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Filipino fighters focused despite Pacquiao defeat


Manny Pacquiao might have suffered the most devastating loss of his entire career last Saturday night in Las Vegas but in the Philippines, his legacy remains intact.

Despite the knockout defeat at the hands of old adversary Juan Manuel Marquez, young Filipinos still aspire to follow in the footsteps of the most famous boxer alive.

For some, fame will be the main motivation, but for more it will be the sort of fortune which Pacquiao has acquired in a career, having headlined some of the biggest boxing cards of the century.

He picked up a minimum of $23 million for his efforts against Marquez, an incredible sum of money for a man who would once have struggled to make a dollar a day trying to scrape together a living on the streets of Manila.

World champions who come from affluent backgrounds are few and far between in boxing, but, even by the sport’s usual standards, Pacquiao’s story still stands out.

He famously left the family home at the age of 14 after his father killed and cooked his pet dog in order to be able to feed him and his siblings.

From the city streets he made his way into a boxing gym and the rest, of course, is history.

The wild success which Pacquiao has enjoyed has not just changed his life, it has also opened the eyes of his countrymen – particularly those who also come from impoverished backgrounds – to the riches that an elite-level boxer can expect to receive.

Pacquiao’s career began in Manila but the real heartland of the sport is the southern island of Cebu, often referred to as the boxing capital of the Philippines.  

Fights are held every weekend and, in 2010, a crowd of 30,000 people turned out to watch a boxing match in nearby Bohol, more than would fit into the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which routinely plays host to Pacquiao fights.

The best known camp in the Cebu region is ALA Boxing Gym, which is home to around 150 fighters ranging from seasoned professionals like Rey “Boom Boom” Bautista, Donny Nietes, Milan Melindo and AJ Banal, to schoolboy amateurs dreaming of one day breaking into the big leagues.

ALA Boxing Gym takes its name from the initials of Antonio L Aldeguer who founded it in 1985. Today the sessions are overseen by head trainer Ala Villamor, a man who has witnessed first hand the effect that Pacquiao has had on boxing in the Philippines.

“I joined ALA Gym when I was 15, and I am 42 years old now,” he said. “I started off as an amateur fighter and I was three-time national champion and two-time world title challenger.

“Boxing has become more popular now and it is all because of Manny Pacquiao. He opened the doors for the Filipino boxers, and now more parents want their sons to become boxers.”

As a career option, boxing might seem somewhat brutal but, according to Villamor, young fighters at the ALA Gym are taught how to handle themselves in their everyday lives as well as inside the ring.

“There are about 40 pro fighters who stay in the gym, train together, eat together, sleep together – it’s like a family. The young boxers learn manners: how to eat at a table, how to wear a shirt and be formal. It’s not just about boxing here, the long-term future of the boxers is important, even after they finish fighting,” added Villamor.

The gym insists that all fighters finish high school and, if necessary, will offer financial support to help them do so.

When these young men feel they have a bright future in the sport they will focus full time on their boxing at the earliest available opportunity because, in a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, the money on offer can make a big difference.

“They can have their first amateur fight at seven to eight years old, and they would get about 300 pesos [$7.32] for that. Some turn pro when they are 14, some 18, and then it’s normal to get 1,000 pesos a round.

“The boxers all help their family, their mother and father, they send their money home. They all come from poor families and they want to make a better life for their family,” said Villamor.

The ambition is always to find a future world champion, the next Pacquiao,  but to do so ALA Gym must compete not just with rival camps at home but with the best fighters from traditional boxing strongholds such as Mexico, Cuba, Thailand and the US.

In June a rare opportunity arose when 23-year-old AJ Banal was rewarded for having run up an outstanding 28-1-1 record with a chance to fight for the vacant WBO Bantamweight belt.  

It was his second shot at a world title but he came up short, being stopped by tough Thai contender Pungluang Sor Singyu in the ninth round.

Even Pacquiao suffered his fair share of setbacks, getting stopped in the third round of a fight by a journeyman barely a year after making his professional debut. However, according to Villamor, Banal’s loss represented a major setback for the ALA Gym.

“To build a world champion is very, very difficult and involves a lot of work – training, promotion, discipline, determination, everything . . . it’s very hard to do. AJ losing was very disappointing because he has been with us since he was eight or nine. We put in a lot of time and effort,” he said.  

The good news is that the gym has more than its fair share of hungry young fighters looking to step up and stake their claim to the limelight. The most prominent contender at present is Albert “Prince” Pagara’ an 18-year-old who has already run up a 14-0 professional record.

Unsurprisingly, Pagara cites Pacquiao as having been a major influence on his career but he can also look even closer to home for role models.

“My father was an amateur boxer, and my brother Jason is a boxing champion who also trains at the ALA Gym.  When I was nine years old I used to play basketball, but one day my brother came home with a belt and everyone was very impressed. After that, I knew I wanted to be a boxer.”

He is one of six children and has a 12-year-old brother who is also learning the tools of the family trade as a boxer. The three siblings all dream of one day becoming a world champion just like Pacquiao.

“Next year I want to fight for the national championship and for an Asian championship, and by the time I am 22 or 23 I will be ready to fight for a world title. In the future, I think my younger brother will turn pro and join me and Jason at the ALA Gym. Our ambition is to have three world champions in the family,” he said.

Pacquiao is renowned for possessing the sort of combination of speed and power which only comes around once in a generation, but for Villamor and the trainers at the ALA Gym there is more to finding future world champions than just looking for physically gifted fighters.

“For us, the most important thing in a boxer is attitude. If you don’t have the ability, it doesn’t matter. As long as you have the discipline and determination to become a boxer we will train you.”



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