Boxing great yields helplessly hoping

Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The first Filipino Olympic silver medalist Anthony Villanueva died in his sleep yesterday morning in Cabuyao, Laguna, after nearly willing himself to lose his life by not eating the last six days.

Barangay social worker Mary Grace Vida was about to bring Villanueva to a rural hospital to be injected with dextrose when he died. Broadcaster Chino Trinidad said he wired the peso equivalent of $100 through Western Union to Vida the day before to pay for the confinement. The money was a donation from a Filipino in the US, Carlo Bernarte, who read The Philippine Star story on Villanueva “Forgotten hero at death’s door” last Sunday.

When the story was published, several individuals immediately contacted Trinidad and The Star to give assistance to Villanueva. News broadcaster Freddie Abando phoned to say Secretary of Health Enrique Ona was prepared to provide whatever medicine was necessary. Ever Bilena chairman Dioceldo Sy, ALA Gym owner Antonio (Bidoy) Aldeguer, swimming coach Anthony Lozada and concert promoter Rajan Gidwani also said they were ready to help. But it was too late.

Villanueva, 69, withered away in a state of helplessness. His limbs had atrophied, his feet were swollen due to kidney malfunction and his heart was diagnosed with severe abnormalities. Dr. Hana Marie Biagtan of the Calamba Medical Center examined Villanueva over a week ago and suggested confinement to address his ailments. But there was no money to pay for his treatment.

Trinidad, who recently launched a project to pay tribute to Filipino sports legends, had hoped to bring Villanueva to the “Gabi Ng Pagpupugay” at the Newport Performing Arts Theater of the Resorts World on June 12 even in a wheelchair. “I think Anthony lost his will to live,” said Trinidad. “Anthony was a forgotten hero. When we conceptualized the tribute project, Anthony was near the top of our list of heroes to be honored. At first, we couldn’t locate him. Then, Mary Grace contacted us through facebook. She mentioned there was a former boxing champion named Tony in Cabuyao, very ill, isolated and unable to talk or walk. My son and I went out to visit Villanueva. I couldn’t believe how this once handsome boxing champion had been decimated by time. I found out he had suffered five strokes or heart attacks over the last 14 years.”

Villanueva died between 10:40 to 11:20 yesterday morning in the rented home he shared with common-law-wife Liezel and their 15-year-old son Joey. At presstime, his body was being brought to a funeral parlor. The PSC was informed of his death by Trinidad and death benefits will be given to his surviving family. Villanueva used to receive P7,000 a month from the PSC. But it was hardly enough to pay for his medicine, food for his family, living expenses and the P5,000 monthly rent. Villanueva has three other children with two other women, Avery, 43, Agatha, 41 and Jose, 18.

Trinidad said Villanueva’s sad plight is a wake-up call for those who care for sports heroes to come to their aid in their darkest hours. “Anthony isn’t an isolated case,” he said. “There are more sports heroes out there who are forgotten and sickly. I hope to establish an Anthony Villanueva Memorial Pension Fund to provide for our heroes so that they may never be forgotten.”

In 1964, Villanueva was 19 when he mowed down Italy’s Giovanni Gigrenti, Tunisia’s Tahar Ben Hussein, Poland’s Piotr Gutman and the US’ Charlie Brown to arrange a finals showdown with Russia’s Stanislav Stepashkin for the featherweight boxing gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Bloodied but unbowed, Villanueva battled Stepashkin tooth and nail but lost a 3-2 split decision that was disputed by Ring Magazine founder Nat Flesicher, New York Herald Tribune writer Jesse Abramson, Peter Wilson of the London Daily News and the renowned columnist Red Smith.

Villanueva returned home to a hero’s welcome and was given a ticker-tape parade around Manila. He lost his amateur boxing license after appearing in movies. As an actor, he appeared in five films, including the 1966 movie “Salonga Brothers” with now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and Annabelle Huggins. Villanueva also came out in “Pamatay Kaliwa’t Kanan” with Vilma Valera and “Fighting Fists” with Roberto Gonzales. He tried his luck as a pro boxer but after posting a 4-3 record, decided to quit the ring for good.

In 1976, Villanueva went to the US and worked as a cook in a Mexican restaurant in Massachusetts, a security guard in Staten Island and the Philippine consulate in New York City and a boxing coach in private gyms. He returned to Manila in 1988 to join the Philippine national boxing coaching staff for the Seoul Olympics then went back to the US with no steady job available here. Options eventually dried up in the US and Villanueva came home for good.

Villanueva suffered a mild stroke in 1999 and a year later, put his Olympic silver medal up for sale with a price tag of P1 Million. He was persuaded to instead donate the medal to the PSC. Villanueva had tried to sell the medal twice before. The medal is now on display at the PSC Museum in the Rizal Memorial Complex.

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