By Ryan Maquiñana
Mercito Gesta walked to the elevator at the Sheraton in San Francisco’s Fisherman Wharf last year when one of his Filipino countrymen tapped him on the shoulder, holding up a poster and asking him for an autograph.
As the fighter obliged him, his admirer had but one more request. “How do you pronounce your last name? Guess-tah, right?” the fan asked.
“Not GUESS-tah, but HES-tah,” Gesta (26-0-1, 14 KOs) politely answered with a smile.
Such is the relative anonymity the lightweight contender will attempt to escape Saturday when he challenges Miguel Vazquez (32-3, 13 KOs) in his first world title shot at the Las Vegas MGM Grand.
By this weekend’s conclusion, it’s the safe to say the Mandaue City product will be a known entity back home one way or the other. You see, everything in the Philippines stops when a fight card has national hero Manny Pacquiao as the headliner.
With millions of eyes affixed to their television screens in the Asian archipelago, a lead-in bout featuring a fellow Filipino will certainly keep viewers from taking a collective bathroom break. No pressure, really.
“I’m not nervous. Just excited,” Gesta told BoxingScene.com. “There’s a little pressure because people will see me fighting in there and it’s basically the first time they’re going to see me.
“I know people expect a lot and I have an undefeated record. In the end, I’m trying to put in my head to do my best and not think about that. Whatever happens, happens. But I’m prepared and ready for this fight.“
His trainer and manager, Vince Parra, is in accord.
“We’re close, but we’re not there yet,” Parra said of their championship chase. “It feels good to be here, but I feel the same. We haven’t changed anything. It’s a big show, but this is the type of environment he thrives in. He lives for the crowd. I‘m confident of how good shape he’s in and I don’t see him losing his fight.”
A southpaw with above-average handspeed and a vicious right uppercut, Gesta has come a long way from his auspicious beginnings in Muay Thai under the tutelage of his father, Anecito.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen in life, but I think that my dad’s background in fighting was obviously a big reason why I’ve been doing Muay Thai and then boxing since I was a kid,” Gesta said. “He taught me how to respect the sport.”
After turning to the sweet science, Gesta showed enough promise to be part of a handpicked group of prospects that were sent to the United States by Top Rank. Ironically, a 19-year-old Gesta was offered a spot on the undercard of Pacquiao’s third fight with Erik Morales in 2006.
But when the card had reached its bout limit, Gesta found himself unsigned and a bit homesick. Worse, questions lingered about his maturity and commitment to the sport. Luckily, longtime trainer Carlos Peñalosa, brother of former world champion Gerry Peñalosa, would be there for him as the pair soon set up shop in San Diego.
“People are going to always have their opinions, but I love boxing,” Gesta said. “I try to show that in all my fights with how hard I try in the ring. This is my job. I love it now.”
When Peñalosa was drawn back to the Philippines due to family matters, he passed chief cornerman duties to Parra, who also manages him today.
“At first, Mercito didn’t want me to be his trainer because he and Carl were very tight,” remembered Parra. “I was American, and there were other issues, so it took time to get him to trust me.
“On my end, I had my questions, too, about him. But he’s surely answered all of them, and look at him now.”
Since June of 2010, they have gone 9-0 together, with Top Rank so impressed with his progress that a solid promotional contract finally made its way to Gesta’s pen after overtures from Golden Boy and Don Chargin, his previous promoter.
However, his recent string of performances has raised new questions about his readiness for a title shot. Although he has won all four of his bouts under the Top Rank banner, he has yet to put together a complete fight.
“Everyone’s always accused us of not fighting anybody, and often times, that hasn’t been up to us,” Parra said. “So far with Top Rank, we haven’t fought the big names to get here, but we beat who we had to and we’re here.
Against Manuel Perez in September of last year, Gesta was forced to battle through cuts and a game opponent who was able to find more holes through the Filipino’s defense than was expected. The Filipino dropped the taller Ricardo Dominguez two months later, and was solid but not spectacular in cruising to the decision.
The trend continued in April against Oscar Cuero, whom he stopped in the eighth, but in a development that was not his fault, was on the receiving end of a garden variety of fouls from a foe just trying to survive.
Four months ago, Gesta had issues making weight and was forced to conserve energy until the ninth round, when he unloaded on Ty Barnett, crushing him with several left hands to close the show.
So while Gesta hasn’t been perfect lately, perhaps Saturday is the perfect time to apply what he has learned from his past outings.
“The [methods] I’ve trained with in the gym are the same, but I’ve worked the hardest I ever have,” Gesta said. “For my weight, we needed to make sure our diet was different. In the past I would cut [weight] a week before the fight, but this time we did it a lot slower, like a couple more weeks out. That way I would still have energy and strength for the fight, and I feel good.”
As both Gesta (134 pounds) and Vazquez (135 pounds) beat the scale
“Vazquez is the guy who no one wanted to fight the last two years. He’s going to be doing what a lot of guys haven’t done and that’s beat Miguel Vazquez.”
Vazquez is just as tall as Dominguez (5’10’’), but adds a different dimension to the ring. “El Titere” (“The Puppet”) once earned a draw with current 154-pound titleholder Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and it wasn’t solely based on his durability.
The Guadalajara, Mexico, native is a mover, and in a split decision win over Marvin Quintero in October, his wheels were on full display. Gesta feels he can exploit that trait to his advantage.
“He’s tall. He’s kind of awkward,” Gesta said. “It’s kind of hard to make this guy fight, but we studied this guy and looked at his style. I’m ready for this.
People are saying that I’m not ready, but I’ve been fighting taller fighters for a long time.
“We’re not going to follow him so he can keep running. He’s shown he can run for 12 rounds. Body shots will have to happen. We need timing. He’s open when he throws punches, and we have to take advantage of that.”
He’s going to have to prove it on Saturday. With Anecito and several members of the Gesta clan in attendance, as well as the media blitz that followed him at the weigh-in (with media having no pronunciation issues surrounding his surname), the kid from Mandaue City reflected on how far he’s come—and how much further he can go.
“This is the first time my parents, my brother, and my family were able to come watch me fight,” Gesta said. “It’s just been perfect timing. Maybe it happened for a reason. I’m so thankful and blessed. This is not just my dream to be a world champion. It’s all our dream.”
Ryan Maquiñana was the boxing producer for NBCOlympics.com during London 2012 and writes a weekly column for CSNBayArea.com. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Ratings Panel for Ring Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org , check out his blog at Norcalboxing.net, or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.