The Top-Ten Filipino Boxers of All-Time

By Ronnie Nathanielsz
The lovely Pia Guanio, best known for her Chica Minute portion on the evening news of GMA 7 – 24 Oras – recently hosted a program titled  “Ang Pinaka Astig Na Pinoy Boxers” on QTV 11 in which she  named the top ten Filipino boxers of all-time.
The choices were not hers but rather the result of what seemed like a fairly reliable weighted survey based on the choice of a panel of media personnel who cover boxing on television or write extensively about the fight game. It also included sometime promoter and boxing manager Lope “Jun” Sarreal.
We informed the producer who interviewed us about our choices that quite frankly it was a little unfair to the other boxers in contention for the top honors to include Sarreal since he was the brother-in-law of the late, great Gabriel “Flash” Elorde and would naturally lean towards picking Elorde as No.1.
However, in fairness to Sarreal, his reasons for selecting Elorde as the greatest Filipino fighter of all-time were honest and well-founded and in many ways matched our own thoughts as to why we considered Elorde the greatest, with absolutely no malice towards the other all-time greats.
Interestingly, not long after the QTV 11 program which was aired on prime time on   Sunday, June 3 at 6:00 p.m. The Boxing Times ran a feature story on the Greatest Filipino Boxers of All-Time penned by  boxing writer John Gregg. The difference between the two was that Gregg’s choices were his own while the QTV 11 list of the top ten was a weighted consensus among prominent individuals from Philippine media who are regarded as responsible individuals  with sound judgment  who cover the sport.
Among those who were interviewed aside from Sarreal were longtime radio-tv commentator, host and for some time now a sports columnist of the Manila Bulletin, Ed Picson. One of the most widely-read columnists and often Picson’s  partner in the coverage of the PBA games for years, Quinito Henson was also on the show along with Ed Tolentino who is a prolific writer in a variety of sports and in many respects a storehouse of facts and figures.
Youthful PBL Commissioner Chino Trinidad who covers boxing both local and international as well as other sports, primarily basketball, also provided his own insights on the top ten as we too had the privilege of doing.
There was also another significant difference between the QTV 11 top ten and The Boxing Times roster since the TV show included amateur boxers who by their achievements were considered worthy of recognition.
John Gregg and the TV show had six fighters common to both – Filipino ring idol Manny Pacquiao, the late world junior lightweight champion Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, Francisco Gulliedo who used the ring name of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa,  two division world champion Luisito Espinosa,  world super flyweight champion Gerry Penalosa and world flyweight champion Erbito Salavarria.
Also included in the TV choices were two-division world champion Dodie Boy Penalosa,  world junior lightweight champion Rolando Navarette and the two Olympic silver medalists Anthony Villanueva and Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco.
Missing from the top ten chosen by the Filipino boxing media but included in Gregg’s list were middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia, Eluterio “Little Dado” Zapanta who was WBA flyweight and WBA bantamweight champion, WBA super featherweight champion Ben Villaflor and WBA super featherweight champion Jesus “The Hawaiian Punch” Salud.
Of course the telling difference was in the top choice with the Filipinos choosing Elorde and Gregg naming Pacquiao. Gregg’s assessment was obviously based solely on Pacquiao’s remarkable achievements in the ring. The choice on Pia Guanio’s program was a combination of achievements in the ring, overall character, demeanor both in and outside the ring and the human dimensions that set Elorde apart in most respects from all the rest.
When the results were tallied Elorde received 65 votes -- just two votes ahead of Pancho Villa with 63. Villanueva who many felt was robbed of a gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when he lost to Russian Stanislav Stepashkin in a bitterly controversial decision . The late incomparable boxing commentator Joe Cantada screamed “We were robbed! We were robbed!” while doing the ringside commentary for radio station dzHP “The Sound of the City” while Villanueva’s father and Los Angeles Olympics bronze medalist Cely Villanueva who was in the Manila studio with us embraced us and broke down and cried.
Villanueva who received 56 votes was followed by Luisito “Lindol” Espinosa who got 38 votes for fourth spot and 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games silver medalist Onyok Velasco who received 43 votes.
Pacquiao, to the surprise of many landed only sixth with a total of 39 votes.  Pacquiao’s setback in his bid to unseat incumbent congresswoman Darlene Antonino Custodio in the last May 14 elections despite the overwhelming sentiments of his fans and sincere supporters against his entering politics definitely told along with his decision to sign two contracts, the first with Golden Boy and a second with Top Rank two months later plus his late nights and long hours driven by a penchant for gambling in casinos, at cockfights and at the pool table. 
Dodie Boy Penalosa who heroically overcame the handicap of polio to become a two-division world champion was No. 7 with 34 votes followed by Salavarria with 33. The ninth spot was occupied by the “Bad Boy from Dadiangas” Rolando Navarette with 25 votes while Dodie Boy’s brother Gerry Penalosa rounded off the top ten with 19 votes.
Laura Elorde, widow of the late world junior lightweight champion who reigned for almost seven-and-a-half years and was the longest reigning world champion at that time was touched by the choice of her late husband as the Philippines No.1 in  a list of all-time greats.
Ms. Elorde said “we appreciate the opinion of many on this and it has helped my children live up to the legacy that their father has left them.” In what to us was a classic statement Laura Elorde remarked “when you treat people right and you have the heart for everybody, they will respect you, love you and remember you.”
The comments of the panel in relation to the choice of Elorde mirrored what the public sentiment towards him has always been .
Henson said Elorde was “not just a skilful boxer. He was also very clever, very intelligent.”  Ed Tolentino classified Elorde as a “scientific boxer who analyzed the weaknesses and tendencies of his opponent and exploited them. He had very good reflexes.”
Chino Trinidad noted that Elorde felt for his people. To Sarreal, Elorde was “a tiger in the ring but when he was outside he was extremely good and super humble and helped many charitable projects.” Picson mentioned that when people talked about Elorde and his life they simply felt good.
We recalled the fact that at that time, in the 1960s, “ there were no television cameras to capture Elorde distributing food or helping poor people. He did it all very quietly.”  Tolentino took off from there remembering that Elorde built orphanages, churches and would “willingly donate his hard-earned money which he got through his blood and sweat.”
According to Tolentino, Flash Elorde was “ a guy with an unparalleled killer instinct inside the ring but with a very human heart outside the ring.”
During his fights the sisters at Saint Rita along Sucat would pray the rosary while gathered around a radio listening to the coverage over dzHP which covered most of the Filipino legend’s fights including his historic battles with Japan’s Teruo Kosaka, Ismael Laguna, Love Allotey, Suh Kang Il, his two world lightweight title fights with champion Carlos Ortiz and many more.
Elorde who won the title in a spectacular seventh round knockout of American Harold Gomes before some 30,000 wildly cheering fans at the inauguration of the Araneta Coliseum on March 16,  1960 eventually lost the crown to the young Japanese Yoshiaki Numata over seven years later in Tokyo.
The son of a poor farmer from Bogo, Cebu, Elorde battled his way to the world title and into the hearts and homes of millions of Filipinos. He was, for the most part of his illustrious career managed by the Grand Old Man of Philippine boxing Lope “Papa” Sarreal who later became Elorde’s father-in-law when Elorde married Sarreal’s daughter, Laura.
Elorde  always fought the best in his division and had several memorable ring battles. It was indeed a tribute to him that the men he fought such as Gomes, Shigeki Kaneko and Ortiz have been special guests at the Annual Elorde Awards Banquet of Champions which is held to commemorate his birthday on March 25. Without exception the men he fought and beat or lost to, praise Elorde for his skill and sportsmanship in the ring and his extraordinary human qualities beyond boxing.
Enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame just like Pancho Villa who was the first Filipino and Asian world champion when he scored a sensational seventh round KO over Jimmy Wilde before a huge crowd at the Polo Grounds in New York on May 18, 1923, Elorde is similarly enshrined in the hearts and minds of a generation of Filipinos who lived life with goodness and simplicity at a time when boxing was more a sport than a naked business enterprise where promoters  milk the public dry and where integrity and decency are virtues long forgotten. There are exceptions for sure but sadly too few to make much of a difference.
In today’s utterly commercialized world of boxing Manny Pacquiao is a national idol if not a hero, and rightly so. But his place in boxing history, indeed in the consciousness of millions of Filipinos is built solely on his exploits in the ring, nowhere else. Pacquiao’s indomitable courage and gallantry are the stuff that legends are made of. He is, today, the most recognizable Filipino both at home and abroad although some of his actuations in the past year have somewhat eroded his stature and diminished the sparkle associated with a national treasure.
During the Elorde era television was comparatively new and international communications and media were in a state far removed from the kind of worldwide phenomenon it is today. It also exerted nowhere near the level of influence that media exerts on audiences in this day and age.
There were no publicity agents or PR spin doctors who made fighters look bigger than they really were or made people believe beyond belief. Gentlemen like Elorde lived and died and won esteem and recognition, if not adulation, purely on their merits and their achievements. They were recognized by fans and media, up close and in a very personal way.
In many ways Elorde showed fighters who came  after him how to break free from the bondage of poverty and to battle their way into national recognition and respect. As he traveled along his glory Elorde never ever forgot to look back and remember where he came from.
As the Filipino reflected  on the abiding sense of respect for Elorde he was pictured as a good and decent man, a loving father, a caring husband and a deeply Christian individual who essentially cared for others more than even himself.
Truth to tell we can discuss and even debate the question of who was the greatest Filipino boxer of all time and indeed who was the finest boxer ever, pound-for-pound. But the assessments will be subjective because the fighters are intrinsically separated by time and circumstance.
We maintain that  as a fighter per se Pacquiao is ahead by a proverbial knockout. But if our assessment is based in the context of Elorde’s skills as a “thinking fighter” as George Araneta who was a young man who watched Elorde destroy Gomes in 1960 and you mesh that with his qualities as an incredibly decent human being then “The Flash” stands tall in the pantheon of Filipino greats including Pancho Villa, Ceferino Garcia and a host of other ring gladiators in a glorious era.
The greatness of Elorde was not measured merely by his achievements in the ring as a fighter and the fairness with which he engaged his opponents but by the respect he earned because of the respect he gave.
To us – and to many others – Elorde made his greatest contribution to boxing and the Filipino race, outside the ring. He was soft-spoken, humble and a personification  of decency and kindness. He was a man who cared deeply for his people and was proud of his country no matter what.
He bowed and never bragged. He was humble and never haughty. He gave and never asked anything in return. He was big but to him the sport was bigger.
Our friendship with Elorde stood the test of time because it was steeped in mutual respect, honesty and affection. We are glad that the QTV 11 panel eventually chose Flash Elorde as the greatest Filipino fighter of all-time. To us, no matter what anybody says, Flash Elorde was and always will be number 1.

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