A Pool ‘Thrilla In Manila’ Unfolds Today

Mika Immonen
A Pool ‘Thrilla In Mamila' Unfolds Today

The biggest sports event since the now famous "Thrilla in Manila" featuring the memorable heavyweight battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier some 31 years ago unfolds at the beautiful Philippine International Convention Center at noon today when 128 of the finest pool players in the world match their wizardry in the 2006 Philippine World Pool Championships.

Not since the October 1, 1975 "Thrilla" which is considered among the greatest heavyweight title fights of all-time has the attention of sports fans around the world been riveted to Manila which hosts the most prestigious 9-ball event in history.

Yen Makabenta of Raya Sports whose vision, faith and courage in the ability to get government and the private sector headed by the Department of Tourism and corporations like San Miguel to work together in developing the concept of sports tourism has been largely credited for making the event happen.

As former WPC champion and frequent Manila visitor Mika Immonen put it, "This is the ‘Mecca' of pool and its great to have the championships in the home of the greatest player of all-time" Efren "Bata" Reyes.

Anchored by Reyes who won the crown in 1999 in Cardiff, a roster of 21 Filipino cuemen including Reyes' bosom buddy Francisco "Django" Bustamante and 2004 World Pool Champion Alex "The Lion" Pagulayan will strive desperately to keep the handsome winner's trophy in Manila and pocket the top prize of $100,000.

Reyes who won the International Pool Tour "King of the Hill" title last December beating American ace Mike Sigel and followed with an 8-6 victory over former US Open champion Rodney "The Rocket" Morris in the finals of the IPT World Open 8-Ball Championship in September before completing a rousing victory in the San Miguel Asian 9-Ball Tour is a sentimental favorite to win the WPC for a second time although he is seeded No.2 behind last year's winner, 17 year old Taiwanese sensation Wu Chia Ching.

Pool fans including Makabenta whose Raya Sports has teamed up with Matchroom Sport of promotional genius Barry Hearn and the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN Star Sports to bring the WPC to Manila, recalled how he stayed up until the early morning hours to watch Reyes' path to victory which triggered an unprecedented growth in the popularity of pool with a number of pool halls sprouting up everywhere.

At a well-attended news conference at the Philippine Plaza Hotel, Makabenta noted that the country was growing, the economy was doing very well and the Philippines is developing world class athletes including a number of emerging stars in pool.

Reyes conceded that he faces a formidable task against a number of great players and indicated he was already beginning to feel the pressure of the hopes of his hometown fans. Bustamante echoed Reyes in terms of feeling the pressure but said he had prepared long and hard for the WPC and is hoping that after his near-miss in 2002 he could finally win the most coveted title in pool.

Reyes sees action against American Tony Crosby in his opening match in Group 2 while Bustamante faces qualifier Jharome Pena in Group 10 and Pagulayan takes on Gustavo Espinosa of Argentina in Group 4. The top two players in each group will move into the last 64 knockout stage which will be a race to ten under the new alternate break format of the tournament while the round robin phase will be a race to eight.

"Marvelous" Marlon Manalo who lost a heartbreaker to Thorsten Hohmann in the IPT North American Open 8-Ball finals takes on Nicolas Guimond of Canada in his first visit to the table.

Besides the big four of Philippine pool among the other locals ready to do battle to reassert the country's position as the dominant power in the world of pool are Ramil Gallego who won the Bangkok leg of the San Miguel Asian 9-Ball Tour, Kaohsiung leg winner Rodolfo Luat, 2005 Singapore Asian 9-Ball champion Gandy Valle, Joss NE Tour star Ronnie Alcano, US-based veteran Santos Sambajon and Roland Garcia and the ageless Jose "Amang" Parica.

Wu Chia Ching said he was happy to be in Manila to defend his title but admitted it would be a tough task while Immonen who has played in several Manila tournaments in years past believes he knows the Filipinos game well and this would be an advantage for him.