The Original Pambansang Kamao

By Daniel Attias on October 29, 2015
The Original Pambansang Kamao
Pancho Villa made up for his lack of size by displaying a ferocious disposition in the ring.

Flyweight champion Pancho Villa was a whirlwind, a man with cat-like reflexes who fought every bout as if it were his last…

It’s the humidity that first attacks your senses when you arrive in the “Pearl of the Orient” that is the Philippines. It’s all consuming. It’s a land of stark contrast, beautiful scenery and welcoming people on one hand and poverty-stricken overcrowded cities on the other.

It’s a rainy morning in July at the North Manila cemetery, a place where many of the Philippines most famous are buried. This particular cemetery is also the resting place for the Philippines first world boxing champion, Francisco Guilledo, a man who was better known as Pancho Villa.

One of the many cemetery caretakers is sitting down drinking with friends, playing cards. When asked why he was drinking so early in the day his response is distinctly Filipino, “Ano pang gagawin ko? Eh, patay na lahat ng binabantayan ko dito.” (What else is there to do? Everyone that I am looking after here are already dead.)

Upon hearing the caretaker’s remarks, a little boy about three years of age appears. He’s running around naked in the rain. It’s clear money isn’t in abundance for his family, yet he, like most kids his age, laughs and plays with reckless abandon. A few pesos given, the equivalent of about 30 cents, brings a big smile to his face. Poverty may breed despair but it also lends itself to a certain form of grit and determination, something that is apparent with the recent ascendancy of one Manny Pacquiao, a man often called ‘Pambansang Kamao’ (Nation’s Fist) in his homeland.

Boxing heroes don’t come any bigger than Pacquiao in the Philippines but one has to hark back to the 1920s to find the original ‘Pambansang Kamao.’

Francisco Guilledo was born in the province of Negros Occidental in 1901. His father left him and his family when he was a young boy and he was forced to work the farm in order to help his mother put food on the table.

At the age of 11 he moved to Iloilo to work a job shining shoes and it’s here that he met a boy named Manuel. The two sailed to Manila in search of a better life but it was the slums of Tondo that they wound up residing in.

It was in the squalid conditions of Tondo that a young Guilledo would go on to meet a boxer by the name of Elino Flores, and the beginning of what would be a whirlwind boxing career begins for the young man.

The two kids would often box and spar together and it just so happened that Flores’ manager, Paquito Villa was on hand to witness a remarkably surprising display of strength from the diminutive Giulledo one day, as he flattened his much bigger friend whilst sparring. Villa wound up taking a real liking to the kid, so much so that he began to train him and would eventually come to adopt him when he was 17 years of age.

There are two tales floating around regarding Guilledo’s change of name. The first one being that Paquito Villa, upon adopting Francisco in 1919, renamed him Pancho Villa. The other one being that noted boxing promoter Frank Churchill gave him the name when he began promoting his fights. Either way it was a moniker that stuck and one that suited his all guns blazing attitude in the ring.

Villa turned professional in 1919 under the promotion of the aforementioned Frank Churchill. Churchill along with brothers Eddie and Stewart Tait were integral to the introduction of the sport of boxing in the Philippines and it was around the time Villa turned professional that the sport had become legalized in the country.

Villa was a hit right from the start. He remained undefeated through the first two years of his career taking part in some 39 bouts, winning the Orient bantamweight title along the way before being handed his first defeat in a disqualification loss to visiting American Eddie Moore.

Villa was a whirlwind in the ring, a man with cat-like reflexes who fought every bout as if it were his last. A short and stocky man, he made up for his lack of size by displaying a ferocious disposition when in the ring and many a man would quickly find out that this little man was not be taken lightly.

His sensational career almost derailed before it had really taken off though. He was taken with a girl by the name of Gliceria Conception but her father did not approve of their relationship and Villa moved back to Negros broken hearted vowing to never fight again.

He was coerced out of his retirement by adoring fans and began boxing again, eloped with Gliceria, then gained an invite via telegram from noted American promoter Tex Rickard to fight in America.

Villa arrived in the United States in 1922 and lost his first two bouts via newspaper decision to Abe Goldstein and Frankie Genaro before racking up four straight victories. A rematch with Genaro, who would go on to become a hall of fame fighter himself, followed and Villa would lose again to the speedy American, this time by split decision. The New York Times reported that although Villa was the aggressor, Genaro was the superior boxer.

“Genaro’s superb boxing ability, his cleverness, skill, speed and cool, accurate punching won the battle for him. Villa, a pugnacious individual if ever there was one, pitted his fiery aggressiveness against the all-round boxing ability of his rival — and lost.”

Such a loss would halt momentum in many a fighter’s career, especially that of a visitor to the United States, but not for Villa as he gained a chance at the American flyweight title in his very next fight. Many felt his attacking style against Genaro should have been enough for a decision victory, something that led to him getting a shot at Johnny Buff, as reported by The New York Times on September 10, 1922.

“He scored this match with Buff despite a defeat at the hands of Frankie Genaro in a battle which was supposed to produce an opponent for Buff, and a setback at the hands of the fast-stepping Abe Goldstein. The fact that many disagreed with the verdict in favor of Genaro, was responsible in a measure for Villa’s securing the bout against Buff.”

Buff was a former bantamweight world champion and was a heavy favorite going into the fight but he wasn’t prepared for the offensive onslaught that a fighter like Villa brought. The referee stopped the one sided affair after Buff went down twice in the tenth, and once again in the eleventh which prompted his handlers to throw in the towel.

Villa went on an eight-fight winning streak following the Buff victory. He avenged his loss to Abe Goldstein on November 16, 1922, when he thoroughly outclassed his former conqueror in a 15-round decision victory. The fight was all but a shut for Villa and he displayed his usual ferocity in taking the fight to Goldstein all the way as stated in The New York Times report.

“In the fourteen rounds which he won Villa pursued tactics and a style of boxing that was unvarying. He would wait for a lead from Goldstein and, getting impatient, would rush excitedly, lashing out with lefts for the stomach and a rapid double-action left to the face and body which landed in almost the same movement.”

A third meeting between Villa and Genaro on March 1st, 1923 would end Villa’s winning streak and this time the verdict would be even more questionable than the one from their previous meeting. Villa had clearly improved during his time in the U.S and Genaro more than had his hands full with the wild little Filipino buzz saw. Much to the dismay of Villa, the verdict went the way of the Italian-American boxer. Once again, The New York Times was on hand to capture the moment.

“When the decision was announced Villa stood as if dazed in his corner. The little Filipino’s face bore a look of surprise which gradually developed into a scowl as the realization dawned upon him that he had lost his title and probably the chance for a world’s championship bout against Jimmy Wilde, little English flyweight, who holds the world’s title.”

Proving that life is rarely about what you know and more about whom you know, Villa somehow still got his shot at the world’s flyweight title against the legendary Jimmy Wilde. Here was a fighter from a third world country, one that had little to no boxing history to its name, fighting for a chance to be named the best flyweight in the entire world. It was quite an achievement.

With the fight scheduled for June of 1923, some three months after being announced, Villa continued to fight in the lead up, winning four on the trot before dropping a decision to Bobby Wolgast just weeks before he was due to face Wilde in the title contest. Little was made of the eight-round decision loss and it was full steam ahead for the clash with the champion.

The championship bout was one that followed a familiar pattern, an older experienced champion against a much younger and perhaps hungrier challenger. A New York Times article published the day before the big fight questioned whether or not the older, inactive champion could withstand the youthful exuberance and all-out aggression of the little Filipino.

“Can Jimmy Wilde come back? Has he been able to supplant the toll that nature has exacted for years’ ring idleness? Will age be able to hold its own against youth? Will Wilde’s punch prevail against the bulldog tenacity and tireless energy of Villa? These are the questions to be answered at the Polo Grounds tomorrow night when Wilde and Pancho Villa meet in what is scheduled to be a fifteen round bout to a decision for the flyweight championship of the world.”

It was that ‘bulldog tenacity and tireless energy’ of Villa that did in fact shine through when all was said and done, as the Filipino took it to his older rival. He dominated the fight from the opening bell, attacking the Englishman with a ferocity seldom seen. He had Wilde groggy in just the first round but the champion was a tough and experienced customer and he endured six more hard rounds of punishment before Villa knocked him out in the seventh round.

Villa helped his vanquished foe back to his corner after the savage beating and the crowd roared its approval for such a performance and the sporting gesture. The Englishman’s wife was overheard thanking the new champion for such a gesture after the fight.

The Lewiston Daily Sun was full of praise for the new champion and his blazing attacking style.

“Rushing and slashing with a terrific assault that had Wilde groggy and reeling in the first round, Villa’s victory was one of the most decisive in the annals of world’s championship history.”

Villa was modest in his victory speech despite the manner in which he had thoroughly destroyed the champion in the contest.

“It was just as I expected, but I don’t want to crow over the victory. Jimmy Wilde was the gamest little fighter I ever met, and I’ve fought quite a few. Not one fighter in a hundred would have come back after that sixth round, and I was surprised to see him try it. But it proved he was one of the best, and I have nothing but admiration for him. Am I pleased with the result? You bet, and I am glad that I won it from such a good man.”

Wilde made no excuses for his loss and was full of praise for his conqueror.

“I simply met my match. That’s all. He beat me to the punch and hit harder than I expected. I could not hurt him. I thought I could get through the early rounds and recover my strength, but it was no use, I had taken too much. Villa is a great fighter and will make a good champion.”

The victory elevated Villa to a national hero in his homeland of the Philippines, the people rejoiced in the streets and extra editions of newspapers were printed, such was the demand from the people to read of their fellow countryman’s exploits. The countries first ever President, Emilio Aguinaldo went on record saying, “Congratulations, Pancho, come back to us and defend your title here.”

The opportunity to make some serious money now he was champion and the fact that he was so well loved in America meant that Villa’s homecoming parade would have to wait. The American people had accepted him as one of their own and it wasn’t uncommon to hear crowd’s chanting “Viva Villa” when he fought.

The new champion fought and beat a string of contenders and journeymen over the next 14 months, often fighting bantamweights as well as flyweights. He faced 23 opponents in all, losing just once and defending his title two times in the process.

On August 16, 1923, Villa signed to fight his rival Frankie Genaro for a fourth time. The news was reported in The New York Times the following day.

“Articles for a world’s championship flyweight bout, between Pancho Villa, spectacular little Filipino, who holds the title, and Frankie Genaro, American champion, were signed yesterday at a meeting in the office of Frank Churchill, Villa’s manager, prior to Churchill’s departure for New Orleans, where Villa is to box tomorrow night. The bout will be held at the Nostrand A.C., Brooklyn on the night of Sept. 4, and will be for fifteen rounds, at 112 pounds, weight to be made at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.”

The fight was a highly anticipated one, the two men had history and there was no clear consensus on who was the better man despite Villa being 0-3 in their three previous bouts.

A strange set of circumstances occurred in the lead up to the bout. On September 4, 1923, the day of the planned bout, Genaro’s manager, Phil Bernstein phoned promoter Charlie Henderson to inform him that his fighter would have to postpone the fight due to a bad case of tonsillitis that had left him bedridden.

The bout was rescheduled for September 23 but a week before, on September 16, Villa was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission when three of their doctors refuted claims from Villa that he had an injured shoulder which would prevent him from taking part in the fight with Genaro.

With an eight-month suspension stopping Villa from taking part in any bouts in the United States he made his long awaited journey back home to the Philippines. He arrived in Manila aboard the SS President Grant to a hero’s welcome. A parade through the streets of Manila, where thousands of people lined the streets to get a glimpse of the champion, was followed by a reception at the Malacanang Palace.

Villa had returned home a rich man, sporting extravagant clothing; pearl buttons, gold cufflinks and living the lifestyle of a king and his countrymen adored the fact that one of their own had been elevated to such stardom. He wasn’t just a boxer either, he was a showman and as much as the people heaped praise on him he accepted it just as readily.

He would fight twice whilst back in his homeland, knocking out the Visayan flyweight champion Francisco Pilapil on March 9, 1925, before defending his world title against Clever Sencio just under two months later on the second of May, winning a 15-round decision before being called back to the United States by his promoter Frank Churchill to face Jimmy McLarnin in what would be his final bout.

Just days before the fight with McLarnin — a man who would go on to be one the best welterweight world champions in the history of the sport and a hall of famer himself — Villa was diagnosed with an infected jaw caused by ulcerated teeth. He had a tooth removed on the day of the fight and entered the ring to face McLarnin despite doctor’s orders to postpone the bout.

He lost a 10-round decision and according to most reports looked little like his usual self with the average performance being put down to his jaw problem.

On July 14, 1924, just ten days after his loss to McLarnin, Villa died at a mere 23 years of age while undergoing an operation for a throat infection, which had developed from the infected jaw. His body was taken back to the Philippines and buried in the North Manila cemetery.

Today he is forgotten by most but his legacy lives on through the many young Filipino boxers who have walked the same path that he did; living the rags to riches axiom that boxing so often provides. Perhaps there’s a young, poor boy running around in the rain in the very same cemetery where Villa is buried who will also follow that trail blazed by Villa all those years ago, then again, perhaps not. Either way it’s safe to say that Pancho Villa was well deserving of the title, The Original Pambansang Kamao.

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Pancho Villa vs Jimmy Wilde - 1923

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  1. beaujack 09:19pm, 10/31/2015

    Sean, my dad also saw oldtime greats as JacK Britton, Benny Leonard, Harry Greb vs Gene Tunney etc. Today Jack Britton is forgotten by all but a few old fogeys, but Nat Fleischer rated him even higher than Ray Robinson as a welterweight. A great defensive boxing master who had 344 pro fights and aside from his beginning, went the last 335 or so bouts without ever being stopped. Astounding boxer was Jack Britton…

  2. Sean Matheny 08:55pm, 10/29/2015

    Yes he was Daniel, and he loved to regale his grandkids about them.  One I never tired of hearing about was Jack Britton KO’ing archrival Ted “Kid” Lewis in Canton, OH in 1919.  He always said though Britton was a boxing master, he really pounded the Kid from pillar to post that night to take his title.  Pops worked the corner of a preliminary boy that night.  He lived to the late 1970’s, and seemed to remember the ring greats until his dying day.  Once again, great story on Pancho Villa.  People were smaller back then, and he competed in an era of great flyweights and bantamweights.  He had a reputation of partying just as hard as he fought, like many other ring men of that time.

  3. Daniel Attias 02:40pm, 10/29/2015

    Chocolatito vs Villa would be an interesting match up. Not sure Gonzalez has faced anyone who attacks with the vim that Villa displayed.

    Sean, your Grandfather was a very lucky man to have witnessed so many ring greats!

  4. Sean Matheny 11:44am, 10/29/2015

    Very interesting story about the legendary Filipino ball of fire.  My grandfather saw him fight Eddie McKenna in Cleveland in 1924.  The result was officially a Draw, but Pops always swore Villa won every round.  He also said he was the most exciting fighter he ever saw (and he saw a lot of the “Golden Age Greats”, including Harry Greb and Jack Britton.  Thanks for helping keep the image of this mighty but tragic dynamo alive!

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 11:43am, 10/29/2015

    He even looks like a Honey Badger for Christ’s sake!

  6. beaujack 11:31am, 10/29/2015

    Daniel, a great article on the great flyweight Pancho Villa. He looks great on film.
    If I perchance had a time machine, I would pit Pancho Villa against today’s flyweight sensation “Chocolatito’ Gonzales. WOW wouldn’t that be interesting?

  7. Daniel Attias 02:55am, 10/29/2015

    Thank you for the photos Clarence. Glad you liked the write up too!

  8. Clarence George 02:23am, 10/29/2015

    And I also have one of Pancho Villa facing off against Jimmy Wilde.  That, too, will be tweeted.

  9. Clarence George 02:09am, 10/29/2015

    Wonderful treatment, Daniel, of the never-stopped Pancho Villa, greatest flyweight of all time, IMO.  I’m going to tweet you a photo of his remains being returned home.

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