Commentary

The five finest fighters to emerge from the Philippines

The Philippines has a long history of producing world-class fighters. Graham Houston lists five of them.

Originally Published: June 27, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Gerry PenalosaAP Photo/Aaron FavilaGerry Penalosa captured his second world title in 2007 -- 10 years after he captured his first world title.
When Manny Pacquiao steps into the ring against David Diaz on Saturday it's fair to say that the Philippine nation will be solidly behind him, rejoicing in every punch he lands, recoiling at every blow received. Never has there been a Filipino boxing superstar like Pacquiao, who will become a four-weight division champion if he takes Diaz's lightweight title.

Pacquiao is one of a kind, but the Philippines has produced some fine fighters over the years. Here is a look at five of the Philippines' finest.

5. Erbito Salavarria

Salavarria was a tall, skilled boxer and sharp counterpuncher who twice won the world flyweight title in the 1970s. Unfortunately, his career was marred by scandal when he was declared to have been using amphetamines when he boxed to a 15-round draw with the excellent Venezuelan challenger Betulio Gonzalez in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1971. Ringside officials were suspicious of what Salavarria was drinking from his water bottle and a sample was sent for laboratory testing by the WBC. Salavarria's claim that he had merely been drinking water mixed with honey was rejected, and the title was vacated.

Apart from this unfortunate affair, though, Salavarria had a highly successful career. He first won the 112-pound title in Bangkok in December 1970, stunning a crowd of 25,000 that included the king of Thailand as he demolished Chartchai Chionoi with three knockdowns in the second round.

After being stripped of the WBC title in 1971, Salavarria captured the WBA version in 1975 by defeating an old rival, the aggressive Susumu Hanagata, on a hugely unpopular split decision in Japan -- a result that led to spectators, according to reports, throwing everything they could get their hands on into the ring.

Salavarria and Hanagata fought again in Japan six months later, which resulted in another split decision win for Salavarria, although this time the verdict was not considered controversial.

4. Gerry Penalosa

A sturdy southpaw with sound technical ability and considerable punching power, Penalosa is a two-time world champ who captured his titles a decade apart -- an astonishing achievement.

[+] EnlargeGerry Penalosa, Daniel Ponce De Leon
AP Photo/Jae C. HongMany boxing pundits felt Gerry Penalosa, left, earned the nod against Daniel Ponce De Leon in March 2007.
Penalosa first became a champion when he won the 115-pound title by defeating Hiroshi Kawashima in a very close, all-southpaw fight in Tokyo in February 1997. He lost the championship a year later on a split decision in Korea in his fourth defense.

Then followed four unsuccessful title attempts by Penalosa. All these losses were on points, two of them split decisions. Penalosa's unanimous decision loss to the much bigger 122-pounder Daniel Ponce De Leon was unpopular with the Las Vegas crowd.

At the age of 35, Penalosa seemed unlikely ever to be champion again, but he shocked boxing folks by knocking out Mexico's tall, dangerous Jhonny Gonzalez with a big left-hand body shot to win a bantamweight title in 2007, which he has since successfully defended.

Penalosa's story is a triumph of perseverance -- he tried and tried again, and at the fifth attempt once more had a world title belt strapped around his waist.

3. Ceferino Garcia

These days, great importance is attached to an undefeated record.

[+] EnlargeCeferino Garcia
AP Photo/Harry HarrisCeferino Garcia, right, dropped 20 fights before steadying the ship and earning a crack at a world title.
That wasn't the case when Ceferino Garcia was fighting his way to the top in the 1920s and '30s. The gritty, exciting Filipino had lost 20 times -- four on stoppages -- before getting his first shot at a world title against the great welterweight champion Barney Ross at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1937. Garcia had been boxing professionally for 14 years after making his debut as a 16-year-old. It was the sort of long, tough path to a title fight that was typical of the day.

Garcia lost a unanimous decision to Ross, and a year later he again failed to win the welterweight title when losing a unanimous decision to the all-time great ring marvel Henry Armstrong at Madison Square Garden in "fifteen rounds of grueling, furious fighting," according to The New York Times. The crowd booed the unanimous decision in Armstrong's favor. Garcia succeeded in his third title attempt, though, as a middleweight, when he knocked out the much heavier Fred Apostoli in the seventh round at Madison Square Garden in October 1939.

Apostoli was the 5-to-8 betting favorite, but Garcia knocked him down three times in the seventh round, the champion succumbing to what The New York Times described as "a sense-numbing shower of lefts and rights to the jaw and head."

Garcia disappointingly lost his title in his first defense, but he was a fighter greatly respected for his ability, toughness and punching power. He was also a colorful character who introduced the so-called bolo punch to boxing, long before Kid Gavilan popularized the blow in the 1950s. Columnist John Kieran wrote in The New York Times in 1937: "The Filipino is a hardy citizen with a windmill style of attack, the chief feature of which is an occasional looping right-hander known as his 'bolo punch.' He winds it up with a double hitch and brings it on the loop."

2. Pancho Villa

Villa was a great flyweight champion in the 1920s, but his is one of the tragic stories that dot boxing history. The fighter described by The Vancouver Sun as a "dark-haired, short-armed fighting demon" died a month before his 25th birthday after undergoing surgery on a seriously infected jaw. Villa had boxed the bigger Jimmy McLarnin in a catchweight contest 10 days earlier, despite having had a wisdom tooth extracted the night before the fight.

[+] EnlargePancho Villa
Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesPancho Villa racked up 91 victories and only eight losses before his life was cut short.
This first Filipino world champion made a striking impression on the sport, with 91 victories and only eight losses in a brief (four years) but action-packed career, and it is probably accurate to say that he was the Philippines' national hero of his day.

Villa won the flyweight title in June 1923 with a famous seventh-round victory over the great Welsh veteran Jimmy Wilde at the Polo Grounds in New York. The crowd was estimated at 40,000 but later the correct attendance figure was given as 23,000. Even so, a crowd of more than 20,000 in New York to watch a flyweight title fight between a Filipino and a Welshman likely would be unheard of today.

In what were described in that era as "pre-battle statements," the 31-year-old Wilde said: "I appreciate the fact that in Villa, I am going to meet one of the toughest little men in boxing. I appreciate the fact that I am going to be put to a real test, and that is what I have prepared for."

In comments that summed up his fighting style, Villa said: "I am in condition and once in condition, my worries are over. I do not intend to give Wilde a minute's rest while we are in the ring."

Nor did he. The New York Times reported: "From the second round until the finish it had become merely a question of time when Wilde would have to relinquish claim to the title that he had held for so long."

1. Flash Elorde

If ever a fighter fought the best available and dodged no one, it was the remarkable Gabriel "Flash" Elorde, who held the world junior lightweight title in the 1960s but also fought for titles at 126 and 135 pounds -- and this at a time before the multiplicity of world champions made it almost impossible for even the most knowledgeable fans to name all the titleholders.

A southpaw, Elorde was known for his speed and skill -- the "subtle little temple-dancer moves" as writer Robert Lipsyte once described Elorde's style.

Elorde held the junior lightweight title for seven years and made 10 successful title defenses. At the same time he also held the Orient lightweight title and frequently defended that, too, fluctuating between the 130- and 135-pound weight classes.

[+] EnlargeGabriel
Bettmann/CorbisSandy Saddler used a variety of dirty tactics to stop Flash Elorde, facing, in their rematch.
Not only did Elorde defeat the best available challengers, he also beat world-class fighters in nontitle bouts, including victories over the superb Panamanian lightweight Ismael Laguna and the Italian 135-pound champion Giordano Campari.

Probably Elorde's finest win was when he outpointed the formidable featherweight champion Sandy Saddler in a nontitle bout in Manila in 1955. His most famous fight, though, was his rematch with Saddler for the championship in San Francisco in January 1956, when Elorde was stopped due to a terrible cut over his left eye in the 13th round.

It was an infamous evening for American boxing, with Saddler, always known as an extremely rough and vicious fighter, guilty of a succession of fouls that drew much criticism at the time. Jack Fiske of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "It was a dirty fight throughout and all the onus must be on the 126-pound champion's skinny shoulders. From this corner it appeared highly improbable that he could have successfully defended the title … if he hadn't resorted to all the so-called tricks in and out of the rule book."

In a scathing editorial in The Ring, Nat Fleischer condemned Saddler for using "every foul technique known to the game," which included rubbing his head and the heels of his gloves into the cut over Elorde's eye.

The crowd of 5,000 booed Saddler throughout for his rough tactics and Fleischer seemed to be voicing the popular sentiment when he wrote that Elorde looked like a certain winner before Saddler's fouling, and the handicap of blood flowing from the cut over the Filipino's eye changed the course of the fight around the 10th round. As it was, all three judges had Saddler just two points ahead after 12 rounds.

It had been a wonderful, courageous performance by Elorde, who was to start his long reign as junior lightweight champion by knocking out American Harold Gomes in Manila four years later.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.