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Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American from Brooklyn in the holiest of Buddhist temples and watch the racial harmony flow.

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A Puncher's Chance

by Antonio Graceffo

March 21, 2007

On the Philippine island of Palawan, athletes like everyone else struggle to make a life for themselves and their families

To understand a place, culture or a people you need to integrate yourself into the daily life of the country. You need to learn the language. But most importantly, you need to participate in activities, clubs, and associations with local people. For me, martial art is often my gateway to a foreign culture. As soon as I land in a new country, I join the martial arts school and immediately, I am surrounded by new friends, who give me an insight into their culture which few foreigners would ever experience.

You have to find your own gateway, based on your own interest. In most countries you will find running clubs, cycling, surfing, chess, cooking, and also international associations such as Lions, JCs, or Rotary. Wouldn’t it be cool to run in a marathon in China, or take a French cooking class in Vietnam. Your genuine and shared interest will be a common ground which will breach even linguistic barrier, eventually leading to your love and appreciation of your host country.

I came to the Philippines to learn Arnis, Philippine stick fighting. On the Island of Palawan, there is an undiscovered treaure, Puerto Princesa City, which has repeated won the award as the cleanest and greenest island in the Philippines. The city is also famous for having the lowest crime rate in the Philippines. Prices are very low, and locals are the most friendly people I have ever met.

I checked into a pleasant guesthouse, with air-conditioning and private bath, for 700 Pesos a night. In restaurants a good meal cost around 80-130 Pesos, depending upon how much meat and scenery you need. Sidewalk places serve decent food for as little as 60 pesos. You can get just about anywhere by tricycle taxi for under 50 Pesos. The multicabs, big trucks which carry about twenty passengers, only charge 10 Pesos.

To keep up with my fighting training, mornings were spent in the gym, doing strength-work. My Tagolog met me at a caf้, every morning at 10:00 to give me private lessons for a fee of 150 Pesos per hour. Afternoons I was with my martial arts teacher, who I also paid 150 Pesos per hour. My evenings belonged to the Puerto Princesa Boxing team, which was free, paid for by the city Mayor Edward Hagedorn, a visionary who has created countless free educational and sport opportunities for Puerto’s young people.

The gym was my first gateway to the Philippine culture. I made two new friends, 29 year-old Gener and 28 year-old Ronell, two competitive bodybuilders who dreamed of making it as professionals and eventually as movie stars.

“Dreaming is free.” Laughs Gener. “But if there is an opportunity to reach your dreams, why not?”

As excited as they were about their chosen career choice, both men admitted that it was extremely difficult for a bodybuilder from Palawan to make it all the way to the big time.

“Even if we win we can’t go the big competitions because we don’t have sponsors.” Said Gener.

It costs money for training. Even a gym membership is expensive, relative to the earnings in the Philippines. The monthly fee is 1,000 Pesos if you consider that a decent wage is 6,000 Pesos, this is more than 15% of the monthly income. In the US, that would be like paying $600 a month for your gym membership.

“With sponsors we could take better supplements.” Said Ronell, who takes Creatin and amino acids. A bottle of supplements can run between $20 and $40 USD. Even the food required for a bodybuilder is expensive. They need a steady diet of protein, meat and huge numbers of calories per day.

“Meat is very expensive.” Said Gener. The family can’t support that type of eating. “The best athletes live in Manila. In Manila, it would be much easier to make it as a bodybuilder as well as a movie star.”

“If we are on TV or movies, we can make a lot of money.” Said Ronnel. “And, many women will want to marry us.”

When Ronnel won the first bodybuilding contest in Palawan, just three years ago, people had no idea what the sport was about. “I first heard about bodybuilding from watching Arnold Schwarzeneger movies.”

“We used DVDs and magazines to learn how to train. But magazines are too expensive, about 400 Pesos. So, we rely on foreign friends to give us the old copies when they are done with them.”

In the Philippines, every individual dream, no matter whether it be to study at university of go abroad to work, is secondary to the wished of the family. When you have little economic opportunity your family becomes very important to you. Both boys said they couldn’t train without their families’ blessing.

“Our families are behind us. If our family has money they give it to us, to support our training, but they don’t have a lot.” Said Gener. Both men said they had 5 siblings, which didn’t leave a lot for luxuries like bodybuilding.

“Dreaming is free…”

The boxing team taught me a spiritual lesson, which was more like something you would expect to hear from a Shaolin monk: “The quality of a man is not what he has in his hand, but what he has in his heart.” The boxers had absolutely nothing in their hands, but their hearts were huge.

“Sometimes, having nothing gives you a cool hand.” Said Cool Hand Luke, explaining how he was able to keep his composure, fighting a bigger opponent, where the chips were stacked fully against him, and he had bet every dollar he had.

Like Cool Hand Luke, The Puerto Princesa Boxing Team has nothing, but they manage to stay cool, training in the intense, Philippine sun. They have no gym, no ring, no weights, and no ropes. They only have one heavy bag, no medium bags, no speed bag, and no floor to ceiling bag. Most fighters don’t have boxing shoes. The team owns some smelly, decrepit boxing gloves, which are coming apart. The two coaches have to share a single pair of coach’s gloves. The teams they fight from bigger cities will have all of that, and more. And yet, in spite of all of the things they are lacking, The Puerto Princesa Boxing Team is one of the hardest working teams I have ever trained with. More than anything, their energy and enthusiasm put a smile on my face every day when we turn out for training. Sometimes I lose my smile when we are running six laps or the coach is slapping me, to teach me defense, but for the most part, they are a happy bunch.

The team meets everyday at 5:00 PM at the Sports Complex. The training is free to all, sponsored by the City government. The boxers stand in formation, at the position of attention, before their two coaches, 42 year old Romeo Zligan and Lelord Bautista, age 21. Romeo is a retired professional fighter. Lelord, in addition to coaching and studying at Palawan State University, continues to fight as an amateur.

The lead boxer, 18 year-old Ryan, stands before the coaches, salutes, and announces “Coaches, all boxers are ready for training.” The coaches return the salute, and Coach Lelord explains the day’s training.

The workout always starts with a run, on the track. When running, Coach Romeo sings cadence, like in the USA army. My favorite song is a Romeo-special. “I am just a lonesome boxer, far away from home. I climb the boxing ring, for I use to home. Darling if I die, you can marry again. Use my pension for your honeymoon.” And of course, because we are in the Philippines, we have to mix Tagalog with English. “Pangkat naming maganda Puerto Princesa Boxing Team!”

The guys get a kick out of me trying to sing along with the Tagalog lyrics. Just like when I was a young, aspiring comedian, I hoped, someday, I won’t make them laugh anymore. The one thing I can do well is count the exercises. Counting is always done in either English or Spanish, both of which I have spoken my whole life.

“You speak Tagalog?” Asked Romeo, trying to understand how I often pick up on their threads of conversation.

“Only the Spanish parts.” I tell him. But this is often about 20%, which is about the same as what a lot of punched-out professional fighters understand in some of the gyms I trained at back home.

After the run, the boxers do several rounds of shadow boxing, an important part of any fighting regimen. Shadow boxing gives the fighter the opportunity to practice the combinations he has learned from his coaches, and to combine them with movement. Shadow boxing is done in rounds, just like a real fight, so it also reinforces the fighter’s ability to pace himself and to time a round in his head. Additionally, shadow boxing gives the coaches a chance to walk among the boxers and make on-the-spot corrections to their form.

Shadow boxing is followed by several rounds of exercises, such as jumping, skipping or hoping. Because of the lack f equipment, the coaches have to be creative, inventing training techniques that don’t require exercise equipment. For the most part, a boxer’s work out should concentrate on three areas: cardiovascular fitness, strength, and technique. To their credit the coaches have found a number of ways of building cardio, including running timed sprints and long distances on the track. They work on technique with the boys, teaching them to throw combinations in the air, but with a lack of bags and coach’s mitts, there is only so much they can do. As for strength, there is almost no strength training, because this would normally require expensive weights and machines.

The guys always ask me about my experiences, fighting in other countries. I tell them, that in Thailand we don’t earn very much money for a fight. One boy told me. “We don’t get a lot here either. If we win we get 150 Pesos. Sometimes, in a big fight, we can get 300 Pesos.”

Ouch! That is a lot of training and punishment they go through for so little money. But economic problems seem to color every aspect of Philippine life.

All of the boxers are extremely good kids. They are polite, hard working, bright, and happy. I have never seen smiles and heard laughter like I have in Puerto Princesa. From the pleasant disposition of the people you would guess they didn’t have a care in the world. But the reality is, these kids are faced with challenges which most western kids would never know.

Several of the teammates are attending university, but many told me that they had to give up their education, after graduating high school, because their families had no money to pay tuition. Unable to find work, boxing is the only activity they have all day. Aside from the other problems that lack of money brings to families, one of the saddest for me is the waste of talented young people. In another country, or under other circumstances, these kids might be on their way to becoming, business executives, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, or freelance journalists living in Thailand.

One of the brightest kids is studying electrical engineering at college, although he hasn’t yet reached his 17th birthday. He is planning to finish a two year program, by age 18.

“And when you finish you will go to work in Abu Dhabi.” I joked.

“If God is willing, that is my dream.” He answered, seriously.

At least one other team member told me he already has a line on an engineering job in the UAE upon graduation.

From birth, Philippine young people seem to know that the best money making potential is to go to another country. If you drive through Manila you see masses of people hanging around on the street. At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then, a Philippine friend explained, “They are waiting for a job.” There were placards over almost every storefront that said “Overseas Employment” with job flyers taped up in the windows. It turns out that nearly 20% of the Philippine population is working abroad. Aside from the damage done to families, because of long term separation during overseas contracts, the lure of overseas employment has a negative effect on the country’s development, as the best and brightest minds leave.

The coaches have the boys doing some light sparring. Since I outweigh the biggest fighter by about thirty-five kilos, I opt to work on the heavy bag, alone. Romeo takes me on the coach’s mitts for several rounds. He is a good trainer with a good eye to help me correct my mistakes. I can see from the expression on his face, however, that he isn’t used to having a clumsy 95 kg American swinging at him, with my notoriously sloppy fighting style. Calling out the combinations, he is more than a little nervous that I will zig when I should zag and someone, (Romeo), will get hit by accident. The fact that he holds the gloves differently from my coaches back in Cambodia and Thailand, and the fact that he uses different words, sometimes confuses me, and he has to leap out of the way, when the wrong punch, comes like a wrecking ball.

“This is good training for you too.” I tell him. “In case you ever want to fight again.”

The boys always ask me for pointers, particularly on how to throw the short powerful hooks and uppercuts, which are common for heavyweight pros, but almost non-existent for amateurs in the lower weight divisions. I am not sure if I should teach them anything, for fear of messing up the collegiate style taught to them by their coaches.

The best advice I can give them is, “If it is the final round, and you are behind on points, kick the opponent in the groin.”

I am not sure if that was really the advice they needed, but it will help them win.

The next evolution of training is abdominal exercises, which we train, laying on the dirty ground, because the fighters lack exercise mats. The final exercise is that each team member runs across the abs of all of the other fighters, when it came my turn to step on my teammates we all just started laughing hysterically. Once again, I felt big and clumsy.

We stand in formation, at attention again, and Ryan salutes the coaches. “Coaches, all boxers have finished training.”

“Congratulations boxers!” Yells, Romeo “Are all the boxers happy?”

“YES, COACH!” we yell back.

As we file out, we all run by the coaches and give them a high-5.

In the face of other teams with better equipment, the Puerto Princesa Boxing team has done extremely well in competition. Even the boys who lose a fight maintain that positive attitude that is unique to the Philippines.

The athletes, like everyone else in the Islands, are looking for a way to make a life for themselves and their families. Whether through boxing education, or overseas employment, they all have a puncher’s chance.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com

Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa


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