The Philippines held its collective breath on Monday as boxer Nesthy Petecio awaited the verdict in the women’s featherweight Olympic gold medal match. It had been 25 long years since Filipino fighter Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco fell short of top light flyweight honors at the Atlanta Games. It took a quarter of a century until the country had again gotten this chance to root for a fighter competing for gold.
It wasn’t to be for Petecio, as Sena Irie, a taller, classic boxer from Japan, won a unanimous decision, denying the 29-year-old Filipina the top prize. Despite the loss, Petecio had already made history as the first woman boxer to make it to an Olympic final.
Aside from Petecio, men’s middleweight Eumir Marcial had also created excitement with his hard-hitting knockout of Armenia’s Arman Darchinyan to make his way to the semi-finals. He exited Thursday with a bronze after dropping a split decision to Ukraine’s Oleksandr Khyznhiak in a tightly-contested fight.
But the country did not need to wait much longer for another gold medal match to look forward to.
Carlo Paalam, the 23-year-old from Cagayan de Oro City, continued his run through the flyweight ranks with a one-sided decision over Japan’s Ryomei Tanaka to advance to the finals against Great Britain’s Galal Yafai on Saturday. Paalam has been a surprise terror in the 52-kilogram division, sending the defending gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov home in what may be the single most significant win ever by a Filipino in an international tournament.
On Saturday, the country gets another chance at exorcising the ghost of Velasco as Paalam goes for gold.
Philippines' Carlo Paalam celebrates after winning against Japan's Ryomei Tanaka after their men's fly (48-52kg) semi-final boxing match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo on August 5, 2021. Photo: Luis ROBAYO / AFP
It’s hardly surprising that the Philippines is in a strong position to earn boxing medals at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight of the country’s 14 total medals have come in boxing, dating back to José Villanueva’s bronze in the men’s bantamweight category at the 1932 Games.
What is unique about the Tokyo Games is how many medalists there have been so far – three of the four competing boxers are guaranteed podium spots.
A fourth boxer, women’s flyweight Irish Magno of Iloilo province, had also won her first fight. She earlier made history as the first female boxer from the Philippines to qualify for the Olympics.
Yet while Petecio, Marcial, and Paalam have become household names during their Olympic run, their success is hardly of the overnight variety. People have only started to pay attention now that the spotlight of the world’s largest sporting spectacle is on them.
Petecio earned silver and gold at the 2014 and 2019 World Championships, respectively, and had been on the Philippine national team since 2007. Marcial, from Zamboanga City, has been a top international boxer for a decade, ever since he won gold at the 2011 Junior World Championships as a 15-year-old in the 52-kilogram category. Paalam has been on the national team since 2013, and showed hints that he was maturing into a world class boxer with his bronze medal performance at the 2018 Asian Games.
Indeed, the Philippines has long invested in its boxers.
Life on the national team is a privileged one for these boxers, considering they come from impoverished backgrounds in provinces far from Manila, the Philippines’ political and economic capital. Boxers on the team receive a monthly stipend for their basic needs, can attend a reputable high school, and are entitled to a scholarship at the University of Baguio, near the national team’s training camp in the breezy northern city. A second camp is located in Manila, at the colonial-era Rizal Memorial Sports Complex.
Making it to the national team is no easy feat, especially in a country obsessed with boxing.
“It’s practiced everywhere. It’s the easiest thing next to basketball to be able to get yourself involved in,” Ed Picson, managing director of the Association of Boxing Alliances of the Philippines, told VICE World News. “At every town fiesta and every barrio fiesta, you’ll have, number one, basketball; number two would be a beauty contest, and number three would be a boxing tournament.”
Picson says the process of scouting talent is two-pronged. One, the group discovers emerging boxers from various provinces through its national championship tournament at the Philippine National Games. Two, the group gets word of potentially transcendent talent from its network of trainers around the country who work as scouts.
And there’s a lot of talent. Boxing has remained a part of Philippine society largely because of its accessibility, says Picson. All that’s required to get into it are two fists and – where available – a pair of gloves, making it doable anywhere, even in the poorest areas of the country.
Ukraine's Oleksandr Khyzhniak (red) and Philippines' Eumir Marcial hug after their men's middle (69-75kg) semi-final boxing match during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo on August 5, 2021. Photo: Luis ROBAYO / AFP
Paalam can attest to how boxing can change one’s fortunes. As a child, he scavenged at his town’s landfill and streets, looking for junk he could salvage for a few pesos. Petecio sometimes fought older boys in boxing competitions for the grand purse of a plate of food. Her first job was collecting chicken droppings on her family’s farm to sell as fertilizer.
For some, a bloody nose doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as going to bed with an empty stomach.
Boxing took hold in the country shortly after the Spanish-American War, when American soldiers introduced the sport to Filipinos at the turn of the 20th century.
A 5-foot-1 bootblack from Negros Occidental province named Francisco Guilledo – who fought under the name Pancho Villa – became the first world boxing champion from Asia in 1923. Noted as much for his brown skin in newspaper accounts as he was for his whirlwind punching style, Villa won the world flyweight championship with a stunning upset knockout of Welsh puncher Jimmy Wilde, and died of a tooth infection before he could be beaten for the title.
Decades later, a southpaw from Cebu province named Gabriel “Flash” Elorde became a national hero with his seven-year reign as world junior lightweight champion in the 1960s. The sport became a center piece of the nation’s image during the Martial Law era under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The Thrilla in Manila, the third meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier considered by many to be the greatest boxing match ever, was hosted by the Philippines as a distraction from objections at home and abroad to Marcos’ rule.
The country’s greatest boxing – and overall sporting – hero remains Manny Pacquiao, the only professional boxer to ever win world championships in eight different categories. He has carried the country’s flag on the world stage, defeating major stars like Oscar de la Hoya, Miguel Cotto and Marco Antonio Barrera, making him the most recognizable Filipino in the world. His rise spurred a big surge of fighters looking to replicate his multi-million dollar success, to literally fight their way out of poverty.
Whereas former regional powerhouses like South Korea have outgrown boxing, the sport remains as entrenched in the Philippines as ever. From Gerry Peñalosa to Rolando Navarrete to Luisito Espinosa to Donnie Nietes, the Philippines has never had a dearth of boxing talent to match the world’s best in the lighter weight categories. That’s because of the confluence of poverty, which makes being punched in the face for a chance at a better life seem palatable, and a culture already conditioned to lionize boxing heroes.
One problem the national team finds is recruiting larger boxers. Marcial, who boxes as a 160-pounder in the professionals, stands 5’9”, and is the country’s first middleweight of note since Ceferino Garcia in the 1930s and ‘40s. Finding even featherweight boxers (126 pounds) is a serious challenge in the Philippines, and Picson says they have a surplus of flyweights (112 pounds). Most 12-year-old athletes who stand around 5’6” or taller choose basketball, by far the country’s most popular sport.
But perhaps that could soon change, after the stellar performance of the boxers in the Tokyo Games.
For her silver medal finish, Petecio received a 5-million-peso (roughly $100,000) incentive from the government, as mandated by law, plus at least 12 million pesos (roughly $238,000) in incentives from private benefactors. Other benefits include a house and a condominium gifted her by real estate developers, and a lifetime of free flights from Philippine Airlines.
Bronze medalists are entitled to 2 million pesos (roughly $40,000), while gold medalists, like weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz – who ended the Philippines’ dubious distinction of being the most bemedaled country without a gold – are entitled to a 10-million-peso bonus (roughly $200,000).
These figures are likely to inspire other boxers, particularly women and girls, who previously had few lucrative opportunities in boxing due to nonexistent infrastructure for women’s pro boxing in the Philippines.
Picson believes the country can build on this historic medal haul with increased funding for boxing at the grassroots level, but hopes that the interest generated by the euphoria survives after the headlines fade.
If public and private entities can sustain their interest and investment in the sport, Picson is optimistic that the feat achieved in Tokyo can happen again in Paris and beyond.