The tragedy of the four

(Part 1)

Imagine young men being in a sport so brutal that it kills them in their early 20’s. Now, imagine the same young men going through that in a foreign land, almost a hundred years ago, when an athlete’s protection was an afterthought, and medical treatment was downright primitive. Sadly, this happened time and time again, to batches of young Filipino males who merely wanted a more comfortable life. Ironically, none of them even saw action in war, which killed generations of men during their times.

This was the most common fate that befell young Filipino boxers back in the early 1900’s. Most of them didn’t know what they were getting into. All they knew was that it made more money than what they were doing before. In a span of a few years, they could amass hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions in today’s currency), enough to set up their families for generations. If they had kept it. But to earn it, they had to fight 20 rounds or more per bout, twice a month or more, wearing gloves with stuffing that deteriorated during the fight. Training was infinitely less scientific, there was hardly any defense, and medical science had not yet investigated the impact of repeated blunt force trauma to the head. In today’s terms, it was as if each of these men had been hit in the head thousands of times with a sledgehammer. There is no other, more accurate description.

Gaudencio Cabanela is considered the first Filipino to earn international fame as a boxer. Originally called the “Olongapo Kid”, Dencio was born in San Fernando, Pampanga in 1900, though his family went there in an attempt to escape poverty from their native Camarines Sur. Cabanela won a mere P10 in his first bout in November of 1916. Over the next 10 months, he has fought 24 times, culminating in his winning the Philippine bantamweight belt from Paul Gyn. At one point in 1918, Cabanela fought four times in nine days, three 10-rounders and a six-rounder. Think about that for a second.

Also in that year, Dencio became the first Filipino to hold the Oriental bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight titles. At the same time. That meant he was fighting often, and against bigger opponents. Catchweight fights did not exist then.

In 1921, Cabanela was part of a small group of Filipino boxers who traveled to Australia to fight. Despite all the fighting he had done, the Australian media hailed his unmarked, cherubic good looks. But his first fight, a scheduled 20-rounder against French champion Eugene Criqui, revealed that Dencio was paying a sinister price. Having never fought beyond the 10th round in the Philippines, he collapsed in the 14th. Just five weeks later, Cabanela knocked out Australian Joe Symonds, and everything seemed okay. Then, just two weeks after that, the Kapampangan collapsed once again, this time in the 17th round against Sid Godfrey. Something was seriously wrong. The Australian media said he was not taking his training seriously.

Instead of returning to the Philippines, Cabanela stayed in Sydney. A mere 49 days later, he was in Melbourne, for what would be his last fight, on July 2, 1921. The fierce Cabanela almost knocked out his opponent Bert McCarthy in the 10th round. McCarthy was saved by the bell. In the 13th round, Cabanela complained of a violent headache. The referee stopped the fight, and declared McCarthy the winner. Cabanela had to be assisted from the ring, was rushed to the hospital, slipped into a coma, and died. He was 20. When his body was returned to the Philippines, the size his funeral procession exceeded that of hero Marcelo del Pilar the year before. Ironically, that was the year boxing became legal in the Philippines.

The following year, 1922, was when Johnny Hill started fighting. Hill was one of the first Filipino-American athletes of note. Born in 1905 to a Filipino mother and African-American father, the 5’4” Hill, like Cabanela, was managed by Frank Churchill, who would bring the first batch of Pinoy pugs to the United States.

Like Cabanela before him, Hill held the same three Oriental championships at the same time, beating the likes of Clever Sencio and Kid Moro in the process. After brief stint in Shanghai, Hill campaigned in the US. Hill fought 30 times in America, winning 25, before returning to the Philippines. But the combination of big-city vices, poor training, and accumulation of aches and pains caused a downward spiral in Hill’s career.

He finished his career in 1931, after a draw with newcomer Jose Javierto. His record read 42 wins, 10 losses and 8 draws. Blowing all his money on worthless pursuits, Hill ended up begging on the streets of Manila, and became a recipient of financial aid from the Philippine Sportswriters Association in the early 1950’s.