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Year in Review 2018: Plenty of title fights for Filipino boxers

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series.

It was a busy year for Philippine boxing. There were many reasons to celebrate the success of the victors while most of those who suffered defeats will surely get another chance in the future.

Pac is Back

The biggest headline for Philippine boxing this year was by far the return of Manny Pacquiao. He not only won another world title but also ended his long knockout drought by retiring Lucas Matthysse of Argentina. On paper, it was a great matchup for Pacquiao as the champion was not known for his movement nor his defense, two things that made things difficult for Pacquiao in his past fights. Instead, Matthysse was a slugger who liked staying in the pocket and engaging. Too bad for him, Pacquiao was the much quicker guy both in hand- and foot-speed.

Pacquiao boxed aggressively as he knew he needed a big win to convince fans both here and abroad that he still has some fight left in him even is he was already pushing 40 years of age. In the end, Pacquiao got the stoppage win that he needed and although the event might not have been a runaway financial success for Pacquiao the promoter, it was a much-needed boost for Pacquiao the fighter.

Not long after, talk about a rematch against Floyd Mayweather surfaced but instead the Filipino legend will settle for Money's protege in Adrien Broner.

Four Kings

After Pacquiao, there are other Filipino fighters who managed to retain or win world titles in 2018.

IBF flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas had a very busy year with three title defenses. After wowing boxing fans with a 10th round stoppage in his first title defense against Israel Gonzales, Ancajas did not gain a lot of new fans with his next two fights. He had an awkward encounter with compatriot Jonas Sultan for a wide unanimous decision victory and then escaped with the title around his waist with a lackluster effort against Alejandro Santiago Barrios after managing to pull off a draw.

The year 2019 is make-or-break for Ancajas. If he'll become a true star in international boxing, he'll need a big performance. It's okay for him to win via decision but he'll have to do that against big-name opponents. A title-unification fight should be his immediate priority as he'll need to grab the boxing world's attention after losing it with his last two fights.

Nonito Donaire fought only once in 2017 so it was a bit lucky for him to have a couple of world title opportunities in 2018. While his best years might already be behind him, The Filipino Flash can still draw some interest. His first shot at the title was at the featherweight division for Carl Frampton's WBO belt. However, the title opportunity ended badly with a unanimous decision loss.

However, Donaire's gallant stand against Frampton was rewarded with another title shot two divisions south of feather at 118 against undefeated WBA champion Ryan Burnett. It was a good fight between two willing competitors but unfortunately for the defending champion, he sustained an injury that forced him to leave the ring and his belt behind.

Apart from Donaire, lady luck also smiled upon Vic Saludar in 2018. Before getting a shot at Ryuya Yamanaka's WBO minimumweight title, Saludar's last meaningful fight came way back in 2015 where he lost to Kosei Tanaka for the same title.

After that, he scored six wins against local opposition (defeating Mike Kinaadman and Lito Dante twice) and even lost to lightly regarded Toto Landero.

Getting a title shot must have been a big surprise for Saludar but he took advantage of the opportunity as the had the best performance of his career to win via unanimous decision and become the third Filipino to hold this title after Donnie Nietes and Merlito Sabillo.

Hours before the year ended, the aforementioned Nietes capped it off with a split decision victory against Kazuto Ioka of Japan via the scores of 118-110, 116-112, and 112-116. With the big win, Nietes joined an elite list of fighters who won titles in four different divisions. He is the third Filipino fighter to do so after Pacquiao and Nietes.

In total, 2018 ended with five Filipino world champions and two interim title holders in Reymart Gaballo and Jhack Tepora.

Missed Opportunities

After almost a century, 2018 finally featured a world championship matchup between two Filipino fighters with Ancajas taking on Sultan. The next one did not even take 100 days as Nietes faced off against Aston Palicte for the vacant WBO super flyweight championship.

The best case scenario for Philippine boxing is if these two fights turned out to be instant classics. Instead, it was more of an explanation on why all-Filipino title fights don't happen a lot. These could have been out versions of the Mexican wars between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales or Israel Vazquez versus Rafael Marquez but failed to do so.

Instead, Ancajas versus Sultan turned out to be a matchup between a challenger that was just looking for one knockout punch and a champion who was not willing to take a lot of risks and instead keep his title by staying outside and scoring.

The Nietes-Palicte fight, although it was more entertaining than the first one, was also a highly tactical affair. It was a fight that many thought belonged to the veteran Nietes but he settled a decision. This result could not have gotten any worse for Philippine boxing as the title that was believed to be surely coming home to the country ended up remaining vacant.

It might take a while before two Filipino boxers square up again with a world title up for grabs. It seems like our local pugs prefer fighting international opposition on the big stage.

Coming Up Short

There were two Filipino fighters who got their first shots at a world title in 2018 in Randy Petalcorin and Mark Barriga.

Petalcorin had a great opportunity as challenging for a title in the Philippines is a rare occurrence. He matched up against a power puncher in Felix Alvarado but the Filipino came into the fight with the wrong game plan. Instead of using his superior boxing skills, Petalcorin slugged it out against his foe and, as he is not used to throwing and receiving heavy leather early in the fight, he lost steam in the middle rounds and was dropped repeatedly for a seventh-round technical knockout loss.

Barriga, a former Olympian, went up against Carlos Licona a few months after for the IBF minimumweight title. It was a prototypical battle between two 105-pounders as it featured a lot of speed and little power. In the end, even if Barriga closed the fight strongly, the judges gave Licona a split decision victory, dealing the Filipino the first loss of his career.

Another Filipino fighter came up short at his world title attempt when Brian Viloria fought Artem Dalakian for the vacant WBO featherweight title. The undefeated fighter from Ukraine showed his hunger in the match as Viloria also showed his age, being seven years the senior. In the end, The Hawaiian Punch dropped a wide and clear unanimous decision.

Other unsuccessful title attempts from Filipino fighter include Mercito Gesta losing to Jorge Linares (WBA lightweight), Ernesto Saulong losing to Ryosuke Iwasa (IBF super bantamweight), Toto Landero losing to Knockout CP Freshmart (WBA minimumweight), Vince Paras losing to Hiroto Kyoguchi (IBF minimumweight).

Next Up

A young fighter who took a significant step forward in 2018 was Jhack Tepora. He only fought once in the year but he made sure there were a lot of people paying attention and that he would get them the result they want.

Tepora was included on the undercard of the Pacquiao-Matthysse match in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He stopped Edivaldo Ortega in the ninth round to win the interim WBA featherweight title. Although he has a nice belt around his weight, Tepora could not yet be called a full-fledged world champion unless he defeats WBA "super" world champion Leo Santa Cruz or their "regular" world champion Jesus Rojas.

Another fighter that burst into the scene in 2018 was Michael Dasmarinas. He won the vacant IBO bantamweight title with a massive knockout victory against Karim Guerfi in Singapore. However, he was not able to add to his momentum as he looked out of sorts against Ghanian fighter Manyo Plange with a stalemate.

Boxing fans in the Philippines are also taking a closer look at Reymart Gaballo who defeated Stephon Young via unanimous decision in only his second fight in the United States to win the interim WBA bantamweight title. He was deadlier in his second fight of 2018 as he knocked out Tanzania's Julius Kisarawe in just one round.

Second generation fighters Carlo and Dave Penalosa also went undefeated in 2018, going for a combined 5-0 (all knockouts) but they'll have to take a serious step up in opposition in 2019 to inch closer to possible world title opportunities.

Marlon Tapales ended his one and a half year hiatus in 2018 with a one-round knockout victory against the overmatched Goodluck Mrema of Tanzania.

Another young fighter who is making a name for himself is Edward Heno. After scoring his first win abroad in 2017 against Seita Ogido of Japan to win the OPBF light flyweight title, Heno followed up with a huge win over former world champion Merlito Sabillo before closing out the year with another defense of his title against Jesse Espinas.

Lightweight Romero Duno had a busy 2018 with three fights all in the United States. He opened the year with a bang, knocking out Yardley Armenta Cruz in just one round before following up with decision wins against Gilberto Gonzales and Ezequiel Aveilas, prompting Oscar de la Hoya of Golden Boy Promotions to say he's nearing a title opportunity.

Another big win for Philippine boxing is that more and more events are airing on national televisions, which will only help in promoting the sport and setting the table for more future world champions. The year of 2019 should be an even busier year for Philippine boxing and it'll hit the ground running with Pacquiao leading the charge. Look out for more title opportunities for Filipino boxers in the second half of the upcoming year.