It's hard to believe that a fighter like Reymart Gaballo could be a secret so well-kept in a nation that loves boxing as much as the Philippines does. Yet, despite registering the sort of highlight reel knockouts which attract fan interest in the most brutal of sports, that's exactly what he is.
Unlike a talent like Donnie Nietes, who was under appreciated for years due to the subtlety of his craft, Gaballo's predicament is more a product of his lack of exposure. For one, the majority of his 19 pro fights took place in obscure venues in Southern Mindanao like Lagao Gym and Gaisano Mall in General Santos City, away from television coverage and national newspaper attention.
Even his biggest fight, a unanimous decision this past March against unbeaten former amateur standout Stephon Young in Hollywood, Florida to win the "interim" WBA bantamweight belt, had been off-TV. Only those who bought a ticket that night or watched a grainy Facebook livestream shot from the crowd got to see what was an important moment in his career.
Many will get their first look at Gaballo on September 30, when he gets the national spotlight on ESPN5 against Tanzania's Julias Kisarawe in a scheduled ten-rounder at the SM City North EDSA Skydome in Quezon City. The non-title fight will be part of a broadcast which includes the return of former WBO bantamweight titleholder Marlon Tapales, now competing as a junior featherweight, in a ten-rounder against Goodluck Mrema, and Dave Penalosa against Twalib Tuwa in a 12-rounder.
What makes Gaballo stand out is something innate. The Hammer. The Ten-Run Home Run. The Great Equalizer. It's one thing to see those "KO1" results on his boxing record, but it's another to see the effect of his right hand colliding with an opponent, or the reaction it elicits from fans.
"It's natural," trainer Osmiri "Moro" Fernandez says of Gaballo's punching power.
More than just a marketing tool, Gaballo looks at the knockout as the guarantor of results.
"No matter what decision will come out from the fight, I will make sure of my victory," said the 22-year-old Gaballo (19-0, 16 knockouts).
Asked which of his knockouts stand out the most to him, Gaballo refers to his second-round KO of Jerson Luzarito in December of 2016, when a right hand timed to beat Luzarito's to the punch left Luzarito out cold, face down on the canvas.
Gaballo, whose father is a truck driver and mother works at the Dole pineapple production plant in Polomolok, had been introduced to boxing by his grandfather, punching a sack filled with sand at his home before his uncle took over the training duties. He began working out at Sanman Gym at age 14. The following year, the loud percussion of his punches caught the attention of veteran pro fighter Rey Laspinas.
"Rey said 'Man, this guy can punch. Whoever his manager will be is really lucky," recalls Jim Claude Manangquil of Sanman Promotions, which handles Gaballo's career.
"I said 'Rey what are you talking about? I'll be his manager.'"
Learning on the job
Gaballo moved into the Sanman Gym after graduating high school at age 16, and went straight to the pros following a modest amateur career of about 30 fights. Where he'd do much of his learning is in the gym, sparring with boxers with greater experience and bigger names. He has worked with Naoya Inoue and Shinsuke Yamanaka in Japan, and with Guillermo Rigondeaux in Miami under coach Fernandez's watch, but it was back home in GenSan where he got his first exposure to world class experience.
"You know, JR is crazy," Manangquil says, prefacing the story about the time his older brother John Ray convinced the camp of Zou Shiming, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from China, that Gaballo, then a 17-year-old amateur, was a pro with several fights who could give him good work.
Shiming was working out with Freddie Roach alongside Manny Pacquiao in preparation for his third pro fight on the Pacquiao-Brandon Rios card in November of 2013. Whether Shiming ever found out the truth, Manangquil doesn't know. But he knows Gaballo was competent enough to get steady work as Zou's main sparring partner, making about P15,000 for the entire camp.
"He wasn't beating up Zou Shiming, a teenager can't beat up an Olympic champ, but he was there. He was fighting, and it just shows how competitive it was," said Manangquil.
Now Gaballo is getting some good work in the gym with Tapales, who has been inactive since April of 2017 after he lost his title on the scales for what was supposed to be his first title defense. Tapales, who is managed by Rex "Wakee" Salud, moved to the Sanman Gym a few months ago to train and had taken Gaballo under his wing.
"I think this guy will be a good boxer," said Tapales, admitting that Gaballo is faster than himself with a very good power punch.
"Very soon," Tapales said, when asked how long it'd be until Gaballo can mix it up with the biggest names at 118, most of whom are currently mired in the upcoming second season of the World Boxing Super Series.
Manangquil thinks it's most important to keep him active, while increasing the level of competition incrementally and observing his progress. Young, his last opponent, had over 100 amateur fights and had drawn with two fringe contenders in his career. Gaballo put him down once in the fourth round before cruising to the decision in his first time lasting the twelve-round distance. Young isn't a natural pressure fighter, which is what Manangquil hopes to put Gaballo in with next to test his stamina and durability.
Sparring is one thing, and fighting is another. He has yet to be hit by a major puncher, or to be cut, or to have an opponent brush off his power and force him to rely on his skills in a fight. Only then will the true extent of his potential be understood.
He isn't likely to get those answers against Kisarawe (29-6-1, 15 KOs), whose record is built primarily against nondescript opposition in his home country, losing each time he has left the comfort of home, and a couple of times when he hadn't.
Manangquil expects Kisarawe to try to survive, a tactic he has Gaballo preparing for under trainers Fernando Lumacad and Jonathan Baat, former pros who are looking after Gaballo in GenSan since Gaballo didn't fly out to Miami because of the fight location. Moro Fernandez will fly in for the fight to work the corner.
"For sure they will be entertained with my fight now, and they will get to know me," said Gaballo.
Gaballo will be more active over the next six months with the help of his U.S. promoter, the Florida-based Heavyweight Factory. If all goes according to plan on September 30, he'll be back in the ring on November 30 in Atlantic City or Miami to defend his minor title. Manangquil envisions another fight shortly after that one, and puts a conservative estimate for targeting the division's top echelon in the next year or two.
What Manangquil is less reserved about is what he anticipates from Gaballo in his ESPN debut.
"On the 30th, he's not a secret anymore," said Manangquil.