SAN ANTONIO — Mark Magsayo remembers the moment he realized he wanted to become a boxer.
It was November 15, 2003, the night Manny Pacquiao began his decades-long run in the pound for pound rankings with a one-sided drubbing of Marco Antonio Barrera at The Alamodome in San Antonio, Tex.
Pacquiao’s dominance in winning The Ring’s featherweight championship is what inspired the son of bakery workers from the Philippines’ Bohol province to chase his own dream to become a professional boxer.
Nearly two decades later, it is Magsayo’s turn to headline at the former home of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. The 26-year-old Magsayo (24-0, 16 knockouts) will make his first defense of the WBC featherweight title against mandatory challenger Rey Vargas (35-0, 22 KOs) this Saturday in the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing broadcast .
For Magsayo, making the same ring walk of his hero, who now promotes him under MP Promotions, is a journey that has come full circle.
“It’s a dream come true to me to fight here. It’s very special for me to fight in that arena,” said Magsayo.
Just as Pacquiao lifted Filipino boxing to new heights that night in 2003, Magsayo is hoping to win over a respected, undefeated Mexican champion will have a similar effect on the sport in his country. Magsayo is currently the only Filipino world champion left standing after compatriots Nonito Donaire Jr. and Rene Mark Cuarto lost their belts in the past month.
Magsayo, who defeated Gary Russell Jr. by majority decision this past July to win the belt, says he feels the weight of carrying his country’s boxing reputation. Filipino fans had been spoiled by over two decades of Pacquiao’s in-ring greatness, and now they turn their eyes to the last champ standing.
“It’s a little bit sad because I’m the only Filipino world champion left, but there are a lot of fighters with potential over there in the Philippines,” said Magsayo.
“There’s a little bit of pressure for me because they’re saying ‘you’re the next superstar in the Philippines, you’re the next Manny Pacquiao’ but I don’t mind it at all. I’m focusing only on the fight.
“There’s no ‘next Manny Pacquiao.’ It’s great to hear that but the fact that it’s not true.”
The fight is a rare mandatory first defense for a fighter who himself got a title shot as a mandatory challenger. Vargas, who is four years older than Magsayo at 31, had been the WBC junior featherweight titleholder from 2017 until 2019, when he took over two years off to heal a broken leg suffered while running.
He returned last November and looked sharp in shutting out tough journeyman Leonardo Baez on the Canelo Alvarez-Caleb Plant card.
Magsayo’s Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach acknowledges that Vargas is not an easy assignment for his first defense.
“Not only is Rey an excellent fighter, he brings with him several puzzles that Mark will have to solve, not the least being his height and reach,” said Roach of the nearly 5’11” featherweight Vargas, who will tower over the 5 ‘6” Magsayo.
One improvement that the Magsayo camp is banking on is championship caliber confidence. Magsayo says that beating the longest reigning titleholder in the sport doubled his confidence overnight, and has helped him cultivate the mental edge to accompany his obvious athletic ability.
Roach says he has seen some Pacquiao-like qualities in Magsayo leading up to this fight. He says they’re both “happy warriors” who are indefatigable in the gym.
“To tell you the truth, he’s a little scary in the ring this camp. Very intense and throwing with a lot of power,” said Roach.
Magsayo knows about Vargas’ height, but he also says Vargas is entering uncharted territory as well.
“He hasn’t fought a fighter like me. He’ll be surprised when he faces me in the ring. I saw his fights from him, he runs too much. I hope he doesn’t run too much so the audience can enjoy the fight,” said Magsayo.
Becoming world champion has improved Magsayo’s life, allowing him to buy a home for his father, while setting his dad and brother up with businesses back home in Bohol province.
His new motivation is to become unified champion. He says the plan is for him to face WBA titleholder Leo Santa Cruz in late-December if he gets past Vargas.
It was one thing for Magsayo to be a hungry contender whom many underestimated. Now he’s the target of others who want to achieve their dreams, but he says he’s up to the task.
“If you’re a champion you need to improve every day. It’s like the same as before, I’m hungry to win so I have to train hard and discipline myself,” said Magsayo.
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected]