Photos by Xtian Lozañes and Marrz Capanang

It’s a Hard ‘Box’ Life: Stories of Ilonggo Boxers, as Told in 1,500 Words

By joseph batcagan

“Testingan ko pa kung diin pa ako hasta subong eh. [I’ll test myself to see how long I can last.]

These are steely words of determination that John Rey Solis uttered when we were wrapping up his interview with him about his experiences boxing so far. And truth to tell, he probably has a reason to be as borderline fatalistic as he was when he was narrating his story to us: 12 years of dedicating yourself to a single craft that has rewarded you with so little can do that to you. Heck, you don’t even need to have dabbled in boxing to know that his is a story that is depressingly common in this country where “passion” often doesn’t equate to “opportunities”.

If there are indeed any opportunities for boxers like Solis, those things only come few and far between for him and for the rest of fellow boxers training at The Cage Boxing and Martial Arts Camp, where a good deal of the people being trained there are far younger than him but—too frequent to be considered as coincidental—are no strangers to disappointments, like him.

John Rey Solis - Project Iloilo
25-year-old family man, John Rey Solis. Photos by Xtian Lozañes / Marrz Capanang.

Art Mandal, for one, has experienced his fair share of frustrations in the course of chasing his dreams. Arguably considered by many as one of the top young boxing prodigies in this region at 17 years of age, he was unable to make the cut for the Philippine team, which he attributed to the shoddy handling of his paperwork. Russel Diaz, 14, was disqualified from the last Integrated Meet because he was deemed “overage (sic)” for the Under-14 Category he was aiming to join.

Indeed, upon the time we spent interviewing the men and boys of this gym, it was becoming increasingly clear why they, and other people like them—underprivileged, at-risk, poor, call it what you will—have been drawn to this highly respected, but no less brutal, sport in the first place: for most of them who were not presented with many opportunities to succeed in life, the prospect of punching and getting punched at in return is not a strange feeling to endure for a physique and mindset that is already accustomed to fighting for survival. Compared to the more “bourgeois” reputation of modern MMA, boxing looks grittily unadorned and downright workman-like. Legendary boxer Gabriel ‘Flash’ Elorde’s widow, Laura, even acknowledged the “poverty” aspect to boxing as being the main reason why the country will always keep producing boxing champions in the molds of Manny Pacquiao or Nonito Donaire.

Art Mandal - Project Iloilo
17-year-old Art Mandal. Photos by Xtian Lozañes / Marrz Capanang.

Boxing here, curiously enough, has also become a “gift” that can be passed from one generation to the next, which is not strange at all if you consider the fact that family ties are valued here more closely than, say, individualism: Solis and Mandal have brothers training in the Philippine Wushu Team; Harry Camacho, 12 years of age and a close cousin to Diaz, has been taught by his father on how to box; even their long-time trainer Johnny Estrella have even involved his sons in boxing at some point many, many years ago.

Achilles Tan, one of the co-owners of The Cage, is specifically proud of the close bonds that have defined their environment here in The Cage. Ironically enough, he says, “I started boxing as a fitness program lang tani (only).” However, he have grown so close with the people he trained with at their original location at Villanueva Boxing Gym that he and his cousin deemed it necessary to take out a loan so they can build a new one for themselves when the former was at risk of being foreclosed last year.

He is also aware that having financed a gym successfully does not mean that it should get any easier for them to maintain it in the long-term: “I’d like to call (The Cage) as a social enterprise. It’s a business, but at the same time, we give back to the community. Daw social responsibility namon. It’s a corporate social responsibility, but it’s a social enterprise man in the sense nga part of our proceeds dira guid ya gakadto sa (mga boksidor); more than half, actually, of the month of November and December, wala kami ya profit kay tungod… (ginagasto namon) sa mga Christmas party, ginapakaon namon sila mo, sa tanan nga mga kabataan nga gakadto diri. Because we’d rather nga ma-train sila diri than get stuck in the streets, ma-rugby sila, mga peers nila gapanghagad ma-bisyo man or kung ano da ang mga malain nga ulubrahun, mainadik-adik dira. Te mas mayo nga diri na lang sila sa boksing; indi man lang boksing pero guina-disiplina man sila namon para maging maayo kag responsable nga tawo sang pamuluyo so they might be able to do something with their lives bala.”

Harry Camacho & Russell Diaz - Project Iloilo
Cousins Harry Camacho and Russell Diaz. Photos by Xtian Lozañes / Marrz Capanang.

[It’s like our social responsibility. It’s a corporate social responsibility, but it’s a social enterprise, too, in the sense that part of our proceeds goes straight to(the boxers); more than half, actually, of the month of November and December, we did not have any profits because(we spent it) for their Christmas party, we fed them, to all the youth who went here. Because we’d rather that they train herethan get stuck in the streets, use “rugby” (Editor: a colloquial term for “solvent”), having their peers involve them in vices or do bad things, get addicted to drugs. So they’re better off here in boxing; they’re not just here for boxing, but we discipline them so they can be good and responsible people of the community so they might be able to do something with their lives.]

If there are any “concrete” rewards that these boxers can have for themselves, then it almost always comes in the form of events like the upcoming Uncaged 2.0: Global Pan Asia Championships card that the gym is organizing, which sees their fighters taking on equally talented people flown in from Australia. “Amo ni nga event actually sa 17 (of January), it’s a fundraiser. I don’t know if (the boxers you interviewed) told you, but this fundraiser, the money that we earn here, i-supton na namon para may pampleti kami sa ila kay ipadala na namon sila sa Australia.”

[This event happening on the 17th (of January),it’s a fundraiser. I don’t know if (the boxers you interviewed) told you, but this fundraiser, the money that we earn here, we’ll save it so that we can give them the fare to go to Australia to train.]

Foreign boxers competing here in the city is rare enough in itself, which is why so many of them are banking on the “novelty” of the whole thing and hoping that this will get more people to watch the bouts and be aware that there is a crop of Ilonggo boxers who deserve their attention, too. For cousins Camacho and Diaz, this means that they will get a chance to earn a proper scholarship for doing something that they are good at. Camacho, in particular, hints that it’s not just the prestige they are after, but for the chance of a better future that an event like this can afford to them. “May allowance da kami. Kung ma-Philippine Team guid man kami, Olympics (ang masudlan namon) [We will have allowances there. If we ever make the Philippine Team, then we can go to the Olympics],” he opines when we asked him about the importance of entering those kinds of programs.

Solis, however, recognizes that, at 25 years old, he won’t be considered for any scholarships at all. What Uncaged 2.0 represents to him, though, is a last-ditch effort to prove that there is still a future for him for this sport. Having a wife and a child to care for, however, makes that “future” seem less and less of a possibility along with the realization that he needs to provide for his family as a father.

May gasuporta man sa pamilya ko, (ang) manghod ko. Sa (Wushu) Philippine Team siya subong.Siya man ang ga-support sa pamilya ko, (kay) ang ginpangayo ko daan sa iya, last ko na ini eh. Kung mapierde ko, kung ano man guid, mauntat na ako. Kung madaog ako, tuloy-tuloy ako. Kay siya subong ga-support sa pamilya ko, (hambal ko) “Support lang guid, gamay na lang guid,’ he says.

[The one supporting my family, it’s my younger brother. He’s with the Wushu Philippine Team now. He is the one supporting my family, because what I asked from him, this fight is my last chance. If I lose, whatever the decision may be, then I will stop. If I win, then I’ll continue fighting. Because he is the one supporting my family, then (I just say to him), “Support is all I need, even just a little bit of it.”]

Sacrificing for one’s art is such a common phrase used these days, but these boxers literally have to do so with their bodies. For every Pacquiao who rises from the depths of poverty to become a part of the elite that perpetuates the cycle of the status quo, hundreds—even thousands—of boxers are left to scrap for themselves in the only way they know how: by fighting with their hands, and taking on all comers as much as their bodies and wills can take it.

Boxing, in a way, can be considered as one of the embodiments of the everyday Filipino experience. Take from it what you will.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.