Roach wondered. “I don’t think that record will ever be broken. If there is anyone who could do it, maybe it’s Mark, because he has that power.”
He finally gets his chance this weekend.
“I’m ready to become the next face of Filipino boxing,” said Magsayo. “I’m not the next Manny Pacquiao, but I want to follow in his footsteps. I want to make my own name.”
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