"LITTLE BROWN DOLLS" A GALLERY OF WORLD FILIPINO BOXING CHAMPS By: Hermie Rivera
They were called "Little Brown Dolls," but how they could fight! Twenty-seven (27) World Champions enshrined in the record books since the early '20s attest to the ability, speed, courage, and flash of Filipino fighters, who campaigned mainly in the lower weight classes.
If there was a Boxing resurgence in the islands today, plus another steady stream of small ringmen to the States, the problems of American matchmakers and promoters would diminish. Filipino fans still heatedly debate the relative merits of Pancho Villa, Ceferino Garcia, "Flash" Elorde, Ben Villaflor, and Luisito Espinosa - the only Filipino to win the World Bantamweight and Featherweight titles - as to who was the best to come out of the Philippines. But, there are plenty more names to go around. The old timers swear by Villa, the first ever Filipino to win a world title by a shocking knockout - no less - of incomparable Flyweight Champion Jimmy Wilde of England, the Mighty Atom, in Madison Square Garden in 1923.
Garcia, who held the Middleweight crown in a career that spanned 1927-1944; Elorde, a Junior Lightweight Champion and twice an unsuccessful challenger for the Lightweight title; and more recently Espinosa, have the necessary credentials and adherents who loudly clarion their merits to be number one (1).
It all began with Frank Churchill, an American who migrated to Manila after World War-01 and struck it rich. What Churchill discovered was not gold but "Little Brown Dolls," Filipino fighters who were the islands' greatest sports heroes. Churchill, a US Customs house clerk turned pugilistic entrepreneur exported the virtually untapped vein of talent to, first, Honolulu and then the United States and American fans eagerly paid to enjoy their quick moves, ringmanship, and courage. If there was one minus factor in the imported performer, it was a lack of punch, but it mattered not to the rabid fans who appreciated their Boxing skills, speed, and grit.
The Filipino fight fan is knowledgeable, behaves ideally, understands what he sees and at the same time will not hesitate to slow clap or boo a renowned fighter's poor performance and demand he not be permitted to appear again. California - particularly the San Francisco Bay Area - became the land of opportunity for the (mostly) flyweights and bantamweights.
San Jose, Stockton, Bakersfield, Watsonville, Oakland Sacramento, San Francisco, and Modesto became second homes for the itinerant warriors who fought as often as once a week, usually against Mexicans and other groups of impoverished immigrants. Opportunistic promoters were eager to utilize the little men who attracted big crowds of Filipino farm laborers from the California valley and Delta towns. Saturday night concluded a week of labor in the fields, and what better recreation and release than to swarm to the local arena to cheer on a fellow countryman.
World Began to Hear:
Soon, championship opportunities followed for the most adept. The world begun to hear about Villa, Small Montana, Little Dado, Pete Sarmiento, Clever Sencio, Speed Cabanela, and Ceferino Garcia among others. Later, Leo Espinosa and Flashy Sebastian came into prominence.
The ill-fated Villa (Francisco Guilledo) called the second best flyweight of all time (after Wilde) by Ring Magazine authority Nat Fleischer, died in San Francisco in 1925 from an ulcerated tooth ten (10) days after losing a non-title match in Oakland to Jimmy Mclarnin. He had 105 registered bouts and a record (88-09-05 and 22) knockouts with three (3) no contests. His knockout of Wilde put the Philippines on the Boxing map.
Elorde, the hero of the modern day Filipino fan came to San Francisco in 1956 after beating World Featherweight Champion Sandy Saddler in a non-title 10 bout in Manila. They were rematched in the San Francisco Cow Palace for the title and after Elorde had piled up an early lead he became the target of Saddler's elbows and ugly tactics on a damaged eye and finally was a technical knockout victim in the late rounds.
He went on to capture the world 130-pound title, was twice repulsed by Carlos Ortiz for the World Lightweight crown on 14th-round stoppages. Gabriel Elorde who died in 1985 in Manila, fought eleven (11) times in Northern California and three (3) times in New York City, finished with a record of 88-25-02 with 34 knockouts from 1951 through 1971.
He won the 130-pound title from Harold Gomes in Quezon City by a seventh (7) round knockout and repeated with a first-round stoppage in San Francisco in the rematch in 1960 and successfully defended ten (10) times.
A "Big Man" by Filipino standards, was 160-pounder Garcia (95-26-09 with 65 knockouts) who won his title from Fred Apostoli in New York in 1939. During a career that spanned (1927-1944), Ceferino, noted for his so-called "Bolo Punch" later adopted by Cuban Kid Gavilan - defended his title successfully against Henry Armstrong in Los Angeles in 1940 with a highly disputed draw that prevented Armstrong from becoming the holder of four (4) world titles. Garcia died in San Diego in 1981 at age 75.
Villaflor (35-04-06, 20 knockouts) decisioned Alfred Marcano in 1972 and after losing the title to Kuniaki Shibata regained it seven (7) months later and overall, successfully defended it six (6) times. Small Montana (Benjamin L. Gan) from Negros, campaigned from 1931 to 1941, moved permanently to Northern California and became a merchant seaman after retiring from the ring. In 1935, Montana beat Midget Wolgast for the New York version of the World Flyweight title and lost it Benny Lynch in London two (2) years later. His 111 total bouts include 79 wins, 22 losses, and ten (10) draws with ten (10) knockouts.
Little Dado (Elevetero Zapanta fought thirty-six (36) times in Northern California in an 11-year career, beating Small Montana in 1938 for the California-recognized World Flyweight crown and finished with a 51-07-11, 02 no-contest record including 20 knockouts. Other notables who became titleholders were Luisito Espinosa who knocked out Kaokor Galaxy of Thailand in one (1) round in 1989 in Bangkok to win the WBA 118-pound title and had two (2) successful title defenses before losing the title to Israel Contreras of Venezuela in 1992.
After the loss of his Bantamweight tiara, Luisito won the WBC Featherweight crown with a devastating knockout of Alejandro "Cobrita" Gonzalez in Guadalajara but lost it in a controversial rematch with Cesar Soto in El Paso, Texas.
Morris East (15-03-00) gained the WBC Junior Welterweight diadem in an 11th round knockout of Nobutushi Hiranaka in Tokyo. East at twenty (20), became the youngest Filipino to win a World Championship. He lost his title to Juan Martin Coggi of Argentina in his first defense, January 1993.
Other World Champions from the islands include Roberto Cruz, Pedro Adigue, Rene Barrientos, Bernabe Villacampo, Erbito Salavarria, Rolando Navarette, Frank Cedeno, Dodie Peρalosa, Eric Chaves, Tacy Macalos, Bobby Berna, Rolando Pascua, Rolando Bohol, Gerry Peρalosa, Malcolm Tunacao, Joma Gamboa, and Manny Melchor. Title challengers but not champions, include Socrates Batoto, Dommy Ursua, Johnny Sato, Fel Clemente, Danny Kidd, Arnel Arozal, Miguel Arozal, Pretty Boy Lucas, Fernando Lumacad, Johnny Jamito, Tirso del Rosario, Aniceto Vargas, Rod Sequinan, Juanito Rubillar, Noel Tunacao, Eric Jamili, Wendell Janiola, and Rodel Mayol.
Filipino fighters can fight. Don't be misled by the '20s description of "Little Brown Dolls."
Greatest Boxing Spectacle:
With such a rich Boxing heritage, it is surprising that the amateur program in the Philippines has not kept pace with the professionals. Two (2) silvers (featherweight Anthony Villanueva in Tokyo and light flyweight Mansueto Velasco in Atlanta) and four (4) bronze are the only Olympic medal winners from the Philippines. Dado Marino and Jesus Salud who both won world titles as residents of Honolulu were born in the Philippines but migrated at an early age. And so is the rage in the WBC Light Flyweight division - Brian Viloria - who was born in Honolulu but now fights for his native Philippines.
The hottest draw is Manny Pacquiao who continue to waylay the opposition in the Super-Featherweight category. He was a Flyweight as well as a Super-Bantamweight World Champion before campaigning in his current weight class.
Give the Filipino a fight worthy of attendance and he will show up despite his lack of allegiance to either boxer. The greatest Boxing spectacle ever in the Philippines was the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila," between two (2) Americans, Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali and challenger Joe Frazier. Araneta Coliseum, designed for 20,000 spectators was filled to capacity with 10,000 more standees. (with Jack Fiske)
(Hermie Rivera, a freelance sports chronicler managed World Champions Luisito Espinosa and Morris East. Jack Fiske was the Boxing columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for fourty (40) years. He was inducted in the Boxing Writers Hall of Fame in 2004.