Lord of the ‘ring’

A SHORT but great life — this is how we can describe legendary Filipino flyweight boxer Pancho Villa.

Born as Francisco Guilledo on August 1, 1901 in Iloilo, his nome de guerre “Pancho Villa” was given to him by Paquito Villa, a Filipino ice plant manager who managed his career along with American boxing promoter Frank E. Churchill (although some reports claim that he adopted his name after the famous Mexican revolutionary). Touted by the Associate Press as the greatest flyweight of the century, Villa was also the first world champion from Asia.

When he was 11 years old, Villa befriended a local boxer and later on went to Manila with him. Later on, the 5’1″ Villa would spar with friends, which attracted the attention of local boxing afficionados. In 1919, Villa had his first professional fight against Kid Castro. In two years, he claimed the Philippine flyweight title from “Terrible Pondong.”

Explosive and unrelenting in the ring, Villa placed the Philippines on the map by defeating the toughest flyweights in the US and Europe. In 1922, he received an invitation from famed boxing promoter Tex Rickard and won his first international fight against Abe Attel Goldstein in Jersey City. He then later on fought and defeated Frankie Genaro the same year. By this time, Villa had caught the attention of boxing aficionados.

Having been in the American phase of his career for only four months, he fought and defeated American flyweight champion Johnny Buff on September 15, 1922 in the 11th round. However, Villa lost his title the following year to Genaro on points that were widely criticized by boxing fans. His defeat to Genaro proved to be the fateful twist in his boxing career. Jimmy Wilde, a Welsh-born boxer and former world flyweight champion had decided to get out of his recent retirement and sought the then vacant world flyweight championship in a fight to be staged in the US. Although Genaro was the logical choice to fight against Wilde, Villa’s growing popularity convinced promoters that the latter would prove to be the better draw.

On June 18, 1923 at the Polo Grounds in New York, Villa was cheered to victory by over 20,000 screaming fans. It only took Villa seven rounds to knock out Wilde — via a crashing right to his jaw.

The death of the king

Being the king of the ring, Villa also lived a lifestyle that is fit for royalty. Rising from rags to riches, he was famous for his magnificent wardrobe, his collection of silk shirts, pearl buttons, gold cufflinks and his royal entourage. He had his own group of servants — one to massage him, another to towel him, a valet to put on his shoes, another to help him to put his trousers, still another to comb his hair, powder his cheeks and spray him with expensive perfumes. Loved for his extravagance, he was adored by Filipinos but was perhaps more idolized as a showman rather than as a boxer.

Although he successfully defended his title several times in the US and the Philippines, and was considered as an invicible force, Villa’s death was outside the kingdom of the ring. During a scheduled non-title fight against Jimmy McLarnin in July 4 1925 at Oakland, Villa’s face became swollen due to an ulcerated tooth. On the morning of his fight, Villa’s tooth was extracted and despite the pain and swelling, he still insisted on going ahead with McLarnin and lost. Three days later, Villa had three more tooth extracted after an infection was discovered. In spite of being advised to rest, Villa went on partying with his friends. His condition worsened and by July 13, 1925, he was rushed to the hospital where it was found out that the infection had spread to his throat. While in surgery, Villa lapsed into a coma and died the following day at the young age of 23.

His fights were legendary, his brief life as colorful. Villa has continued to be one of the greatest fighters in the world. In 1994, he was enshrined into the New York-based International Boxing Hall of Fame, one of the only four Asians. (www.asianjournal.com)

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