Philippine boxing lost a “heavyweight” last week with the passing of trainer Juanito Ablaca.
I know Ablaca personally from his days as the chief trainer of the once-fabled ALA Boxing Club of Cebu.
Once upon a time, Ablaca called the shots in the corners of such illustrious fighters in Edito “Ala” Villamor, Joma Gamboa, Andy Tabanas and the other big guns of Tony Aldeguer’s star-studded stable.
Ablaca was a fun guy to be with. He was kind and reliable.
Thrice, I joined him overseas while covering the exploits of the ALA boxers.
First time was in Las Vegas in March 1996 when Villamor was tapped to challenge the legendary Ricardo Lopez, the undisputed king of the World Boxing Council strawweight division.
It was my first time in America and upon the orders of Aldeguer, Ablaca met me at the lobby of the MGM Grand and brought me up to share the room with Villamor.
Thinking that I would take the floor as space for the next few nights, Ablaca said that the comfy bed was all mine because Villamor, a first-timer in the United States as well, felt uncomfortable sleeping on it.
Instead, Villamor continued to sleep on the carpeted floor while I dozed off on the soft-as-cotton bed with matching comforter.
Knowing that I was famished after the long journey from Manila, Ablaca brought me to the nearest fast food chain down the Strip for the much-needed sustenance.
During the fight, I stood alongside him in Villamor’s corner with Aldeguer, Japanese Joe Koizumi and Argentine cutman Miguel Diaz.
Unfortunately, Villamor was blinded by the Vegas lights and suffered a knockout.
Later on, Ablaca, Villamor and myself walked down the Strip all the way to Caesar’s Palace for some picture-taking. I am trying my darn best to find those precious photos.
Then, we all said our goodbyes.
Two years later, we were together again.
This time, Ablaca was with Gamboa, who was facing World Boxing Association light-fly king Phichit Siriwat in an exotic locale in Thailand.
The trip to Koh Samui took almost a day from Manila as I had to fly to Bangkok, head to a bus terminal for a 10-hour ride to Surat Thani and hop on a ferry for a one-hour ride to the island.
From the pier, I had to go back-riding on a motorbike looking for Gamboa’s hotel and it took me over an hour to locate them.
It was almost sundown when I saw Ablaca emerging from the foliage, smiling and relieved that I succeeded in tracking them down given that the Internet was not yet in vogue during that time.
In Koh Samui, we had a cute cottage just a few meters from the shoreline of Chaweng Beach.
With a cold bottle of Singha in hand, I spent many times chatting with Ablaca in Koh Samui.
A couple of years passed and we were in Yokohama for another Gamboa bout and each time we saw each other in Cebu, Davao, Bacolod and even in Manila, we always looked back to those days on the road.
You will be missed, Juanito.