PH collegiate sports

KJ Cataraja dreams big in school and the boxing ring

Ryan Songalia
KJ Cataraja dreams big in school and the boxing ring
Cataraja is a criminology student at the University of the Visayas by day, and an undefeated pro boxer by night. Poverty motivated him to pursue an ambitious life.

MANILA, Philippines – Kevin Jake Cataraja has gotten used to the stares by now. Even while dressed in his school uniform, he draws attention from other passengers as he rides the jeepney every morning from his home in Cebu City to University of the Visayas (UV), where he’s expecting to finish up his BS in Criminology in March. 

They may have seen his face but can’t quite place it. They might know him as that fighter guy. Others, like his classmates, have grown used to watching him pursue his professional boxing career on the Pinoy Pride series on ABS-CBN. 

“Every day they usually call me ‘idol’ in school,” Cataraja, 21, says with a laugh. “Even when I was riding a jeep some people stare at me.” 

Cataraja, undefeated at 4-0 (3 knockouts), will probably draw more stares after this weekend. He faces John Kenan Villaflor (6-1-2, 2 KOs) at the Cebu Coliseum in Cebu City on Saturday, November 26, in a 6-round fight on the undercard of Pinoy Pride 39, which is headlined by the interim IBF junior flyweight title fight between Milan Melindo and Teeraphong Utaida, plus the return of Albert Pagara. 

There is no compromise in Cataraja’s lifestyle. He runs an hour through the mountains at 4 am each morning to strengthen his lungs, then attends class (he’s taking 3 subjects at the moment) before sweating it out at the humid outdoor ALA Gym in the Talamban section of Cebu City. There he swaps punches with sparring partners like two-time world champion Donnie Nietes, getting an education in the hurt business more bruising than any final exam. 

It’s a tough life, but not nearly as tough as the one he had once known. Cataraja remembers the days when he, his parents, and his 3 younger siblings survived day-to-day, unsure of how they would eat the following day.  

“That was the hardest thing I ever encountered. Every morning before going to school at 5 am, I usually go to my auntie’s house to borrow money and rice for our whole week,” remembers Cataraja. 

“Sometimes they give us food that was not sold at their carinderia and my mom heats it up so we could eat it and won’t get hungry in school.” 

He remembers when his father, a tricycle driver, didn’t have sustainable income to provide for the family, and when their house in Tabuelan, Cebu, was demolished, and they were unsure of where they’d live. He remembers, which is what motivates him to fight. 

“I have big dreams, not only for myself but also in my family who really encourages me. Poverty – that’s why I really want to do two options in boxing and in my studies.” 

Real life Ippo 

Cataraja’s first passion was, like many Filipino boys, basketball, the sport his father most favored. That changed around age 8 when he first watched Hajime no Ippo, a Japanese animé featuring a teenaged boxer balancing his life as a high school student and prizefighter. His family home was near the ALA Gym, where fighters like Z Gorres and Nietes were already plying their trade. He visited the gym with his cousins on the way home from school, but was told he was too young. 

KJ Cataraja has successfully balanced his boxing and scholastic lives like the cartoon Hajime no Ippo. Photo by Arvee Eco/Rappler

He came back the next year and started on a course which culminated in nearly 300 fights, 4 National gold medals, and two tournament MVP awards. He could have joined the national training pool in Baguio and entered into contention for international tournaments and the Olympics but opted to stay in Cebu to pursue school. With the endorsement of ALA Boxing founder Antonio Aldeguer, Cataraja was awarded a scholarship to study in his home province.

Since turning professional 18 months ago. Cataraja has been matched ambitiously, knocking out an Indonesian with 10 fights in his pro debut. Then, in his second fight, he scored a 4th round technical knockout of Ellias Nggenggo, who had previously stopped former WBO strawweight champ Merlito Sabillo. 

Cataraja’s trainer Edito Villamor, a former world title challenger who himself had studied Computer Science at UV and University of Cebu, knows the level of discipline it takes to succeed simultaneously in school and in the ring. He likes what he’s seen so far from Cataraja.

“He has power in both hands, positive thinker, he has the skills and talent, he trains hard,” says Villamor, who cautions, “As of now he is still 4 fights, we don’t know yet what his weakness [is].”

On Saturday, Cataraja will have a cheering section comprised of his school’s athletic coordinator, some teachers, his criminology deans, and some classmates. After the final bell, he’ll return back to the life of a student, working toward his qualification to work on the police force some day. But there’s something to this boxing dream, and he wants to get everything out of it he can before moving to a second career. 

“I’d like to fight on big cards in USA or any part of the country. I’d like to see myself aiming high as Manny Pacquiao, Nonito Donaire, and Kuya Donnie Nietes aim, and giving honor to our country. I’d like to make my own name in boxing world,” says Cataraja. –

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