Olympic medalists Roel, Onyok Velasco owe success to late boxing chief Mel Lopez
Brothers Roel, Onyok and Boy Velasco during their visit to former Manila mayor and boxing chief Mel Lopez last December 16. Lopez died on New Year's Day. Photos courtesy of Roel Velasco

THE late Manila mayor and former boxing chief Mel Lopez served as the top benefactor of 1992 Atlanta Olympics bronze medalist Roel Velasco.

He also happens to be the official photographer of the highly-decorated Filipino pug.

Velasco recalled how the one-time Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP) president would volunteer to take pictures of him alongside ring superstars and celebrities in various international meets participated in by the national boxing team.

And the photo he cherishes most was the one he had with ‘The Greatest,’ Muhammad Ali.

“Si Mayor ang nagpakilala sa akin kay Ali, tapos siya ang kumuha ng picture namin,” recalled the 47-year-old retired boxer to SPIN.ph of the once-in-a-lifetime meeting he had with the legendary late heavyweight champion.

In a way, that sums up the kind of person the elder Lopez was – a humble man despite his glowing stature as a sportsman and public servant.

“Mabait siyang tao at laging palabati,” he said of Lopez, also a former chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), who died on New Year’s day at the age of 81 after suffering a cardiac arrest. “Ikaw mismo ang lalapitan niya at kakamayan.”

[See Former Manila mayor and boxing chief Mel Lopez dies on New Year's Day]

Velasco, older brother of 1996 Atlanta Olympics silver medalist Mansueto’Onyok’ Velasco and younger sibling of national coach Nolito ‘Boy’ Velasco, said he owes the success he enjoyed as an amateur boxer to Lopez.

The pride of Bago City, Negros Occidental became a member of the national team in 1988 when Lopez was already at the helm of ABAP.

That Lopez, a former amateur boxer himself, understood the plight of the fighters in the Abap stable, Velasco said.

“Talagang very supportive siya sa mga boxers and coaches. Hindi lang alam ng marami, binigyan niya ng pondo ang amateur boxing, lumapit siya sa private sector para madagdagan ang mga incentives namin,” he said. “Tapos ginawa niya yung programang ‘quest for the gold’ kaya nagkaroon noon nung Go-for-Gold program.”

AS president of Abap from 1987 to 1993, Lopez produced successive bronze medal winners in Leopoldo Serrantes (1988 Seoul Olympics) and Velasco. Boxing also prevented a gold shutout for the country in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing courtesy of Roberto Jalnaiz.

Lopez was PSC chairman when Onyok Velasco came close to ending the country’s quest for a first ever Olympic gold by copping a silver in the 48kg division of the Atlanta Games.

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It was also during his term as head of the government sports agency that boxing delivered three golds in the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan through Onyok, Reynaldo Galido, and Elias Recaido to emerge as the overall champion in the sport.

“Siya ang gumawa sa amin nin Onyok,” admitted Roel. “Kung hindi dahil sa kanya, hindi ako Roel Velasco at hindi Mansueto Velasco si Onyok.”

Fittingly, the three Velasco siblings visited Lopez in his office at the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC), where he served as chairman until the time of his death, last December 16. It was the last time they’ll see each other again.

“Naisipan namin siyang dalawin. Tamang-tama may mass sa office niya, and then pinakilala niya kami sa mga empleyado doon,” he said of his final meeting with the former public servant and Manila mayor (1986 to 1992). “Natuwa naman siya, nag shadow-boxing pa nga sa harapan namin.”

Lopez walked a little bit slower, noted Roel, but his physical condition still looks fine.

There was one thing that’s a bit unusual of him, according to Velasco, who officially retired as a boxer in 1999 and now serves as coach of the national women’s team.

“Nung nagpa-picture kami, ang higpit ng hawak niya, pati yung akbay,” said Roel, an enlisted personnel at Philippine Navy. “Pati si Onyok nga napansin yun.”

“Yung pala last picture na namin.”

The Velascos will pay their last respect to the elder Lopez when his remains are transferred to the family abode in Tondo, where son, former Abap president Manny Lopez, is the current congressman representing District 1 of Manilla.

Lopez is scheduled to be buried on Saturday at the Heritage Park in Taguig.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @gerardmos