LOS ANGELES -- Boxing fans in the Philippines may be familiar with Romero Duno and Reymart Gaballo, but another fighter out of the Sanman Gym in General Santos City may soon be making headlines of his own.
The 21-year-old Mike Plania (17-1, 10 knockouts) will get his second chance to fight in the United States on Sunday, January 13 when he faces Juan Antonio Lopez (12-4, 4 KOs) in a junior featherweight fight scheduled for eight rounds on the undercard of the Jose Uzcategui-Caleb Plant IBF super middleweight title fight.
"I think everybody in my gym knows that Plania is right there with [Duno and Gaballo]. I think this is the start of people knowing about Mike," said Sanman head Jim Claude Manangquil. "We call him 'Magic Mike' because it's really hard to hit him. He has good reflexes, fights with his hands down sometimes, he'll toy with you, he's the fastest reflexes in my gym."
The Microsoft Theater located in the posh L.A. Live complex across from the Staples Center where the Lakers and Clippers play is a far cry from the dusty streets of GenSan. That's where Plania used to earn a few pesos as a "barker" at age eight. He also helped people park their cars or watch their cars while they shop.
His father, Orlando, a tricycle driver and a street vendor, wanted something more for his three children. He had a passion for boxing, which has a rich history in the city dating from Rolando Navarrete to Manny Pacquiao. This passion for the sport is what led him to start training Mike when he was 9.
"My father is not a boxer but he likes to watch boxing all the time, so that's why I like to box too," said Plania.
"He was really small but he was good," said Manangquil, who remembers seeing Plania at around age 12 competing in the weekly boxing competitions at the Oval Plaza. Plania's father also made an impression on the manager.
"His dad was really passionate about him. When he loses a controversial decision his dad starts to argue with judges," said Manangquil.
Plania estimates he had around 300 amateur fights, winning three golds at the Philippine National Games and earning a spot on the national team, where he represented the country at the 2011 AIBA Youth World Championships in Ukraine.
Boxing also earned him a scholarship to Holy Trinity College, where he attended for a year before beginning his pro career.
Plania had his first pro fight in 2014 in Makati City. He made his first significant jump in March of 2018, when he faced the once-beaten former WBA bantamweight titleholder Juan Carlos Payano in Hollywood, Florida. Payano had split a pair of fights with Rau'shee Warren and pulled off an upset over Anselmo Moreno to win the world title. He was looking to rebuild himself back to contention. Plania, by contrast, had just turned 20 the month before and was stepping way up in class.
The upset nearly came at the end of Round 3 when a counter right put Payano down. He got up and was able to use his veteran experience to survive. Plania slowed down late, due in part to his struggles making 118 pounds, and lost on points.
Since then, Plania has won three straight in the Philippines and has relocated camp from Miami to Los Angeles, adding former world champ Rodel Mayol to his training team alongside Osmiri "Moro" Fernandez. Training at the Wild Card Boxing in Los Angeles gym means a bottomless supply of sparring partners around his weight class. It means he gets a chance to train alongside Aston Palicte, the former title challenger who is preparing for a title elimination bout on January 31 against Puerto Rico's Jose Martinez.
Mayol says he's been working with Plania to throw more combinations instead of settling for the one or two punches he usually offers and the former WBC junior flyweight titleholder likes what he sees so far.
"His speed and footwork is amazing. He moves, he punches strong, his style is different. The speed is on the top level," said Mayol. He predicts that Plania is two fights from being ready for a world title opportunity.
Training in LA also means getting to work alongside Pacquiao and picking up lessons from the most successful fighter the Philippines has ever produced.
"Everybody knows that Manny's work ethic is really good," said Manangquil. "It's good that when a boxer like Mike sees that."
Plania got the opportunity to fight in LA because of Pacquiao's new deal with Premier Boxing Champions and the fight was facilitated by MP Promotions matchmaker Sean Gibbons. Lopez, 25, figures to be a stiff test to gauge Plania's abilities. The Dallas-based Mexican is coming off a pair of decision losses to good opposition but has pulled off a few upsets in his career -- including wins over unbeaten prospects Isaac Torres and Jerren Cochran and his most recent win in 2017 against Filipino boxer Ranel Suco.
Plania slipped into the most recent IBF rankings at no. 15, and if he can show he's well above this level, a title fight may not be too far off.
"If Mike shows up and is impressive, we're ready for any 122-pound champion, like IBF champ TJ Doheny, WBA champ Daniel Roman, WBC champ Rey Vargas," said Manangquil.
"But Lopez is a good fighter and we can't overlook him. We're taking him very seriously."