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Jonas Sultan chasing dream of being champion, not after fame

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Jonas Sultan embraces underdog role (4:24)

Jonas Sultan is hopeful that the sacrifices he made in preparation for his bout against Jerwin Ancajas will be all worth it come fight night. (4:24)

FRESNO, Calif. -- Less than a week before the biggest fight of his career, Jonas Sultan quietly strums an acoustic guitar and recites the lyrics to "Bakit Ba?" -- a Tagalog song about a spurned lover taking comfort in a bottle of beer, playing for an audience of no one in particular. It's a hobby he picked up in 2014, learning by imitating simple chords from a YouTube video. Though he'll never be confused with George Harrison, it does the job to relax him.

If he's feeling any nerves, it's with good cause.

This Saturday (Sunday in Manila), Sultan will face Jerwin Ancajas, the IBF super flyweight champion whom many have anointed as the successor to Manny Pacquiao's position as the leading light of Philippine boxing. If the bashful Ancajas is a reluctant star, Sultan is far more resistant to the recognition.

Like the masked Don Juan he derives his "Zorro" nickname from, Sultan isn't in it for the trappings of celebrity; he'd gladly just take the belt.

"I don't want to become a star or [be] famous. I just have a dream to become a world champion and that is my goal," said Sultan (14-3, 9 knockouts).

"It doesn't matter if I'm famous or not, it's better to become world champion."

Becoming a world champion is something Sultan had dreamed of since he was a young kid growing up in Tampilisan, Zamboanga del Norte, Philippines. One of eight kids, him and his two brothers (both of whom all were put into boxing by their father, who grew corn while his mother worked as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in Saudi Arabia. Sultan had little formal boxing training, fighting in a dozen or so barangay fiesta bouts before turning professional in 2013.

His lack of amateur experience shows in his fighting style. It's not pretty, and resembles that of a guy who also learned how to box from watching YouTube videos. He often lunges in gloves before feet to get at opponents who are taken back by his awkwardness, breaking rules that result in an early bedtime for most fighters but doing it with enough speed and unpredictability to get away with it. What makes it come together is when he does something textbook correct unexpectedly, like when he drills the straight right hand down the middle.

"It's hard to read Sultan because of his style," admitted Ancajas. "Sometimes he's a brawler, sometimes he throws counter punches, I can't really read his style. But now they say he's focusing on speed because of his size, he needs to be fast."

Sultan sustained two early split decision losses at the six-round level before he joined the ALA Gym in Cebu City, and as someone who had already suffered setbacks, he'd have to earn his respect in tough fights. He began to open eyes when he defeated Rene Dacquel in Mandaluyong City for the Philippine junior bantamweight title in 2015, and then took a fight in Japan against Go Onaga (who then had a 25-2-2 record) on just a week's notice. He lost on points, but learned an important lesson about fighting in his opponent's hometown.

"I remember the team just telling him, you can't fight that way. When you're fighting abroad, you have to put everything on the table," remembers ALA president Michael Aldeguer.

He asked for another chance in Japan, and in his next fight he knocked out Tatsuya Ikemizu in two rounds. After a stay-busy win in his next fight, Sultan traveled to South Africa and knocked out Makazole Tete in two rounds, and then sent ex-flyweight champ Sonny Boy Jaro through the ropes for the count in eight rounds up in Rizal.

Virtually nobody gave Sultan much of a chance against Casimero, who had been seeking a fight with Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez, then the biggest name in the lower weights, and vowed to "finish off both Jonas Sultan and Ancajas" to get that fight.

Looking not one, but two fights ahead didn't help Casimero as he suffered an upset decision loss. And that's why Sultan is in Fresno, competing in a main event, which will be broadcasted live on ESPN+ and ESPN5, in his first fight in the United States.

What skews perception somewhat is that Sultan hasn't been seen as much as Ancajas, but he's an underdog for good reason. Ancajas is everything Sultan isn't; he's a southpaw, was an accomplished amateur, has mastered virtually every skill there is to master as a technically proficient boxer.

"Jonas likes to be the underdog," said ALA head trainer Edito Villamor. "He wants to prove something."

At Thursday's press conference, Ancajas stared a hole through Sultan, who offered back a self-assured smile. In that moment Ancajas, without saying a word, let Sultan know that none of the talk about the first all-Filipino world title fight in 93 years, or being compatriots meant a thing: Ancajas wants to keep his belt and Sultan will have to pry it from his unrelenting grip.

If Sultan was intimidated or felt disrespected by talks of Ancajas unifying with WBA junior bantamweight titleholder Kal Yafai later this year, he didn't show it.

"I don't mind because I know this fight hasn't happened yet," said Sultan. "Maybe I'll fight Yafai instead."