'Celebrity' Viloria ready for business against Aguirre

After near tragedy in the ring, Brian Viloria considered walking away from the sport. But a rededication and new focus has led made him a star in the Philippines.

Originally Published: February 15, 2006
By Steve Kim | MaxBoxing.com

In late May, as Ruben Contreras fought for his life, Brian Viloria -- who had faced the rugged Mexican at Staples Center in Los Angeles in that ill-fated bout -- was considering walking away from the game. But by early September, he would stop Eric Ortiz in stunning fashion in one round to capture the WBC junior flyweight title.

In the process, he became a Filipino star. Not that it's reached the levels of "Pac Man" fever, but he is now a fighter with a following in his native country, and as Viloria (18-0, 12 KOs) faces Jose Antonio Aguirre (33-4-1, 20 KOs) this Saturday night at the Aladdin Hotel-Casino as one of the headliners of the "Real Warriors" pay-per-view card, he is becoming a Filipino icon.

At a press conference in early August at the popular Filipino eatery Max's of Manila in Glendale, Calif., he would tell the gathered media and assorted fans (who had come to be in the presence of Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales, who co-headlined that September card) that while he hailed from Hawaii and was called the "Hawaiian Punch," he was also a proud Filipino.

Things would coalesce as he would blast Ortiz with a booming right hand in front of a large throng of his people who had come to see Pacquiao perform later that evening against Hector Velasquez.

His stoppage of Ortiz widely was considered the knockout of the year for 2005.

"I felt it, I felt that shot go up my arm," he said of that punch. "But when I thought it was over for him was how he hit the ground. When his head just bounced off the floor three times, I was like, 'Oh, this is over.'"

Ruben Contreras/Brian Viloria
AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian After beating Ortiz, Viloria (right) greeted his fallen foe Contreras.

It was the perfect ending to a tumultuous time for the soft-spoken and introspective Viloria. In the audience that night was Contreras, who made it through his ordeal.

"It was very special, it was a lot more special than winning a world title," he said of that night. Before entering the ring, he would acknowledge Contreras' presence.

"To see Ruben there ringside, alive and healthy as well, it almost made me tear up even before I got into the ring. Because that was the first time since the last time that we fought I had seen him.

"So I thought it was a special night. And winning the world title just topped the cake off."

From thoughts of retirement at age 25, Viloria now has a bright future ahead of him. As the condition of Contreras wavered and media scrutiny focused on him, the sensitive Viloria wrestled with the decision to continue his career.

In what had to be the toughest few steps of his life, just a few days after his bout with Contreras, he would walk back into the Wild Card Boxing Club to begin training for an August date with Ortiz underneath the "Million Dollar Ladies" pay-per-view card featuring Lucia Rijker and Christy Martin in Las Vegas.

Just weeks before that event, the whole card would be scrapped as Rijker suffered a training injury. If Viloria didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have had any at all.

But it turned out to be the biggest break of his career. Without Rijker's injury, Viloria wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to have won his title in front of his people.

In a few months, his fortunes turned 180 degrees.

"It came close for me to give the game up," he admitted. "I didn't know how I was going to deal with it psychologically if Ruben went the other way. But thank God he didn't and thank God I went back into the ring and into the gym just a couple of days later to assess how I was feeling."

As he wore the flag of the Philippines around his body after his jaw-dropping knockout and addressed the highly partisan audience, he cemented his status among the Filipino faithful.

"Brian was fortunate to have everything go right for him on a night when the lights were shining," said his manager, Gary Gittelsohn.

"Brian came into the fight as a challenger, he beat a world champion in a first round knockout. It ended up being the knockout of the year and he did it in front of a Filipino fan base that immediately resonated acceptance when Brian draped himself in the Philippines flag and announced he was proud to be Filipino. It was just a great, great moment."

Soon, he was off to the Philippines for business, pleasure and to take care of some family issues.

"It was a whirlwind trip of exciting things," recalled Gittelsohn, who accompanied his fighter on the trip. "Brian was a celebrity and he was treated as a homecoming hero. He arrived at the airport at 3:30 in the morning and there were 14-20 camera crews waiting for Brian. He was given two motorcades and a tickertape parade."

He was also the guest of honor of President Gloria Arroyo when they dined for lunch.

"In addition to that, Brian made a huge media tour there; he was on the equivalent of 'The Today Show,' 'The Tonight Show' and 'Oprah' almost every day. It was just one of those great moments I had never experienced before," Gittelsohn said.

Gittelsohn and Viloria met with various companies to discuss endorsement opportunities. Gittelsohn said that when you see his fighter on Saturday, those deals with be evident. In other words, his trunks will look like NASCAR with the various sponsorships.

Solar Entertainment has been hired to handle the marketing of Viloria in the Philippines. And just as they did with the rematch between Pacquiao and Morales, they will be televising the bout in the Philippines. And Viloria, who was the color commentator for that bout in January, will have the favor returned to him by Pacquiao, who will fly in for his contest.

"It was amazing, they had their arms open when I went back to the Philippines to celebrate with them," Viloria said of his homecoming.

"It was awesome, it was a great feeling. I was always Filipino, it was just that nickname kind of confused everyone, and I was born in Hawaii. I'm still proud of that and just the 'Hawaiian Punch' logo and moniker; it fits, as a fighter, as that guy who knocks out guys."

This last trip was his first since 2001 to his native land, when his aunt passed away and he visited family. This recent trip was a chance for Viloria to pay his last respects to his grandfather, who passed away shortly after his title-winning performance. "It was a bittersweet ending to a great life for my grandfather," he said.

Viloria is not just riding the crest of Pacquiao's unprecedented success and popularity, but also an infusion of young, talented Filipino boxers who are leading a boxing boom in that country.

"It's just a whole resurgence of fighters coming out of the Philippines, and with Manny Pacquiao, everyone looking at [Rey] 'Boom Boom' Bautista, those guys are coming out from the Philippines," said Viloria, who works side by side with many of his country's upstarts at the Wild Card. "The fans are just ecstatic about all the talent coming out of the Philippines and they support them because they don't have huge sports idols and boxing is the next big thing.

But it hasn't quite hit Viloria that he is a major world titlist. But he realizes the challenges it brings.

"It's still something I'm working my way into. There's things that tell you, people pay attention to you more and the fights are lined up for you," he said. But he adds: "I think it's tougher to be a world champion. It's tougher to stay on top than reaching it. So I train twice as hard being a champion than trying to get up."

Although many will make the natural comparisons to Pacquiao, Bob Arum, who promotes him, has another comparison in mind.

"He's going to be like a Michael Carbajal," Arum said.

In the early '90s, Arum moved Carbajal so adroitly he was able to pay him $1 million to face Humberto Gonzalez in 1993. It was unheard of for a 108-pounder, then and now.

"I have big, big hopes for him," Arum said of Viloria. "He has superstar written all over him because he's got a great, great personality and a pleasing boxing style. I really have great hopes for Viloria."

While there are plans to bring Pacquiao to the Philippines in May, similar forays are being formulated for Viloria.

"It's definite," Gittelsohn said, "we're going to do it. Within the next two fights, Brian will definitely come back to the Philippines. No one knows how to nurture a market as well as Bob Arum, when he sees there is a market. It's one of the things I love and appreciate about him and I'm glad that Bob's with him. We are definitely going to have a homecoming in the Philippines and Brian's going to fight there."

But first things first. Viloria has to take care of business on Saturday night. After all the euphoria and hoopla of the past few months, now Viloria has to get back to business. Although Aguirre might be a faded veteran, he is one with championship experience and savvy, and Viloria comes in as a marked man.

With a loss, all the strides and inroads that Viloria made with his victory over Ortiz will be diminished. A win is expected. A loss would be devastating. This, in many respects, could be the toughest and most challenging fight he has ever participated in.

"I think so," he said, "because everyone says that all these guys are just coming out at you and I know that. Everyone is preparing for their optimum peak and they want to try and knock you off the horse. All those guys are trying to bring everything to the table."

Hawaiian Punch

Arum wouldn't mind taking Viloria to the islands of Hawaii, either, even with the difference in the time zones.

"We've always had that problem. Hawaii is two hours after Los Angeles and we deal with it," he said. "People in Hawaii are used to it. On a Saturday, a show goes on at four in the afternoon; well, people watch football there in Hawaii, so it's not a big problem. As long as it's on the weekend, it's not a big problem."