Commentary

A look at the history of boxing in the Philippines

At the turn of the 20th century, Filipino martial arts were not just sports; they were techniques for survival. Three Americans, however, found a way to attract Filipino crowds by creating American-style Filipino boxers. The rest was history.

Originally Published: June 25, 2008
By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com

Pacquiao FansJOEL NITO/AFP/Getty ImagesWhen Manny Pacquiao fights, the Philippines stand still. But PacMan isn't the first fighter to capture the island's imagination.
Manny Pacquiao has thrilled boxing fans around the world, but that's not enough for him.

"It's very important to me and my country to put my name into boxing history," Pacquiao said last week, referring to his upcoming challenge of WBA lightweight titlist David Diaz.

But Pacquiao is already part of history. In a way, Pacquiao's achievements are the culmination of a 100-year cultural journey that encompassed martial arts, Spanish oppression and Yankee influence, all of which combined to create Filipino boxing as we know it today.

Perhaps most important to the evolution of boxing on the islands was the unified vision of three men: Frank Churchill and the Tait brothers, Stewart and Eddie.

Lethal Combination
TV lineup up for the HBO PPV card on Saturday night (9 ET) from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas:

• Lightweights: David Diaz (34-1-1, 17 KOs) vs. Manny Pacquiao (46-3-2, 34 KOs), 12 rounds, for Diaz's title

• Featherweights: Steven Luevano (35-1, 15 KOs) vs. Mario Santiago (19-1, 14 KOs), 12 rounds, for Luevano's title

• Heavyweights: Tye Fields (40-1, 35 KOs) vs. Monte Barrett (33-6, 19 KOs), 10 rounds

• Junior lightweights: Humberto Soto (43-6-2, 27 KOs) vs. Francisco Lorenzo (32-4, 14 KOs), 12 rounds, for a vacant interim title

-- Dan Rafael

Eddie Tait landed in Manila in 1902, less than four years after the Philippines had declared independence from Spain. Despite the unsanitary conditions, Eddie saw what mobster Bugsy Siegel would later see in Las Vegas: wide open potential.

Tait's brother Stewart was an amusement park entrepreneur back home in Tacoma, Wash. Soon the brothers were known as the "Barnums of Borneo," establishing circuses, carnivals and horse racing tracks in Manila.

Eddie Tait was also interested in boxing, but prizefighting had been banned in the Philippines. Frank Churchill, a fellow Tacoma boy, had promoted bootleg bouts in Manila, but fights involving American servicemen didn't attract locals.

Filipinos had their own sort of boxing, a bare-handed martial art known as Suntukan. The combatants held their hands high and kept their distance, occasionally charging forward to throw chopping punches, most of which would be fouls not tolerated in American rings.

There are many theories regarding the origins of Suntukan (also known as Panantukan), but it's generally believed to have evolved from Kali, a Filipino knife fighting technique. As the Philippines fell under Spanish rule, Filipino martial arts were driven underground. Knives and rattan sticks gave way to bare-handed arts.

Some historians have romanticized Suntukan as being the real root of modern boxing, but that's an over-simplification.

"The Filipinos must have embraced Western boxing and then applied their knowledge of the knife to create a similar, yet distinctive art," said martial arts teacher and historian Krishna Godhania.

One difference between the Filipino martial art and modern boxing is that practitioners of Suntukan didn't stand and trade head shots. Instead, they circled constantly, looking for openings. After all, one wouldn't stand and trade if you were holding knives. In Filipino martial arts, the spirit of the knife was still implied.

Another important distinction is that Filipino martial arts were not just sports; they were techniques for survival.

Eddie Tait's plan was to attract Filipino crowds by creating American-style Filipino boxers. A 1932 AP storywriter Russ Newland described Tait, and American lightweight Rufe Turner, giving free boxing lessons to the locals. Sounding as if Tait was feeding him lines directly from a barker's booth, Newland wrote, "By now, every other Filipino wants to be a fighter."

But even before that time, the islanders knew a thing or two about western boxing. As far back as the 1890s, Filipino war prisoners were taught how to box by U.S. guards. Also, Filipino men were being hired to work in the kitchens of U.S. navy ships, where amateur bouts were often held on ship decks.

[+] EnlargePancho Villa
Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesPancho Villa was one of the boys eager to join the Olympic Boxing Club.
While Tait hustled the sweet science like snake oil, Churchill established the Olympic Club, described by some as a converted cock-fighting pit, complete with a thatched roof and bamboo poles, followed by the more grandiose Olympic Stadium in Manila, which opened for business in 1918.

By 1921, boxing was legalized and flourishing in the Philippines. Churchill hired Stewart Tait to manage the Olympic's finances, and Eddie acted as matchmaker. Joe Waterman, another promoter stationed on the islands during the first World War, acted as a scout who would send young talents to Churchill.

According to legend, the first Filipino to fight publicly wearing gloves was Churchill's driver, Leoncio Bernabe, in 1916. The teen, whose job was to pull Churchill around Manila in a rickshaw-like contraption, made his debut at the Olympic, where Wednesday nights were reserved for inexperienced locals.

"These boys would storm the club on Wednesday night, begging for a chance to go on," Churchill said in 1924. "Many of them didn't have enough money 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. They were accustomed to going barefoot and shoes cramped their style."

From this wave of eager beginners emerged such stars as Speedy Dado, the Flores brothers Francisco, Elino, Macario and Ireneo, Pete Sarmiento and the almost mythical Pancho Villa.

The American press of the day was fascinated by Filipino fighters, depicting them as exotic little warriors hell-bent on pleasing the audience. In fact, the island audience was just as fascinating as the fighters were, as California writer Jim Brann chronicled in a 1924 report from the Olympic Club:

Twice during the early stages of the fight, fans clinging to rafters became so excited that they lost their grip and tumbled directly into the ring, delaying the fight momentarily. But it was only for a moment, for they were instantly thrust out, without even pause to see if they were injured.

-- California writer Jim Brann, on overzealous Filipino fight fans at the Olympic Club in 1924

"Twice during the early stages of the fight, fans clinging to rafters became so excited that they lost their grip and tumbled directly into the ring, delaying the fight momentarily. But it was only for a moment, for they were instantly thrust out, without even pause to see if they were injured."

Brann described the crowd as a "vortex of screaming humanity," adding, "People in the front seats scrambled over those in the press box to get closer to the fighters and shout advice."

Villa's 1923 victory over Welsh flyweight champion Jimmy Wilde reverberated throughout the Philippines. Not only did Villa become the 112-pound champion of the world, but his win had political implications similar to when America's Joe Louis defeated Germany's Max Schmeling. One American columnist wrote, "The man in the street regarded the victory as a certain sign that the United States government will see that the Filipinos are capable of self-government." Even educated Filipinos, "while deploring prizefighting, were nevertheless elated."

But just as the sport was booming on the islands, it began crumbling. The ring deaths of two popular fighters, Dencio Cabanela and Clever Sencio, along with the death of Villa in 1925 -- he died during an operation for a mouth infection -- began the downturn. Attendance at the Olympic dropped.

Another sign that the first golden era of Filipino boxing had passed occurred in 1933 when Frank Churchill died of heart failure.

Churchill, for his part, was no angel. He's sometimes credited with starting the shady practice of demanding a "piece" of a challenger's contract. He was once asked to leave California by that state's commission for his unethical practices. Still, most remembered him as a loyal manager of fighters. At the time of his death, he was involved in the career of Ceferino Garcia, who would win the middleweight championship in 1939.

The Tait brothers, however, soldiered on. In 1937, Eddie co-produced the first feature film shot in Manila, "Zamboanga." The film was hailed as a masterpiece of South Seas filmmaking, but expenses and taxes prevented Eddie from turning Manila into a film capital.

Stewart continued his circus work, only to be captured by the Japanese during World War II and held prisoner for three years in the Santo Tomas internment camp. When Stewart was released, the Tait name limped into obscurity.

Perhaps Churchill and the Taits were nothing more than American showmen padding their wallets, no different than Don King or Tex Rickard. Or maybe they truly believed in boxing's better qualities. But no matter which side of the sportsmen/huckster coin they belonged to, their impact on Filipino culture was felt for decades. There were many more champions to come, from Flash Elorde to Ben Villaflor, to Pacquiao.

In fact, when Pacquiao fights, you can almost hear the trio from Tacoma whispering among themselves, "He's good. Sign him up for Wednesday."

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.