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Pancho Villa: The original Filipino icon

07
Mar

There have been three great Filipino prizefighters in the modern history of boxing.

One, Manny Pacquiao, will face Joshua Clottey next week in an attempt to add to his already-burgeoning legend and legacy. He is likely to succeed.

Another is Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, who fought the world’s better junior lightweights in the 1960s and was world champion for seven years. Dead for a quarter century, he remains a national icon in the Philippines, where heroes are not readily forgotten.

The third is Francisco Guilledo, the first Filipino world champion, who the Asian world and the fight game’s old heads remember as Pancho Villa, and without whom the other two might not be known at all.

That Villa died at the age of 23 and at the apparent apex of his powers as the flyweight world champion puts him in the same sad league as Salvador Sanchez, Harry Greb and Stanley Ketchel, other ring greats whose lives and careers were not permitted the luxury of winding down painfully and slowly, as do so many others. You wonder who has it better.

At any rate, Guilledo, who in 1994 was inducted later than he should have been into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was born in Ilog, Negros Occidental on Aug. 1, 1901.

As a kid Guilledo was good with his fists and enjoyed using them. Kids like that never stay a secret for very long and soon he had acquired the attention of a pair of older boxing figures in Frank Churchill and Pacquito Villa. Together they managed his fortunes.

History is unclear as to which of the men convinced him to fight under the name Pancho Villa, but by any name he did such good work in the Philippines that by 1922 he was invited by Tex Rickard – the Don King of the 1920s, if you like – to fight in the United States.

Villa, whose career record is 76-5-5 (23 knockouts) with 23 no-decisions, accepted the invitation and fought frequently – nine fights in -’22 alone – and with mixed results: no-decisions against Abe Goldstein and Frankie Genaro, wins over Battling Murray and Johnny Hepburn, another loss to Genaro. But his relentless, all-action style made him enormously popular.

In a preview of his 11-round knockout of Johnny Buff for the American flyweight title, the New York Times reported: “Villa enjoys wide popularity among local boxing enthusiasts. In his local bouts the Philippine boxer has demonstrated remarkable ability, and his cleverness, speed and hitting prowess have gained him many local admirers.”

A report of the fight the next day was equally complimentary and also spoke to Villa’s style.

“The new champion impressed the large crowd with his victory. Popular in the extreme prior to the battle, Villa added many new admirers to his legion of friends through the workmanlike manner in which he attained the title.

“The oriental champion was the master throughout,” reported The Times. “Villa was like a beast of the jungle suddenly unleashed on his prey ÔǪ the little Filipino flyweight was on Buff in a jiffy, battering the defending champion around the ring and gradually wearing Buff down to a state of utter helplessness.”

The win over Buff got Villa a shot at the legendary flyweight champion Jimmy Wilde, who most historians recognize as the greatest flyweight ever, as well as the best fighter Great Britian has ever produced.

But before meeting Wilde, Villa lost again to Genaro. He got the title shot anyway, due primarily to the nature of the loss. The decision was so controversial it moved editor Nat Fleischer to pen a column in the April 1923 issue of THE RING entitled “Time to Eliminate Judges.”

The title fight with Wilde, which was scheduled for June 16 at New York’s Polo Grounds, represented a comeback of sorts for the champion. He’d been inactive for two years, and, at age 31, was past his peak.

Nevertheless, the bout did brisk business: Paid attendance was more than 40,000, and even that was a disappointment to the promoters, who had expected a sellout.

Fans of Wilde saw their hope for victory crushed early. Writing for THE RING, R.B. Cozens reported, “A punch, landed on Wilde at the end of the second round after the bell had sounded, dropped Jimmy and it was the turning point of the battle. ÔǪ The blow ended whatever chances Wilde had against his aggressive opponent. Jimmy had to be pushed out for the third round, and from then to the finish he took a severe beating.”

Villa thrashed Wilde until referee Patsy Haley stopped it in the seventh round. At just 21 years old, Villa was world champion.

“It was just as I expected, but I don’t want to crow over the victory,” Villa said afterward. “Jimmy Wilde was the gamest little fighter I ever met, and I’ve fought quite a few. Not one fighter in a hundred would have come back after that sixth round, and I was surprised to see him try it. But it proved he was one of the best and I have nothing but admiration for him.”

The Times gushed. “The rise of Pancho Villa, the new flyweight champion of the world, has been little short of meteoric.”

Such was the severity of the beating that some months later Wilde revealed, “I do not recall being knocked out, nor a single thing that happened until, one day three weeks afterwards, I found myself in a little seaside bungalow some distance from New York.”

Villa defended the title four times over the next two years, mixing in a number of non-title fights. While preparing for a July 1925 non-title fight against future Hall of Famer Jimmy McClarnin, he had a dentist remove one of his wisdom teeth. The abscess became swollen and he was advised not to fight. He went against McLarnin anyway, and lost a 10-round decision.

“It was a tough fight,” McLarnin told writer Peter Heller in 1970. “On the inside he kept hitting me on the ears. He was a great infighter. I wound up with two black ears. I heard of people winding up with black eyes, but I wound up with two black ears. He was a great little fighter.”

Following the fight Villa had three more teeth extracted and was found to have a serious infection at the site of the original extraction. Over the following week the infection worsened.

His trainer, Whitey Ekwert, found him in such a state that he took him to a local hospital, where Dr. C.E. Hoffman scheduled surgery to relieve swelling in Villa’s throat that was caused by the infection.

The operation never took place. Villa “suffocated under the anesthetic” while being prepared for surgery, Dr. Hoffman told the press. Attempts to revive him failed. He was dead at 24.

Villa, whom in 2002 THE RING called one of the 80 best fighters of the last 80 years, was eulogized by The National Sports Alliance, a short-lived, New York-based body formed purportedly to protect and enhance boxing and wrestling.

“The champion died fighting a man’s fight,” said James J. Johnston, the group’s spokesman. “Villa was a credit to boxing, and the game cannot afford to lose such men.”

Manny Pacquiao, like Flash Elorde before him, is in very good company.

Some random observations from last week:

Good news for Devon Alexander: He’s a unified belt holder in one of the deepest divisions in the game, a hot commodity and just 23 years old. Bad News: By the time he’s done paying Don King and sanctioning fees to two governing bodies, he’ll be lucky to clear $47.00 from his next fight. ÔǪ

I don’t know what Juan Urango could have done to make it any clearer to Benjy Estevez that he was ready and willing to keep fighting, but it doesn’t matter much now, does it? ÔǪ

Lenny Zappa: great name, average fighter. But hey, he’s the IBO champion so that counts for something, right? ÔǪ

Vic Darchinyan is fortunate that while they were passing out punching power, Rodrigo Guerrero was off somewhere bragging about what a great chin he has. 

Joshua Clottey’s had some big fights – against Antonio Margarito, Zab Judah, Diego Corrales, Miguel Cotto. Next time you think all fighters make a lot of money, remember those shots of his apartment in the Bronx. ÔǪ

Kudos to our friends at Friday Night Fights for the new studio and the ramped up opening montage. Good stuff. 

While we’re handing out accolades, good for ESPN Classic for going deep into the vault and coming out with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad’s thundering (and cruelly hilarious) knockout of Lotte Mwale in 1982. For those of you who know Muhammad only as a trainer, when properly inspired, he was a stone killer in the late 1970s and early ’80s. ÔǪ

While it’s true that Wilton Hilario didn’t jab worth a damn in his loss to Martin Honorio, he was still chasing Honorio and trying to land a bomb in the 12th round despite having been soundly beaten up and floored twice. I say that makes him a heck of a prospect. You can teach a guy to jab, and a better trainer will. You can’t teach him to hate losing.

Bill Dettloff can be reached at [email protected]. You can read his articles every month in THE RING magazine.