The Origins of Philippines Boxing, 1899-1929

The Origins of Philippines Boxing, 1899-1929


By Joseph R. Svinth

Copyright © Joseph R. Svinth 2001. All rights reserved. The assistance of Pat Baptiste, Hank Kaplan, Paul Lou, Eric Madis, Curtis Narimatsu, John Ochs,  Michael Machado, and Kevin Smith is gratefully acknowledged.

On June 18, 1923, Francisco “Pancho Villa” Guilledo beat Jimmy Wilde to become the world flyweight boxing champion, an accomplishment that was (and remains) a matter of great pride to people of Filipino descent. Unfortunately, while there has been some documentation of the many excellent Filipino boxers who subsequently followed Guilledo to the United States, there has not been as much attention paid to documenting the origins of boxing in the Philippines. This article represents a step toward correcting that omission. People with additional information or corrections are invited to contact the author at

Pancho Villa by Ed Hughes1925 filipino boxing Pancho Villa by Ed Hughes1925 filipino boxing

“Pancho Villa, gone but not forgotten.” Illustration by Ed Hughes, 1925.

Boxing Enters the Philippines

US servicemen introduced boxing to the Philippines during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How this came about is that on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, whose colonial holdings included the Philippines. So, on April 27, 1898, Commodore George Dewey ordered his squadron of five cruisers and two gunboats to steam from China to the Philippines, and there, on May 1, 1898, he issued the famous command, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” The resulting US naval victory effectively ended Spanish control of the region, and in August 1898 the US Army began the occupation of Luzon. Then, to the horror of the Filipinos, the Americans did not cede the Philippines to them: instead they decided to keep the islands for themselves. Between 1899 and 1913, this resulted in savage wars of peace whose heroes included Emilio Aguinaldo on one side and Arthur MacArthur, Frederick Funston, Leonard Wood, and John J. Pershing on the other.

Casualties in these battles were heavy and one-sided: US casualties were listed as 4,243 killed and 2,818 wounded in action while Filipino casualties are estimated at 16,000 killed, plus another several hundred thousand dead from famine or disease (generally cholera). However, after Theodore Roosevelt’s unilateral declaration of victory in July 1902, US commanders began thinking about how to reduce the rates of desertion, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, and drunkenness among their soldiers and sailors.

Boxing was offered as a potential solution. The reason was that boxers in training were taught to avoid tobacco, alcohol, and sexual activity. Furthermore, explained writer Charles L. Clay in 1887, “Boxing also makes a man self-reliant and resourceful when assailed by sudden or unexpected dangers or difficulties.” This, in turn, said a YMCA director named C.H. Jackson in 1909, made young men “Christlike and manly.” So, in 1902, Major Elijah Halford (a former secretary to President Benjamin Harrison) asked philanthropists for $200,000 to construct a YMCA in Manila, and by 1904, Army officers such as Edmund Butts were extolling the virtues of boxing in tropical environments such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

US Military Boxers

On November 18, 1899, soldiers of the 11th US Cavalry reported finding a pair of boxing gloves made by Sol Levinson of San Francisco abandoned in the Luzon village of San Mateo. According to Damon Runyon, writing in October 1925, Filipino prisoners reported that the “gloves had been brought in by a renegade soldier from the negro Twenty-fourth Infantry, and that he had been schooling the Filipinos in their use.”

Many early boxers in the Philippines were African American, as the all-black 9th and 10th US Cavalry, 24th and 25th US Infantry, and 48th and 49th US Volunteer Infantry formed a significant percentage of the American soldiers serving in the Philippines between 1899 and 1902. Following Roosevelt’s declaration of peace, most of the black troops were sent back to the United States but in 1913, the 25th was in Hawaii. There the Honolulu Advertiser noted:

The Twenty-fifth is proud of its colored ringmasters and particularly of Hollie Giles, a welterweight of 155 pounds, who is described by the men as a ‘whirlwind’ fighter; Morgan, a heavyweight at 190 pounds; Carson, a light heavyweight, and Ananias Harris, a light heavyweight. Meanwhile, from 1913 until 1917, the 24th was in the Philippines, serving at Camp McGrath (Batangas) and Fort Mills (Corregidor). Noted African American fighters from this period included the middleweights Joe Blackburn, “Craps” Johnson, and “Demon” White.

Of course, there were also white soldiers who boxed in the Philippines. The most famous was New Jersey’s Mike Ballerino. “Ballerino had a chip on his shoulder,” Pancho Villa recalled in early 1925. “He dared any of the Filipinos to knock it off.” So Pancho Villa did, fighting Ballerino ten times during 1920-1921, winning nine and drawing one. Nonetheless, Ballerino returned to the United States under the management of Frank Churchill, and in December 1925 he became the world junior lightweight champion.

Between 1881 and 1942, the Pacific Fleet enlisted blacks primarily for service as cooks and mess stewards, and the Marines did not enlist them at all. Therefore most sailors and all Marines fighting in the Philippines were white. Examples of white fighters who served in the Philippines include Harvey “Heinie” Miller, a sailor assigned to the USS Wilmington who boxed (and beat) a Japanese jujutsuka during a Manila festival held in 1908 or 1909. Earlier, Miller had fought Jimmy Dwyer for a Pacific Fleet lightweight title. Their fight was a 45-round affair with four-ounce gloves, and Miller won by knockout in the thirteenth, despite a broken nose, cuts around the eyes, a broken rib, and a broken hand.

After 1902, however, the Pacific Fleet began replacing its Japanese cooks and mess stewards with Filipinos, and some of these latter men took up shipboard boxing. For example, in 1903, a 20-year-old Filipino named Eddie Duarte and another forty Filipinos enlisted for service aboard the US Army cable-laying ship Burnside. (Army is correct; in those days, most ships designated for logistical support belonged to the Army rather than the Navy.) Between 1903 and 1904, Burnside laid telegraph cable between Manila and Seattle, and subsequently it laid cable from San Francisco to Valdez, Alaska. “Every evening when the sailors were at leisure,” Carroll Alcott wrote in The Ring in October 1928, “some of the boys would don the gloves and a youthful Eddie made up his mind to have at try… Eddie made his first public appearance at the Olympic club, of Tacoma, Washington. He fought an American Indian and won the decision in four rounds. In that fight, he tipped the beams at 128 pounds, a weight he fought at the remainder of his boxing days. The Indian weighed in at 148. In the following years, Eddie fought in Alaska, Canada, and the United States.”

Of course, this naval boxing was not horribly sophisticated. The boxers “meet on deck when the spirit moves,” the Honolulu Advertiser noted in October 1911, “take up the good natured challenges of their shipmates as they feel inclined, and go at it, to the intense entertainment of their comrades.” As a result, no Filipino naval boxers became more than locally prominent until after World War I. So, as the US Naval Academy’s boxing coach, Doc Dougherty, wrote in an article carried by the Honolulu Advertiser in August 1924:

It was as recently as 1920 before a Filipino boxer, Manuel Soriano, got as far as the finals for the Fleet title. This happened when Harry Gordon, now of New York, defeated Soriano for the Bantam Fleet belt in Madison Square Garden in December of the year mentioned.

The very next year, however, Jose Javier, Filipino flash from the U.S.S. South Dakota, won the flyweight championship of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets combined.

And now comes the tiniest of them all, Young Dencio, of the U.S.S. Mayflower. This lad weighs but an even 100 pounds. At times he is as low as 98. Yet this fellow boxes boys weighing as heavy as 116 and gets away with it.

Other early naval boxers included Juan “Johnny” Candelaria, who fought in Honolulu in 1919 and Manila in 1920.

Civilian Fighters and Promoters

US Army General John J. Pershing, who commanded black units throughout much of his early career, hence his nickname Black Jack, believed that boxing built character in men. After all, there was nothing like fighting to teach a man to fight. Nevertheless, from a commercial standpoint, military fights were always of limited interest. First, the War Department did not allow military boxers to fight civilian amateurs until 1923. Second, ships or units were liable to deploy without warning. And, most importantly, both the Army and Navy discouraged gambling and offered free admission to athletic events.

Free admission and no gambling was not what promoters wanted to hear, and so there were also bootleg fights held out in town. Although crowds were small in the beginning, by the late 1910s crowds of 3,000 to 10,000 were common. There were also bootleg fights held near the Army bases at Corregidor and the Navy base at Subic Bay.

Early promoters included Frank Churchill and the Tait brothers (Bill and Eddie), who opened a ring they called the Olympic in Manila in 1909. The actual location is today part of the campus of the Mapúa Institute of Technology. Fights were held on Wednesday and Saturday. As Churchill put it in 1924, “We ran our big weekly show on Saturday night. On Wednesdays we staged a bargain bill, and on this night we would give all the would-be champions and amateurs a chance.”

Judges were often from the US military. For example, in Manila, one of the judges was from the Army, another was from the Navy, and the third was John Greene, who was said to be head of the Philippine government’s intelligence organization. The military judges included Sergeant Harry Konter, who was stationed in Manila from 1909 to 1919, while the naval judges included Chief Petty Officer Joe Waterman, who was stationed in the Philippines from 1918 to 1920, and who trained fighters at the Olongapo Knights of Columbus gym. Referees included Filipinos; these included Francisco “Paquito” Villa and a man named Gutierrez.

While early fighters included US soldiers or sailors, by the 1910s there were also Australian or American professionals tuning up for fights in their home countries or hoping to extend a career a few more years. Examples of American professionals fighting in the Philippines between 1914 and 1925 include Frank Carbone, George Engle, Frank Haynie, George Lee, Charlie Pitts, Bud Ridley, Bob Roper, and Rufus Turner. Their Australian counterparts included Vince Blackburne, Lew Edwards, Syd Keenan, Harry Holmes, George Mendies, Paddy Mills, Tommy Ryan, and Billy Tingle.

These fighters were ethnically diverse. For example, George Lee was Chinese American. From the Sacramento area, he was a friend and coach of featherweight contender “Babe” Herman Souza. Meanwhile Turner was African American. Due to the efforts of researcher Kevin Smith, additional details are known of Turner’s career, and so a summary is given below. Turner arrived in the Philippines in July 1914. A competent lightweight who had been boxing professionally since 1893, this was toward the end of his career. In Manila, Turner worked for Churchill as trainer, referee, and occasional main event fighter. Until 1918, his opponents were mostly American or Australian, and included Iron Bux, Sammy Good, Charlie Lanum, Spider McFadden, and Bud Walters. However, starting in 1918, he also began fighting Filipinos, to include Enrique Zuzuarregui on October 4 and Dencio Cabenela on October 19. In 1919 Turner continued fighting a combination of foreign and local talent: Harry Holmes on February 8 and July 12; Sylvino Jamito on June 7; Pug Macarino on November 6; and Francisco Flores on November 29. His last known fight was in Pasay on October 29, 1921; the opponent was Jimmy West, and the result was an 8-round draw.

Of course, Filipino gamblers were generally not interested in watching Americans and Australians fight one another. Furthermore, with the Australian entry into World War I in 1914 and the US mobilizations of 1916, competent Australian and American boxers became increasingly hard to get. So, by 1914 there were Filipino fighters in the preliminaries, and by 1919 there were a number of Filipino main event fighters.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first Filipinos to fight a main event at the Olympic was the former Army boxer, Eddie Duarte. According to Alcott, writing in The Ring:

Eventually Duarte returned to the Philippines. He was regarded as a hero and after a number of battles at the Manila Stadium, he was matched to meet Antonio Zuzuarrigue, a welter, who had gained distinction while Eddie was roaming around the world. Eddie weighed 129 pounds and won the verdict at the end of ten slashing rounds.

… Old age finally exacted its toll and in 1916 Eddie went down to defeat against the youthful Ramon Sanchez. The old veteran is now [1928] 45 years old and enjoys his advancing years by watching the fruits of his early endeavor spring into champions and powerful contenders

Technically, many of these Filipino main event fighters were not very good. As Norris Mills, the former sports editor of the Manila Daily Bulletin put it in 1925, “Many have been ruined due to the management rushing them into the main event class before they were ready. This rushing process was usually due to a shortage of fighters of top notch timber or the popularity of the scrapper.” Frank Churchill indirectly corroborated this observation, saying in 1924: There were a great many ambitious Filipino lads who craved ring glory, even at the expense of a broken beezer or a vegetable ear. These boys would storm the club on Wednesday night, begging for a chance to go on. Many of them didn’t have money enough to buy an outfit of ring togs, so we always kept a supply of trunks, shoes, etc., available for them. Lots of ‘em wouldn’t use shoes. They were accustomed to going barefoot and shoes cramped their style. Nevertheless, several Filipino fighters of the era were excellent, and the best of them all was the future world flyweight champion Francisco “Pancho Villa” Guilledo. Born at Iloilo, Philippines, on August 1, 1901, Guilledo took up boxing in 1917, turned professional in 1919, and died in July 1925 after fighting a bout in the United States despite impacted wisdom teeth. Standing 5’1″ tall, his best weight was 110-115. Technically, he was described as “a tireless offensive fighter with a strong punch in either left or right.” He was also a consummate showman. For example, he always had an open camp where he entertained paying fans with his expert rope skipping, and once, after knocking an opponent down, he astonished onlookers by jumping on the neutral corner post to await the count.

Other well-regarded bootleg boxers include:

  • Dencio Cabanela. Cabanela was of Igoroto ancestry and in 1920, at age 20, he weighed 128 pounds and had a 17-inch neck. On July 2, 1921, he became the first of three Filipinos managed by Frank Churchill to die of ring-related causes. (The other two were Pancho Villa and Inocencio “Clever Sencio” Moldes.)
  • The Flores brothers (Francisco, Elino, Macario, and Ireneo). All of them started fighting professionally while aged 13 or 14, all of them fought in the US or Australia, and all were managed by their mother. “I can hit harder when mother is at the ringside,” explained Macario Flores in 1922.
  • Sylvino Jamito. A featherweight, he claimed the lightweight championship of the Philippines. He started his professional career in 1916. As noted above he had a draw with Rufe Turner in 1919. He also fought in Australia in 1921 and the United States in 1923. According to Everlast Boxing Record Book 1923, he had a career record of at least 49 fights, of which he lost only 5.
  • Pete Sarmiento (bantamweight). Sarmiento was born in Florida, Blanca, Philippines, on October 15, 1901. At age 22, he stood 5’3″ and weighed 118 pounds. Managed by Frank Churchill, he fought in California during the mid-1920s.
  • Macario Villon (lightweight). Around 1921, Villon fought a 20-round fight with Bud Taylor in Manila, and gave him a solid whipping. In 1922, he defeated Jerry Monohan in Manila. However, in 1923 he lost a couple 15-round decisions to Sylvino Jamito and Ireneo Flores. Villon later fought in San Francisco, where Frankie Farren knocked him out on June 2, 1925.

Other early Filipino fighters about whom less is known are Frisco Concepcion, Cowboy Reyes, and Johnny Hill; the latter was the son of an African American sailor and a Filipino woman.


In 1921, boxing was legalized in the Philippines. The idea was that this would satisfy “the Filipino’s natural love of sport which formerly found its expression in cock-fighting and other vicious sports of like nature.”

The code adopted was similar to New York’s Walker Law, with the exception that the Philippines allowed 20-round fights and paid almost no attention to weight classes. As The Ring noted in its June 1923 edition:

The Philippine code permits twenty round bouts to a decision, which goes the Empire State five better. Every champion of the Islands is obliged to defend his title every six months unless something beyond his control prevents him. If he fails to meet an accredited challenger within that period, the challenger acquires the title.

There is one peculiar item in the code which may be due to an error in typing. One of the clauses reads: ‘There shall be a difference of no more than 18 pounds between two contestants except in the case of the light-heavyweights and heavyweights.

If this is true, all the good derived from the new law is nullified because such difference in weight invites casualties.

Collegiate Boxing

Filipino collegiate boxing dates to 1923. Once again, driving forces included the US Army. As quoted in The Ring by Pablo Anido, the Philippines’ Governor General, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, stated that he wanted “to see the Filipino youth master the manly arts of self-defense – wrestling and boxing.”

Why? Simply because our beloved Governor realizes from experience that both sports develop he-men who become high class citizens. The Governor in the course of his remarks declared that if every young man would think of his health and physical welfare, and then take up boxing and wrestling as a pastime, the world would have better men and better citizens. That this is so, often has been proven. Boxing develops every muscle in the human body, quickens the brain, sharpens the wits, imparts force, and, above all, it teaches self-control.

… The time when it was popular to be a fop and dandy – when it was considered a sign of good breeding to be able to show delicate and well manicured, effeminate hands, is past.

One cannot be successful in life unless one is in constant ‘fighting trim.’ One must be in condition to go and keep going at top speed. Hence the reason for introducing boxing in the University of Manila where it will soon become a major sport.

That said, the true inspiration was not the army, but Pancho Villa, and in 1930 the Filipinos sent a collegiate team to Tokyo to box in the Far Eastern Championship Games. Members included flyweight, Villanueva; bantamweight, John Gray and Guillermo Lazaro; featherweight, Oscar de la Rosa; lightweight, Alejandro Florentino; and welterweight, Carlos Padilla. Although faring well in this contest, the Filipino team eventually withdrew to protest the Japanese referees’ allegedly arbitrary rulings. But of course the Filipinos were not averse to making arbitrary rulings of their own, and four years later 5,000 Japanese rioted in Manila following an equally questionable call involving a Korean student fighting under Japanese colors.

Filipinos in Hawaii before Legalization

Filipinos also fought in Hawaii prior to legalization. Under Section 320 of the US Code, prizefighting was illegal in the Territory of Hawaii until 1929. In practice, however, this portion of the Federal code was widely ignored. For example, in October 1915 the Judge Advocate General of the Army ruled that soldiers could box in garrison provided that there were no admission charges, no challenges from the ring, no decisions announced at the conclusion of fights, and no obvious gambling. At Schofield Barracks, early promoters of military boxing included Tommy Marlowe and Lieutenant Barnard of the 5th US Cavalry, and Sergeant John Stone of the Ordnance Department. At Fort DeRussey, promoters included Sergeant Anthony Biddle of the 17th US Cavalry. The Navy took a similar view, and as result, throughout the 1920s the 14th Naval District Submarine Division held monthly smokers at Pearl Harbor.

As in Manila, the military fights were not always open to civilian spectators, and due to restrictions against soldiers fighting civilians, the fighters were almost entirely military. This of course annoyed civilian boxing fans, and as a result, from 1915 to 1929, there was also bootleg boxing in Hawaii.

The legal fiction used to circumvent the law was that the fights were not prizefights, but instead 3 or 4-round exhibitions held solely for the amusement of members of private clubs. As the Honolulu Advertiser explained the practice in July 1927, “’Membership cards’ were sold on the night of the fight in buildings across the street.” Examples of clubs that organized bootleg fights included Honolulu’s Kewalo Athletic Club and International Athletic Association, and Hilo’s National Athletic Club. The YMCA also offered boxing in some of its youth programs, saying, “Wholesome athletics act as mental tonic in the formation of a boy’s character.”

The reason the law could be flaunted was a case in December 1915 in which US Attorney Jefferson McCarn had filed charges against a promoter and some boxers, and the defense counsel turned out to be the former Honolulu district attorney Robert W. Breckons. Meanwhile, witnesses for the defense included the sitting US Circuit Judge T.B. Stuart. Said the jurist, who admitted sitting in the twelfth row of seats:

I saw these two men engage in sparring on the stage. I think it was three rounds – one minute each and half a minute between. Yes, they had gloves on. Well, they made several demonstrations; I would not call it striking. They would spar and tap each other, just like that… They would, of course, touch each other, care being used not to hurt each other. Following this slap in the face, the US Attorney refused to try future cases, and so it wasn’t until 1927 that anyone else was indicted, let alone convicted, on charges of promoting prizefighting in Hawaii. (And even then the charges owed more to pressure from women’s temperance leagues than any governmental desire to prosecute boxers or promoters.)

Like the communities from which they recruited, Hawaiian bootleg fight clubs were racially segregated. The one that attracted the most Filipinos was Honolulu’s Rizal Athletic Club. The Rizal club held its first smoker in July 1922, and a standard card of this era featured Kid Parco fighting Al “Alky” Dawson or Patsy Fernandez during the main event or Kid Carpenterio during the semi-main. Other Filipinos who fought in Hawaii prior to legalization included Battling Bolo, Young Malicio, Clever Feder, Pedro Suerta, Moniz, Santiago, and Cabayon.

Excepting small gate receipts, the only money to be made through boxing in Hawaii was through side betting. This was unsatisfactory to Filipinos, partly because the working-class fighters wanted to be paid for their pains, and mostly because people from all walks of life wanted to see fights featuring the Filipino pugilists passing through Honolulu on their way to and from San Francisco. As a result, in 1926 the “pugilistic propensity of the Filipino population of Hawaii” was a stated motivation for Governor Wallace Farrington’s testimony to Congress urging the legalization of prizefighting in Hawaii. Said the governor:

At the present time a large and growing Filipino population has very little amusement, and it is a real problem to keep them out of trouble. Their interest in boxing is not surpassed by their interest in any other sport. At every show given, there have been thousands of Filipinos denied admission because the shows were not open to the general public. Boxing will bring them into closer relations with the other races and tend to make better citizens out of them. In the meantime, Filipino fighters such as Carpenterio tried earning money by participating in exhibition bouts with wrestlers and judoka. For example, on May 12, 1923, he met judoka S. Takahashi during a mixed match. “Carpenterio boxed and the professor used jiu jitsu,” said the Advertiser. “The first two-minute round was a draw. Thirty seconds after the second round started Carpenterio was down with an ankle hold and the stuff was off.”

For Further Reading

For Pancho Villa’s ring record, see Tracy Callis, “Pancho Villa (Francisco Guilledo),” For more about the Filipino boxers that followed Guilledo to the United States, see Cornelio M. Pasquil, “The Great Filipino Boxing Era,” Filipino American National Historical Journal, 3 (1994), and also Pasquil’s film documentary called The Great Pinoy Boxing Era. Photos of some of these later fighters appear at

For pre-World War I US military boxing, see Edmund L. Butts, “Soldierly Bearing, Health and Athletics,” Outing, 63 (October 1903 to March 1904), 707-711. For black soldiers of that era, try Oswald Garrison Villard, “The Negro in the Regular Army,” Atlantic Monthly, 91 (1903), 721-729, reprinted at, while for black fighters, try Kevin Smith’s website,

Data about Philippine-American War casualties can be found in the Army Medical Bulletin, 1930, “War Casualties,”; Roger A. Lee, “Philippine-American War, 1899-1902,”; and Trevor K. Plante, “Researching Service in the U.S. Army during the Philippine Insurrection,”

Other source documents included clippings from the Honolulu Advertiser, New York Times, and The Ring.

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