While the Philippines has long been at the forefront of men’s boxing with stalwarts like Pancho Villa and Manny Pacquiao, the country’s female boxers have attracted little attention despite a growing list of achievements: Josie Gabuco won gold at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in 2012, Nesthy Petecio is ranked second worldwide in the 57 kg category, while Gretchen Abaniel is WIBA World Champion.
I am visiting a camp in Baguio for the Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP). There, in humble living quarters that look like backpacker dormitories, thirteen junior and senior women are training.
Head Coach Patricio Gaspi says, “Our girls are mostly from Mindanao and Visayas, the poorest parts. Here, they get a stipend, free boarding, and lodging. If they win, the government rewards them, more than a million pesos if it’s the Olympics. Our sponsors also chip in. They can also get a government job.”
While that may not compare with the earnings of Pacquiao or Nonito Donaire, it is still significant for Josie Gabuco, whose father had been a tricycle driver, and Nesthy, whose parents are both unemployed. Their stories echo those of Mitchell Martinez, a retired boxer from the pioneering generation of Filipino female boxers who is now coach at ABAP. Boxing helped Mitchell become the sole breadwinner in her family with seven siblings, allowing her to open a small eatery for her parents and finance her sibling’s education.
But the career choice has a price. Josie has an 8-year-old son, whom she sees only rarely, having to spend most of her time at the camp or travelling for competitions. She says, “Earlier, my son cried and screamed when he saw me fight, ‘Please don’t beat my mother,’ But now he understands why mommy has to do it.” Josie doesn’t want him to become a boxer. “No way,’ she says, ‘It’s too tough on the body.”
Mitchell says, “Few women are allowed by their parents to take up boxing; they see professional boxing and fear that their daughter’s faces will end up with scars. But amateur boxing is much safer, we fight with headgear.”
I watch the boxers train, like a bunch of lean and petite soldiers let loose with disco music, attacking punching bags and coaches, a thousand explosions, swift footwork, relentless ferocity. Filipino boxers are known for this aggressive style. Patricio says, “Coaching a female boxer is different. We can beat up the men if they are not training hard. But with the girls, I can’t do that.”
I ask the boxers if they could someday become a politician like Pacquiao. Nesh says, “No way sir. Even at my hometown, hardly anyone recognizes me.”
I ask what makes a good boxer. Patricio says, “The mind and the heart, whether male or female. She has to think smart and fast. And she can have the best technique, but without the heart, the guts, she can’t go anywhere.” Roel Velasco, the women’s head coach, says, “That’s why I will train any girl who wants to learn. Even if she is frail, if she trains hard, and has the heart, she can beat the best.” Nesthy confirms, “Life here is tough. I need to train harder and harder. But without boxing, I would be nothing!”
Apart from boxing, the other great Filipino obsession is beauty pageants. The country hosts more than 300,000 pageant contests every year, in every imaginable category, for men, juniors, seniors, disabled people, LGBTs, pregnant women, prisoners, women weighing more than 80 kilograms, Muslims, and even vegetarians. “Rags to Riches” stories abound; Venus Raj, Miss Universe-Philippines 2010, was raised in a nipa hut without electricity. Janicel Lubina, Miss Philippines International 2015, was a domestic helper as was her mother. Every year millions of Filipinos weep in front of TV listening to such stories.
I meet up with Makoy Manlapaz who formed Gouldian, a pageant grooming agency, along with Mario Bergantinos and Pawee Ventura. The agency trains contestants in Pasarela (catwalk), posing, dance, etiquette, confidence building, and for question and answer sessions.
‘Pageant contests are a great equalizer,’ says Makoy. “Earlier, [contestants] were only from well-off families. But today, they are mostly from poor households, often from the provinces.”
I join him to observe a photoshoot for Divine Ezrha, whom Makoy is grooming for World Beauty Queen 2015, along with gown designer Allan Laserna, swimsuit designer Dave Zamora, and photographer Marion Celiz. Divine is tall by Philippine standards. Rodgil Flores of Kagandahang Flores, another grooming agency, had told the Philippine Daily Enquirer that he never rejected any aspirant unless she was below 5’5”, a philosophy almost akin to boxing coach Roel Velasco’s, except for the height requirement.
Engrossed in grooming Divine, the boys seem like children playing with a Barbie Doll, dressing her up, combing her hair, moving around her limbs for the perfect pose. “We are all doing this out of passion,” says Makoy. “We don’t receive any money. So, all of us have day jobs. As a boy, I was awestruck watching pageants on TV, beautifully dressed, worshipped like princesses. Since I couldn’t be one, I became a coach.”
In many countries, pageant contests have declined into irrelevance, feminist opposition being one reason, although there are feminist arguments both for and against –objectification versus empowerment. Similar arguments also used for and against women’s boxing, professional boxing, and MMA for their occasional creation of sexual imagery around fighters. Makoy tells me, “In the Philippines, there was never any feminist opposition; [pageant contestants] are seen as role models, often heroically saving their families from poverty. But sometimes they are criticized by the religious-morality brigade for occasional illicit affairs [with] politicians or businessman.”
Out there with the boys and Divine, I only see her as an athlete preparing to win a contest, training intensely, eating right; and just like the boxers, preparing the mind, for quick thinking, developing the heart, for confidence in the spotlight.
Shivaji Das is a writer, traveler and photographer. He is the author of Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia and Sacred Love: Erotic art in the temples of Nepal