Filipino athletes

[Ilonggo Notes] From Pancho Villa to Eugene Torre: Get to know Iloilo’s sports greats

Vic Salas

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[Ilonggo Notes] From Pancho Villa to Eugene Torre: Get to know Iloilo’s sports greats
Did you know that the Philippines is home to FIFA's greatest Asian footballer of all time?

In the firmament of outstanding sports personalities, there is no greater honor than to be inducted into the Hall of Fame (HOF) of your sport, a recognition afforded only to a select few worldwide. Chances of a Filipino making it to the HOF for golf, tennis, athletics, or basketball are slim at best, but a few Pinoys have been named to the HOF for boxing, bowling, billiards, football, swimming, and chess. Three Ilonggo sportsmen are in this super-elite class; the boxer Pancho Villa, footballer Paulino Alcantara, and chess Grandmaster Eugene Torre.  

A great boxer gone too soon

Pancho Villa (1901-1925) was the first Asian to hold a World Championship Belt in Boxing, and the first ever elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He was born as Francisco Villaruel Guilledo in 1901 in Negros Occidental. His father abandoned the family early, and he grew up with his mother in a La Carlota hacienda. 

Eric Giron, in a 1972 publication, Philippine Sports Greats, writes that Guilledo ventured to Iloilo to work as a bootblack at the Lyric Theater at the age of 11, and may have learned his first boxing skills then, as boxing bouts were held at the Lyric every Saturday. Moving to Manila, he hung out with boxers, sleeping on the floor of a sports stadium.  Seeing his potential, he was adopted by boxing patron Francisco Villa, who gave him the name “Pancho Villa.” By May 1922, Pancho was in the US with his patron.

Just over five feet tall and 52 kilos, Villa was explosive and unrelenting in the ring. He fought 105 times, sometimes with as little as a week between bouts. Three months after arriving in the US he knocked out the American Flyweight champion; 10 months later, on June 18, 1923, he knocked out Jimmy Wilde of Wales, then the World Flyweight Champion, and became the first Asian to ever hold a World Championship belt.

Villa defended his title several times in the US and the Philippines (Iloilo and Manila, in March 1925). His last was a non-title bout with Jimmy McLarnin on July 4, 1925 in Oakland. Weak from the recent extraction of a wisdom tooth, Villa lost the decision. Another visit to the dentist resulted in the discovery of an infection and the extraction of three more teeth. Villa ignored instructions to rest and return for a follow-up, and instead indulged in a week-long party. The infection worsened, and Villa died of Ludwig’s Angina, an infection of the throat cavity, on July 14, 17 days before his 24th birthday. 

Giron reports: “Pancho’s body was shipped back to Manila. The Philippines was in mourning, the streets draped in black…. Every shop in Manila was closed; over 100,000 paid homage at his funeral…”

Pancho was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1961, 36 years following his demise, the first Filipino to have been accorded the distinction. The Associated Press named him as the top flyweight boxer of the 20th century, in a list of the top 100 boxers of the century – the only Filipino in the list, which includes greats like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.  

An Ilonggo footballer who made history with FC Barcelona

Footballer Paulino Alcantara y Riestra (1896-1964) was born to a Spanish military officer and an Ilongga in Concepcion, Iloilo. In 2007 he was named by FIFA as the greatest Asian footballer of all time, 43 years after he passed away. The family went to Spain in 1899, where Paulino honed his football skills, and was discovered by FC Barcelona founder Joan Gamper. Alcantara is the youngest to be ever recruited by FC Barcelona, at the age of 15, and also the very first Asian to play in a European league. 

In his very first game, he showed his worth – scoring the first three goals for the club. When the family returned to the Philippines from 1916-1918, he studied medicine but continued to play, and headed the Philippine team in a 15-2 rout of Japan in the 1917 Far Eastern Games. Returning to Barcelona in 1919, he eventually became the top goal scorer for the club, scoring 395 goals in 399 games, a record that stood for 88 years, until one Lionel Messi broke it in 2014.   

FC Barcelona’s website notes, “His characteristic deceptive appearance (he was just 5’7”) made him popular with the fans, becoming the first star of the club in the golden ages of the twenties.… His ability to hit the most powerful of shots crossed frontiers on 30 April 1922 when, in a game between Spain and France, he hit a shot so hard that it ripped right through the net. For many years after, children from Barcelona would recall that moment and would wish to do the same as the man from the Philippines…

Alcantara played for national teams of the Philippines and Spain, retired in 1927, and practiced medicine. He was FC Barcelona director in the 1930s, and had a short stint as coach of Spain’s national team in the 1950s.  

Asia’s first chess Grandmaster is an Ilonggo

Eugene Torre is acknowledged as the Philippines’, and Asia’s, premier chess player — he is the first Asian to become a Grandmaster. The year was 1974, after the 23-year-old won the silver medal in the 21st Chess Olympiad held in France.

Torre was born November 4, 1951 in Iloilo City, where his mother, a pharmacist, taught in the University of San Agustin. In a tournament in Manila in 1976, Torre was the only one to beat the then-reigning World Champion Anatoly Karpov in a game that has become part of Filipino chess history. In 1982 he gained a spot in the World Chess Championship Candidates matches. He served as Bobby Fischer’s second in the 1992 matches against Boris Spassky. His longevity is unsurpassed. He has played on Board One for the Philippines in 18 Chess Olympiads. After participating in 23 Olympiads by 2016, Torre recorded 103 wins, 124 draws, and 43 losses, for a total score of 165 points, second over-all in Olympiad history. However, he also holds the distinction of having played the most games in the history of the Olympiad with 270. 

On April 19, 2021, Torre was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame, the first male Asian chess player to be given such honors. He is still active in the senior chess circuit, twice winning the Asian Seniors chess championships (+65 years) in 2017 and 2018. 

Other notables – the Olympic medalists and Asian champions

Olympic medalists are also at the peak of their respective sports. In this respect there are three boxers from Iloilo and Negros who have won Olympic medals. Leopoldo Serrantes of Iloilo won a bronze in the 1988 Olympics. Bago City is the cradle of boxing winners — the Velasco brothers, Roel and Mansueto “Onyok,” both won Olympic medals – bronze for Roel in 1992, and silver for Onyok in 1996.  

Ilonggas who became Asia’s fastest – on land, and in water

Once dubbed as “Asia’s Swim Queen,” Haydee Coloso-Espino won a total of 10 medals from three Asian Games (1954, 1958, and 1962). Three were gold, five were silver, and two were bronze. Her gold medals came from the 100-meter freestyle and butterfly events.

The Ilongga swimmer was just 16 years old when she won two gold medals and a silver medal at the 1954 Games; She won four medals in 1958, and three more in 1962. She was chosen as Woman Swimmer of the Year for three consecutive years (1953-1955) by the Philippine Sportswriters Association. With ten medals (3 gold, 5 silver and 2 bronze medals), Coloso-Espino holds the record for the most number of medals won by a Filipino athlete – male or female – in the Asian Games.

In 2016, Coloso-Espino was inducted into the Philippine Sports HOF, the first Filipina swimmer to earn the accolade. She was a teacher in Manila until retirement.

Inocencia Solis (1932-2001), born in New Lucena, Iloilo to a poor farming family, was at one time the fastest woman in Asia, winning the gold medal in the 100 meters in the 1958 Asian Games. She also won gold as part of the 4x100m relay in the 1962 games. All in all, she won five medals in 1954, 1958, and 1962. She had a degree in Education and upon retirement from athletics taught in Cebu, and later in Caloocan City. Solis passed away from diabetes complications in 2001 in Iloilo City.

Lastly, two others have a special place in Ilonggo sports history, partly because their careers have been marred by unfortunate events. 

Jimmy de la Torre was the Marathon King, whose national record stood for almost 30 years; he won the 1981 Milo Marathon in his debut, at the age of 18, and went on to win two more. He also won the 1987 Penang International Marathon.

Jimmy was shot inside a movie house in Iloilo on June 1990 and died at the age of 27, still in his prime; the case remains unsolved.  

The other one is Rodolfo “Rudy” Fernandez, formerly the country’s top miler, who won medals in the 800 and 1500 meters at the Pesta Sukan games, a SEA regional sports competition in the mid-70s.

In 1979, he lost his right leg in a grenade explosion, also inside an Iloilo movie house. Despite the amputation, and a prosthesis, his fighting heart never wavered: he did triathlons, raising money for charities working with people with disabilities.

His 1995 record for swimming the strait between Panay and Guimaras Island still stands. Rudy was also known as the “Iron Man” and was featured in Reader’s Digest as a “hero for heroes.” He taught physical education at WIT Iloilo for many years, and once joined a popular reality TV show. Around Iloilo he is a popular figure, frequently joining bike events.

Sadly, between August 2021 and January 2022, three in this illustrious list have passed away – Olympic medalist Serrantes, swim queen Espino, and “Iron Man” Fernandez. This piece is a tribute to them. –

Vic Salas is a physician and public health specialist by training, and now retired from international consulting work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.

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