Living abroad, I end up having some incredible experiences, ranging from inspiring to good to just plain old challenging. But we either win or we learn, right? In fact, experiencing things outside of my comfort zone is part of what I love about living overseas – and especially the Philippines, which is as chaotic and nonsensical as it is shrouded it musical “magical realism.”
One such experience recently was witnessing a professional boxing event in Manila, my new adopted home city, in the Philippines.
It wasn’t the usual process of just seeing that there was a boxing match, buying the ticket, and enjoying it as a spectator. This story goes back a little further, to when I stopped into the Insider Gym in a gritty neighborhood of Makati in the shadow of the Red Light district there. I wasn’t in the best of shape at the time, but I was big and could throw a punch and move a little, so the trainer enjoyed dragging me around the gym and introducing me to the others working out there. One mutual foreigner was a woman with short blond hair who was obviously jacked and training crazy hard. Canadian by descent but living in the Philippines now, she was introduced as Dead Aim Amy – a badass nickname.
Over the months, as I later moved to Manila, I touched based with Amy on Facebook out of respect for not only her boxing acumen (I love the Sweet Science even though I’m nothing special in the ring), but also her mission in life, as she was working with underprivileged girls and doing a whole lot of other positive endeavors in Manila.
So, I also followed her struggle as she tried to pursue her professional fighting career, as she fought before in South Korea where she used to live. However, fights kept getting canceled at the last minute, so after three fights were previously scheduled, getting her hopes up, she was let down and left off the cards.
But finally she got a fight that looked solid this December, and it became official after her license came through from the Philippines Pro Boxing Commission.
Of course, as a new friend of Amy and a big supporter of what she’s doing (and wanting to see some boxing!) I was eager to go see the fight.
On a rainy, soppingly-humid Saturday, I took a Grab (their version of Uber) to the far-off neighborhood of Paranaque, a place I couldn’t even pronounce it, yet alone find on a map, as it was tucked between local slums and maze-like congested barangays (their independently operating neighborhoods).
We finally found the Elorde Sports Complex where the event was taking place, a massive concrete structure surrounded by (of course) a confusing series of entrances and side streets.
I thought I was in the right place as I ascended a wide staircase to the ticket window that was bustling with Filipinos coming and going, and the roar of the huge crowd inside spilling outside.
However, I found out quickly that I was actually in the wrong place as that was the entrance for the rooster fights they were holding within, which drew that epic crowd. A nice young man helped me out by walking me around to a small side door that was the entrance to the boxing gym part of the complex, where the fights were taking place.
Inside, I was met with something far more humble than a stadium full of adoring fans. Instead, I was inside the Elorde Boxing Gym, which was a uncharacteristically spacious boxing and MMA gym that had several rings, few windows, heavy and speed bags scattered throughout, and ceilings so low that you felt like you were in a maze.
Instead of big crowds, there were only about 25 people milling about, and half of them were wearing blue shirts with bow ties – the uniform of the referees and also fight judges. In a side area, all of the fighters waited with their coaches and cornermen, getting their hands wrapped, shadow boxing loosely, and trying to stay relaxed.
And there were only a handful of spectators, a few sitting in plastic chairs lined up by the ring or just walking around. Little neighborhood kids came and went, play fighting and chasing each other, as there was no ticket office or even anyone working the door.
I took my place on the side of the ring by a speed bag and waited. And waited. And waited. The fights were supposed to begin at noon but it was about 2:30 pm when the refs and judges congregated and it looked like the fights would begin.
The energy in the place quickened, as if the promise of violence radiate out from the fighters like the sweat that now started to drip off of their chiseled physiques. The announcer, a tall guy with baggy eyes wearing a tuxedo, got on the microphone and announced the contestants for the first fight, after a back-and-forth comedy routine introducing not the Ring GIRL, but the official Ring Gay, a 20-ish Filipino guy with a goatee crammed into a cocktail dress holding a card with Round 1 on it.
Soon, the first fighters squared off – both closer to 5 foot than 6 and one taller and lean while the other was squat and muscled.
The fight bell almost broke our eardrums and the fighters were in action. Over the first thirty seconds, I thought I’d be disappointed, as they danced and threw a couple half-hearted jabs. But it was just to measure distance and get a rhythm for their opponents, because soon they clashed in what would be an epic fight. The muscled guy, who was a southpaw, actually caught the taller guy square on the cheek with a flurry, sending him staggering to the canvas, semi-conscious. Somehow, he managed to pull himself up on the ropes, eyes groping for some clue as to where he was as he flexed his jaw and tried to take a step on wobbly knees. He pulled it together with not a second to spare and the flight continued.
Over the four-round bout, incredibly, the taller, lean, and once-knocked down fighter actually started to put together flurries, and then dominate the tired-out and less technically savvy muscled fighter. It ended with a unanimous decision after four rounds, with the fighter who came within one second of a KO winning the fight!
Next up was my friend Dead Aim Amy’s fight, as she gave me a dap wither her boxing glove on the way by into the ring, her blond cornrows as tight as her concentration. Her opponent was a physically smaller but far more experienced pro-Filipina fighter with plenty of big league wins under her belt. Both weighing in at 108 pounds, the Filipina fighter naturally carried that weight, while Dead Aim had to drop about 20 lbs in the two weeks up to the fight (although she was always muscled and lean), including an unhealthy 8 pounds within the last 24 hours.
Ding ding! The bell rang again, and the two warriors rushed to the center of the ring, briefly connecting hands to acknowledge the battle they were about to share.
I slipped out after a few hours of boxing. It was pouring rain outside now, and I knew it would be hard getting a taxi or Grab back to my neighborhood from this dark and downtrodden part of the big city. I had seen some great boxing that day, and every single fighter showed the heart of a champion. My friend Dead Aim Amy didn’t come out with the win that day, but it takes so much courage and dedication just to get to that point, I take off my hat to her – and all of the boxers.
She’ll be back fighting pro again – maybe at the Elorde Center – and I’ll be there to cheer her on!