For fight fans the world over, mere mention of the city of Manila in the Philippines will always conjure up memories of the legendary third and final clash between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. That epic war of heavyweight titans fully deserves its status as one of the greatest slugfests in boxing history, but it is not the only thrilling championship clash which the capital city has hosted.
Back in 1982 Filipino fight fans witnessed another blistering brawl when super featherweight champion Rolando Navarrete defended his title against Korean challenger Chung-Il Choi. It’s a truly great fight which has never received its just due. A crowd of some thirty thousand turned out to see their countryman take on a relatively inexperienced challenger, but one who had twelve knockouts in thirteen fights, eight of them over Filipino boxers, and who also enjoyed significant advantages in both height and reach.
The match was a slugfest from the opening bell. This was Choi’s big chance and he knew it and so he started fast, pursuing the champion from the outset and throwing sharp jabs followed by heavy right-left combinations. His aggression won him the first round, but Navarrete rebounded in the second, the southpaw’s shorter, more accurate punches drawing crimson from Choi’s nose. Even so, the challenger continued to be the aggressor as he aimed his power shots at Navarrete’s head, while the Filipino concentrated his attack on the Korean’s belly. It was fast-paced and furious action all the way, the crowd applauding the excitement, but the best was yet to come.
Rounds three and four were very close, the challenger perhaps edging them by virtue of sheer punch output, not to mention his physical advantages. Navarrete had to take serious risks to move inside Choi’s reach and land heavy left hands to the body and he was paying a price every time he attacked. And then Choi almost ended it in round five.
Both men were landing their share of thudding shots when Choi staggered the champion with a right hand. Undeterred, Navarrete kept coming forward and throwing big left hands, in the process leaving himself wide open. Choi kept throwing and landing and a series of sharp blows finally put the champion on the canvas. The brave Filipino was seriously hurt but he instantly scrambled to his feet. Luckily for him, the bell rang before Choi could resume his attack.
The sixth round saw the challenger in complete control. He kept a lethargic and stunned-looking Navarrete on the end of his punches and tagged him repeatedly with jabs and right hands. However, perhaps wary of being caught by a heavy counter shot from the champion, he did not attack with the abandon of the previous rounds and likely let his chance of a stoppage victory slip away. Before the end of the round the snap had returned to Navarrete’s punches and just before the bell he staggered Choi with a right hook.
The champion surged in round seven as he blocked more of Choi’s punches before countering with his own firepower. He was timing the challenger now, finding openings for his straight left and starting to put his punches together. The eighth was the turning point, a thrilling and action-packed round. For almost the full three minutes the two warriors stood toe-to-toe, giving and taking serious punishment. Both had their moments here, both connecting with dozens of power shots, but this marked the beginning of the end for the challenger.
Navarrete continued to gain the upper hand in round nine. Choi was tiring now, slowing down, and Navarrete was beating him to the punch with sharp jabs to set up his powerful left. Near the end of the round he forced the challenger to the ropes and dug to the body with both hands. Still, Choi came out fast to start the tenth, letting his hands go. The two fighters exchanged toe-to-toe before a short right from the champion caught Choi flush and decked him. The challenger was badly hurt and now it was his turn to barely beat the count and then be saved by the bell.
The slugfest continued in round eleven and, amazingly, it was Choi again outpunching the champion, but it proved his last hurrah. Navarrete waited for the right moment before he struck again with the right hook and toppled the brave Korean. This time the challenger could not beat the count. The moment the referee signaled the end of the titanic struggle the winner and still champion collapsed as the crowd stood and roared. It was a fitting end to an amazingly grueling fight: two warriors, victor and vanquished, side-by-side on the canvas after having given and taken so much.
It was an unforgettable battle and neither man was ever the same. Both would suffer defeat not long after (ironically, to the same boxer, Rafael Limon) and neither would ever again win a world title fight.
Choi walked away from boxing shortly after, but Navarrete fought on, the Filipino champion finally quitting for good in 1991 and soon enough his life fell apart. Drugs, domestic violence, divorce, jail, illness, poverty — the life of “The Bad Boy from Dadiangas” has been utter chaos since the end of his ring career. But despite the disgrace and the squalor, no one can ever take from Navarrete what he achieved, the heights he reached and the memories of the great battles he fought. His victory over Chung-Il Choi was one of the greatest. — Robert Portis