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    Villa vs Sencio: the tragic fate that befell boxers in first all-Filipino world title fight

    May 1, 2018
    An estimated crowd of over 50,000 packed the open-air venue in Wallace Field, Manila (now known as Luneta Park) to watch Pancho Villa defend his world title against countryman Clever Sencio.

    ON May 26, in Fresno, California, history will unfold when Panabo City, Davao del Norte native Jerwin ‘Pretty Boy’ Ancajas defends his International Boxing Federation (IBF) super flyweight (115 lbs.) championship against Zamboanga del Norte pride Jonas ‘Zorro’ Sultan. The fight is being trumpeted as the first world title fight involving two Filipino boxers in 93 years, or since Pancho Villa defended his world flyweight title against Clever Sencio on May 2, 1925.

    The record books actually shows two other all-Filipino world title fights, but both did not have the legitimacy of the Villa-Sencio scuffle.

    In November 1938, Little Dado (Eleuterio Zapanta in real life) won a 10-round decision over Small Montana (Benjamin Gan) in a fight billed by the California Boxing Commission as a showdown for the “world” flyweight (112 lbs.) title, but nobody took Dado’s claim to the title seriously. Back then, boxing commissions in the United States had the habit of recognizing their own champions when the generally-recognized belt of the National Boxing Association (now the World Boxing Association) was left vacant by the retirement or move up in weight of the universal champ. “Calling a boxer a champion simply because he has been so dubbed by a commission is the height of folly,” said Nat Fleischer, the founder of The Ring magazine which was then very influential in weeding out “fake” champs. Dado never really defended the “world” title and campaigned instead in the bantamweight (118 lbs.) division.

    In May 1995, William Magahin scored a 12-round unanimous decision over Fil-American Erwin Villaver to retain his World Boxing Federation (WBF) welterweight championship. The WBF has as much value as a Mickey Mouse belt and does not come close to matching the legitimacy of the WBA, WBC (World Boxing Council), IBF and WBO (World Boxing Organization).

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    In stark contrast, Villa’s claim to the world flyweight crown can be traced to his June 1923 knockout win over duly recognized champion Jimmy ‘Mighty Atom’ Wilde at the Polo Grounds in New York. After he stopped Wilde in seven one-sided rounds, Villa was recognized as the first Filipino and Asian fighter to become world boxing champion.

    Believe it or not, a suspension order issued by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) gave birth to the first all-Filipino world title showdown.

    On September 16, 1924, on the second year of his reign as world flyweight champion, Villa was suspended by the NYSAC because of his alleged refusal to fight then leading contender Frankie Genaro on September 23. Villa claimed that he had injured his shoulder in training but NYSAC still imposed the suspension. As he cannot fight in New York, then the Mecca of boxing, Villa packed his bags and returned to the Philippines.

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      A native of Iloilo City, Villa (Francisco Guilledo in real life) had left the Philippines in 1922 looking to barter his fistic talent for the promise of gold and other riches in the US. Charley Harvey, an American fight manager, could not believe his eyes when he first saw the diminutive Villa. “I am ashamed of being in the boxing business. The kid is a human walking stick. The guys who are trying to make a living off him should be in jail,” said Harvey.

      Harvey ended up eating his words. A punching dynamo, Villa captured the US flyweight title in September 1922 over Johnny Buff. Within one year upon his arrival in the US, Villa became a world champ by bamboozling Wilde. Villa’s title coronation was witnessed by over 20,000 fans in New York who paid a total of $94,950 to watch the Filipino beat up Wilde.

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      Villa received a huge welcome upon his return to the Philippines. General Emilio Aguinaldo, voicing the sentiment of the people, called on Villa to defend his title before his countrymen.

      Villa, however, returned to the Philippines to serve out his suspension and party. The champ partied so hard that he ended up running low on cash. In need of money to keep the parties going, Villa decided to lace on the gloves and fight.

      Sencio was working in the fields of Leyte when he developed a passion for boxing in his mid-teens upon hearing of Villa’s stirring victories. When Villa left for the US, Sencio joined several youngsters who packed the dockside to bid farewell to their boxing idol. Sencio eventually entered pro boxing in 1924 and won the Oriental flyweight crown in his very first paid contest opposite Frisco Concepcion.

      Unknown to many, Villa figured in a fight against another Filipino before agreeing to take on Sencio. On March 9, 1925, Villa returned to his native Iloilo and knocked out in eight rounds Manila resident Francisco Pilapil. This could have been the first all-Filipino world title fight, but Villa’s title was not at stake. Still pressed for cash, Villa decided to defend his title against Sencio in Manila on May 2. The fight with Sencio did not have the blessings of Villa’s promoter Frank Churchill, but Villa just could not refuse the huge offer on the table.

      Sencio had been described by historians as an all-out brawler, the complete opposite of the smooth-as-jazz Villa. In the book The Terror of Terre Haute: Bud Taylor and the 1920s, author John Wright made this description of Sencio and Villa: “Sencio boxed with a no-frills, mechanical style. Villa had been the clever one, mixing and moving, sometimes erect and other times crouched, baffling opponents with his finesse. Sencio showed little flair, moving forward and throwing punches relentlessly.”

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      An estimated crowd of over 50,000 packed the open air venue in Wallace Field, Manila (now known as Luneta Park) to watch Villa fight Sencio. The fight followed Wright’s description: Villa moving effortlessly and throwing just enough leather to outclass the one-dimensional Sencio. Villa apparently carried the fight and did not want to really hurt Sencio who was barely in his teens and had just figured in six fights as a pro. After 15 rounds, Villa was awarded the decision. More importantly, though, the fight made Villa solvent again and the parties resumed.

      The events that followed the first all-Filipino world title fight were quite eerie.

      Villa returned to the US and took on Jimmy McLarnin in a non-title fight on July 4, 1925. Villa had an ulcerated tooth extracted on the day of the fight and spent most of the bout covering his jaw with his glove. McLarnin won a 10-round decision. Just five minutes after the fight, Villa stumbled in his dressing room and complained of a sharp pain on the right side of his face. Three days later, a dentist extracted Villa’s remaining wisdom teeth and the fighter was advised to rest. Instead, Villa partied hard with his friends. Villa developed Ludwig’s angina (an infection on the mouth and throat) and died on the operating table on July 14, 1925, just 10 days after the McLarnin fight. He left behind a record of 77 wins, four losses and 22 knockouts.

      Within a year after his fight with Villa, on April 20, 1926, Sencio was found dead in his hotel room in Milwaukee, succumbing to brain hemorrhage after a brutal decision loss to American Bud Taylor on April 19.

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      Sencio embarked on a campaign in the US after the Villa fight hoping to follow in his idol’s footsteps. Sencio’s fearless style made him popular among American fight fans, but he took a lot of punches in return. There were no reports of foul play when he was found in his room lying in a pool of blood after the fight with Taylor, but investigators eventually discovered that Sencio was only 18 years old at the time of the fight. Sencio had fought a dozen times in the US before the Taylor fight and, considering that the required age to get a boxing license in the US was 17, he should not have been allowed to box in the country in the first place.

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      An estimated crowd of over 50,000 packed the open-air venue in Wallace Field, Manila (now known as Luneta Park) to watch Pancho Villa defend his world title against countryman Clever Sencio.
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