Filipina boxer Nesthy Petecio didn’t need to be told that the sport was a man’s game. She knew it from the moment she first faced an opponent in the ring. The 11-year-old girl from Davao del Sur, Philippines was matched with a 14-year-old boy who was larger and more experienced. The boy was the only opponent that Petecio’s father, Teodoro, could find, but it hardly mattered to her.
Boxing, which her father introduced to her at age seven, was like a game to her, something she did for fun. Petecio beat the 14-year-old boy up, and accepted free food from the proud women in attendance who shouted, “Girl power!” The boy would be the first of six who would experience defeat at Petecio’s hands.
Ending the sport’s "boy’s club" mentality would not be so easy, however.
Though the Philippines has become a world power in boxing, driven primarily by the transcendent talent known as Manny Pacquiao, the fame and fortune hasn’t carried over to female boxers. But Petecio is doing her part to change that with her performance at the Tokyo Olympics. She and her flyweight teammate, the since-eliminated Irish Magno, are the first female boxers to represent the Philippines since women’s boxing became an Olympic sport in 2012.
The 29-year-old featherweight Petecio has captured headlines by winning three fights so far, including a mild upset over the no. 1 ranked Lin Yu-ting of Chinese Taipei. She is already guaranteed a podium finish, and hopes to take another step towards gold when she faces Italy’s Irma Testa, the 2019 European Champion, on Saturday afternoon. If she wins, it would add to the historic run for the Philippines, which took home its first-ever gold thanks to weightlifter and now national hero Hidilyn Diaz.
“A lot of people, especially men, think that boxing is only for boys. But as women, we already earned a lot of respect,” Petecio said in a previous interview with this writer. “So hopefully...after this Olympics or the next generation, they will treat us like how they treat the men boxers.”
Petecio’s medal will be the first a Filipino boxer has brought home since 1996, when the country stopped to witness Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco fall just short of winning the Philippines’ first gold at the Atlanta Games. The Philippines has now won six medals in boxing, accounting for half of the 12 the country has earned since first competing at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
“A lot of people, especially men, think that boxing is only for boys. But as women, we already earned a lot of respect.”
Despite receiving far less attention, women from the country have been punching above their weight on the international stage for years. The Philippines has won just two gold medals at the AIBA World Boxing Championships, and both were won by women. One of those championships was clinched in 2012 by Josie Gabuco, a dominant regional force for over a decade, winning a women’s record five straight boxing gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games dating back to 2009.
Gretchen Abaniel, by far the most accomplished female pro from the Philippines, says she messaged Petecio words of encouragement ahead of her bout with Testa, who is four inches taller than the 5’5” Petecio.
“Think like there are no other rounds,” Abaniel told Petecio, “In amateurs, you have to fight every round, toe to toe. As much as possible, you have to get a lot of points and win every round.”
Abaniel says she has watched Petecio with pride, remembering her own time with the national team, before women boxers were allowed to compete at the Olympics. She says there were many hardships to overcome, like surviving for a year without the government providing her monthly allowance, and never getting paid the $750 bonus she was promised for earning bronze at the 2005 World Championships in Podolsk, Russia.
She says that, while women’s boxing has gained acceptance in cities like Manila, more conservative areas in the provinces are still uneasy with the concept.
“I think that when we get a gold medal, people are going to be [more] open minded with women’s boxing,” said Abaniel, calling it “good motivation” for women boxers.
The gold medal won by weightlifter Diaz earlier this week reduced pressure on the three remaining boxers, including men’s flyweight Carlo Paalam and middleweight Eumir Marcial. Still, Petecio’s performance so far has assured the country that it will bring home more than one medal in the same games for the first time since 1932.
All this comes just a couple of years after Petecio appeared to be a spent force in the ring.
In some ways, Petecio’s struggles have mirrored those of Simone Biles, the American gymnast who withdrew from competitions this week to deal with mental health issues. For Petecio, her slump came after her disappointing run at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, when she lost her opening bout to Yin Junhua of China. It was a crushing letdown that followed a string of gold medal finishes in various tournaments.
“I felt depressed. I didn’t want to see gloves, a ring or anything else connected to boxing,” remembers Petecio. She focused instead on finishing her associate’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at University of Baguio and returned to the national team with a stronger desire to compete than ever.
“After a year, I missed boxing like before, when I started. Now I’m the one who comes back to the boxing ring,” said Petecio. “I said ‘God, I missed this.’”
The time off served Petecio well. The rejuvenated fighter won gold at the AIBA World Boxing Championships in October of 2019, defeating the home favorite in Russia in the final. Two months later, at the Southeast Asian Games opening ceremony in New Clark City, Philippines, Pacquiao handed the torch to Petecio to light the cauldron in a symbol that would become far more prescient as time passed.
“After a year, I missed boxing like before, when I started. Now I’m the one who comes back to the boxing ring.”
She later won the featherweight boxing gold, her first at the tournament, after having earned three previous silvers.
If Petecio can get past Testa, she’ll face the winner between Karriss Artingstall of Great Britain and Sena Irie of Japan in the final, with a chance at winning the country its second ever gold medal.
But despite all her past achievements, Petecio says that they would’ve been “useless” if she hadn’t made it to the Olympics. Through her struggles, Petecio never lost sight of the final goal.
“It’s normal to feel sometimes that you’re not OK. Sometimes I feel that I need to forget this kind of pain, I need to distance [myself] from the sport I love and the people I love,” said Petecio.
“But don’t ever, ever give up your dream.”