A former scavenger, Carlo Paalam steps into biggest fight of his life
As Carlo Paalam jokingly described how he turned groggy after a punch to the back of his head, boxing coach Don Abnett, his brow furrowed, stared intently at the silent television monitor behind a pack of journalists at the mixed zone of Kokugikan Arena here.
On the screen were two fighters slugging it out for the right to face Paalam in a battle for the gold.
Already, Abnett’s geek of a boxing mind was doing precise calculations, making out patterns and tendencies—looking for any hole, any advantage that he could provide for Paalam to exploit when the 23-year-old flyweight steps into the biggest fight of his life.
Paalam faces British fighter Galal Yafai for the 48- to 52-kilogram crown in the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, and Abnett wants a more detailed study of the last hurdle to the gold.
“I’ve only seen bits and pieces of [him]. I know the boy is very, very, very, very handy and he’s been around for a long time, but I will look at some tapes tonight and come up with some tactics,” Abnett said.
Studying the enemy
Abnett absorbing the action on the screen as Yafai was picking apart Saken Bibossinov of Kazakhstan in their semifinal encounter on Thursday was just the first of many steps that the boxing team will take to ensure Paalam will be in the best position to hand the country its second gold medal in this year’s Olympiad.
There are other moving parts in the background, pitching in their share, to try and give Paalam every edge they can so he climbs the ring a well-equipped fighting machine.
Reynaldo Galido, Elmer Pamisa and Ronald Chavez are the men’s coaches helping formulate the strategy and keeping Paalam in tip-top shape. On Friday morning, Galido said Paalam was ready and that his discipline helps make it easy for the team to prep him for the final.
Sports psychologist Marcus Manalo, who studied human kinetics at University of the Philippines and has a background in strength and conditioning, joined the preparations to pitch in his own ideas while helping the local coaches better understand Abnett’s thick Australian accent.
“We reviewed the opponent’s previous fights, came up with a sound fight plan,” Manalo said.
The team rehearsed the strategy twice on Friday, with both training sessions monitored closely by nutritionist Jeaneth Aro, who will concoct a precise meal plan for Paalam leading up to the fight.
Like Galido, Aro is impressed with how Paalam strictly adheres to the program plotted by the team surrounding him.
“He’s very much disciplined when it comes to following his meal plan,” Aro said on Friday.
Paalam’s food intake on Friday would only be enough to complement his training for the day. On Saturday morning, Paalam will wake up at 5:30 and eat either boiled or scrambled egg before going to the weigh-in, which could finish at 6:40 a.m.
The right weight
On the way to the weigh-in, Aro will bring carbohydrates-rich snacks like sports drinks, banana and bread so that as soon as he makes weight, Paalam can rehydrate. Then it’s off to the dining hall for a full meal of rice, chicken (for protein) and soup.
“Soup is important so his body rehydrates because the day before, his meal intake is minimized,” Aro said.
The food Paalam will eat will also keep his body fit for what Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines executive director Ed Picson said “would be a few limbering exercises” before the bout.
Manalo, on the other hand, will make sure Paalam is mentally ready for the big fight. Manalo had previously stressed the importance of “maintaining focus” despite being already assured of the silver.
“[We will] just ask him to focus on executing the fight plan,” Manalo said. “Winning will just take care of itself.”
Manalo also plans to “normalize the possible intense emotions that might arise as a result of pressure and expectations” by reminding Paalam that he “has power over those thoughts and emotions and that he can choose how he will respond.”
It’s going to be a holistic approach to preparation by his well-synchronized team, but Paalam is hoping for additional help from an even larger group of supporters.
“I’m asking my fellow Filipinos to pray for me,” he said in Filipino on Thursday. “I’m going to do my best because I don’t hold the decision [of the judges]. And the opponent is also good. I just need to trust myself and I hope God gives me [the gold medal].”
Paalam is the last fighter standing for the boxing team after Eumir Marcial was forced to settle for the bronze by a machine-like Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine during the middleweight semifinals on Thursday.
And the former scavenger making the final was a refreshing surprise for those following the boxing squad here. Except maybe for Abnett.
Asked if Paalam’s run to the final was a shocker, Abnett abruptly answered: “No.”
The Australian coach said he expected Paalam to go deep in the tournament here “because of all the hard work he put in training [and] his performances in training.”
The team has already carved the best performance by the sport in the Olympics. For 97 years, boxing has produced, at best, two silvers.
In Tokyo alone, the Philippines already has two silvers in the bag, along with a bronze. And on Saturday, Paalam has a chance to polish one of those silvers into gold.
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