Boxing saves, but who will save the boxers?
MANILA, Philippines- When a 16-year-old high school student named Jonas Garcia died in December 2013 after competing in an amateur boxing tournament, the outcry to ban minors in contact sports became a hot topic of debate.
According to reports, Jonas Garcia’s nose began to bleed in round one but the attending ring physician nevertheless allowed the young boxer to continue. In round 2, Garcia complained of dizziness, prompting the referee to stop the fight. As he slipped into peril, Garcia was rushed to a hospital where he was declared brain dead shortly after.
The incident was serious enough to the point that Philippine lawmakers from congress party-list Ako Bicol stepped in and write House Bill 3646 which prevents minors from competing in any contact sports. The Department of Education, which oversaw the Garcia fight, included in their memorandum for the 2014 Palarong Pambansa that "Boxing in the elementary division shall be excluded" from the upcoming games.
Mark Villanueva doesn’t share their sentiments on the sport. The 39-year-old owner of the Villanueva Boxing Academy in Iloilo City, Philippines has taught the redemptive value of boxing to local youth for the past year and is a firm believer in its power. “I don’t see how banning the sport of boxing makes practical sense because so many have and will greatly benefit from it. Combat sports are very effective when used as a tool for discipline. Accidents happen in any sport in general, the sport is not the enemy here.”
“I suggest we focus on proper safety procedures instead, improve training standards, employ qualified trainers, exercise better care in terms of officiating during tournaments and regulate the sport effectively. I think that is the real issue here. Get these aspects done and I don’t see how boxing is more dangerous than other sport. That’s why the sport has been around for such a long time.” said Villanueva.
Passion for boxing
Villanueva’s passion for boxing started at an early age. His father was a big boxing fan who introduced him to the sport by watching Muhammad Ali on TV when he was 6 years old. Villanueva didn’t begin training himself until he was in his 20s, a relatively late start in a sport dominated by prodigies.
“I boxed before or after work almost every single day. I boxed even during holidays and this spanned for almost 10 years,” recalled Villanueva, who also credits former WBF welterweight titleholder William Magahin for his boxing education. “I boxed with different fighters, amateurs and professionals, trained alongside and learned from them.”
Possessing no professional or amateur fighting experience, but equipped with knowledge of the sport, Mark founded the Villanueva Boxing Academy in February 2013. His motivation for founding the gym was not to make money for himself but rather to invite struggling youth to try their hands in boxing- for free.
“Most of them are indigents. Some have a hard time getting to the gym because they can’t pay their 7.50php ($.17 USD) fare. I also used to have a kid with an alcoholic father whose mother has no work. (There is a kid whose) father is a taxi driver but can’t drive anymore due to bad health while the mother is a mere laundrywomen (labandera) with 3 kids to feed living in a shanty. I provide them food and vitamins when they have fights,” said Villanueva. “It’s tough out there, man. People watch the news and complain about changing the system but I believe that real change starts within us first and foremost.”
Villanueva says he wanted to come up with a sustainable, realistic way of helping people and helping themselves. His dream is simple: equip these kids with necessary traits and values to be successful in life. “Most of these kids grew up without proper guidance and attention, so my idea is to create a second home for them where they can be checked from time to time so they can have people act as their mentors, like second parents whom they can look up to and rely on,” said Villanueva.
Villanueva uses the sport of boxing as a platform to distract struggling youths off the street and lure them to the gym. Villanueva teaches these kids to dream and achieve what they want through hard work. It is through this sport that he molds their character, teaching them about respect, confidence and dignity.
To make this possible, Mark maintains a day job to keep his gym running. The gym also offers boxing lessons to paying students to subsidize their monthly expenses. His advocacy has spread far enough to attract support from people who are interested in making a change in the society, people who help out either financially or in kind by donating boxing equipments or by providing food to the kids after training.
“I want to mold leaders in my gym. I want them to apply what they’ve learned in the gym through boxing into school so when they graduate from college I want them to get a real job and apply that same discipline with their work and inject a new perspective,” said Villanueva.
A hard life
Professional boxers in the Philippines get a meager salary of 1000 pesos per round (roughly $23) and for this reason Mark realizes that there’s not much security living as a pro boxer in the country. “It’s great if they become the next Manny Pacquiao, but in my gym, I have a more practical approach. I encourage them to become doctors or lawyers once they finish school. But if a kid wants to pursue a career in boxing, why not?”
These kids are not doing bad in boxing either as their team has won gold, silver and bronze medals in national tourneys like “Batang Pinoy” at the regional and city-wide levels. Mark has put all of these together in such a relatively short amount of time given the hardships and struggles he has to go through.
But it doesn’t stop there.
“My directions from the start have been very clear. We’ve decided to move forward to register and formalize this into a full-fledged foundation for underprivileged kids aged 11 to 18 this year. I want this to be beyond me. I want this to be here for the long run for the future generations. We will be making history as the first boxing academy of its kind. We are in the good side of the sport.”
When asked what he gets from this endeavor, his answer was as basic as a one-two combination. “It makes me happy to help. I want people to know that you don’t have to be rich to help your brethren; you don’t need to get into politics to build a nation. God has given each and every one of us the faculties to do more than just that. There’s no excuse not to help. Always help if you can.” - Rappler.com