CEBU CITY — Seven months ago, Joel Zaspa was just a 25-year-old maritime student of the University of Cebu-METC campus, trying out Muay Thai in the Cebu City Sports Commission’s Bakbakan sa Sugbu, a monthly sports program.
In October, he made the national team, competing in the 75-kilo division and a few weeks later, he won the bronze medal in the 4th Asian Beach Games Muay Thai event.
Now, the 25-year-old college sophomore could be bound for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
“I saw his potential of becoming a great Muay Thai fighter. The Philippine team usually don’t field players in the heavy categories, but after his success, we are considering adding players in the same weight as Zaspa, said national Muay Thai team coach Edzel Ngina during the press conference at the CCSC office.
And Ngina knows how to spot potential athletes as he has been with the national team since 1999.
He also said Zaspa’s bronze medal achievement in the Asian Beach Games in Thailand was the first time the Philippines won a medal in the heavy category.
Zaspa stopped India’s Kami Dwangan in 2:16 minutes of the second round in the quarterfinals to advance to the semifinals against Karami Hossein. Kazakhstan’s Vadim Loparev won the gold after beating Hossein, 3-2.
And Zaspa did it in less than a month’s training.
“He only trained for less than one month because we picked him up late for the national team. We only got to discover him through the Bakbakan sa Sugbu. But even with that, we saw his bravery and determination to win, that’s why I was really impressed,” said Ngina.
Philip Delarmino also earned a silver medal in bantamweight after losing to Parin Luangpon in the 54-kilo division,, while Alvin Berto got a bronze medal in the 60-kilo division and Manuel de los Reyes got a bronze in the 51-kilo division.
The other Filipino entry in Muay Thai, Jonathan Polosan, beat India’s Harish in the round-of-16, but lost to Uzbekistan’s Bobirjon Tagaev, 5-0.
With a bronze medal to show in just three weeks of preparation, the national team is eager to field Zaspa in more tournaments next year so he can gain more experience.
The national team will send him to the Asian Championships in Kazahkstan’s, the world championships in Poland and the prestigious King’s Cup in Thailand, Muay Thai’s home.
“Next year, I would have more time to train and I will really prepare for the next competitions,” said Zaspa.
All those competitions are in preparation for the biggest sports event, the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where Muay Thai will be included as a demonstration sport for the first time.
“We have two slots for the Olympics and I highly recommend Zaspa to be one of our Muay Thai representatives,” said Ngina.
Ngina said the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur, the world governing body of amateur Muay Thai, has given them two slots for the 2016 Olympics.
CCSC chairman Edward Hayco, who has batted for the development of grassroots sports in Cebu, said Zaspa’s success validated the thrust of the commission to focus on grassroots.
The Bakbakan sa Sugbu, which features boxing, mixed martial arts, arnis, karatedo and muay thai, is part of CCSC’s grassroots program and is held at the Cebu Sports Institute (CCSI) monthly.
“We have dedicated the CCSI to focus on hardcore sports like MMA, boxing, muay thai and even though it raised some eyebrows, it has already produced champion athletes like Zaspa. I am very proud of him,” Hayco said during the press conference.
Hayco also said that their main mission is not only to produce champion athletes but to get kids, especially from the barangays, into sports.
“Our main mission is to get those children who are wandering the streets of the barangays surrounding the sports institute to get into these sports. They can learn discipline and we can mold them to become successful sportsmen. Maybe Zaspa can also teach them and inspire the children practicing in the sports institute,” said Hayco.