And while Pacquiao’s popularity is unrivaled, it’s not the first time a Filipino boxer headed a list of most admired persons of the island nation. But if Pacquiao’s legacy is as great as most believe, it will spawn a new generation of boxers that will try to emulate his near legendary status, perhaps landing on this list 20 years from now.
When it comes to his place among Filipino greats, Manny Pacquiao is a work in progress.
The Philippines have a long and proud boxing history, stretching back to the late 1890’s when the first Filipinos began to launch their fists for pay. Boxing came to the island via American soldiers, who used sport to bond with the local population. To date, that cultural bonding initiative has produced 28 champions, beginning with Pancho Villa in 1923 and culminating with Gerry Penalosa’s ascension to champion status this year.
Not included in this list are any active boxers, so Pacquiao and Penalosa are not eligible. This was done because it’s hard to place someone whose work is still in progress, and it allows me to bring names to the forefront that the public might not be aware of. American boxers of Filipino extraction like Brian Viloria and Jesus Salud were omitted as well.
10A. Anthony Villanueva — Villanueva is an exception in Filipino boxing, an amateur star who never matriculated to the paid ranks. Villanueva was an outstanding amateur who competed in the 1964 Olympics and won the silver medal at featherweight. Many believe the 19 year old should have been awarded the gold, and that Russia’s Stanislav Stepashkin was given preferential treatment from judges swayed by politics. It was a close 3-2 verdict, and came on the heels of Villanueva defeating American favorite Charles Brown 4-1 in the quarterfinals. The ringside radio reporter was stunned, and told his nation “We were robbed.”
10. Rene Barrientos (39-7-2, 1962-1978) — It seemed like this southpaw was destined to be a runner-up his entire career, but the WBC’s habit of stripping champions gave him an opening. Barrientos gained fans in losing a decision to the legendary Flash Elorde early in his career, and he handed streaking countryman Love Allotey a loss later that same year. He fought successfully for the next two years, moving up the ratings and traveling to Japan, Panama and Venezuela. In his first title bout, he was unlucky to draw with Hiroshi Kobayashi in Japan, and was rewarded with a second title shot when Kohayashi was stripped. He took advantage of that by defeating Californian Ruben Navarro, but lost the title in his first defense to Yoshiaki Numata. A rematch ended in a split decision loss, again in Japan. Barrientos needed more power to mix with the elite.
9. Eribito Salavarria (39-11-3, 1963-1978) — Salavarria was another fighter in a long line of great Filipino flyweights, and the first Filipino to regain his world title. He got a shot at the Orient crown after splitting four fights with Ric Magramo for the Filipino title, but lost a split decision in Japan to Tsuyoshi Nakamura. He went on a three year unbeaten streak after the loss, including a second-round knockout of WBC champion Chartchai Chionoi in Thailand. He defended the title twice on the road (defeating future champion Betulio Gonzalez), then lost his title to Venice Borkhorsor in Thailand. Salavarria showed mental strength by reclaiming the title with a win over Susumu Hanagata (the second time he took his title) in Japan. Hanagata got revenge, and won the title back via another split decision. Salavarria got one more title chance, but was stopped for the first time by Alfonso Lopez. Inconsistency plagued Salavarria, who lost non-title fights in two important trips to America.
8. Dodie Boy Penalosa (31-7-2, 1982-1995) — Penalosa was an all-around boxer whose story outside the ring was just as inspiring as it was inside the ropes. Penalosa overcame the childhood disease of Polio, which made his left leg shorter than his right, to battle the world’s elite. A quick study, he turned pro at the beginning of 1982, and was fighting for the IBF title in December of 1983. He won that title in his 13th fight, and made three defenses. The southpaw gave up the junior flyweight title and moved up to face WBA flyweight champion Hilario Zapata. Penalosa lost that battle of speedsters, but rebounded to win the IBF title two fights later. He was shockingly knocked out in his first defense, and lost a close title fight to Dave McAuley in England two years later. It was his last appearance on the world stage, even though he continued to fight for five more years. Four of his seven loses came in an ill-advised comeback.
7. Rolando Navarette (54-15-3, 1973-1991) — The high stakes gambler of this list, he either won or went down in a blaze of glory. It took seven years for the power puncher to get a title shot, after fighting everyone in Asia with mixed success. He was bombed out in five rounds by Alexis Arguello, so it came as a surprise when he got another title shot one year later (having lost, and not beaten anyone of note). Cornelius Boza-Edwards made a tactical mistake slugging with the wild southpaw, and was knocked out in five rounds. Navarette became an instant star at home, and partied his way out of the title after one defense. Navarette did not give up his title easily, losing an inspired war of attrition to Mexican Rafael Limon. Still a dangerous puncher, he never got another title shot, and his only win of note was a 10-round decision over Limon after he had lost the title. He was convicted of rape and spent time in jail, and his life continues to spiral downwards in Hawaii.
6. Ceferino Garcia (102-28-12, 1926-1945) — Garcia began to box after he was refused admission into the U.S. Navy. He holds the distinction of being the Filipino to win a title at the highest weight category, winning the world middleweight title. He won the title despite not being a natural middleweight, moving up to the 160-pound ranks after losing title shots at welterweight against Barney Ross and Henry Armstrong. So it came as a shock to many when he knocked out middleweight champ Fred Apostoli in seven round, and not so shocking when he lost the title seven months later to Ken Overlin. Garcia still had a huge right hand, but was really in decline by the time he won the world title. World War II prevented Garcia from taking advantage of his former champ status. On a side note, it was Garcia, not Kid Gavilan, who first brought the ‘bolo punch’ to prominence.
5. Small Montana (82-24-10, 1931-1942) — A chiseled body belied the light punching stylist’s real talent. The son of a police chief, he ran away from home to become a boxer. Inspired to fight by Pancho Villa, he always carried a picture of his hero with him. An argument can be made that he should be rated as one of the 10 best flyweights ever, considering a 11-year career that took place on the road the majority of the time. From the late 1920’s to the mid 1930’s, the flyweight title was mired in a state of confusion, with many claiming the title. Montana was recognized by the New York State authorities after he defeated Midget Wolgast. He held that distinction for two years, then Benny Lynch took a 15 round decision from him in a unification match. He had a good series of fights with Jackie Jurich over the next two years, and lost a showdown of Filipino greats to the younger Little Dado.
4. Little Dado (45-4-9, 1936-1943) — Ranked ahead of Montana based on head-to-head performance, even though he never won recognition as a consensus world champion. He competed well at flyweight and bantamweight, but did his best work in the flyweight ranks. He fought against the elite from the outset, and laid claim to the California version of the world flyweight and bantamweight titles. While he was not a hard puncher, he delivered stinging blows. It showed when he knocked Jackie Jurich down six times in 10 rounds. If allowed to box on the outside, using his fleet feet, he could control anyone of the era. However, it was an era of infighting, and as Dado moved up in weight he lost his advantages as the rounds wore on.
3. Luisito Espinosa (47-13, 1984-2005) — Like Pacquiao, Espinosa made his name as a thorn in the side of Mexican boxers. The son of a boxer, he was one of 14 kids and began to box at age 7. At 5-foot-7 he was a very tall bantamweight, and he used his long reach well enough to make him equally effective at featherweight. His weak spot was a shaky chin, and he could fade late in bouts. From 1994 to 1998, he was undefeated, and it is the only time Espinosa showed consistency. In that stretch he defeated Jibaro Perez, Manuel Medina (twice), Alejandro Gonzalez, Cesar Soto, and Kennedy McKinney. Other than that stretch, Espinosa could be counted on to drop fights he should have won and fought down to the level of his opposition. He skipped over the junior featherweight division to win, and defend, world titles at bantamweight and featherweight.
3. Ben Villaflor (54-8-7, 1966-1976) — A southpaw with some pop in his punches, Villaflor turned pro at 15 and was out of the game by age 23. Born in The Philippines, he boxed mostly out of Hawaii, starting in his fourth pro year, where economic conditions were better. An iron chinned battler who wore opponents down with pressure, he was not battle tested before his title shot (losing six of those fights), with his best wins coming over aging title challengers Frankie Crawford and Raul Cruz. Villaflor did take full advantage of the opportunity, and delivered a career best performance by defeating Alfredo Marcano. It looked like a short-lived title reign when he was defeated by Kuniaki Shibata at home. He showed grit when he knocked out Shibata in the rematch, and an impressive title reign followed. Japan’s Yasutsune Uehara could not last into the third round, and Villaflor showed heart by knocking down Korean challenger Hyun Chi Kim three times to retain his title by split decision. Slick Puerto Rican Samuel Serrano drew controversially with Villaflor in Hawaii before taking the title in San Juan by decision in a mandated rematch. His style was not conducive to longevity, and he retired to manage boxers.
2. Flash Elorde (88-27-2, 1951-1971) — Elorde remains the most popular Filipino boxer ever, heralded by mature Filipino boxing fans as the best the nation has produced in or out of the ring. He still holds the junior lightweight division record for the lengthiest title reign, an impressive seven-year span in which he made 10 defenses and almost single-handedly legitimized the division. He twice lost close fights for the featherweight and lightweight titles. It’s hard to knock this smooth boxer in any department, and he made the most of his southpaw stance with frequent use of an accurate left hook. As his name suggests, speed was his forte and led to most of his victories. Learned his craft the hard way, starting his pro career at age 16, and not moving into title contention until well after his 16th bout. A sports writer of the time aptly described an Elorde fight: “His legs almost shot from under him, his face a rucksack of welts, cuts, and bruises, his eyes mere slits, Elorde would pull that courage from some inner, invisible scabbard, and turn the tide.”
1. Pancho Villa (91-8-4, 1919-1925) — The first Filipino world champion, his win propelled the tiny nation onto the fistic landscape. Sadly, we never got to see the best of Villa, since he died at age 24 of blood poisoning. Villa packed 100 fights into six years, and excited fans with a take-no-prisoners style. He won two national titles, fighting larger men, before venturing to America to make his name. Success did not come immediately when he was matched tough in close defeats to future champ Frankie Genaro and Abe Goldstein. Genaro had Villa’s number, and defeated him twice more (once for the American flyweight title). No one else could emulate Genaro’s success, and Villa tore through American flyweights along the East Coast. He gained international acclaim when he defeated Jimmy Wilde, who was unable to keep the fight at a distance. Villa tore into his body, and an exhausted Wilde was stopped in the seventh. Villa held the title for three years, but in his last bout (a non-title affair) Hall of Famer Jimmy McLarnin won a 10 round decision. Villa was obviously affected by an infected tooth he had extracted the morning of the fight, and he had three more pulled two days later. He died of blood poisoning from those procedures, the same day his wife gave birth to Villa’s son. She loudly proclaimed Villa was murdered, by an intentional overdose of anesthesia ordered by a gambling syndicate.