Punching and Walking a Way out of Poverty

The Women Boxers and Pageants in the Philippines

by Shivaji Das

While the Philippines has always been at the forefront of men’s boxing with stalwarts like Pancho Villa and Many Pacquiao, the female boxers have attracted little attention despite their growing list of achievements; Josie Gabuco won the gold at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in 2012, Nesthy Petecio is ranked number two worldwide in the 57 kg category, Gretchen Abaniel, a professional unlike Josie or Nesh, is the Women’s International Boxing Association (WIBA) World Champion. I had booked appointments with both Josie and Nesh on Facebook.

I head to Baguio, where the camp for the Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP) is located. There, I am meeting the members of the national women’s team to understand this great passion of the Filipinos, boxing, and how women from impoverished backgrounds are taking up this sport to punch their way out of poverty.

The city of Baguio is a favourite among Manila types for its cool and crispy air. This City of Pines is a dense bird’s nest of twig-like roads pasted on to the gentle Cordillera Range with its sloping hills. Very much a tourist town, there is something for everyone at Baguio. Love hotels line the outer city, painted in bright red praise themselves for their cleanliness and goodliness. Next to them, spa posters have a disclaimer in large fonts, ‘Massage Only, God is watching you.’ Business minded nuns in many of the city’s convents are making a killing by selling peanut butter jams and fruit wines to tourists. Outside their premises, worn-down anti-abortion posters have lost many letters to become ‘Abortion is M’. Shops that don’t belong to a convent are overflowing with rows of barrel-man wooden statues, the quintessential Baguio souvenir that springs up a surprise whenever barrel-man is freed from the barrel. In between all this touristy action, the countless beggars of the city lie in a state of torpor, waking up only when a nickel hits their cups. 

I walk the roads perched along the Cordillera cliffs to reach a place called Teacher’s Camp where the boxing team resides. The living quarters are rather humble, looking not too different from the backpacker dormitories I have stayed in across South East Asia. But this is where Olympic and Asian Games medal winners live and practice every day.

When I reach the facilities, preparations are going for the 11AM training session. The boxers are coming in. They are petite and lean, all of them competing at categories of 57kg or lower. Half of them have short cropped hair making them appear like teenagers. There are thirteen women who are undergoing training now, three of whom are juniors, the youngest being sixteen.

The women boxers are coached by Roel Velasco, Olympic Bronze winner, assistant coach Violito Payla, Asian Games Gold medallist, and Mitchel Martinez, the only female coach, twice crowned as Asian Women’s Champion. Earlier, I had talked to Patricio Gaspi, the head coach for the male and female teams and Roel’s boss, ‘Coaching a female boxer is different. With male boxers, the coaches can beat them up in frustration if they are not training hard. But with female boxers, I can’t do that.’ The idea of coaches beating up students sounded anachronistic but then I reckoned that this was, after all, a sport about beating up.  Mr. Gaspi continued, ‘Also, we have to be kinder with the girls with their training when they have their periods. And we have disciplinary rules about how a coach and a trainee should behave with each other. No affairs allowed! Because that may affect how strictly the coach enforces the training regime. That’s why it’s best if we have more female coaches. But they are so difficult to come by. We keep pleading with the current crop of boxers to take up coaching.’

Mitchell (Mel) is one of those. She belongs to the pioneer generation of women boxers in the Philippines, along with Annie Albania, Alice Kate Aparri, and Jovelit Chilen. Mel comes from Bacolod, the same town as Roel and it was Roel who got her to take up boxing. Among her seven siblings, Mel was the second eldest. As with most of the boxers training at ABAP, it was the prospect of allowances and free lodging at the centre that attracted her to boxing. Once she began competing, she became the sole breadwinner in the family as her father was unemployed at that time. For Josie Gabuco, her father had been a tricycle driver in Puerta Princesa, Nesh’s parents are both unemployed in Davao; both followed the same logic as Mel to enter boxing.

While the rewards for a female boxer may be a pittance when compared to that earned by Manny Pacqiao or Nonito Donaire, it does move the needle for the women here. Patricio Gaspi had told me earlier, ‘Most of our girls are from Mindanao and the Visayas, the poorest parts of the Philippines. If they win medals, the government and the boxing association rewards them in cash, it could be more than a million pesos if it’s an Olympics medal. Then our sponsors, the telecom companies PLDT and SMART also chip in. These boxers often get a job in the military or the police.’ With her boxing income, Mel helped her parents open a small eatery in Bacolod. Her boxing also financed her sibling’s education, again a story common with most of the boxers I met.

I ask Mel if more women are taking up boxing now inspired by her and other’s stories. ‘Not yet,’ she says, ‘Parents don’t want their girls to get into this because they think that their faces will end up with scars. They see professional boxing and get this impression. They don’t realize that amateur boxing is much safer, we fight with headgear.’ Perhaps, it is too hard for Filipinos to erase this impression, given the ringside deaths of the country’s two famous boxing sons, Clever Sencio and Dencio Cabanela. Or perhaps, it was the immense popularity of beauty pageant contests in Philippines that projected a certain idea of womanhood. Nesh’s mother had been very scared of the sport in her early days as a boxer. Josie’s father had been dead against. Only recently did he admit that he was proud of what his daughter had achieved.  Incidentally, Nesh’s sister has been competing for pageants. ‘It is fun to watch her and I encourage her,’ says Nesh, ‘But it is not for me.’

I ask about Annie Albania who had abruptly left the sports, complaining about persistent back pain and other injuries. ABAP had expelled her after in a controversial decision after she failed to show up for training and announced her retirement plans directly to the media before informing the coaches. ‘It depends on the boxer,’ says Mel, ‘How they train, how they take care of themselves.’ Roel Velasco adds a word of caution, ‘Of course, some injuries such as swollen knuckles are common. Small cuts on the face are also possible. But that’s about it in amateur boxing.’

The career choice has a heavy toll on the family life of the boxers. Josie Gabuco, has an eight year old son, whom she can meet only rarely because she has to spend most of her time either at the camp or travelling overseas for various competitions. Josie’s son lives with her sister in another province. ‘I also can’t see him on skype because I don’t have a phone,’ says Josie. I ask her if her son has seen her in the ring. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘Earlier, he used to cry and scream, “Don’t beat my mother. Please don’t beat her,” But now he understands that Mommy has to do it.’ Nesh goes back home only once a year. ‘When I go home, I do all that I can’t do in the camp,’ says Nesh, ‘A lot of shopping, going out, eating out.’

The training session is about to begin. The boxers take off their sports jackets, revealing their well-toned but lean muscles. They take great care wrapping tape over their knuckles and then put on their gloves. Coach Roel becomes the DJ and turns up dance music with fast beats. The boxers begin with gentle warm-up, little jumps, moving arms around. Then like a bunch of little soldiers let loose with music, the boxers attack the punching bags and the coaches, a thousand explosions, swift feet movements, relentless aggression. Their expressions are intense, eyes looking at the opponent and the punching bag as if it was a duel that could end fatally. Their feet move swiftly, almost like dancers’. I was watching the training process for one of the world’s most ancient sports, feeling a strong urge to take up the sport myself. I had never been too interested in boxing before this, but it is now appearing as an almost perfect sport, a combination of intelligence, calmness, agility, stamina, and power.

The boxers take turns to enter the ring and fight with coach Violito. Mel becomes the timer and stands next to the bell. She tells me, ‘In my days, we had little technique. We just went all aggressive like street kids fight. Nowadays, we know the techniques. We have a psychologist, a strength trainer, a nutritionist.’ Yet, to this day, Filipino boxers, men and women, are marked for their aggressive style. The boxers then form groups of two and practice movements against each other and things turn more playful from here, a sisterhood in action, pushing each other gently, giggling. Coach Roel moves around, passing hilarious comments on the boxers. The session ends with a series of stretching exercises.

Many of the women like Mel and Josie began as track and field athletes and then switched to boxing. The two sports are closely related; boxing being as much about running as it is about strength. Boxers need to run both long distances as well as short sprints every day to improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness while maintaining weight. But Mel says, ‘I was always interested in boxing. As a child, I used to fight with the boys, bare knuckled.’ For Nesh, she was initially trained by her father who taught her boxing more as a self-defence technique.

The girls have one hour to take lunch and then rest till the next hour-long training session at four in the evening after which the athletes are left on their own. They begin their day again with running at 7AM the next morning.

When I approach Nesh, she struggles to talk, gasping for breath, fully drenched in sweat, “Sir, these training sessions are intense as you see. It makes us keep losing weight. Weight is my biggest enemy. Because I need to make sure I stay within the band I am competing in.”

Mel defends the tough training regime, ‘Training tough is necessary. I always tell the girls; train hard, fight easy; that is how it works, not the other way of train easy, fight hard.’

I ask the girls if there was any special match in their career that they remember. For Nesh, it was the Asian Championships where she won the Silver. ‘It was tough. I ended up playing six matches in a row. None of us here have experience of playing more than five. By the time I played the finals, I was so sore and tired. But I felt so happy to win the Silver.’ Josie thinks for a while and then says, ‘Sir, all matches are special and I am scared of every opponent. Before every match, I can’t sleep well even though I need to. I keep dreaming about my opponent the whole night But perhaps winning the gold at the SEA games in Singapore this year was the most special for me, because I hadn’t won anything for the whole of last year.’

I had watched the video of that match between Josie and Raksat Chuthamat from Thailand. It had been fast and furious as most amateur boxing matches are because of their lesser number of rounds and use of protective gear unlike professional boxing. While Josie had a good first round where she landed a couple of good straight rights, she was at the receiving end in the second. Raksat had this controversial habit of raising her fist whenever she hit Josie, something that could have influenced the judges and could have also demotivated Josie. But in the final two rounds, Raksat probably ran out of steam; Josie, the more aggressive fighter, landed several jabs on Raksat, doing particularly well when breaking away. But like any well-balanced amateur boxing match, the decision could have gone either way and one had to wait tensely for the winner announcement. Both players stood exhausted on both sides of the referee as the announcer built up the suspense. Josie looked as if she didn’t care about the result anymore. Raksat raised her arm in anticipation; but the Josie was declared the winner. She tried her best to console Raksat who had burst into tears. Her own celebrations were muted.

Mel says, ‘So many Filipinas came to see us during the SEA games.’ Over 170,000 Filipinos stay in Singapore, most employed as domestic helpers or in the services sector. ‘They gave us so many chocolates. We distributed those among our friends and families here.’ I enquire if boxers are allowed to eat chocolates. Josie gives an emphatic, ‘Yes Sir.’

I ask the boxers if they would someday consider becoming a politician like Many Pacqiao, currently a congressman. The Philippines, after all, has a reputation for being a pioneer in Asia when it comes to women empowerment, having elected two female heads of state in Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo and Grace Poe emerging as one of the strongest contenders for the upcoming Presidential elections. As for Pacqiao though, he has been reported as the most absentee congressman, yet he is reputedly aiming for the Presidency, Vice Presidency, or Senator, depending on which mill the rumour came from.  Nesh says, ‘No way sir. When I go back to my hometown, hardly anyone recognizes me. Maybe the mayor of my city doesn’t even know about me. But I don’t want to beat my own drum. God willing, one they will all know me because of what I have achieved God willing, I will win at the Olympics. But first I must qualify. So I must stay focused and train hard. I am watching YouTube videos of great boxers. I also learn from the male boxers here. They are at a different level altogether, sir. Later someday, maybe I will get into business with my siblings, maybe I will set up a boxing school in Davao, or maybe I should study further. Also, I would like to start a family one day. When I am with kids, I feel happy. So God willing…’ The ambitions appear rather humble before what Pacquiao or the Pacman has shown to be possible. Pacman, after all is not just a politician on the rise and arguably the most popular sportsperson in the world, he has also obtained reasonable success as a singer and actor. But such has been the state of Women’s Boxing in the Philippines, where Gretchen Abaniel had told to Manila times after winning the WIBA World Title, ‘Nobody has noticed my accomplishments except my friends and relatives….’ Perhaps that, or just because of their true nature, I am amazed by the humility of all the boxers. When I say to them that I should rather make a move because I was eating into their lunch hour, Nesh says, ‘No, sir. You have come all the way to meet us. We have lunch every day.’

None of the boxers talk about turning professional or enrolling up for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), the way Filipino-American boxer Ana ‘The Hurricane’ Julaton has done. That is perhaps because unlike for men, professional boxing for women is still in very early stages in the Philippines.

Mel shows me a video on her mobile of Josie’s son wearing oversized gloves and punching at Mel, ducking whenever Mel makes a slow counterattack. I ask Josie if she wants her son to be a boxer as well. Josie says no vehemently while Mel says yes. ‘No way, Sir’ says Josie, ‘It is too tough on the body. After all this training, I am so sore and tired by the end of each day. I don’t want the same for my son.’

The boxers will soon leave for China for the ASBC Asian Confederation Women’s Continental Championships. Head Coach Roel talks about the challenges of competing overseas, “In China it’s ok for us because they eat rice. But in some European or Central Asian countries, it’s hard to find rice. And we Filipinos need rice. So we have to carry along rice cookers and a lot of rice for such trips.’

As I prepare to leave, I ask what makes a good boxer and if there is any difference between the qualities of a top male and female boxers. Everyone, from head coach to assistant coach, senior boxer to student boxer, comes up with the same response – the mind and the heart. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s a male or a female boxer, the winning qualities are the same,’ says Patricio Gaspi, ‘Her mind has to think smart and think fast. But most importantly, she needs to have the heart, the courage, the guts. One can have the best technique but if she is not brave, she can’t go anywhere.’ Josie, Mel, Nesh, Roel, they all tell me the same thing. No one mentions agility, balance, defensive skills, punching accuracy or punching power. Perhaps, because they were all coming from the same coaching tradition or perhaps, it was the national mentality. The Philippines, after all, is a country most spectacularly in love with melodrama, with an insatiable capacity of falling in love with any story of the underdog overcoming adversities with hard work and indomitable spirit. Coach Roel Velasco says, ‘That’s why I will accept any girl who wants to learn from me. Even if she is frail, if she trains hard, and has the heart, she can beat the best of the best.’

Nesh declares, ‘Indeed, Sir. I just need to train, train, train. God willing, I will succeed. Actually, I fall sick if I don’t train. Here, life is tough. Our coaches are strict. If we are not disciplined, they punish us by making us run many rounds of the stadium or by cutting our allowances. They have their own goals and targets. But I always remind myself that if I had stayed back in Davao and didn’t take up boxing, I would be nothing!’

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While boxing has been providing a way out of poverty for a select few women in the Philippines, many more have been participating at beauty pageant contests to search for their exit out of penury. The Philippines is a nation in thrall with her pageants and with organizing pageant contests. There are perhaps about three hundred thousand or more pageant contests every year in the country, one for every three hundred citizens. Pageant contests are organized for almost any imaginable category, for men, juniors, seniors, disabled people, LGBTs, pregnant women, prisoners, women weighing above 80 kilograms, Muslims, vegetarians, temporary vegetarians, to name a few. Every barangay (smallest administrative unit) has its official and unofficial pageant contests. As I travelled along the inter-city highways, these barangays had put up posters by the roadside with pictures of young and adult contestants asking passers-by to vote by SMS. Large families comprising of step-siblings, rather common in the Philippines, organize informal pageant contests within their family for fun during fiestas.

 ‘Rags to Riches’ pageant stories abound in the annals of beauty pageants in the Philippines and every year millions of Filipinos weep in front of their TV sets listening to of the contestant’s life stories. Venus Raj, Miss Universe-Philippines 2010, was raised in a nipa hut without electricity by her mother, a single parent and a tenant farmer. With her prize money from local pageant contests, she paid for land for her mother. The mother of Janicel Lubina, Miss Philippines International 2015, was a domestic helper and Lubina herself worked as a domestic helper. She used proceeds from her prizes at local contests to pay for treatment for her stroke-afflicted father. The list can go on and on and since much has been written about such stories both by the sponsored and independent media; I choose rather to enquire into the grooming process for beauty pageants.

I meet up with Makoy Manlapaz who formed Gouldian, a pageant grooming agency, along with Mario Bergantinos and Pawee Ventura. He has invited me for a photoshoot for Divine Ezrha Alemana Canaceli, who is preparing for World Beauty Queen 2015.

‘Pageant contests have become a great equalizer,’ says Makoy. ‘Earlier, the pageants used to be from well-off families. But now, they are mostly from poor background, often from the provinces. They are supporting their parents, paying for their sibling’s education. Sometimes, they have been raised by single parents, which is common in Philippines, and they are often bullied when young by classmates, so now they want to prove a point.’

Gouldian, formed in 2014, is a relatively new entrant in this space. The big daddies in the pageant grooming industry happen to be Aces & Queens run by Jonas Gaffud and Kagandahang Flores led by Rodgil Flores. Makoy and his fellow founders of Gouldian had been analysing local and international pageants since 1999 through a popular online pageant magazine Missosology. In a short period, they had created a name for themselves having groomed Patraporn Wang, a representative from Thailand who eventually won the Miss Intercontinental 2014, and May Myat Noe, a contestant from Myanmar who went on to win the Miss Asia-Pacific World 2014. The group had also coached Neil Perez, a police officer, who was the first Filipino to win Mister International.

The agency trains contestants in areas such as Pasarela (catwalk), posing, dance, etiquette, confidence building, and question and answer sessions among other things. They also arrange for media exposure and help with styling and hair and make up for the contestants. At times, Gouldian has been criticized for working with foreign pageants in the heavily opinionated world of pageant fans in social media. Makoy counters that, ‘Then what do they have to say about the millions of Filipino teachers wo work overseas?’

We assemble at a studio deep inside San Juan City in Manila. It is run by Makoy’s friend. The facility is surrounded by ramshackle buildings sheltering rows of long-running poverty, men idling on the streets over a game of cards, dozens of barely-clothed children screaming and playing the same game excitedly again and again.

Makoy has assembled a group of experts for today’s shoot, gown designer Allan Laserna, swimsuit designer Dave Zamora and photographer cum event specialist Marion Celiz. Makoy is meeting Dave and Marion for the first time, but soon they begin to tease each other like childhood friends. ‘Filipinos can be like that,’ says Makoy.

Allan opens a Pandora’s box and out comes one sparkling gown after another. Allan has meticulously designed all these himself, each taking about three days to stitch. They make Divine try out the gowns one after another. Every time, Daev goes in along with her to help her change and she comes out in a new incarnation every two minutes. Makoy approves or disapproves of the choice; they are helping her select the clothes for the events during the competition. Makoy says, ‘Since she will be going alone, we will prepare a folder for her with directions for make-up and which dress to wear which day.’

Divine is studying tourism and is in her late teens.  Her mother, Eve, who had won pageant contests herself, has also come along for the photoshoot. Divine is rather tall for a Filipina, height being one of the key criteria for selecting pageants. Rodgil Flores of Kagandahang Flores had told in an interview to the Philippine Daily Enquirer that he never rejected any aspirant unless she was below 5’5”. This philosophy sounded very similar to boxing coach Roel Velasco’s; boxing for anyone, pageant contest for anyone tall.

While the groomers get busy with their work, Makoy explains more about their work, ‘We first study the event the contestant is participating in. What do they prefer? How do they judge? For example, Miss International is more about classic beauty; Miss Universe is more about intelligence while Miss World has a more charitable bent of mind. It ultimately depends on the personality of the owners of the franchise. Like Donald trump of Miss Universe won’t really let anyone steal the limelight so their winners end up more in commercial modelling whereas Julia Morley of Miss World is keener to let the pageant be in the limelight and so prefers someone with a passion for charitable causes.’

Marion says, “Makoy can tell you about what a pageant did right or wrong from contests held twenty years back.’ ‘I watch a lot of videos of pageant contests,’ says Makoy. ‘We have to study patterns. We can’t just send someone we like. We need to send someone the contest will like. For example, Filipinos traditionally have preferred fairer skin tones, but the contests usually prefer a more native look, they prefer darker tones. That’s why I think Indian pageants haven’t done too well recently after having a great run a few years ago. They are sending contestants they like, not those who the contest will like.’

In India, pageants witnessed a meteoric rise in the 90s and then a rapid decline into irrelevance, feminist opposition being partly the reason, although just as in the case of pornography, there are logical feminist arguments both for and against such contests – objectification or an empowering expression of gender and sexuality. The same arguments of empowerment versus objectification has also been used for and against women’s boxing, professional boxing and MMA in particular, because of their occasional creation of sexual imagery around star athletes. However, in the Philippines, there has rarely been any voice against such pageant contests. Makoy tells me, ‘While there has been no feminist opposition to pageants, they have been sometimes criticized by the religious-morality brigade who have argued that many pageants behave immorally by getting into illicit affairs with politicians or businessman.’

Makoy specializes in Q&A training, ‘I tell the contestants that it’s all about being original. Too many times the contestants practice a few template answers and regurgitate no matter what the question is.’ Makoy gives me examples of past contests where he didn’t like the answers of some pageants. ‘It becomes obvious if it’s fake. I ask them to focus on real stories, their own stories. If your answer is based on your own story then even if it is not the best answer, people can still relate to it. Also, a good pageant needs to focus on listening. And I train them on using more powerful words, like home instead of house.’

‘All of us are doing this out of passion,’ says Makoy. ‘We don’t receive any money for this. That’s why all of us have day jobs, I work as a trainer in a BPO company, Marion works in the same company in HR, Allan is a teacher and also has a family restaurant, Dave is an agent in a BPO company too.’ I get to understand that this is common in the industry, grooming companies including Ace & Queens and Kagandahang Flores typically train pageants for free; sometimes they make some money by becoming career agents of successful pageants who go on to become models, television hosts or actors; but most of the time, it is the urge to showcase their work.

‘I will give you one beauty tip,’ says Makoy. ‘For darker skin tone, use a mixture of beer and olive oil. That is much better than using tanning lotion which can be sticky and uncomfortable while looking unnatural.’

I ask Makoy what got him interested in pageants. ‘When I was a child, say around eleven, I saw pageant contests on TV and have been enchanted since then. Actually, men in my family have typically worked in the army or the police. So I am a bit of an anomaly. But my family is very supportive, because I still maintain my job even if I don’t make any money from this hobby.’

‘My key challenge is to manage time,’ says Makoy,’At times I get an year to groom a pageant, sometimes I get only fifteen days. Many a times, plans go haywire, things can go wrong. Like, today, the makeup artist didn’t show up. And then there is my day job.’

Allan was doing the make-up for Divine instead. ‘We have multiple skills,’ says Dave while fixing the gown for Divine, ‘Sometimes, I do the hair. Sometimes, I do photography.’

Divine would be heading to Incheon, Korea, in two weeks. So there was not much time left for preparations. I ask Makoy what funds the pageant contestants for such trips. ‘Money is usually not a problem,’ he says. ‘I can write to the mayors of the city the pageant comes from and in most cases they will arrange for some funds. Otherwise there were corporate sponsors for bigger contests.’

The four men rarely talk to shy and soft-spoken Divine, but they speak effusively among themselves, joking and abusing each other playfully. Marion tries on some lipstick and poses for my camera. Dave asks me, ‘Do you think Divine is pretty? Do you think I am pretty?’ Androgynous male pageants, who also shared the studio, keep dropping by once in a while and chat briefly with them. Engrossed in their work, they forget about the takeaway food that had been delivered hours ago. It almost seems like a group of young kids playing with their Barbie Doll, dressing her up, combing her hair, moving around her arms and legs for the perfect pose, teaching her what to speak. I realize that I am watching a bunch of craftsmen, work together to create a masterpiece to experience this fantasy world indirectly, through a medium.  Makoy says, ‘As a young kid, I saw the pageants on TV dressed so beautifully, they were like Datus (princesses) being worshipped and glorified; but, of course, I couldn’t be like them, so I began to coach them.’

As for the pageants, they too live a life akin to athletes till they make it big, training intensely, eating the right food, and preparing their mind. Of course, the pageant’s training period is much shorter, three months to a year before the contest. But just like what the boxers need, the pageants too need to have the heart and mind, to have the guts to be under the spotlights and also have the ability for quick thinking. But there is one difference for pageants; unlike boxers, they needed to perfect their walk which is arguably the most challenging part of the grooming process.

We go up to the balcony and Marion takes more pictures of Divine in the open. Then it’s time to take pictures in swimsuit. Dave brings out his creations one after another. They create a makeshift changing room by holding a large shawl covering Dave and Divine. As before, swimsuit changes are swift. Each time, Dave holds the cape tied to the swimsuit at a distance, floats it in the air and runs away when Marion is about to click.

After six hours of trial and error, the shoot is done. Finally, the crew and the pageant and her mother get to eat the cold fried chicken with rice. I go through the pictures I have taken. In all of them, Eve, the mother, has been looking at her daughter with a gentle smile.

In some ways, Philippines is not a typical country. Here things can catch on and stay that way for a lifetime. After all, this is the only nation where every music system has been playing the uplifting but rather sentimental song ‘Don’t stop believing’ by Journey three times a day for the last thirty years. And ever since Gemma Tereza Cruz won the Miss International crown in 1964, the popularity of pageants has been on the ascendant in the Philippines. Makoy says, ‘Pageants here are often seen as role models, as activists, TV stars, as fighters heroically getting their families out of poverty.’ So it is for the boxers then, just that they are yet to capture the national imagination the way the pageants already have. But the country probably needs just one lady to catapult boxing to the same level, its own Cecilia Braekhus, who is not only Norway’s most popular sportsperson, but has been reported by The Economist as a ‘symbol of the fightback against the Nordic nanny state.’ It could just be Nesh Petecio if she won the Olympics gold and women’s boxing would join pageants as the national obsession for the Philippines. But either way, we will not be able to get rid of that never ending Steve Perry voice singing in the Philippines, ‘Don’t stop believing.’  

 

Editor’s Note on Punching and Walking a Way out of Poverty:

Punching and Walking a Way out of Poverty is not Shivaji Das’ first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:

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