The young and the reckless: Mercito Gesta vs. Robert Manzanarez
In no sport do the young devour the old with more ruthlessness than boxing. It is a conspicuous and vicious cycle that is not always predictable. It seems like only a couple years ago (five actually) that Mercito Gesta, 31-2-2 (17), was bestowed the title of the “Next Manny Pacquiao” but he has fallen short in two title shots against tricky boxers instead of reaching promised championship heights. Now Gesta must beat back the challenge of Robert Manzanarez, 36-1, (29), who some are calling another Canelo Alvarez because the energetic southpaw has shown excellent power and amassed 36 victories by age 23. Questions remain about Manzanarez’s ceiling. Most pressingly today, does he have a complete enough package to withstand a still-dangerous Gesta? Tonight’s ESPN main event (8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT) will either be an American coming-out party for Manzanarez or the resurrection of Gesta’s title hopes.
The Gesta-Manzanarez match-up is a compelling feature worthy of top billing. It will reinforce Gesta’s status as a title contender or mark the arrival of Manzanarez as a force at lightweight. There is no doubt Gesta has the edge in experience against elite opposition but can he make it work against a foe with a sizeable reach advantage, and is seven years younger to boot? A large audience should tune in to find out since the fight airs on the main ESPN channel. That lends itself to a larger-than-normal audience, as casual sport fans search for events, given the dearth of NBA, NFL, NHL or college sports this time of year. A just reward for the winner, considering the dangers this fight entails.
A tightly-muscled lightweight, think of a long torso frame like Diego Corrales, Robert Manzanarez’s first step toward his dream of becoming a champion took him across the border to Mexico. The Phoenix product did not want to play games at the amateur level (though Manzanarez says he had 100 unpaid bouts), turning pro at 15 in Los Mochis, Sinaloa instead. Manzanarez won nine fights in his first year as a pro, and that prodigious workrate has not waned, notching his first 33 fights in Mexico. Despite starting early, lacking the proverbial “man muscles,” Manzanarez combines a composed style and speed to pick shots, registering 29 stoppages for a healthy 78% kayo ratio. Not bad for a kid juggling boxing, high school and all the other distractions that are part of teenage life.
Mexico was not just a vacation destination filled with palm trees and easy fights; Manzanarez suffered an unexpected loss on his Southern road trip. It is his only setback, a sixth round TKO at age 17, despite Manzanarez dropping Alejandro Barrera in the first round with a body shot. Barrera was lucky to be rescued from a follow-up barrage by the bell. Inexplicably after Barrera was dropped a second time in the following round, Manzanarez could not catch his breath in the third round. A combination of altitude and a veteran foe, who was acclimated coming from Mexico City, forced Manzanarez’s corner to throw in the towel. It saved an exhausted teen, deprived of his reflexes, to fight another day, which Manzanarez has done brilliantly, winning every fight including a third round knockout of Barrera in a hotly-sought rematch, one day short of a year later.
In retrospect, an example of outstanding corner work by Luis Gonzalez (Manzanarez also has Jose Benavidez Sr. in his corner), which has benefitted Manzanarez, allowing him to register solid victories to get to this stage. Sparring with former champion and high-minded stylist Fernando Montiel also benefited the maturing Manzanarez, who put those lessons into action, stopping former WBC junior lightweigh titleholder Gamaliel Diaz last year. The victory is Manzanarez’s best performance, dropping and stopping the veteran with a body shot in the fourth, as a victory over a former champion remains an important mile marker. Manzanarez has been boxing since age 7, and name-checked a varied list of boxers he tries to incorporate, such as fistic heros Oscar De La Hoya (his promoter now) and Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., as well as Naseem Hamed and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
If Manzanarez were able to merge all those legends, a 30-year-old Mercito Gesta would not stand a chance. However the experienced Filipino thinks the young upstart lacks prerequisite maturity to beat him. There might be something to that, as Gesta has only lost to champions Miguel Vazquez and Jorge Linares, both by unanimous decision. One will get some Hall of Fame votes, while the other was in his unconventionally and tricky prime. Gesta has convinced himself of this, “I feel like I belong there; this is the place I need to be,” in reference to his title fights. The 118-110 scorecards speak against that line of logic. Still, the rock-solid Gesta is sure to be a physical challenge to Manzanarez, as Gesta’s body work remains his best asset.
One great athlete can inspire an entire generation, as fans paying attention to the quality and depth of Filipino boxers emerging since Manny Pacquiao’s rise can attest. Gesta was one of the heavily-hyped in that talent-rich vein but has not turned unquestionable athletic grace into a world title. Possibly because he is too one dimensional, investing in power shots but unable to get in proper distance to land wayward bombs. Gesta’s footwork is average, when faced with a slick mover or intelligent counterpuncher. Unable to cut off the ring, Gesta’s power punches miss the mark, causing frustration for him and the audience.
Gesta is a willing and winging combination puncher when in range, learning from the best, as a constant in the gym, sparring Shane Mosley, Amir Khan, Antonio DeMarco and Jorge Linares. “No Mercy” Gesta needed this work since he did not have any amateur bouts (other than Muay Thai and kickboxing), which has ultimately led to his title frustration. Naturally right-handed, the southpaw throws many combinations and their speed is accentuated by the straight path they travel. Gesta described his ring approach to THE RING Magazine writer Ryan Maquiñana, “I try to observe my opponent and see the best way to beat them. I don’t like fighting just one style because the opponent will be able to study me.”
There is plenty of tape to study of Gesta, which Manzanarez’s team no doubt has, but there is plenty of Manzanarez as well. Manzanarez has built a sizable fan base south of the border, fighting on various Mexican TV outlets. Gesta seems relaxed and prepared, “Roberto is a young, tall, talented and hungry fighter with an outstanding fight record. I’ve been training hard with my dad, my team and coach Freddie Roach, and, come June 14, Robert and I will give the boxing fans a great fight.” An anxious Manzanarez has been readying for the fight for the last three months, “This fight is very important for me. All fights are important but this one is the most important one because winning this fight will earn me more opportunities. I’m working on everything in the gym. I know the style of Mercito Gesta and I know that he’s fast. But I’m working very hard to win this fight.”
There is a recognized hierarchy in boxing, and, if Gesta loses, the fun Filipino falls from headliner looking for a title shot to a dangerous but beatable gatekeeper. Fights will continue to come Gesta’s way but, as the “B” side, paychecks decrease, while the punches he takes increase. A clear victory designates Manzanarez as the new young gun on the rise, a force on his way up the rankings to ultimately win on the world title stage where Gesta failed. Survival of the fittest indeed.