Pinoy Pride


In a back corner of a nondescript government office building in downtown Manila sits a weathered industrial scale. Around it, bustling workers of the Philippines Games and Recreations Commission buzz and hum in their daily routines. The scale holds a special, mythic place in sporting history. This is the very device that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier stepped onto before their epic Thrilla in Manila. Ali weighed 224.5 lbs and Frazier 215.5 lbs on that night 35 years ago, when the two men met in a rubber match and achieved an apotheosis in boxing that has not been surpassed. That fight etched the name of the city of Manila in the minds of boxing fanatics across the United States, but for native-born fans, it was only one moment in a long history of boxing excellence from this fighting nation.

The walls of the office are covered with a mix of grainy black and white and color photographs of the many Filipino champions over the last 80 years. Physically diminutive fighters with lightning speed and giant hearts such as “Flash” Elorde, “Little Dado,” “Dodie Boy” Peñalosa, and “Small Montana” smile down from their framed shrines. In the middle of this sanctuary is the one and only Manny Pacquiao, who is currently running roughshod over six weight divisions. “Pac-Man” may end up as the best Filipino fighter ever, and the people here love him for it. He is a ubiquitous presence in Manila—a hero to the city’s poor and a source of national pride. He’s so popular that he recently won a seat in the national assembly via a process closer to anointing than election. He is so beloved that there is speculation—only half in jest—that one day he will become President of the country.

In his office, Senor Juan Ramon Guanzon, the chairman of the commission (an immaculately groomed gentleman of some 50 years and a boxing man to his core) listens to bald and tatted Brandon Vera and tries to keep track of a bewildering array of acronyms. “I fight in the UFC,” says Vera, “but I’m here cornering some fighters from my gym who are fighting in PXC.” Commissioner Guanzon smiles cryptically, folds his hands, leans slowly over his desk, and says, “Well then, what is MMA? Is it a league or a sport?” PXC promoter EJ Calvo pipes in, “MMA stands for mixed martial arts. That’s the sport. The UFC is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It’s the biggest league in MMA. PXC is Pacific X-treme Combat, our league. We focus on Asia and the Pacific. Our show is tomorrow night at the Resorts World Manila.” The commissioner is polite but skeptical, “And the matches are held… in a cage?” he asks. “Some are in a cage, some are in a ring, depending
on which league you’re in. PXC uses a cage,” says Calvo.

It’s easy for MMA fans to forget how young the sport is and how much of the world is still virgin territory. Calvo has been educating skeptical commissioners and the media in this part of the world for months in preparation for this event, so he has the pitch down. In addition to taking place at the lush Resorts World Casino, the event will be broadcast live on Filipino TV Channel 5.

Once the final presentation to the commissioner is completed and the necessary paperwork filed with his office, the PXC group gets ready to leave. The commissioner may not have been familiar with MMA, but his staff certainly is. On the way out, a young woman recognizes Vera and asks to have her picture taken with him. He agrees and is soon mobbed with office workers coming in from all over the building.

The Philippines can’t get enough fighting—any type of fighting. Even cock fights merit TV coverage. Sitting in Calvo’s office, I experience my first match via a large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. The two roosters fly at each other in a cloud of feathers, and I have no clue which one is winning. Calvo’s office in Manila is brand new, with boxes still being unpacked. This will be the hub for the family’s growing business interest in the Philippines, with media, distribution, publishing, and the PXC MMA promotion all being run from here.

We head from the office to an open workout at the Mall of Asia, a publicity stunt ripped from the UFC’s playbook. It is designed to showcase some of the talent that PXC has developed on the island of Guam, where MMA has become something of an obsession. Widespread focus on training—along with the resources and business acumen of the Calvo clan (all of whom train religiously)—has allowed the tiny nation to have an outsized impact on the sport.

“Baby” Joe Taimanglo, a gregarious lightweight with a blitzing style and broad smile is working the crowd. Brandon Vera is cornering some fighters from his Alliance Gym, including Diego Garijo, whose handlebar mustache has him looking like he stepped out of central casting for a 1930s serial villain. Another Guamanian fighter with star power is Alex Castro, a famous street fighter back on the island. He sports the look with tattoos, a chiseled physique, and a surly glare. The word is that he’s a destroyer, and he certainly looks the part. PXC’s Heavyweight Champion Roque Martinez, rotund and affable, is a brawler. He has a chin like iron and an unhealthy tendency to take tons of punishment before coming back and winning his fights. He won a controversial slugfest in his last match against Kelvin Fitial, who fights out of Saipan. Fitial is convinced that he beat the champ the last time they fought, and there is legitimate heat between the two. Their camps needle each other during the promotion as the fighters take turns scowling and shaking their heads disdainfully.

As the event winds down, Vera, with the instincts of a natural showman, commandeers the microphone and gives a shout-out to the other Filipino martial artists who have made names for themselves in the UFC. When he calls out the names of Phillipe Nover and Mark Muñoz, the crowd, which has slowly gathered over the course of the two-hour workout, erupts in a loud cheer.

On the night of the big event, matchmaker Eli Monge (a Bostonian by way of Puerto Rico who married into the Calvo family) gives a heartfelt locker room speech to all the fighters from Guam. He tells them that they are all brothers and to represent the island well. Monge lets everybody know that because of the deal with TV 5, this will be the first time that the Filipino masses will be exposed to MMA, so there’s a lot riding on the night. He continues that this is the coming out party for the PXC and Guam as a global force in MMA. Many of the fighters in the room have faced each other before, and there’s healthy rivalry between gyms on the island, but tonight there is a feeling that they’re all on the same team.

Baby Joe’s fight plays out as expected, with him steamrolling his overmatched Korean opponent. Then, exhorted loudly from his corner by Vera, Garijo (the villainous looking gentleman) wins a tough fight and breaks his hand in the process. The fierce Alex Castro goes too hard too early, gasses, and then is ground out in a one-sided decision to crafty veteran Harris Sarmiento. Fortitude and skill beats power and rage almost every time. The crowd is on their feet for the two fights featuring Filipino fighters. Both former boxers, each loses via submission in the first round, but they go down swinging. Once these explosive little guys start learning the ground game, they’ll be hard to deal with. What could Pacquiao do in the cage if he mastered the sprawl?

In the main event, Kelvin captures the title from Roque. True to form, Roque takes a brutal beating early, but this time, instead of raging back in the championship rounds like their first fight, Roque suddenly gives way to Kelvin’s wild but powerful attacks late in the fourth. Like water breaking through a dam, Kelvin surges when he senses Roque folding mentally and delivers a vicious series of elbows from the top guard. Roque gets badly cut, and the referee rescues him from a deepening pool of his own blood. The quick brutality with which Kelvin finished the fight is the most impressive thing about his performance. He’s raw and wild with dubious submission skills, but his killer instincts are sharp, and with his physical attributes, it’s enough to beat a lot of fighters. After the event, Kelvin poses with a long line of fans who seem thrilled at the opportunity to get close to the new champion. Unaccustomed to all the attention, Kelvin intermittently breaks out into giddy smiles, and the fierce new cage fighting champion is as thrilled and transparent as a little boy.

The night is a success. The fighters from Guam have dominated and the TV 5 ratings are well above what anyone expected. PXC now has a long-term contract with the network to produce 16 events over the next four years. Breaking into the Philippines was another cagey business move by the Calvo clan. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, there’s a real appetite for MMA in this part of the world. In the United States, it seems like nothing can slow the inexorable advance of the UFC, but in the Philippines at least, the scrappy PXC has beaten the behemoth to the punch.

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