(STAR) By The STAR Sports Staff - He was the greatest boxer of his generation. His fights were watched by record crowds in Las Vegas, by millions more on pay-per-view. He was featured on the cover of prestigious magazines, given the highest honors in the boxing world and feted by the international boxing scribes as he made history as the first boxer to have won seven titles in seven different divisions.

Manny Pacquiao, the first Filipino sports billionaire, one of the world’s most influential persons, the People’s Champ, made the country proud again with two devastating victories that provided the highlights in Philippine sports in 2009.

In between the boxing legend’s exploits in May when he crushed Ricky Hatton and in November when he clobbered Miguel Cotto came other stars and teams who provided some spark and sparkle on other fronts.

The world saw the rise of 15-year-old Wesley So, the finest Filipino chess player to emerge since Asia’s first Grandmaster Eugene Torre rose to stardom over a quarter-century ago. The Blue Eagles annexed their second UAAP crown and the San Sebastian Stags marched back to the NCAA throne.

While Pacquiao dismissed every foe in his path, a PBA player dealt sports a black eye. So did the warring leaders of the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Olympic Committee.

But through it all, stars moved quietly to the world stage. Rodel Mayol, Brian Viloria, Nonito Donaire and young Marvin Sonsona took huge steps in their boxing careers. By yearend, the best and finest in 22 sports flew to Vientiane, Laos to win 38 gold medals, to finish fifth in the regional meet.

1. Pacquiao, the greatest Filipino boxer ever

The past couple of years Manny Pacquiao has delivered the good news, provided the spark and motivation for the Filipino athlete, and in the process has raised the bar so high in the sport where he’s now considered the greatest of his time.

Two sensational wins over Hatton and Cotto made the Filipino boxer the first and only one to have won seven world titles in seven different weight classes, a great feat that would be hard to even match.

And for the 31-year-old southpaw, who as a young kid slept and sold cigarettes on the streets to make a living, it’s all part of just being a boxer. He considers himself “ordinary” when certainly he’s not. “I’m just doing my job as a fighter. I just want to make the people happy,” he would often say when showered with praises or asked to comment on his status as the best there is today.

From his first professional fight more than 15 years ago, one where he made the equivalent of $20, he’s now one of the highest paid athletes in the world, making $20 million per fight.

Pacquiao, who has beaten all the great fighters thrown at him, those with unforgettable names like Morales, Barrera, Marquez, Dela Hoya, Hatton and Cotto, has done so much for the sport.

In the Philippines, he’s the only athlete often seen on the front page of the newspapers.

Pacquiao has never lost since the first of his three meetings with Erik Morales of Mexico in 2005, and has racked up 11 straight wins. He’s a runaway train, getting faster and stronger as he gets heavier.

And he likes what he’s doing. In fact, he’s yearning for more amid calls of retirement from some of the people closest to him.

“Of course it comes to mind. But there’s a proper time for it,” said Pacquiao, and the proper time may come if his fight with American Floyd Mayweather Jr. ever pushes through.

And should he win.

“This could be my last fight,” he said a few weeks ago when the fight with the undefeated ex-pound-for-pound champion looked like a reality, until talks bogged down a few days ago at the height of the blood testing controversy.

Also this year, Pacquiao made headlines when he announced and launched a second bid for a congressional seat, this time in Sarangani, following a bitter loss in Gen. Santos City in 2007.

And again, those close to him were torn whether to support his candidacy or keep him out of the race, out of politics. But there’s no stopping Pacquiao who just won’t keep on trying.

“Madami na akong tinanim (I’ve planted the seeds),” he said, referring to his plans to help his provincemates, through jobs, education and providing of basic needs, in case he wins in the May 2010 polls.

Accolades poured in for Pacquiao this year. He landed on the cover of Time Magazine in November and coming close to the Sports Illustrated’s Athletes of the Year award.

He was always on TV, both here and abroad, guesting in the Jimmy Kimmel Show in Los Angeles, his name being mentioned on ESPN, and again doing a sci-fi movie “Wapakman” for the Manila Film Festival that runs through the holidays. American promoter Bob Arum said Pacquiao is God’s gift to Filipinos, and the sport of boxing in general.

“And you deserve it. Any country that can produce a Manny Pacquiao deserve the best in boxing,” he said.

2. Team RP finishes fifth in SEA Games

Despite the year-long quarrels that disrupted preparations, 253 athletes flew to the Laos capital of Vientiane to do battle with 10 other countries in the Southeast Asian Games held by yearend (Dec. 9-18). They came home with 38 gold medals to finish a decent fifth overall and save the day for their quarreling elders.

Miguel Molina, the most outstanding athlete of 2005 and 2007, led the medal conquest with twin golds in the 200m and 400m individual medley. Rubilen Amit shone where her more illustrious male teammates faded, sweeping the 8-Ball and 9-Ball events in women’s billiards.

Cecil Mamiit, the double gold medalist in 2005 and winner in 2007, took the singles gold and his fiery teamwork with Treat Huey in the doubles of the team event gave the Philippines its second gold. Chihiro Ikeda, who made her mark as a Davao junior golfer who strung up seven jungolf crowns on her way to Laos, won the individual event and led a young team which included Dottie Ardina and Mia Piccio to the title in team play.

Three seasoned warriors defied age and simply refused to “say die.”

Jennifer Chan came out of retirement at 44 to win the 70m compound event in archery. Tac Padilla, competitor in 16 straight SEA Games, won shooting’s only gold, the 25m rapid fire pistol event at age 45. John Baylon, also 45, took the gold a ninth straight time in as many SEA GAmes by ruling the +70 kg in judo.

Marestella Torres also underscored her prominence as Asian champion by winning the long jump event in athletics in a new SEA Games record.

Their tales of heroism overshadowed the failure of the entire 13-man cycling team to compete. Twelve cyclists were confined to the Athletes Village because they did not carry valid licenses to participate, while the 13th, Maritess Bitbit, a cinch to win the women’s gold, was asked by sports officials to join her teammates on the sidelines.

3. POC-PSC feud stymies RP sports

There remains a fervent hope that the new year would welcome an improved relationship between the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Olympic Committee

“I still dream of the day where the PSC and the POC can work together as a team for the sake of the athletes,” said PSC chairman Harry Angping.

This year, while the athletes trained and vied for honors abroad, the country’s top officials engaged themselves in a different ballgame, their own war that even reached the courts.

For different reasons, the PSC brought to court a couple of NSA (national sports associations) officials close to POC president Jose Cojuangco, and the POC filed separate charges against the PSC.

There was great disagreement on the number of athletes to send to the SEA Games in Laos and even with regards to the uniforms to be worn by the athletes. The funding, of course, remained a big issue.

The result: two sets of athletes, who left on two separate flights to Laos, 153 of them under the PSC wing, and 98 more with the POC. Fortunately, they delivered 38 golds as the country moved up from sixth to fifth overall.

The PSC and the POC were often seen in the middle of bitter NSA disputes where different factions contested the presidency. For some NSAs, the troubles caused their failures in the just-concluded SEA Games.

There was hardly an instance when the PSC and the POC, and their leaders, were on the same page, even when it came to predictions on how many medals were to be won in Laos.

Angping said there’s still hope that things would change in 2010.

“If you look at things, all the disagreements between the PSC and the POC were a matter of policy. I have nothing personal against anyone. I’m just doing my job,” said the former congressman from Manila.

Angping is still hoping that one day he could sit down with his POC counterparts so they could work together as a team as the country gears up for a bigger challenge, the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.

“We will never succeed unless we work together,” he said as he looked forward to the quadrennial event, where winning the gold is as close to winning a medal in the Olympics.

The Philippines won four golds (two in boxing and one each in billiards and wushu) during the 2006 Doha Asian Games, and this early, Angping is pinning his hopes on 50 of the country’s finest athletes to produce eight to 10 golds.

“I believe that we can surpass our 2006 performance with 50 athletes,” said Angping.

But again, for it to happen, the POC and the PSC must put their act together.

“Philippine sports will never succeed if the PSC and the POC don’t work as a team. It’s like being in a marriage – you need to work together,” said the PSC chairman.

The POC, according to its spokesman Jose Romasanta, is open to the idea.

“I think it’s about time for all of us to set aside our differences and do what is right,” he said.

“We’re just a phone call away.”

4. So young, so talented

Though he failed in his quarterfinal bid in the World Chess Cup, GM Wesley So succeeded in showing he can be at par with the world’s best players.

His victories over veterans GMs Gadir Guseinov of Azerbaijan, Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine and Gata Kamsky of the US in the World Cup only showed that the 15-year-old So is now ready to compete against the big guns in top-level tournaments in the world.

In fact, his impressive performance in 2009 propelled him to No. 75 in the world ranking as he gained 15.80 points and improved from 2640 in the last quarter to 2656 in January.

With a number of international tournaments lined up in the coming year, So hopes to break the 2700 or super-GM level and gain a crack at the super elite top 10 where he can get a chance to play the finest the chess in the world.

So is set to participate in the Corus tournament slated Jan. 13-Feb. 1 in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands, this time in a stronger Group B, where the average rating is 2630. He topped Group C last year, scoring a 13-round total of 9.5 points on seven wins, five draws and one defeat.

Against Ivanchuk in the World Cup, So gained 7.80 ranking points in a 1.5-0.5 match win while scoring 6.60 from Kamsky, a former world champion, in another 1.5-0.5 victory. He lost to Russian GM Vladimir Malakhov in the tiebreak in their Last 16 duel.

“I’m very happy with my performance this year. I just hope I could sustain it next year and I will work hard to achieve that goal,” said So.

5. Fan assault deals PBA black eye

The PBA was coming on the heels of a banner season and off to a fine start three play dates into the 2009-2010 campaign when a controversy erupted as Burger King guard Wynne Arboleda assault a fan at front row after the BK-Smart Gilas game on Oct. – at the Araneta Coliseum.

Committing the worst blunder a player could make, Arboleda drew a severe sanction of suspension for the rest of the season. The hard-nosed player from Aklan also faced a court case filed by complainant Alain Katigbac.

It was the third incident in the year involving a player and a fan. Sta. Lucia’s Marlou Aquino and San Miguel’s Danny Ildefonso also went after a heckler earlier and were likewise meted penalties.

Those were black marks in an otherwise rosy PBA year highlighted by finales reaching deciding Game Seven in both the Philippine Cup and the Fiesta Conference.

Talk n Text beat Alaska Milk for the all-Filipino championship while San Miguel Beer topped sister team Barangay Ginebra to reign supreme in the import-flavored second conference.

The league reported a record P11 million gate receipts in the Fiesta Conference finals where Beerman Jonas Villanueva emerged as MVP.

The Kings’ Jayjay Helterbrand got the season MVP award and led the Mythical Selection that included Macmac Cardona, Arwind Santos, Jay Washington and Asi Taulava.

Helterbrand, Santos and Taulava were part of the PBA-formed national team that smashed the opposition in the SEABA championship in Medan, Indonesia then placed eighth in the 25th FIBA Asia Championship in Tianjin, China.

Japeth Aguilar joined the team in the Tianjin joust and later created another controversy in the local pro league by making himself available in the rookie draft then deciding to instead enlist with Smart Gilas.

Another sad news in the pro league was the death of former league chairman Tony Chua at the height of Storm Ondoy.

6. Ateneo reigns again in UAAP

The Ateneo Eagles soared high for the second straight year in the UAAP, outclassing University of the East in sudden death to claim this year’s championship. Unlike the first time out, however, the

Blue Eaglets matched their senior counterparts’ title romp this year, beating archrivals La Salle Junior Archers to cap a banner year for the Loyola-based dribblers.

The Eagles put up a dominating performance in the deciding Game Three to turn back the feisty Warriors, 71-58, and complete a 2-1 series victory for back-to-back title romps in the country’s premier varsity league.

The Eaglets, for their part, leaned on clutch plays by RP youth standout Kiefer Ravena down the stretch to fashion out a 61-56 win over the Junior Archers for their own 2-1 triumph for a rare Ateneo double.

The Eagles then went on to top the University Games in Bacolod City a few weeks after their UAAP title conquest and then dominated the Far Eastern U Tams to claim the Philippine Collegiate Champions League crown for a three-title run in the year.

The string of victories also came in the year the Loyola-based, Jesuit-ran school celebrated its 150th founding anniversary.

Ateneo’s UAAP title run, in particular, was also a fitting sendoff for Rabeh Al-Hussaini, Noy Baclao and Jai Reyes, who all played their last season with the Eagles.

Interestingly, Al-Hussaini, the finals MVP and the 2008 season MVP, and Reyes came in on the same year PBA grand slam coach Norman Blacktook over the Ateneo reins five years ago.

7. Stags back in NCAA throne

Ranged against a three-peat champion, San Sebastian College didn’t flinch and played with a poise of a veteran championship contender, beating San Beda College in two games to sweep the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

The Stags used an airtight defense to stifle the Lions and leaned on clutch shooting by skipper Jimbo Aquino to finally unseat the Red Lions and dominate their best-of-three title duel.

It was San Sebastian’s first championship in seven years and 12th title overall captured under the guidance of rookie coach Ato Agustin.

“It was a sweet win,” said Agustin, who joined an elite rank of coaches who emerged triumphant on their rookie year in the league.

Losing coach Frankie Lim was the last to achieve the feat in 2007.

The Stags beat the Lions in a championship series for the third time since 1996. SSC, which swept the first 15 games in the elims but faltered in the end and needed to thwart Jose Rizal in the Final Four to gain a crack at the crown, outlasted San Beda in double-overtime in the opener of the title series, 72-68.

But the Stags frolicked in the Game Two, holding the Lions to just five free throws in the last quarter to post the runaway victory and the title romp.

8. Alcantara scores ace for RP tennis

Casey Alcantara actually started the year right for RP sports, teaming up with Taiwanese Hsieh Cheng-peng to beat Mikhal Biryulov and Yasutaka Uchiyama, 6-4, 6-2, and capture the doubles crown in the Australian Juniors Open in January.

The 17-year-old find from Cagayan de Oro, who reached the highest junior ranking in the world at No. 14, completed the year with seven wins, including a sweep of the boys’ singles titles in the two-leg Phinma International Junior Tennis Championships, and five in doubles, including the 17th International Junior Tournament of Offenbach/Main 09 in Germany, this time with another Taiwanese partner in Huang Ling Chi.

“It’s really a great year for me. Giving honor to our country is such a great thing,” said Alcantara, a high school graduate at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City and the only Filipino player to win a Grand Slam event.

He was also a member of the national team, which regained its spot in Group I in the Asia-Oceania Davis Cup beginning next year.

9. Amit crowned new queen of pool

They say big surprises come from small packages but diminutive Rubilen Amit’s double gold medal romp in the Laos SEA Games came as no surprise to a country, which has witnessed her exploits on the green-felt table here and abroad.

After besting the finest players in the world to claim the world 10-ball crown, Amit showed fierce form as she dominated her regional rivals in the SEAG, pocketing the gold medals in the 8-ball and 9-ball singles to complete a sweep in the women’s side.

Amit, 28, said it has been a blessed and fruitful year for her after bringing home victories for the country. Aside from the SEAG golds, she also bagged the world women’s 10-ball title last June and teamed up with pool legend Efren “Bata” Reyes to win the world mixed doubles early this month.

She also showed her big heart as she shared the P200,000she received as cash reward from the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) with her teammates.

Like the other SEAG gold medalists, she hopes to qualify, compete and win the gold medal in the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China in November with an aim of erasing the stigma of a first-round exit on her maiden appearance in Doha four years ago.

10. Filipino boxers on the rise

Rodel Mayol’s stunning knockout of Edgar Sosa last November was the icing on the cake to what was a great, bountiful year for the Filipino professional boxers.

Almost written off after a series of failed attempts for the world title, the 28-year-old Mayol is now a world champion. He is the king of the WBC light-flyweight division.

His second-round knockout of Sosa in Chiapas, Mexico capped a year that saw six Filipino being crowned champion even if by year’s end only four of them remained on top.

Aside from Mayol, who’s slated to defend his crown against Omar Niño on March 13, the other current Pinoyworld champs are Brian Viloria (IBF lightfly), Donnie Nietes (WBO minimum), and Manny Pacquiao (WBO welter).

The others who won world titles this year but had to relinquish them in one way or another were Nonito Donaire (IBF flyweight) and Marvin Sonsona (WBO super-flyweight).

Pacquiao said he’s happy to see his countrymen join him on top of the boxing world, and he hoped to see more of them trying and winning the world titles.

“I’m happy that the others are also giving pride and honor to our country. I only hope that we can all continue to work harder so we can stay as champions,” he said.

Sonsona made a lot of heads turn when he knocked out Jose Lopez for the WBO title last September, but also raised some eyebrows when he failed to make weight in his defense against Alejandro Hernandez just two monthsafter.

But he vowed to do better as he moves up in weight, and challenges Puerto Rico’s Wilfredo Vasquez for the WBO super-bantamweight crown in February. If he wins, then he’s for real.

Viloria won twice this year after nearly hitting the bottom the previous years, and more is expected from the fighter they call the “Hawaiian Punch” in 2010.

It was a different case for Donaire who had to relinquish his title for the interim WBA super-flyweight crown. He said he can’t wait to win his next world title.

Now, as 2010 comes in, everything remains to be seen.

Other top sports stories the past year included Elmer Salvador’s rise to golf stardom, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas’ ambitious quest to gain a berth in the 2012 London Olympics, University of Santo Tomas’ sweep of the twin titles in the Shakey’s V-League and the emergence of running as the latest sporting craze.

• Salvador’s Philippine Open victory heralded the emergence of another golfing talent from Davao. Though a late-bloomer, the 40-year-old shotmaker humbled the cream of the crop, including Frankie Miñoza, 2009 champion Angelo Que and the top Filipino on the Asian Tour Juvic Pagunsan, to rule the country’s premier championship at Mt. Malarayat.

• Mentored by Serbian coach Rajko Toroman, the Smart Gilas Pilipinas team finished fifth in the tough, import-laced FIBA-Asia Champions Cup in Jakarta, Indonesia last May and beat a talented PBA selection in an exhibition game. They are currently seeing action in the PBA All-Filipino Cup as guest team with a series of foreign stints lined up early next year.

• Running, meanwhile, enjoyed tremendous popularity as a competitive sport, a fitness activity or just an alternative hobby for a healthy lifestyle with fun runs held almost every week with a number of marathon events, including the annual Milo Marathon, the Quezon City International Marathon, the Pasig Run and the first night run - the Subic International Marathon. The running scene was dominated by guest Kenyan runners.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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