Mark Magsayo is in jovial spirit. It’s easier reminiscing on his childhood now that his shoulder is draped in the green and gold of a WBC featherweight world title.
“I wasn’t born to be a boxer, but I was certainly born to be a fighter,” the 26-year-old tells Bad Left Hook from his camp in Los Angeles.
Magsayo (24-0, 16 KO) is deep in preparation for his July 9 title defence against an unbeaten Rey Vargas (35-0, 22 KO) inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, but is still able to switch off and take me back to his childhood.
“My family had nothing,” he continued. “We survived on five dollars a day from my parents working in the local bakery. At the age of eight I was forced to get a job selling ice creams on the local beaches while all of my friends were out playing and having fun.
“It was tough, but that was life. And it’s pretty typical of a Filipino family growing up in poverty.”
Magsayo would cut a lonely figure walking the dusty streets of Tagbilaran City, en route to his early morning shift on the beaches of the Bohol province. His life as an eight-year-old would consist of very little outside hard labour but one night in Nov. 2003 changed everything.
“I had no idea about boxing until my family and I visited the ALA Boxing Gym in Bohol. It was newly opened and they were showing the first fight between Manny Pacquiao and Marco Antonio Barrera. This memory is so special to me. Senator Pacquiao was incredible that night and he alone inspired me to start boxing the very next day.
“I was utterly convinced that that was what I wanted to do. I quit my job selling ice creams and went back to the boxing gym that week with a friend and my brother.”
“Magnifico” Magsayo is happy regaling stories of the genesis of his boxing career, but he is delighted to fast-forward the timeline to 2022, at a time where he finds himself as a featherweight world champion.
The Filipino out-smarted and out-fought the previously longest-reigning world champion in the sport, Gary Russell Jr, in January of this year to stretch his professional record to 24 wins without a blemish.
“This fight was no fluke,” he explains, preempting a suggestion that the scorecards that night in Atlantic City were debatable. “There were plenty of people out there that didn’t believe I could beat him, but I know how much work I put in in the gym and how prepared I was for my big opportunity.
“I don’t mind what people think to be honest, they will see in this next fight that I deserve this belt. I still believe I won that fight clearly.”
Magsayo trains out of the Wild Card Boxing Gym in Los Angeles and takes comfort in following in the footsteps of his idol Pacquiao. Trainer Freddie Roach was more than welcoming of the then 24-year-old when he walked up the stairs of the fabled gym in 2020, and has since alluded to some of the similarities between his latest charge and “Pacman” himself.
“Mark has been a pleasure to train. He is dedicated to his craft and eager to learn,” Roach told Bad Left Hook. “And best of all, he has shown improvement with every fight. I am very proud to be his trainer.
“Both Manny and Mark have great hand speed and an incredible work ethic. They also are never satisfied with giving 100 percent. They dig down deep for that extra effort in training camp, and in a fight, to give themselves an advantage. Both are fierce competitors.”
And the similarities don’t end there. Pacquiao fought to a unanimous decision win against Antonio Margarito in 2010, chopping down a tall fighter who had a six-inch advantage at a 150 lb catchweight, and Magsayo will have to overcome a similar obstacle this weekend.
“He’s like a stick man!” Magsayo describes his next opponent, Rey Vargas, holding back laughter. “He’s a very good fighter but he has proved he can get hurt a number of times. Importantly, I’m going to have to find a way to negate his massive size advantage.
“I spoke with Pacquiao about this,” he added. “He is so welcoming and good with his time. He told me the importance of footwork in this fight and being able to close the distance to get into range of Vargas, like he did against Margarito. If I can use good head movement and penetrate with my jab I should get success.
“I need to be quick and not let him dominate with his jab, but I also expect him to run for large parts of this fight which I have to be careful of.
“We’ve managed to get a couple of tall guys in as sparring partners — one from Mexico and one from Puerto Rico — and we’ve also worked a lot on my conditioning as we know how good Vargas can punch to the body.”
“It takes time for fighters to figure out how to break down their taller sparring partners, and effectively attack them, but like Manny, Mark has adapted and is getting more confident each day of sparring,” Roach added.
Magsayo speaks with a wise head on his 26-year-old shoulders. He takes pride in his relationships with Pacquiao and Roach, and is inspired to soak up as much knowledge and teachings from their legendary careers as possible.
“Freddie has helped especially with my combination punches during this camp,” the fighter continued. “That’s important when you’re going in against such a tall guy – to offload with combinations and then get out of range.”
But Magsayo is unwilling to gaze into the next chapters of his career. He’s humble enough to “train and fight like a challenger” despite sitting near the top of the featherweight food chain, and disputes any suggestion that his hunger may have waned.
“Most Filipinos are born into poverty and are expected to have to fight to survive”, he explains. “I’ve been lucky enough to have success and help my family, but not all are as fortunate. I’ve been able to buy my father his own bakery and my brother his own sari-sari store — a typical convenience store in the Philippines — and I’m not finished yet.
Magsayo is planning on putting some roots of his own down in Hollywood as he continues to work at the Wild Card.
“Maybe I’ll spend my next paycheck on myself and get us [himself and his wife, Frances] a house in LA,” he laughs.
Next Saturday, Magsayo’s boxing journey completes its full circle as he headlines from the same venue that Pacquiao where inspired the young Filipino 19 years ago.
“And the result?” I ask mischievously.
“The same,” he counters.