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Paalam sees off Japanese foe, triumphing; final man standing for PH boxing staff

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Japan's Ryomei Tanaka (red) and Philippines' Carlo Paalam fight during their men's fly (48-52kg) semi-final boxing match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo on August 5, 2021.

Japan’s Ryomei Tanaka (red) and Philippines’ Carlo Paalam fight during their men’s fly (48-52kg) semi-final boxing match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo on August 5, 2021. (Photo by Luis ROBAYO / AFP)

TOKYO—In, out. In, steal a punch, out. In, snap his head’s foe, out. In, out. Until Carlo Paalam was irreversibly in the final, the last of the gallant Philippine boxers still alive in the hunt for a gold.

The fleet-fisted flyweight outfoxed Japanese foe Ryomei Tanaka in their boxing semifinal on Thursday in the Tokyo Olympics, barging into the gold medal round at Kokugikan Arena here.

“Coach Don [Abnett] told me to just steal a punch every time and use my speed and smarts,” the 23-year-old Paalam told journalists in Filipino after the match. “That’s my game, using my smarts and moving a lot. Brains and faith in myself.”

Brains plus faith plus a lot of hand and foot speed. Paalam used those as currency to book a spot in the gold medal bout on Saturday, where he will face Great Britain’s Galal Yafai, who advanced by beating Saken Bibossinov of Kazakhstan in their half of the semifinal bracket via a split decision later in the day.

“I’ll do my best [in the final],” he said.

Toying with foe

The dominant Paalam toyed with Tanaka all match long, delivering telling blows that rocked the Japanese and then whisking away from trouble, leaving the hometown bet swinging wildly at air for two rounds.

The only time Paalam was in trouble in that span was when one of those wild punches struck him at the back of his head hard enough that he had to clinch his opponent’s legs to steady himself.

“The ring, I know, was straight. But after the hit, it looked…” Paalam said, gesturing a steep incline and then laughing.

But that, and a desperate rally in the third round where the only bright spots for Tanaka, who was thoroughly dominated, even if he didn’t see it that way.

“I played the best match ever so I don’t regret anything,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “I don’t feel I lost because the opponent was very good; I just lost to myself.”

It didn’t look that way at all.

Paalam seemed to be pulling the strings of the fight all afternoon, something made possible by a game plan that the Cagayan de Oro-born boxer executed to perfection.

“Carlo’s opponent was strong,” said coach Don Abnett. “The tactic was not to counterpunch him. If you counterpunch him, that would give him the opportunity to walk forward and show his strength. Carlo met him at the front and tried to anticipate what punch he was gonna throw and then beat him to the punch—rather than counterattack—and then move using one or two punches.”

Japanese down big

Tanaka came alive in the third round, but with him down, 20-18, in all five judges’ scorecards, he needed a big ending to the match. That made him pretty obvious—he was hunting the Filipino’s head—and made it easier for Paalam to defend against his combinations. Bobbing and weaving and ducking under huge hooks, Paalam crossed to the finish safely, leaving no doubt who the winner was.

Guaranteed the silver, Paalam said he won’t take anything for granted and will continue preparing hard for the fight that could give the country its second gold in the Summer Games, after going 97 years of Olympic participation without ever winning a single one.

“All of us here [in the Olympics] train the same,” Paalam said. “We have the same preparation and the only difference is heart and faith in God. That’s what I believe in.”

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