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Shadow Boxing with Politics

I heard a first-hand memory of Pancho Villa from an old-timer in New York who related the story to me the after the victory "blow-out" he witnessed in the 1920s. The bunch of old Manongs shared the glory of the first Filipino boxer to capture the world title. They relived the great match with a little shadow boxing and the happy moment when Pancho treated them to a celebration that would bring them closer to home. The champion was liberal spender and great showman. As they were not pulling any punches, my first lesson on Filipino American history was only beginning. They were single men working menial jobs, they treated me like the son they never have.

“As they were not pulling any punches, my first lesson on Filipino American history was only beginning.”

The sweet science became my sports fascination. I still enjoy shooting stories with Filipino old-timers as I find myself as old as they were now. Now I am able to connect various boxing events that I would like to share with you.

The US Armed Forces brought boxing as a martial art to the Philippines in the early 1900s. The first schoolteachers were the US soldiers. They did the best they could but comprehensive education required civilian guidance. And the Thomasitte soon arrived.

Almost at the same time, boxing was promoted between the soldier and sailor. It was supposedly to keep healthy body and mind and staving vices that would be otherwise learned. Matches became big time and the local Filipinos soon were invited for the challenge. There were some American boxers who would later become famous after serving in the Philippines. Mike Ballarino of New Jersey was among the US soldiers who learned boxing in Manila and later became a boxing champion like Jersey Joe Walcott. He was a junior lightweight but he honed his skill by losing to a then unknown flyweight eight times in Manila named Pancho Villa. They fought in matches that went for 20 rounds couple of times

Pancho Villa born in Iloilo in 1901. His father left the family and joined the US Navy when he was only an infant. Pancho Villa so impressed Frank Churchill that the promoter brought him to New Jersey. On March 1922 Pancho Villa made his boxing debut in the United States at the old Oakland Athletic Club in Jersey City while Mike Ballarino was heading for a heavier division.

Almost the same year Jersey City held the first world multimillion-dollar boxing gate. It was the beginning of the reign of one of the most powerful mayors in the United States. Mayor Hague was true to his Irish roots with a passion for boxing, a prizefigther and promoter in his early youth. He was known as a political powerbroker of the likes of FDR courted his favor. He was a kingmaker in more than one way as he supported a New Jersey favorite son rule the US boxing championship. It was inevitable that on September 1922 Pancho Villa and Johnny Buff, defending his US title would meet.

It was the beginning of the golden years of Filipino boxing. Pancho was at his best, inspired by the fact that he had beaten a much larger boxer from New Jersey eight times and soundly served Johnny a beating. The punishment was so severe that Mayor Hague stood up and left the front row abruptly before it was completely over. Little Johnny went back and joined the Navy. Today you will see his only legacy; his grandson is Johnny Buffer, whose stentorian voice you hear "..ready to rumble" in almost all the major title fights, In 1925 Mike Ballarino, the Italian bull of Bayonne became the Jr Lightweight champion. He never fought Pancho Villa in the United States.

The Cenderella Man, Jim Braddock became a printer's devil in a Jersey press shop when he was 14. It was about this time that he shimmied over the fence of a ballpark to watch the later Pancho Villa, sensational Mexican flyweight, box an adversary.From (Braddock Dazed by Fame Champ, Descendant of Irish Kings, an Alger Hero-review by By JACK MILEY on the Movie). This is story of Jim Braddock who won the Heavyweight title in a big upset ove Baer. this is a terrific story built around James J. Braddock, a gritty heavyweight of the Depression era who came off the bread lines after it seemed his injury-marred boxing career was over, and eventually became the world champion in 1935.He was born in New York city but grew up around Hudson County during Pancho Villa haydays. I dont know if the Jim Braddock thought that Pancho Villa, the boxer was from Mexico.

Mayor Hague ruled the City of Jersey with his iron fist like the Irish Mayor Daley of Chicago. He remained Mayor till the middle of the century and brought federal funds to Jersey City through his influence, the powerful democratic machine. He rose from a little Irish community north of the present day Manila Avenue and fought like a tough Irish boxer. Jersey City became a recipient of several Federal projects, among them is the state of the art Jersey Medical Center The site is now being replaced by a new building but not before it became the major sponsor of nursing exchange program. It was the beginning of the arrival of foreign Medical practioneers to Jersey that saw the formation of a Filipino community in the east coast. Medical institutions sponsored more immigrants from the Philippines than any institutions.

When I went to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, I watched the Boxing events, as this was the best chance of a homeboy winning a medal. I saw instead an unknown amateur-Cassius Clay. About 20 years later I settled in Jersey City, saw Cassius (aka Mohammed Ali) in an exhibition match against Mayor Tom X Smith of Jersey City, who also had a passion for boxing.

Now when I chat with the old-timers, I point to the ground at the corner of Oakland and Newark the site of Oakland Athletic Club where on June 6, 1922 Pancho Villa fought his first fight in the United States. The mayors of Jersey City have a romanced the Filipinos, now numbering over 15,000 since. Jersey city is the most diversified city in the United States, 100 years ago it was impossible for a poor Irish pug to became Mayor but Hague proved them wrong, and just last year African American Glenn Cunningham was elected mayor. Is there a Filipino in the horizon? Maybe not - the average income of the Filipino household in New Jersey is $85,000, according to the latest census. That is almost the same as the Mayor's salary, and more than 20,000 the average family in New Jersey is making.

In Hawaii in the 1920's boxing was very popular but illegal as cockfighting among the early Filipinos. According to Joseph Smith, Journal of Combative Sport, July 2001

Like the communities from which they recruited, Hawaiian bootleg fight clubs were racially segregated. The one that attracted the most Filipinos was Honolulu‚s Rizal Athletic Club. Excepting small gate receipts, the only money to be made through boxing in Hawaii was through side betting. This was unsatisfactory to Filipinos, partly because the working-class fighters wanted to be paid for their pains, and mostly because people from all walks of life wanted to see fights featuring the Filipino pugilists passing through Honolulu on their way to and from San Francisco. As a result, in 1926 the "pugilistic propensity of the Filipino population of Hawaii" was a stated motivation for Governor Wallace Farrington‚s testimony to Congress urging the legalization of prizefighting in Hawaii. Said the governor: At the present time a large and growing Filipino population has very little amusement, and it is a real problem to keep them out of trouble. Their interest in boxing is not surpassed by their interest in any other sport. At every show given, there have been thousands of Filipinos denied admission because the shows were not open to the general public. Boxing will bring them into closer relations with the other races and tend to make better citizens out of them.

San Diego Union-Tribune OBITUARY of Julio 'Jay' Ereneta, 103; veteran of WWI, WWII When he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in February 1919, a month after his 17th birthday, the Filipino native fell about 6 pounds short of meeting the minimum weight requirement. Early in a career that would span 30 years and see him rise to chief warrant officer, Mr. Ereneta proved his mettle in the boxing ring. Representing his ship in naval competition, he excelled as a flyweight, which has a 112-pound limit. The discipline he learned as a young boxer stayed with him for life. He disdained smoking, alcohol and fried foods, including those of his Filipino heritage, and emphasized whole grains, fruits and vegetables. He kept active with yardwork and gardening at his Valencia Park home and had no cause to see a doctor for nearly 50 years. "He was climbing ladders, pushing lawn mowers and trimming hedges until three months ago," his son said. When Mr. Ereneta was commissioned as a chief warrant officer in 1943, he became one of the first Filipino-born enlisted men to rise to officer status in the U.S. Navy. During his naval career, he was among the first Filipinos to serve as a radio operator, a combat air crewman and an aviation chief petty officer. He also was believed to be the oldest minesweeper sailor at the time of his death (April 15, 2005), according to the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Mr. Ereneta was born Jan. 2, 1902, in Iloilo City in the Visayan Islands of the Philippines. Pancho Villa was born just less than a year earlier in the same city.

Note: You could witness the Pancho Villa -Johnny Buff title fight from "The Great Pinoy Boxing Era" - documentary, by Corky Pasquil Order the documentary, and "relive" the sights, sounds, and emotions of that rich chapter in Filipino American history...



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