by Malou Liwanag-Aguilar/AJPress
MANNY ‘Pacman’ Pacquiao’s rise to boxing fame widely opened the doors for Filipino fighters to penetrate the international boxing scene. However, before this generation, a number of Filipino boxers have made a mark in boxing history, starting in the 1920s.
The introduction of the sport by US servicemen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was seen as the potential solution to reduce the rate of crimes and vices among soldiers and sailors. The reason — to train for boxing, fighters had to avoid tobacco, alcohol and sexual activity.
In 1902, the US’ Pacific Fleet replaced its Japanese staff with Filipinos who took up shipboard boxing. Then in October 1928, Francisco “Eddie” Duarte had his first public match at the Olympic Club of Tacoma, Washington. The 20-year-old Duarte fought against a 148-pound American Indian by unanimous decision. Weighing only 128 pounds, Duarte won the match via unanimous decision in only four rounds. He later on fought in Alaska, Canada and the US. Duarte returned to the Philippines and was regarded as a hero. After a number of battles at the Manila Stadium, Duarte won against Antonio Zuzuarrigue, a welter who had gained distinction while Duarte was roaming around the world.
But it was only in 1920 when Manuel Soriano, a Filipino boxer, got as far as the finals for the Bantam Fleet belt in Madison Square Garden in New York, according to The Origins of Philippines Boxing, 1899-1929, written by Joseph R. Svinth for the Journal of Combative Sports. Although he was defeated in the match, the very next year, another Filipino, Jose Javier from the USS South Dakota, won the flyweight championship of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets combined. There were also other early naval boxers like Juan “Johnny” Candelaria, who fought in Honolulu (1919) and Manila (1920), as well as the tiniest of them all, Young Dencio of the USS Mayflower, who weighed only tipped the beams at 100 pounds that time and yet fought with other fighters who weighed as heavy as 116 pounds.
Although a lot of Filipino main event fighters were not very good technically in the 1920s, several from the era still regarded as excellent boxers, including world flyweight champion Francisco “Pancho Villa” Guilledo (see related story). As Norris Mills, the former sports editor of the Manila Daily Bulletin wrote in 1925, most of fighters of the era have been ruined because management rushed them into the main event class before they were even ready. An observation by Frank Churchill indirectly corroborated this in 1924, saying, “There were a great many ambitious Filipino lads who craved ring glory, even at the expense of a broken beezer or a vegetable ear. These boys would storm the club on Wednesday night, begging for a chance to go on. Many of them didn’t have money enough to buy an outfit of ring togs, so we always kept a supply of trunks, shoes, etc., available for them. Lots of ‘em wouldn’t use shoes. There were accustomed to going barefoot and shoes cramped their style.”
So just like moonshine during the Prohibition Era, Philippine boxing came up with bootleg boxers — a haphazard by-product, sloppily produced and rushed out to the ring because of need. Still, there were a number of well-regarded bootleg boxers like Dencio Cabanela, who was of Igorot ancestry. He weighed 128 pounds at the age of 20 and had a 17-inch neck. However, in 1921, he became the first of three Filipinos managed by Frank Churchill to die of ring-related causes.
Others bootleg boxers include the Flores brothers — Francisco, Elino, Macario and Ireneo — who all started fighting professionally at the age of 13 or 14. All of them fought in the US or Australia and were managed by their mother.
Featherweight Sylvino Jamito started his career in 1916 and claimed the lightweight championship of the Philippines. According to the Everlast Boxing Record Book (1923), he only lost five of his career record of 49 fights.
Pete Sarmiento, a bantamweight, was also managed by Frank Churchill. Born in Floridablanca, Pampanga, at age 22, he stood 5’3 and weighed 118 pounds and fought in California during the mid-1920s. Lightweight Macario Villon in 1921 defeated Bud Taylor in Manila in a 20-round fight and Jerry Monohan in 1922. However, in 1923, he lost to Sylvino Jamito and Ireneo Flores but later on knocked out boxer Frankie Farren in San Francisco on June 2, 1925.
Of collegiate and boxing in Hawaii
Dating back to 1923, collegiate boxing was also driven from the US Army. Apparently, then Philippine Governor General Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood wanted to “see the Filipino youth master the manly arts of self-defense – wrestling and boxing.” Gen. Wood realized from experience that sports can develop men to become high class citizens, because as quoted by Pablo Anido in The Ring, “Boxing develops every muscle in the human body, quickens the brain, sharpens the wits, imparts force, and, above all, it teaches self-control.
This was the reason for introducing boxing at the University of Manila, where it soon became a major sport In 1930, the Philippines sent a collegiate team to Tokyo to compete in the Far Eastern Championship Games composed of Villanueva (flyweight), John Gray and Guillermo Lazaro (bantamweight), Carlos dela Rosa (featherweight), Alejandro Florentino (lightweight) and Carlos Padilla (welterweight). Although the team fared well, they eventually withdrew to protest the Japanese referees’ allegedly arbitrary rulings.
In Hawaii, Filipinos also fought prior to its legalization. Then, prizefighting was illegal in the Territory of Hawaii until 1929, under Section 320 of the US Code. However, this code was widely ignored, as in 1915, the Judge Advocate General of the Army allowed soldiers to box in garrison provided that there were no admission charges, challenges from the ring, announced decisions at the conclusions of fights and obvious gambling. Like in Manila, military fights were not open to civilian spectators, due to restrictions against soldiers fighting civilians. Regardless of the restrictions and annoyed civilian boxing fans, bootleg boxing in Hawaii happened from 1915 to 1929. To twist the law, the legal route done was to reason out that the fights were not prizefights. Instead, 3 or 4-round exhibitions were held solely for private clubs.
Racially segregated, Hawaiian bootleg fight clubs included the popular Rizal Athletic Club in Honolulu. Holding its first smoker in July 1922, the club featured Kid Parco, Patsy Fernandez and Kid Carpenterio. Other Filipinos who fought in Hawaii prior to legalizations included Battling Bolo, Young Malicio, Clever Feder, Pedro Suerta, Moniz, Santiago and Cabayon. However, the only money to made through boxing in Hawaii was through side betting. Because of this, Filipino fighters such as Carpenterio tried to earn money through exhibition bouts with wrestlers and judoka.
It was hard climb up to the mountain of boxing success for many Filipino fighters. But slowly, our Pinoy boxers — like Pancho Villa, Flash Elorde, Dodie Boy Penalosa and Rolando Navarette to name a few — have fought their way up to earn titles and the respect of boxing fans worldwide.