Going into the Tokyo Olympics, flyweight boxer Carlo Paalam rarely figured in conversations about who the country’s top medal prospects were.
After all, Paalam did not have the same pedigree as the other athletes who were tipped to make the podium in the Olympics. The medal projections were often centered around the likes of Hidilyn Diaz, the Rio Olympics silver medalist, and gymnast Carlos Yulo, gold medalist in the floor exercise of the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
Also generating some buzz were Yuka Saso and EJ Obiena. The attention the two garnered was warranted. Saso recently captured the US Women’s Open, becoming the first Filipino to win a golf major. Obiena had been routinely beating some of the best pole vaulters and had climbed to sixth in the world rankings.
Even among his fellow boxers, Paalam had to take a backseat in the medal discussions. Paalam is a Southeast Asian Games gold medalist and an Asian Games bronze medalist, but his credentials still did not hold a candle to his more illustrious teammates, Nesthy Petecio and Eumir Marcial.
Petecio won gold in the women’s featherweight division in the 2019 AIBA World Championships. Marcial was the silver medalist in the same tournament in the men’s middleweight division. Both Petecio and Marcial are ranked by AIBA among the top six in the world in their respective divisions. Paalam is ranked 12th in the world in the men’s flyweight division.
In the 2020 Asia Oceania Olympic qualifiers, Paalam lost in the quarterfinals to world no. one Amit Panghal of India. In one last box-off to determine who would get the final Olympic spot for the region, Paalam dropped a majority decision to world no. 9 Saken Bibbosinov of Kazakhstan.
Paalam would eventually earn an Olympic berth after the final qualifiers scheduled this year was cancelled due to the pandemic. AIBA decided to grant the remaining Olympic spots to those with the highest standings in their respective categories. In the men’s flyweight, a slot was given to a boxer from Cape Verde as a tripartite invitee. One of the world allocation slots was given to Rio Olympics silver medalist Yoel Finol of Venezuela. The other three went to Paalam, world no. 3 Daniel Asenov of Bulgaria, and world no. 6 Mahommed Rajab Otukile of Botswana. Paalam made it to the Olympics by the skin of his teeth.
In Tokyo, doubts about Paalam’s ability to advance deep in the Olympics did not go away when the draw came out.
Any thoughts of advancing to the medal rounds had to be tempered given that his path forward was littered with a lot of dangerous foes.
Paalam drew for his opening assignment Brendan Irvine of Ireland, a veteran of close to 80 amateur fights who was making his second Olympic appearance. Irvine was a silver medalist in the 2015 European Games and a bronze medalist in the 2017 European Championships. In the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Irvine copped a silver.
Against Paalam in the Olympics, Irvine could not get going. The proud son of Cagayan de Oro prevailed via a 4-1 decision to advance to the next round where he faced an even tougher foe, 31-year-old Mohamed Flissi of Algeria.
Flissi was making his third straight Olympic games. The Algerian was a win away from a medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics where he lost in the quarterfinals. He has won a silver and a bronze in the world championships. Paalam shut him out in their Round-of-16 bout, 5-0.
The two wins that Paalam posted were impressive, but the next fight was a totally different story. He was going to have to overcome the man the Associated Press picked as the probable gold medal winner in the Tokyo Olympics.
Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan is generally regarded as the best amateur flyweight in the world. Zoirov has over 120 amateur fights under his resume and has beaten most of the top fighters in the division. He was the 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist. He also won the gold in the 2019 World Championships.
Paalam constantly beat Zoirov to the punch in their quarterfinal encounter. By the time the referee stopped the fight in the second round due to a cut suffered by both boxers from an accidental headbutt, Paalam had done enough to convince the judges that he deserved the victory.
Even when he was already guaranteed a medal in the semifinals, Paalam still had to deal with the homecourt advantage of Ryomei Tanaka of Japan. Paalam wasted no time imposing his will on the Japanese from the opening bell. Paalam scored a lopsided 5-0 shutout over the outclassed Tanaka.
The finals still placed Paalam as the underdog against Galal Yafai of Great Britain, the fifth-ranked flyweight in the world. Despite suffering an early knockdown, Paalam willed himself back into the fight and lost only by a 1-4 split decision.
Paalam’s Olympic run saw him defy pre-tournament predictions and odds that were stacked against him in most of his fights in Tokyo. His incredible journey to a medal finish is truly one for the books. He performed better than his rankings and his resume, and he managed to peak at the right time. He delivered when it mattered most, and as an Olympic silver medalist, he now joins the ranks of the country’s greatest sports heroes.