Year of the Bravehearts

PREPARE your 2010 boxing calendar this early. Make sure it is adorned with a Big Red Heart pierced by a flash of lightning.
If Lady Luck smiles,  2010 could be the year of the Braveheart Boys of North Cotabato, a province in the Southern Philippines which has a long history of conflict and violence but which has stood out as one of the most outstanding local government units in the country.
With five regional champions in its fold, Braveheart Boxing Club could finally realize the dream of its patron, North Cotabato Vice Governor Manny Pinol to produce world boxing champions.
Braveheart boxers now own five World Boxing Organization (WBO) regional titles. Tiny Rommel “Little Assassin” Asenjo, 20, (14 wins, 2 losses, 12 KOs) holds the WBO Oriental miniflyweight title; Edrin “The Sting” Dapudong, 23, (21 wins, 2 losses, 13 KOs) is the WBO Oriental junior flyweight titlist; Jundy “Pretty Boy” Maraon, 24, (14 wins, 11 KOs, 1 draw) is the WBO Asia Pacific bantamweight champion; Rolando “Smooth Operator” Magbanua, 24, (17 wins, 12 KOs) is the WBO Interim Oriental bantamweight champion; and Lorenzo “Thunberbolt” Villanueva, 23, (15 wins, 15 KOs, 1 No Decision), raw and awkward but tough as  nail recently stopped Asian Games gold medallist Eric Canoy to win the WBO Oriental featherweight crown.
“It could happen in 2010. A few of the boys are already ripe for the world championships,” said Pinol, who as governor of the province from 1998 to 2007 embarked on a grassroots boxing program that staged matches among barefoot boys during village and town fiestas and selected from among them those who had the prospect of becoming champions.
In 2005, with the help of the Cuban ambassador to the Philippines and the Philippine Sports Commission under Butch Ramirez, then governor Pinol travelled to Cuba with bosom friend journalist Recah Trinidad and brought home to North Cotabato jaded Cuban trainer Honorato Espinosa who gave his country its first Olympic gold medal in Munich.
Espinosa stayed in North Cotabato for 18 months and trained local trainors including  Pinol’s younger brother, Noli, who is now Braveheart’s chief trainer. The Cuban influence is very visible in the fighting style of the Braveheart boxers who are aggressive and excellent body punchers.
At least four of these boys are already ready for the big time, said Pinol.
“Magbanua, Maraon, Dapudong and Asenjo could already stand up to the best in the world in their divisions. I will certainly entertain the idea of pitting Magbanua in the junior featherweight division. Maraon could go up against the winner of the Fernando Montiel-Eric Morel bout, Dapudong could take on Ivan Calderon while Asenjo could go up against Donnie Nietes,” Pinol said.
“Of course, there is no guarantee that our boys will prevail over these popular and outstanding opponents, but they certainly will give boxing fans something to remember,” he said.
Pinol said the next group of fighters who are still being honed and fine-tuned include Lorenzo Villanueva, undefeated featherweight Reynaldo Belandres and undefeated flyweight Jermie Jabel.
“About 30 more boys as young as 14 are now training as amateurs and waiting for their turn to be given a chance to prove their worth,” he said.
“Those who do not have the skills and the heart are simply told to go back to school,” Pinol said, adding that the selection of good boxers is just as tough as separating the grain from the chaff.
With a sustained effort and well-planned boxing program, Filipino boxing fans could watch out for the Braveheart Boys in 2010 and the years after that.