By Ryan Maquiñana
The worlds of Mercito Gesta and Jose Benavidez Jr. were just meant to collide.
Between Gesta’s signing with Benavidez’s promoter, Top Rank, and the duo migrating from their respective hometowns to spar at Hollywood’s Wild Card Gym, putting them on separate bouts on the same card in Parker, Ariz., tonight would seem inevitable.
“It’s cool to see us on the same card,” the 19-year-old Benavidez said. “We’re both coming up and we gave each other some good work this month.”
In the “Top Rank Live” main event from the BlueWater Casino, Gesta (22-0-1, 12 KOs) fights Manuel Perez (16-6-1, 4 KOs) in a lightweight headliner, while Benavidez (12-0, 11 KOs) takes on Dedrick Bell (6-9, 4 KOs) in a junior welterweight co-feature.
“We had a good camp,” the 23-year-old Gesta said. “Now I have to prove it in the ring.”
For Gesta, the road has taken him full circle. When he first arrived in America in 2007 from the Cebu province of the Philippines, it was with a group of fighters slated to sign with Top Rank.
After that venture didn’t work out, he went on a two-year odyssey that led him from Chicago to San Diego, from promoter Don Chargin and then back to Top Rank this summer.
“Everything’s going in the right direction,” manager/trainer Vince Parra said. The San Diego native took over for Carlos Peñalosa when he returned to the Philippines. “Getting this fight on American TV (Fox Sports) and Filipino TV (with ABS-CBN) is big for exposure.”
The southpaw’s first fight with Top Rank, a third-round dismantling of Jorge Pimentel, was a smashing success. The fact that it came on the undercard of WBA lightweight champ Brandon Rios’s three rounds of fireworks with Urbano Antillon helped to plant the seeds for a budding rivalry.
“He thinks he’s the best lightweight,” Gesta said back in July after Rios declared he would easily thrash him on “The Boxing Lab,” BoxingScene’s radio show. “He just has the best mouth.”
Although the two won’t be meeting in Parker, by the end of tonight, they’ll have a common opponent. Perez actually drew with Rios in 2008, and while it was three years ago, it’s a detail that will add more fuel to the fire toward a Rios-Gesta showdown in the near future.
“We’ve been calling guys out, and we’ve kind of created a little bit of attention, maybe even pressure,” Parra said. “But it’s part of the business. I’m not going to call Perez a world-beater, but he’s not a pushover. He’s only lost to top guys and gave Rios a draw a while back. This fight is just a part of Mercito’s evolution as a fighter.”
Gesta’s popularity is slowly ascending; two weeks ago, the San Diego Padres tabbed him to throw out the first pitch at their Filipino Heritage Night. Still, Parra isn’t worried at all about it going to his charge’s head.
“People are talking now, saying he’s a hype job,” Parra said. “But from a business standpoint, he’s a realist. He realizes he’s still growing and that he’s got a lot of work to do.”
Jose Benavidez Jr. shares his first parallel with Gesta in that his story as a pro is winding up where it began.
When he first traveled with his father and trainer Jose Sr. from their hometown Phoenix to Hollywood in December 2009, the then 17-year-old caught Freddie Roach’s discriminating eye. Soon enough, he remarkably went straight to the sparring and held his own against Manny Pacquiao and Amir Khan.
Another hallmark he shares with Gesta is his choice of promoter. The subject of a bidding war between Golden Boy and Top Rank before he even turned pro, the former National Golden Gloves winner chose the latter.
Despite staking out to an early 6-0 record with nary a fight going the distance, father and son moved back to Phoenix in the fall of 2010.
“At the time, it was tough to get a lot of time with Freddie because he’s so busy,” Benavidez Sr. recalled. “I just thought it would be best to bring Junior home and develop until we felt the time was right to go back to the California.”
On the surface, “Junior” didn’t skip a beat, winning his next six bouts. But with any teenage fighter, the developmental stage is crucial, and his father realized what his son was missing during his time back home.
“We needed that quality sparring that we couldn’t get all the time back in Phoenix,” Benavidez Sr. said. “We talked things over with Freddie, [Top Rank matchmaker] Bruce [Trampler], and Steve Feder, who’s now co-manager with me, and we felt he would get that sparring back at Wild Card.”
PUTTING IN WORK
According to the kid’s count, four opponents have pulled out, with Bell finally emerging to assume the challenge. At this point, it surely doesn’t matter to him anymore, as the sparring he’s received at Wild Card has prepared for him for several styles.
“It feels good to be back at Wild Card,” Benavidez Jr. said. “I’ve been working with Sugar Shane Mosley who’s so fast, a counter-puncher like Paulie Malignaggi, and I’ve really been getting good work with a lefty like Mercito.”
While both guys have sparred the world champions mentioned above, the sessions between Benavidez and Gesta have created the most buzz these past few weeks.
Any time you have two young lions hungry to impress, you’re bound to have something to talk about when they meet in the ring, and this was no exception.
“Mercito learns fast, and he adapts to what the other guy is doing really fast,” Parra said. “Jose’s a great kid and the two helped each other out big time.”
“It was really good work,” Benavidez Jr. added. “He’s a lefty and he’s really fast, even on the inside.
“For this camp, I’ve been working on using my jab, and using my reach to keep my distance so I don’t end up standing straight up on the ropes. Sparring [Gesta] definitely helped with that.”
Of course, sparring is sparring. No one’s going to hand you a belt for reigning supreme in a gym war. What these two fighters do in the ring to their respective opponents tonight is what will ultimately count in the public’s evaluation.
In this instance, Gesta will be making his debut as a Top Rank Live televised headliner, and Benavidez is staring at his first co-feature on the program. While a bit of the attention to this card has tapered off due to tonight's Mayweather-Ortiz pay-per-view show, both rising stars understand they still need to excel to prove that their progress wasn’t all hype.
"It doesn't really feel any different being the co-feature on TV," Benavidez Jr. said. "I'm just going to do my best and hopefully, my hard work will pay off in there."
“I guess you can look at it as pressure, but we know what Mercito can do,” Parra said of Gesta. “He realizes what he’s capable of doing, and we’re confident. He uses the pressure as motivation.”
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. He’s a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and The Ring’s Ratings Advisory Panel. E-mail him at [email protected], check out his blog at www.maqdown.com or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.