By TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO — The street scavenging days of Carlo Paalam are long over.
On Tuesday, Paalam looks to put that part of his past further behind when he goes for the bronze medal in the quarterfinals of the men’s flyweight 48-52kg division in the XXXII Tokyo Olympiad at the Kokugikan Arena.
For Paalam, 23, the fight will assume the nature of a gold medal bout as he takes on 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan, who defeated Daniel David Varela de Pina Cape Verde 5-0 in the Round of 16.
Paalam, from Carmen, Cagayan de Oro, a product of CdO Mayor Oscar Moreno’s Boxing in the Park and the national government’s Palarong Pambansa, Batang Pinoy and Philippine National Games programs, will have his hands full against Zoirov, 28, also the champion in the 2019 World Championship at Yekaterinburg in Russia.
Don Abnett, the national team’s Australian training director, doesn’t see Zoirov as invincible though.
“We’re confident, We watched Zoirov just outside the dressing room on our way out and we saw some holes in his style which Carlo could exploit,” said Abnett, after Paalam got past Algeria’s Mohamed Flissi in the Round of 16 Saturday.
Ricky Vargas, president of the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines, believes Paalam has what it takes to surmount the huge challenge before him.
“Carlo is a smart fighter. He knows he needs to take it a step at a time. He has a big fight coming up against the Rio gold medalist,” Vargas,
“He needs that to ensure a podium finish. I know he will give it his all. May God look kindly upon him.”
Carlo Pamisa, a silver and bronze medalist during multiple Southeast Asian Games and now part of the national men’s boxing team, said Paalam has come a long way, having taken over the boy’s training in 2010 after being dispatched by ABAP secretary-general Ed Picson to CdO, on the request of Moreno, a federation board member.
Pamisa, 46, also from Cagayan de Oro, took under his wings Paalam — who reportedly used to collect recyclable materials to be sold for his subsistence — steering the young fighter with natural guile and courage to a string of 12 gold medals in the National Games during an 11-year span.
“Noong una ko siyang nakita, tapos akong pinadala ng ABAP sa Cagayan de Oro, kako ‘anong ginagawa mo?” said Pamisa, shortly after reigning world champion Nesthy Petecio clinched a gold medal berth in the featherweight class on Saturday.
‘Sabi nya, ‘nangangalakal ng basura.’ Kako ‘dito ka na lang sa boxing. Baka dito ka aasenso.’”
Pamisa first brought Paalam, who lives with his father, a bakery worker, to the Batang Pinoy meet in Zamboanga, and Paalam didn’t disappoint, handily ruling his event.
“Talagang matapang,” said Pamisa. “First time maglaro, madiskarte na siya.”
An international tournament in Armenia in 2012, where he joined the national team as one of its coaches, briefly pulled Pamisa away from his duties in Cagayan de Oro, never guessing what awaited him upon his return.
“Wala na si Carlo sa team pag balik ko,” said Pamisa, who wouldn’t go into details as to what led to Paalam’s apparent dismissal.
“Hinanap ko siya at nakita ko sa basketbolan, nangangalakal na naman uli.”
Paalam burst into tears on seeing Pamisa, who immediately reinstated him back to the team.
“Sabi ko, ‘bumalik ka na. Ako na ang bahala. Itataya ko na ang….’” recalled Pamisa, leaving the last part unsaid.
Paalam’s return has led him to Tokyo where he now faces the biggest challenge in his boxing career, so far.
Against Zoirov at 10:15 a.m. (Manila time), Paalam gets the opportunity survivors of the streets rarely are given —the chance to take down an Olympic champion.
The golden bronze awaits.