The International Writers
On the Philippine island of Palawan, athletes like everyone else
struggle to make a life for themselves and their families
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. Wouldnt
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 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.
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.
To keep up with my fighting training, mornings were spent in the gym,
doing strength-work. My Tagolog met me at a café, 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 Puertos young
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 cant go the big competitions because
we dont 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 cant
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 wishes of
the family. When you have little economic opportunity your family becomes
very important to you. Both boys said they couldnt 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 dont have a lot.
Said Gener. Both men said they had 5 siblings, which didnt 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
dont 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 coachs 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 days
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 wont
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 fighters 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 dont require
exercise equipment. For the most part, a boxers 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 coachs 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 dont earn very much money for a
fight. One boy told me. We dont 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
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 didnt have a care in the world. But the reality
is, these kids are faced with challenges which most western kids would
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 hasnt 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.
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 couldnt
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 countrys 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 coachs 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 isnt 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
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
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 punchers chance.
© Antonio Graceffo April 2007
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in
Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available
Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com
see his website www.speakingadventure.com
Get Antonios books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
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