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The 8 Greatest Super Flyweights: Gerry Penalosa

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Our countdown of the eight greats of super flyweight continues, with a look at the first man to make the list, a popular Filipino with some of the best skills ever to grace the division.

Penalosa before his bout with Saucedo
Penalosa before his bout with Saucedo
Screengrab

There can sometimes be a drive to elevating fighters to a higher pedestal simply because we think they got a raw deal.

With Gerry Penalosa, there really isn't the need to.

Perhaps remembered most for the brutal come-from-behind body shot that put Jhonny Gonzalez down for the count up at bantamweight, Penalosa was in fact at his peak at super flyweight.

Coming from a boxing family, Penalosa's older brother, Dodie Boy, was a tremendous little fighter who fought a who's who of the flyweight division in the '80s, picking up the IBF title at both 108 and 112lbs.

If a successful older brother wasn't enough, Gerry also had his father to look up to, a moderately successful light welterweight in the '60s, who had fought world class opposition such as super featherweight champion Rene Barrientos and ten stone destroyer Paul Fuji.

Gerry had big shoes to fill.

It's arguable that his feet ended up too big for them.

No less a figure than Freddie Roach, who has seen it all in his time as a trainer, having ring legends such as James Toney, Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson and Johnny Tapia, said of Penalosa,

"Gerry is one of the best boxers that I have ever handled," said Roach. "Technically, he is one of the best, even better than Manny."

The Lineal Champion

Penalosa had some amateur experience, but like many Filipino boxers his main apprenticeship came in the jam-packed domestic scene, where starving fighters scrap it out to prove their supremacy and work their way towards fuller bellies.

Penalosa's only loss in his early career was to Samuel Duran, a much larger fighter who would end up at featherweight.

At super flyweight, still relatively short, Penalosa had the strength to keep up with the very best of the division.

And as to anyone who has read the honourable mentions part of this series, there really wasn't anyone better than Hiroshi Kawashima, the WBC champion who had seen his hand raised at the end of no less than seven world title fights.

In many ways these two were mirror images of each other. Both southpaws, they did their best work at mid-range, could counter even the smartest of operators, and mixed up their work from head to body fluently.

Kawashima had beaten a shrewdly-skilled southpaw before, the awkward Carlos Gabriel Salazar.

Penalosa, 35-1-1 but with only one or two barely notable wins to his name, was unheralded in Kawashima's homeland.

After 12 fast-paced rounds, there was no chance anyone would sleep on Penalosa again.

This fight shows Penalosa's strengths. Supremely quick of hand, he threw every punch as if you were seeing the techniques pulled straight out of a boxing textbook. A tremendous combination puncher, Penalosa didn't throw aimless flurries designed to catch the eye, he threw sharp and accurate punches designed to bust the eye socket, or rupture a spleen.

A closely contested bout, perhaps the split decision rendered was due to the fact it took place in the champions homeland.

Gerry Penalosa was the WBC super flyweight champion, taking the baton which had been passed down from the inception of the division.

However, Penalosa's reign would not be without its ups and downs.

Title Defences

Penalosa had his first defence on home soil, and took on a tough cookie of the South Korean variety.

Seung-Koo Lee may look, at first glance at least, to be an average fighter.

In fact he had come very close to winning the super flyweight title on two occasions.

Twice travelling to Japan, he first dropped WBA junior bantamweight champ Katsuya Onizuka, and piled on the pressure throughout. Only heart got Onizuka through, as it had many times before, with a decision.

In his last bout prior to Penalosa, Lee got another chance at a title, this time against the outstanding Hiroshi Kawashima.

Last in the bout Kawashima found himself under fire against the ropes, and was forced to the mat with a furious barrage. Clearly hurt, he had to suck it up to retain his title.

A steady pressure fighter who came in behind the jab and inched closer with good head and upper body movement, Lee was just one of many tough Koreans that swarmed the lower weight classes in this time. Hard to believe for the modern boxing fan, as there is scarcely a South Korean in sight.

Penalosa had a serious contender on his hands, one that had pushed two outstanding fighters to the brink.

But as it turned out, not much of a challenge.

Penalosa dropped Lee early, dominated the rest of the proceedings before putting him down for the count in the ninth round. Some of the shine can be rubbed off of the victory, on the basis that Lee had not fought for two years. But Penalosa didn't give him a chance to show how much of his prime was left anyway.

Penalosa then ventured to the USA for the first time, and made it clear he was chasing a unification bout with WBO champ, and superstar, Johnny Tapia.

His opponent, a sparring partner of bantamweight great Orlando Canizales, had proven his class with a decision win over future title challenger Cecilio Espino, and in a very brave challenge to Danny Romero, another super flyweight star who was turning heads, both literally and figuratively, with his devastating power punching.

In Hipolito Saucedo, Romero had found himself in a very tough bout. Saucedo turned his face into mush, and only Romero carrying his power late allowed him to pull the win out of the bag.

So not an exceptional fighter, but certainly one capable of putting in an exceptional performance against exceptional champions.

Saucedo had no such chance with Penalosa, who played the role of the consummate ring general, dictating the range, easily evading Saucedo's rushes, and punctuating a dominant and arguably flawless performance with a knockdown in the tenth and final round. Saucedo, game as ever, tried to rush Penalosa in the final stages, but the reigning champion welcomed the fight, and at the end of ten was clearly the better man.

Saucedo tragically took his own life six months later, apparently grief stricken that he didn't take the title from Romero. If he hadn't, there's a good chance he would have continued to give the best fighters a tough night.

Penalosa's next title defence was against another fighter who showed great promise but never went on to fulfill it.

Undefeated in twelve, Young-Joo Cho fought in a similar style to Penalosa. Not as sharp a puncher, he was nevertheless a hard working southpaw who threw punches in bunches.

Early on, it looked like Penalosa might have an easy night on his hands. Throwing beautiful combinations to body and head, the champion sensed an easy target.

That theory was turned on its head when the challenger pivoted to his right in an exchange and deposited Penalosa on the mat with a short right hook.

Not visibly shaken, Penalosa picked up from where he left off, but found Cho was the standard Korean aggressor; gutsy 'til the end.

Only the severity of Penalosa's body punches took the fight out of the challenger, and bar the first round knockdown it was a quality performance from Penalosa.

A quick technical draw with Joel Luna Zarate after a head clash, in a bout Penalosa looked to be winning in first gear for the short time it lasted, saw Penalosa keep his title for the third time.

His next title defence was against a fighter that showed all the hallmarks of a classic Korean stylist. Unfortunately, he also showed the attributes that would prove nightmarish for Penalosa for the rest of his tenure at 115lbs.

In-Joo Cho I & II

In-Joo Cho, sporting an unblemished record of 12-0, had many of the stylistic quirks synonymous with the great South Korean stylists.

An ever-swirling left hand, probing, feinting for the opening so a quick right hand could be lashed in. Outlandish jutting out of arms for both braggadocio and to lure in the unsuspecting opponent for a punch with the opposite hand. Functional and educated movement designed to control the range and pace of a contest.

Unfortunately for Gerry Penalosa, In-Joo Cho used his ring smarts to make the bout a non-starter.

Away from home, and struggling to catch up with a rangier, fleet-footed opponent who fought with a negative approach, Penalosa dropped a split decision, and lost his title and lineal claim in the process.

Penalosa bounced back from this loss with a mere confidence builder against Panamanian journeyman Ramon Jose Hurtado, flattening with a perfectly-timed counter left cross and picking up the NABA super flyweight trinket in the process.

In the meantime, In-Joo Cho was building his confidence up. In the eighteen months since he and Penalosa had first met, Cho had made three defences of the WBC title, squeaking by Penalosa's old foe Zarate, before seemingly becoming the sum of his parts, stopping Thai fringe contender Pone Saengmorakot and battering former light fly titlist Keiji Yamaguchi.

He started the bout with Penalosa with a far more positive approach.

But it didn't last for long.

As in the first bout, Penalosa landed the harder, cleaner blows, but they were few and far between, while Cho threw fast bursts of punches and got back out again. Certainly not an illegal technique, but not one that made him look like he was trying to win the bout emphatically either.

Closer inspection of Cho's flurries show that for the majority of them Penalosa was expertly picking them off on his guard, but you cannot fault the judges for not noticing that from where they were sitting. Cho's tactics were designed to steal rounds and minimise the amount of time he was stood in front of Penalosa.

The closeness of the bout was reflected in the decision again. Despite the defending champion having had a point deducted for his corner leaving too much water in the corner, it wasn't enough.

Away from home, Penalosa still managed to win the decision on one judges scorecard, albeit by one point, a 114-114 draw rendered a Penalosa victory by virtue of the Korean having the point deduction. In-Joo Cho remained the WBC and lineal super flyweight champion with scores of 115-112 and 113-116.

Quoted by the Manila Standard upon his return home, Penalosa said,

"Let's just accept that I lost! One cannot actually win there unless he knock out his opponent."

Despite feeling that he had been on the wrong end of a hometown decision, Penalosa didn't get too despondent over this loss. In fact, he went on a tear, and put on some of the best performances of his super flyweight stay.

WBC International Title

Four months after his second loss to In-Joo Cho, Penalosa got back on the horse.

The man in the opposite corner was the capable but unspectacular former world title challenger Pone Saengmorakot of Thailand.

Utilising a basic strategy of getting onto Penalosa's right hand side and shooting the right hand down the pipe was never going to work for a long against a canny southpaw such as Penalosa. Saengmorakot was game and lively, but offered little else.

A breathtaking salvo of punches in the fifth round had the Thai flying into the ropes and badly cut around the right eye. Patched up and sent back out to war in the sixth, it wasn't long before Saengmorakot had the doctor pulling him out of the contest.

Six months later, Penalosa found himself in the ring with a far more formidable Thai.

Ratanachai Sor Vorapin was mostly known for putting in a spirited effort against Marc 'Too Sharp' Johnson in an IBF super flyweight title fight.

A typically Thai operator, Ratanachai worked behind a high guard and applied basic but sturdy pressure, picking his spots well and capably attacking whatever body part was available to him.

After this bout, an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Japanese boxing promoter, cut man and journalist Joe Koizumi as having warned Penalosa's manager Rudy Salud about Ratanachai's offensive prowess,

"Don't fight Vorapin. He's a KO artist".

Avoiding fighters wasn't in Penalosa's makeup.

Against Penalosa, Vorapin showed the same traits that had marked him out as a danger man, but also that the 'Too Sharp' fight had rubbed off on him a bit too much.

Working in a typical fashion, Ratanachai went tit-for-tat with Penalosa. They operated quite similarly, only the Thai favoured the front foot and Penalosa the back.

Every so often though, Ratanachai would drop his hands and mug Penalosa. He'd stick out his tongue and show he wasn't hurt, the same gamesmanship that 'Too Sharp' had showed him.

Bad move.

In the sixth round, Penalosa clipped Ratanachai, who dropped his hands again to indicate the punch hadn't hurt him, not allowing for Penalosa's speed of hand and ability to cut the angle.

The shortest of short right hooks laid the Thai out, and although he was murmuring at eight, he couldn't beat the count and laid flat out for some time.

Marc 'Too Sharp' Johnson, who had made a habit of knocking out durable opposition early doors, had found Ratanachai a tough customer, and had been forced to settle for a wide points win.

Penalosa had wiped him out, and with the WBC international title still strapped around his waist, found himself in position for another shot at the crown.

Masamori Tokuyama I & II

In-Joo Choo was no longer the man to beat, and the title had returned to Japan for the first time since Penalosa had beaten up Hiroshi Kawashima.

The peroxide haired Masamori Tokuyama was a polarising figure politically, and a tricky customer in the ring.

But more on him later.

Prior to getting a rightful shot at the crown, Penalosa destroyed Tokuyama's compatriot Keiji Yamaguchi inside the first round.

Whilst it may appear an impressive win due to Yamaguchi's earlier career form, where he won the WBA light flyweight title, in reality he was never that great a fighter, and by the time Penalosa hit him so hard the Japanese saw a towel thrown in front of him as means of intervention, he had already seen better days.

Still, he had braved a late surge from In-Joo Cho in an attempt to take the lineal super flyweight crown and lasted the distance.

If Cho was an ostrich, sometimes leaning in to peck you if you annoyed him, Penalosa was a different kind of animal, a hippo who would destroy you if you got too close.

Tokuyama would prove to be a fair more elusive and irritating customer, but Penalosa had prepared well.

Salud has bought five tapes showing Tokuyama's best fights.

"I watch the tapes regularly", said Penalosa in Tagalog. "I have never been this busy watching my opponents style."

Penalosa was training fiercely, had changed his diet, and had clearly been studying the champions methods.

Penalosa hinted at why he was so determined to the Philippine Daily Inquirer,

"This is not only a chance of a lifetime", he said. "I have never trained this hard in my life. This could be my last hurrah."

Arriving in Japan, Penalosa was greeted at his workouts by old foe Hiroshi Kawashima. Penalosa halted his training to pay his respects to Kawashima.

When Japanese reporters asked Penalosa to compare the former kingpin Kawashima to the new crown prince of the division, Penalosa was non-committal,

"No comparison yet, but from what I've seen from Tokuyama's taped fights, I will say Kawashima might be better."

A fair analysis at this point in time. But Penalosa would find Tokuyama far less willing to play into his strengths.

Following the blueprint of In-Joo Cho, Tokuyama skirted around the peripheries, occasionally darting in with flashy, eye-catching shots.

Penalosa, too by the book for his own good, languished on the outside, following Tokuyama but not chasing him.

Penalosa's shots carried more authority, and he landed the cleaner blows. Tokuyama's cleanest blows were with his head, and Penalosa suffered badly.

When the scores were tallied up, Tokuyama had done enough to earn a close unanimous decision and retain his title.

Back in Penalosa's native Philippines, the result was met with much controversy.

Al.S Mendoza, sports editor for the Inquirer, gave Tokuyama some credit, but felt his questionable tactics felt he couldn't be too highly praised for his performance,

Tokuyama fought a calculated fight, but the headbutts he inflicted negated whatever positive points he had earned in the bout."

Senator Ramon Revilla told the Philippine Daily Enquirer he wasn't disappointed with the decision, but rather with how the bout played out,

"The nation is sad at this very moment. Sad because our Gerry lost to a man who used an extra weapon to aid his fists-and that was his head."

The same publication allegedly even had one of the officials declare that Penalosa was unfortunate,

One of the three judges, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said referee (Larry, of Great Britain) O'Connell mishandled the fight.

"Easily, Tokuyama could have been assessed a minimum of a 3-point deduction."

Under WBC rules, the champion should've been. For accidental headbutts, the person who comes off worse sees their opponent lose a point. This outcome would have seen a complete reversal of the decision, with Penalosa eking out a win with two 113-112 scorecards.

Penalosa took his loss with grace,

"I did everything, but my best was not enough. I'm sorry that I failed my countrymen."

From a neutral perspective, it didn't seen like Tokuyama was intentionally roughhousing Penalosa. A tall orthodox fighter leaping in on a shorter southpaw is bound to bring about head clashes, and to me, it seemed to be a clash of styles that brought about Penalosa's hideous wounds.

With a protest lodged, Penalosa would get a second stab at Tokuyama's crown.

He'd be training with Freddie Roach full-time for the bout, which would end up as his final attempt to reclaim the WBC/lineal super flyweight crown.

Roach saw some issues with Penalosa, and saw only one way for him to win the championship. Quoted by the Manila Standard,

"If you don't double the number of punches to the body, I'll quit", warned Roach to Penalosa. "He needs to learn to evade punches by moving his head and (not just) covering up and parrying his opponents punches."

Strong words from Roach, who was then revered in the Philippines for turning round the career of one Manny Pacquiao.

After a delay, requested by the champ due to an injury, Penalosa and Tokuyama got it on again in December 2002.

Another bitterly close battle that followed the pattern of the first, bar as many headbutts, Penalosa earned the nod on one scorecard, but came away with a split decision loss.

Although some in the Philippines felt Penalosa had been robbed again, Recah Trinidad, writing for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was scathing not just in his assessment of the bout, but in Penalosa's performance,

It was like this: Penalosa, in a frantic bid to regain the world crown he had once owned, jumped in for the kill early. He did appear ready and raring to carry out a surefire game plan: go for an early kill.

But, like an untrained tenor, he would inexplicably run short of breath after hitting the right note.

He would just stand there and watch. No follow-up, no nothing.

With this analysis, Mr. Trinidad hit on the exact stylistic deficiency which haunted Penalosa during his super flyweight run.

Much like the great middleweight champion Dick Tiger, Penalosa could be circumnavigated, his lack of urgency on the front foot meaning he would ponderously follow his man and wait his next punching opportunity, rather than making it for himself.

Not a pure counter puncher per se, Penalosa was not a pressure fighter either. He could cut off the ring, but he was too cerebral for his own good, and didn't throw caution to the wind even with a stout chin to rely on.

All four fights with In-Joo Cho and Masamori Tokuyama followed the same pattern; Penalosa landing the cleaner shots, but landing them too sporadically, allowing his flashier opponents to dart in and out and do the more eye catching work.

Just like Yoda after his stalemate with Emperor Palpatine, Gerry Penalosa licked his wounds in exile.

After Super Flyweight

When he returned, nearly two years later, he ended up treading water until a late career renaissance saw him push super bantamweight champ Daniel Ponce De Leon very close despite the wide scorecards.

Dropping back down, Penalosa finally had a major world title strapped around his waist again,winning the WBO title with the aforementioned body shot knockout of Jhonny Gonzalez (who remains a relevant figure at world level today, up at featherweight), and outdoing his fellow super flyweight world champions 'Too Sharp' Johnson and Fernando Montiel, who failed to beat the power-punching Mexican.

Penalosa defended his crown once, with a stoppage win over old rival Ratanachai Sor Vorapin. Unlike at 115lbs, Penalosa never lost his bantamweight title in the ring.

So while Gerry Penalosa may have made more of a name for himself at the higher weight classes claiming larger scalps, his physical prime was at super flyweight, and where he was at his best.

Super Flyweight Legacy

With one of the sturdiest chins of any era, a slick blend of blistering offence and textbook skills, only Penalosa's struggles with tall, evasive boxers sees him have to settle for a lower place on this list.

Hardly any fighter in history has been stylistically infallible. Penalosa is no different, but has positive points in his corner to balance it out.

Never beaten convincingly at super flyweight, and beating several of his contemporaries in more impressive fashion than his fellow super flyweight titlists managed goes in his favour here.

Depending on how you view his bouts with In-Joo Cho, you may consider Penalosa's subsequent defences of the relatively meaningless WBC international title as being lineal championship defences, but quite frankly that would be revisionist history at its worst!

Still, legacy isn't just about pretty numbers.

There is no doubt in my mind at least, that any fighter in the divisions short history that would have decided to try and fight Gerry Penalosa, would have been in for a very painful night.

Nowadays, Gerry Penalosa trains up and coming Filipino boxers, as well as promoting shows in his homeland. He may add to his overall legacy yet outside of the ring.

Until then, he should be remembered as one of the greats of the super flyweight division. The eighth greatest in fact.