The dam finally broke for Filipino boxers after a landmark Olympic year in Tokyo.
The pressure on the Philippine quartet of Irish Magno, Nesthy Petecio, Carlo Paalam and Eumir Marcial wasn’t unfamiliar. In fact, it was understandable given that prior to Tokyo, boxers had earned 50 percent of the medals won by the Philippines in the Olympics. But the success in Tokyo was wildly unprecedented, even with the history of podium finishes the country has had in the boxing ring.
Given the extraordinary circumstances of the Olympics. which were held during an ongoing pandemic, the only witnesses at the venue were the media, the officials, delegation members and the imposing portraits of sumo wrestling champions that hung from the rafters.
For athletes used to cheers and jeers from the crowd, it must have felt strange to hear so little. But then again, the top of the ring can also be a very lonely place.
But the Filipinos were never alone, because they were all part of a team. In many ways, this group was true to the sports parlance that this team grew to become a family.
They were a charmed unit that came away with multiple Olympic medals for the first time in Philippine boxing history — surpassing the meager hope of at least one podium finish.
In many ways, this is the dream team of Philippine boxing — raising the bar for years to come.
The captain’s bow
The first boxer to hit the headlines was team captain Irish Magno — who had the distinction of being the first Filipina to qualify for Olympic boxing.
Magno exited in the Round of 16 of the women’s flyweight division after a loss to Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong via unanimous decision. Despite the loss, she was quick to remind everyone that her loss didn’t mean the boxing team had been defeated yet. Irish stayed after her loss and was a visible member of the supporting party all throughout.
I doubt if any Filipino fighter fought without hearing her words of encouragement throughout the rest of their time in Tokyo. You would see Irish holding up the flag on the bleachers, cheering her teammates on.
For Nesthy Petecio — it feels like fate conspired to ensure she ended her journey with an Olympic silver medal around her neck.
On Aug. 3, 1996, Onyok Velasco earned the Philippines its first silver medal in boxing in 32 years. Exactly 25 years later — the silver anniversary of Onyok’s feat — Petecio took home a silver medal after a tough loss to Japan’s Sena Irie.
Had it been another day, maybe Petecio would’ve ended up with a gold medal? Who knows, but every superstitious sports-minded person would feel that way. At the medal ceremony, Petecio exited the ring last due to being the person farthest from the entrance.
As she took a step left as the other medalists exited the stage, Petecio took a moment to stop and savor the moment one more time. Petecio unwittingly stopped at the gold medal spot of the podium, said a little thanksgiving prayer before moving on.
Statement of intent? Probably not. But hopefully, it could be foreshadowing things to come.
Petecio then famously apologized for only coming home with the silver, but netizens quickly came out to support her. The common theme of the replies was a reminder to Nesthy: “Hindi yan silver LANG!”
Perhaps the most hyped-up Filipino boxer was middleweight Eumir Marcial. Marcial came to Tokyo as one of the top-seeded boxers in his division and a favorite for a podium finish, according to foreign media.
Marcial was a monster in Tokyo, racking up highlight finishes before setting up a mouthwatering clash against Oleksandr Khyzniak of Ukraine, who went to Tokyo with an impressive win streak that started in 2016 and was almost machine-like in the way he dismantled his opponents. The Filipino had the slight edge over Khyzniak going into the final round, but ran out of steam and gave up a split decision loss to settle for a bronze medal.
There weren’t any tears coming from Marcial — but instead he chalked it up to God having a different plan for him. Marcial also immediately said this loss was a motivation to get stronger and better for the next opportunity.
After all, Marcial is still dreaming of an Olympic gold medal and he is eager to make that childhood dream come true.
There are a lot of boxers with rags-to-riches stories, where the sport becomes a means to escape an impoverished life. Carlo Paalam’s story definitely falls under that category.
Standing on the podium, Paalam stared at his silver medal on the podium as if his entire life flashed before his eyes. In many ways, it did.
A scavenger at a dumpsite early in his life, Paalam scrounged around for scrap metal in order to make a living.
With the Tokyo Olympic Medal project using discarded electronics as a material for each of the medals used in the competition — it isn’t far-fetched to believe that some of the scrap he used to rely on for survival now is a reminder of his personal triumph. A tearful Paalam said it himself right after being awarded the silver, that the medal was a symbol of his life so far. It was a far-cry from his previous post-fight interviews, where he cracked light jokes with a smile.
In many ways, Paalam — the youngest of the four Filipino Olympic pugs — showed his youth in all its exuberance throughout his journey. When Paalam was the underdog in a match, he would simply say that they both have fists and it all boils down to strategy and self-belief.
After taking down the 2016 Rio gold medalist, Paalam joked that he came off better after an accidental headbutt because “mas matigas ang ulo ko.”
Despite all the excitement he provided for us in the ring, the lasting image of Paalam that will remain is him staring at his medal atop the podium.
It was as if Paalam became an alchemist and transmuted scrap into a precious metal. It was as if he was seeing his life’s work finally realized before his very eyes.
The celebrations were eye popping, with the boxers returning home to great fanfare. Private entities lined up to give them their dues and some were even given new homes for their troubles.
For this dream team, it was a dream come true in many ways, but the job isn’t done just yet.
The gold has yet to be won. Right now, all eyes are on Paris 2024.
While there are surely rising stars eager to make their mark when that time comes, don’t be surprised if the names of Petecio, Marcial, Magno and Paalam are the names to remember once the Olympics rolls around once again.