OAKLAND, Calif. -- Jerwin Ancajas came into Oakland with a mission: To get the boxing world buzzing for unification fights with an electric performance against a hand-picked opponent. What virtually no one expected -- least of all himself -- is that he'd leave Oracle Arena with anything less than a win.
And still, but barely.
After the bell rang for the twelfth round, Alejandro Santiago of Tijuana, Mexico leapt to a neutral corner and raised his arms towards the crowd that had quickly warmed to the underdog in the junior bantamweight title fight.
Ancajas showed little enthusiasm as he bowed to each side of the ring. What the three judges turned in were scores that reflected three very different perspectives of the bout: 116-112 for Ancajas, 118-111 for Santiago, and 114-114 even. A split draw.
Even as he sat in his dressing room afterwards applying an ice pack to his swollen face, Ancajas says he didn't feel the power of his opponent. What he wasn't ready for was an opponent more mobile than what he had seen in videos.
"I was surprised by his change of style because we were studying and reviewing his past fight videos," said Ancajas through an interpreter (30-1-2, 20 knockouts). "He really played different from how he fought before."
I had a hard time getting the right timing to get the knockout because I really have a hard time fighting against shorter opponents."
Ancajas came out with a more aggressive approach, eager to score the knockout that eluded him in his last fight. His eagerness opened up opportunities for Santiago (16-2-5, 7 KOs), a challenger whose luck has so far only gotten him to draws in notable fights outside his home country.
Santiago sent the message late in the second round that he wasn't a pushover as he landed numerous shots. Ancajas' jab, usually his best weapon, was not followed up by much outside of a left hand to the body. He was also wary of throwing uppercuts against his shorter opponent because of the possibility of headbutts. His feinting was non-existent.
Compubox tells only part of the story, and supports a case for an Ancajas victory, showing him landing more total punches (127-of-589 compared to 108-of-519), and slightly more power shots (100-of-311 to 98-of-337). The scoring can also be colored by expectations; Santiago exceeding them and Ancajas falling short.
Trainer Joven Jimenez admitted they came out seeking the knockout instead of working to set it up, but still thought Ancajas was busy enough, especially in the final two rounds, to eke out a seven rounds to five decision.
"We're surprised because when we saw in his previous fights, he's slow. But he was improved, his punches were short, his timing was there," said Jimenez.
Santiago said Ancajas' camp overlooked him because of his underwhelming record. Though he feels he won the fight he still respected his opponent.
"We're talking about a great champion, six defenses is not easy. I'm not gonna take credit away from him, he's a great champion," said Santiago. "We worked very hard in the gym and thanks to God ... we got a good result tonight."
Promoter Bob Arum didn't stick around long after the main event bout between Jose Uzcategui and Ezequiel Maderna wrapped up.
"He was a little too tentative," Arum offered as he made his exit. "We're gonna do a rematch with them."
Asked whether the possibility remains of doing fights with Sor Rungvisai and Juan Francisco Estrada, Arum only said "we'll see."
Matchmaker Sean Gibbons wasn't keen on a rematch, insisting that the style matchup with higher profile, yet more combative opponents like Sor Rungvisai and Estrada would give Ancajas a better opportunity to get his offense going. He argued that Ancajas was more interested in pressing the fight while Santiago was just trying to "steal" the fight by throwing punches in spurts.
"We're still focused on the big fights, to unify," said Gibbons. "I can't pin it down to one thing, I still go back to styles. I still think Jerwin can look impressive against the right guy."
This was the latest in an ongoing fight for acceptance of the 115-pound champion who is trying to emerge from the shadow of his country's most famous boxer -- who also happens to be his co-promoter -- Manny Pacquiao. Though Ancajas has sought to distance himself from those comparisons, there's one similarity that can't be refuted -- both he and Pacquiao were held to draws in their lone bouts in the Bay Area.
And like that night in 2001, when Pacquiao fell short in his attempt to unify titles against Agapito Sanchez, a set of styles that mixed like vinegar and milk sent most home upset. Pacquiao found a way to make people forget about that performance when he eventually made good in fights against the biggest names of his time.
Ancajas is open to a rematch, but would also like the chance to show he's greater than he's shown in his last two outings.
"I'm ready to fight Estrada or Sor Rungvisai, even with what happened tonight. Different boxers, different opponents, different styles," said Ancajas.
"Maybe it's also good to give a rematch because I could also prove that I can defeat Santiago."
With this night in the rearview, Ancajas returns home to the Philippines to see his daughter Jacey Kiera, who was born just three days before he flew to the United States for this fight. He may not have convinced many that he's ready to take on the biggest names of his weight class, but he's still got his championship, and a seat at the table.
"All I'm grateful for is the belt is still with me. Whether I just got a draw with Santiago, the bottom line is I'm still the champion," said Ancajas.