DECEMBER 25, 2006
(STAR) By Joaquin Henson - (First of a series) It was a year of good news for Philippine sports as successes overshadowed failures in restoring credibility to the Filipino athlete’s fighting spirit, self-confidence despite daunting odds and will to win.

At the forefront were stars who captured the imagination of a people long searching for heroes. They were larger than life and the source of national pride. They were the champions of the masses and the sports section’s headline-makers of 2006. They were the vanguards of the three Bs — boxing, billiards and bowling and a durable fighter in the Chinese martial arts of wushu.

Leading the pack was boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, unbeaten in three bouts this year to gain global recognition as the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter. No athlete has mesmerized a nation as Pacquiao. Whenever he took to the ring, everything was at a standstill — millions of Filipinos all over the world were glued to their TV sets or watched in pay-per-view sites to cheer the General Santos City slugger to victory.

Pacquiao began his surge to glory by stopping Erik Morales of Mexico in the 10th round of their rematch in Las Vegas last January. It was the first time the Mexican legend had ever been halted. The win avenged Pacquiao’s loss to Morales on points the year before. Pacquiao earned a guaranteed purse of $2 million.

In July, Pacquiao faced Mexican invader Oscar Larios at the Araneta Coliseum and pounded out a unanimous 12-round decision. Larios was dropped twice but held on to finish the brawl on his feet, drawing praise for his durability and courage.

The giant media network ABS-CBN paid Pacquiao a sum of $4 million to stage the card, making the country’s richest athlete in history the promoter of his own show.

In November, Pacquiao was back in Las Vegas to battle Morales in their much-ballyhooed rubber match dubbed the "Grand Finale." Nursing a fever, Pacquiao went all out to end the fight early and finished off Morales in the third round. Morales was decked thrice, twice in the fateful third, and was never a threat. This time, Pacquiao pocketed a purse of $3 million and a 50 percent share of the pay-per-view net proceeds. With gross sales of $17.5 million from pay-per-view subscriptions, Pacquiao stood to bankroll another $3 million.

Pacquiao returned home to a hero’s welcome and last Dec. 17, celebrated his 28th birthday with hundreds of well-wishers. Aside from Pacquiao’s birthday bash, the festivities included the baptism of his daughter Mary Divine Grace and the blessing of his P40 million mansion in General Santos City.

Next were the cue artists who continued to dominate the velvet in style.

In May, the toothless tiger Efren (Bata) Reyes crushed Li He Wen, 11-6, to rule the first leg of the San Miguel Asian 9-ball tour in Ho Chi Minh City. In August, he teamed with kumpare Francisco (Django) Bustamante to blast the US pair of Earl Strickland and Rodney Morris, 13-5, in the race-to-13 finals for the $60,000 top prize at the World Cup of Pool in Wales.

In September, Reyes bagged the $500,000 first prize by trouncing Morris, 8-6, in the finals on the seventh day of the grueling World 8-ball Open that drew 200 of the world’s best table sharks in Reno. In all, the 52-year-old magician won 21 of 29 matches from Round 1 up to the finals.

In October, Dennis Orcollo took his turn on the throne by defeating Niels Feijen of Holland, 8-5, in the finals of the World Pool League in Warsaw, Poland. The victory was worth $20,000 for the former fisherman from Surigao. Orcollo ousted Ralf Souquet of Germany, 8-5, in the semifinals to arrange the title showdown with Feijen.

In November, Ronato Alcano of Calamba, Laguna, followed in the footsteps of former titleholders Reyes (1999) and Alex Pagulayan (2004) by clinching the world pool championship at the Philippine International Convention Center.

Alcano, 34, claimed the first prize of $100,000 by downing Souquet, 17-11, in a pulsating finals. On the way to the championship match, Alcano — toothless like his idol Reyes — disposed of countryman Roberto Gomez, Reyes himself, Kuo Po Cheng, defending champion Wu Chia-ching and Li He Wen..

Biboy Rivera then sparked the Filipino athletes surge in the last quarter of the year with a scintillating performance highlighted by a perfect 300 in the decisive fifth game of the best-of-5 finals to win the World Masters Bowling Championship in Busan last September.

Rivera, 32, was seeded ninth and advanced to the finals by eliminating Korea’s Choi Jong In, Finland’s Petri Mannonen and Australia’s Jason Belmonte. He faced Germany’s Achin Grabowski in the title series. Rivera took the first two games but Grabowski stormed back to level the count.

In the fifth game, Rivera was unstoppable as he rolled 12 straight strikes, leaving the German biting the dust with only 216. Rivera’s perfect score was only the 13th by a male in the history of the world championships.

The Philippines capped the grand year with late surge of victories in the Doha Asian Games early this month, winning four gold medals on the efforts of two boxers, a cue artist and a wushu fighter. These feats enabled the Filipinos to come up with their best Asiad campaign since 1962 Jakarta Games.

Flyweight Violito Payla and bantamweight Joan Tipon ruled their respective divisions, Gabica captured the 9-ball singles crown in an all-Filipino finale with Jeffrey de Luna, while Rene Catalan, the world champion in the 48-kg sanshou, moved up to 52kg division and still won the gold.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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