Boxing against the odds in pursuit of the next Manny Pacquiao

Story highlights

  • The Philippines has won nine Olympic medals, five have come from boxing
  • Success of world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao has increased interest in the sport
  • More young boxers aim to be professional rather than try for Olympic glory
  • Vice president of the Philippines Olympic Committee sees lots of potential in young boxers
Filipino boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao may be an eight-time world champion but he didn't have the skills to make it as an amateur.
"He tried his luck, but he wasn't good enough as far as we were concerned," says Manuel Lopez, the former president of the Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines and current Vice President of the Philippines Olympic Committee.
"He was very raw, with punches coming from over the shoulder; he was floating, in other words."
Lopez knew Pacquiao as a teenager before he developed into him one of the best pound-for-pound boxers of all time, and readily concedes that he did see he had great potential as a pro.
But Lopez -- and sport in the Philippines in general -- is now left in the strange situation where the most successful Filipino sportsperson ever has heightened interest in boxing but he could also be a reason for underachievement in the sport and other events at this year's Olympic Games.
The hard-hitting success of Pacquiao has led to more Filipinos stepping into the ring, but many of them are seeking the potentially lucrative rewards of a professional career, rather than boxing as an amateur for national pride.
"The sport of boxing really is economy," says Lopez.
"Sad to say but the people who go into the sport of boxing are the less fortunate. In my experience all boxers that do active and competitive boxing are coming from the lower class hoping for greener pastures in the spot of boxing, as exemplified by Manny Pacquiao."
While not as successful as countries like Cuba, who traditionally have punched above their weight in terms of Olympic medals, the Philippines has won five Olympic boxing medals (out of a total of nine from all sports), with three of those coming from successive Games from 1988 to 1996. Pacquiao was an amateur when "boxing in the Philippines was at the top of the hill," says Lopez, but since the 1990s heyday, medals from any sport, including boxing, haven't materialized.
Funding is the main reason, bemoans Lopez, plus the increased difficultly in qualifying. Financial support from private companies and businesses in sponsoring sports associations helps, but can't entirely close the gap, says Lopez.
Mark Anthony Barriga, a 19-year-old from the island of Mindanao, looks set to be the only Filipino boxer at this year's Olympics, but boxing coach Ronald Chavez sees plenty of potential in his gym.
Chavez was an amateur boxer during the Philippines almost-golden patch -- two bronze medals and one silver -- between Seoul and Atlanta. After missing out on a medal himself at the Barcelona Olympic Games he eventually turned his hand to coaching in 1999.
As one of the amateur boxing association's coaches, he runs the rule over 48 boxers -- 36 men and 12 women -- who take it in turns to spar and hit the well-stuffed punch bags each day in Manila's crumbling Rizal Memorial Sports Complex.
Among Chavez's young tyros are a number of promising female boxers (this year's Olympic Games will be first that women's boxing is contested), and 16-year-old Eumir Marcial who became the country's first Word Junior Champion last year.
"He's good," says the understated Chavez, who, while hopeful the boxers in his gym will continue to develop in the national set-up, is realistic about why they are boxing.
"Well, they like to be like Manny (Pacquiao). Even my eight-year-old son, too," he says.
Lopez remains optimistic that Barriga can win a medal in London and the likes of Marcial can develop into world-beaters, believing it takes around six years to make a champion boxer that could give the Philippines its first gold medal.
"Sport is a barometer for the nation's development. Sometimes we feel we are lacking because it's not a priority for the government. But for us sportspeople we do try and find a way to alleviate the plight of our predicament. We need fresh blood too, fresh minds, new ideas," he says.
"There's no shortage of raw talent here... given the right funding, knowledge and technology we will triumph."