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Jerwin Ancajas poised to make 'lasting impression' against Israel Gonzalez

Jerwin Ancajas will defend his IBF junior bantamweight title against Israel Gonzalez on Saturday night. EPA/Dave Hunt

When the topic of the best boxers in the history of the Philippines comes up, there is Manny Pacquiao and everybody else is a distant second.

Pacquiao ascended from abject poverty to worldwide fame and fortune as he rose through the weight classes to win world titles in electrifying fashion, and in a record eight weight divisions. But Pacquiao, who lost his welterweight world title to Jeff Horn in July, albeit by very controversial decision, is in the twilight of his career.

So who has a chance to carry the mantle of Filipino boxing for the next few years? It very well could be junior bantamweight world titleholder Jerwin Ancajas.

Now, there won't be another Pacquiao; he's one of the greatest fighters in history. But Ancajas and Pacquiao do have a few similarities.

They're both southpaws who fire punches at unusual angles and have good power. They are both crowd-pleasers. They began their careers at about the same weight, Pacquiao at 106 pounds and Ancajas at 109. And they both had already won a world title by the time they came to the United States looking for bigger fights.

Seventeen years after Pacquiao arrived in the United States and won a junior featherweight world title in thrilling fashion on an Oscar De La Hoya undercard in Las Vegas in 2001, Ancajas has arrived on these shores looking to defend his junior bantamweight world title and also to make a statement to American boxing fans.

Ancajas will defend his 115-pound crown for the fourth time when he faces Israel Gonzalez on Saturday night in the co-feature of the Top Rank on ESPN card at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.

"Right now, Jerwin is light-years away from Manny Pacquiao. He's not that recognized and the focus [in the Philippines] is still on Manny, but Jerwin is on the way up," said longtime Manila Times boxing reporter Nick Giongco, who has covered most of Pacquiao's career and is in the United States to cover Ancajas-Gonzalez. "Jerwin has been seen on TV [in the Philippines], but he's still new, still a work in progress. Whether he becomes the next Manny Pacquiao, we'll see. But he has the swagger and the same style. He can be the next guy to carry boxing in the Philippines."

Like probably every boxer in the Philippines, Ancajas, a pro since 2009, looks up to Pacquiao and he fights in a similar style, perhaps from watching so many Pacquiao videos.

"It's not intentional that I fight like Sir Manny," Ancajas told ESPN through a translator. "It's the way I fight. But I watched a lot of Manny's videos, so maybe that's why. Like any other Filipino fighter, I idolize Manny Pacquiao."

So when Ancajas (28-1-1, 19 KOs), who turned 26 on New Year's Day, became the first fighter promoted by Pacquiao's MP Promotions to win a world title -- when he knocked Puerto Rico's McJoe Arroyo down and won a unanimous decision in September 2016 -- it meant a lot to him.

"It's a big deal because I was the first world champion to be promoted under MP Promotions," said Ancajas, who had a reported record of 90-5 as an amateur.

And it was another thrill for Ancajas to make his second title defense, a one-sided, seventh-round knockout of mandatory challenger Teiru Kinoshita, on the Pacquiao-Horn undercard on ESPN in Brisbane, Australia.

"It was a big deal to be on Manny's undercard," Ancajas said. "A lot of people were watching Manny's fight, so a lot of people were watching my fight. It was good experience for me and good exposure for me."

That fight, and his next one, led Ancajas to a promotional agreement with Top Rank, Pacquiao's longtime promoter, for a minimum of three fights. Ancajas' fight with Gonzalez (21-1, 8 KOs), a 21-year-old from Mexico, will be the first of the new deal, under which Top Rank will co-promote him with MP Promotions.

"I was in Brisbane when this kid was on Pacquiao card," Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said. "I had never seen the kid before, but I had heard about him from [Pacquiao adviser] Michael Koncz and [Ancajas adviser and longtime Arum associate] Sean [Gibbons]. But then I saw him and I said, 'This guy is exciting, the way he punches!'"

Arum kept tabs on him and then Ancajas traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in November for a title defense and looked sensational in a sixth-round knockout of Jamie Conlan, the older brother of featherweight Michael Conlan, a two-time Olympian and one of Top Rank's best prospects. It was that performance and the aftermath that convinced Arum that he needed to sign Ancajas and unleash him on the American boxing public.

When Top Rank was negotiating a contract to bring its fights exclusively to ESPN -- a long-term deal that kicked off with the Pacquiao-Horn card -- Arum got to know former ESPN president John Skipper a bit. They hit it off and Arum said it was Skipper who gave him the final push to pursue a deal with Ancajas.

"An Irish friend of John Skipper's called John after he watched the fight with Conlan and said he had seen this Filipino kid who was spectacular, and he said, 'How come Top Rank doesn't sign him?' Skipper reached out to [Top Rank president and Arum stepson] Todd [duBoef] and then Todd talked to me," Arum said. "I really liked the kid and so then I got ahold of Koncz and Sean and we signed him.

"They know me very well. Why would they want anybody else promoting this kid than Top Rank, knowing what we have been able to do with top Filipino fighters, Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire?"

For Ancajas, coming to America to defend his title as part of a new contract that will see him fighting in the U.S. and on ESPN regularly is life-changing.

"I like it here and it's a dream to come here to fight before the American audience," said Ancajas, who began boxing at age 9 when older brother Jesar Ancajas (15-17-2, 7 KOs), a journeyman pro who retired in 2015, took him to the gym. "I am very happy for the opportunity. I want to make a lasting impression. I want American fight fans to see more of me by coming up with a performance that's an improvement from my last few fights."

Ancajas fights in a deep weight class that has gotten a lot of recent television exposure in the United States. The division boasts fighters such as former pound-for-pound king Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, Juan Francisco Estrada and Carlos Cuadras. Ancajas aims to someday fight them.

"I consider myself a notch below them because they're popular and well known," said Ancajas, who has two children with his partner, Ruth Balaoing. "I would like to fight them someday so I know where I am and how good I can be. I have plans for going up in weight eventually like Manny Pacquiao did, but I feel strong at 115, so only time will tell."

As part of his trip to the United States, Ancajas also realized another dream: He trained at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, California. The gym, of course, is owned by Hall of Famer Freddie Roach, Pacquiao's longtime trainer who is very famous in the Philippines. Ancajas is trained and managed by Joven Jimenez, but Roach was happy to allow Ancajas to use his gym to prepare for the fight with Gonzalez, who has won eight fights in a row but will be taking a big step up in the level of his opposition.

"I am here! My dream just came true. At last, I am at the Wild Card Boxing Club," said Ancajas, who was thrilled to be where Pacquiao trained for so many big fights and to walk around the gym and look at the Pacquiao memorabilia that adorns the walls.

If all goes well for Ancajas on Saturday and beyond, perhaps someday his memorabilia will find a home on a gym wall where other fighters with big hopes and dreams will see it and find inspiration. Arum, of course, has high hopes for Ancajas.

"As he matures and settles down, he could be a fighter of the style of Manny Pacquiao," Arum said. "Not to say he will be as great as Manny Pacquiao. That's a lot to ask of anybody and it's not fair to ask. But he has that same crowd-pleasing style. I think he can go a long way."