Pancho Villa: The 1st Filipino world boxing champion remembered

Ninety one years ago this month, Pancho Villa became the first Filipino and, Asian, for that matter, to be crowned a world boxing champion.

On June 18, 1923, the then 22-year-old Villa, whose real name was Francisco Guilledo, scored a seventh-round knockout over Jimmy Wilde of Wales  before a packed crowd of the Polo Grounds in New York City to capture the world flyweight crown, the country’s first-ever world boxing title.

That fight, and his other victories in a colorful but abbreviated career, later earned for him a spot in the boxing’s Hall of Fame 36 years after his death.

Some 23,000 fight fans, majority of them Filipinos witnessed Pancho’s fight  – and history unfold before their eyes in New York.

Pancho Villa (left) displays the fighting form that struck
fears to his opponent during his heydays in the 1920s.
Right photo shows Villa (real name Francisco Guilledo)
with Wales’ Jimmy Wilde during pre-fight ceremony
for their fight in New York City on June 18, 1923.
For a little less than a half hour, Pancho  pummeled the Welshman with telling combinations, dropping his foe four times in the contest to claim the title.

Manuel Villa-Real, a journalist, recalled in an article that when Pancho Villa entered the ring for the fight, boxing fans, including the Americans, shouted “Viva Villa.”

Villa Real, the grandfather of four-time Bowling World Cup bowling champion Paeng Nepomuceno, wrote that the American boxing fans considered Pancho as their own.

Villa-Real said that Panlcho, who came in as the heavy underdog for the fight, weighed 110 pounds while Wilde came in at 109.

Highly-skilled, young and blessed with lightning left jabs, Villa started cautiously, aware  of Wilde’s lethal right hand.

But nearing the middle of the opening round, Villa hammered the Welshman with deadly rights that bloodied his rival’s eye.  Wilde stood his ground and even tried to mix it up, which proved to be a mistake.

By the third round, blood flowed from the gash on Wilde’s now closed eye. Pancho kept his attack in the next round, sending his opponent down.

Wilde refused to surrender and Pancho pressed the action in the fifth stanza, scoring another knock down. Pancho looked at the referee, begging the official to stop the fight, but Wilde stubbornly refused to quit.

Out of mercy,  Pancho eased up on his attack on the sixth, prompting his manager and foster father Francisco “Paquito” Villa to ask him what was going on. Pancho told him that it was a senseless slaughter.

“Finish him off then,” the manager shouted back. So when the bell rang signaling the start of the seventh canto, Pancho feigned a right lead inducing Wilde to raise his guard.

Pancho hit Wilde with a left to the body, and then smashed a right to the defending champs’ jaw that finally dropped the Welshman for good. The fight was over.

Triumphant return

As Pancho gently helped his foe back to his corner, a woman, who turned out to be Wilde’s wife, approached him and thanked him for his gesture. The crowd gave the new champion a thunderous ovation.

Wilde was carried to his dressing room with  a bleeding mouth, gashed cheeks and eyes closed. Reports later said that the boxer had become permanently blind because of his injuries.

Manila went wild over Villa’s victory. Ships whistled and ice plants sirens blared the news of his victory. Extra editions of all newspapers sold like hot cakes.

In an interview in Manila,  Pancho’s wife Gliceria said that “you cannot imagine the happiness I felt upon receiving the first notices of the victory of my husband. I cried not because of pain but emotion. I was hoping for his triumph.”

General Emilio Aguinaldo, echoing the sentiment of  the entire nation said: “Congratulations, Pancho, Come back to us and defend your title here.”

Pancho was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived aboard the SS President Grant, the same luxury liner that brought him to the United States on April 2, 1922.

A reception at the Malacañang Palace hosted by President Quezon followed a massive parade from the airport passing through Manila’s major streets where thousands greeted the returning sports hero.

After several weeks in the country where he visited the Rodriguez farm in La Carlota where he grew up, Pancho was summoned by his American handler Frank Churchill to go back to the US for another fight in Oakland, California against Jimmy McLarnin slated on July 4, 1925, which coincided with the US Independence Day celebrations.

Pancho had signed up for the fight on June 8, but by month’s end, his face had turned swollen due to an ulcerated tooth. Fight promoter Thomas Simpson tried to ask McLarnin’s mananger Pop Foster to call off the fight, but Pancho insisted to go on with it,  despite the pain he was suffering.

On the day of the fight, Simpson sent an aide to see if fans were willing to watch the bout. There was no Golden Gate Bridge yet at that time so that when the ferry boat reached San Francisco,  Simpson’s aide saw thousands of Filipinos rushing to board the ferries to Oakland to see the Villa-McLarnin fight.

The bout was on! 

Pancho Villa fought hard despite the pain he was suffering and McLarnin’s decisive advantage in height and heft. McLarnin, who was a welterweight and, in fact, soon became the world’s 147-pount titleholder, won via an unpopular and controversial decision many believed should have gone to Villa.

A few days later, a dentist pulled out Pancho’s remaining three wisdom teeth and advised the fighter to rest. But Pancho instead threw a party and celebrated for the next several days, which caused his health to further deteriorate.

His decision to disobey his doctor’s advice proved fatal. On July 13, Pancho was diagnosed with Ludwig’s angina or infection of the throat. The next morning he was taken to the hospital where he died at the operating table 18 days short of his 24th birthday.

“A fast, two-fisted battler, an excellent boxer with a stinging left jab. His record was a splendid one,” the Hall of Fame said in a tribute in October 1961 to Pancho Villa.

The Hall of Fame, established in 1954 by Nat Fleischer of Ring Magazine, considered as the “bible’ in boxing, cited Villa’s overall record during a seven-year professional career of 99 fights,  winning 22 by knockouts and 49 by decision. He lost five, drew four and had 19 no-decision exhibition bouts in areas where boxing was illegal in the 1920s.

Humble beginnings

Pancho Villa was born Francisco Guilledo on August 1, 1901 in Ilog, Negros Occidental to father Rafael, a farmhand, and Maria (nee Villaruel). Six months after his birth, his father left them to join the United States Navy.

When Pancho was three, the family moved  to a hacienda owned by Don Victoriano Rodriguez in La Carlota.  As a young boy,  he helped his mother earn a living by tending goats in the farm.

At the age of 11, Pancho, with friend Manuel, left for Manila where they ended up in the slums of Palomar in Sta. Cruz. They lived near the Olympic Stadium along Dorotheo Jose St., the former site of Mapua Institute of Technology. Pancho spent the nights sleeping on the floorboard beneath the seats.

While enrolled at the Meisic Elementary School in Reina Regente, Villa met promising boxer Elino Flores who introduced him to his manager,  Francisco Villa, an ice plant executive. Villa owned a boxing stable that included future champion Dencio Cabanela.

Villa  told Elino, however, that Guilledo cannot be accommodated in the stable. One day, the elder Villa watched Flores, a featherweight, spar against a frail youngster who barely stood five-feet and weighed 100 pounds. The kid, who happened to be Francisco, dropped Flores to the seat of his pants during the skirmish.

That started Pancho’s boxing career. Villa adopted Francisco, hired him as gym utility and as sparring partner to his boxers and in 1918 gave him his nom de guerre Pancho Villa after the Mexican revolutionary leader.

Pancho fought 15 four-rounders in 1919, winning nine by points, four by KOs and lost one. The following year he climbed the ring 10 times, emerging victorious in eight, two by KOs and six on points, with the two others as no-decision bouts.

From 1919 to 1921, Pancho fought 52 times capped by a third round stoppage of Australian flyweight kingpin George Mendies,  earning for him international recognition and invitation from Churchill to go to the US.

But before he embarked for the US, Pancho married  girlfriend Gliceria in a civil ceremony.

In the US, Pancho defeated titleholder Johnny Buff, to earn the American flyweight title, and won five more fights,  including over soon-to-be world bantamweight champion Abe Goldstein.

During his reign,  Pancho  proved to be a generous fellow. He spent money as fast as he darned them. He tipped waiters and musicians $20 bills each. He also dated the then Miss New York regularly.

Pancho frequented the race tracks with fellow world champion, heavyweight  Jack Dempsey, who became his close friend. He lost as much as $17,000 once on a horse owned by Dempsey.

Sometime in 1924, a man went to his New York apartment,  introducing himself as his long-lost father Rafael Guilledo.

Pancho heard from the  man the same stories his mother used to tell him. He was even shown by the stranger a mole on the shoulder to identify himself. Pancho addressed the old man “Sir” all throughout their conversation.

He asked his foster father Paquito how much money he had, and when told that he still has $6,000, Pancho took $5,000 and pressed it into the old man’s hands. That was the last time the two met.

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