Requiem for a fight guru

Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines - In boxing circles, Hermie Rivera will always be known as the fast-talking, loquacious and witty quip artist who made world champions out of Luisito Espinosa and Morris East. The man knew his boxing, for sure, and wrote columns about the sport he both loved and hated with a passion. He also appeared as a fight analyst on TV and referred to boxing alternately as the “Sweet Science” and borrowing from the late columnist Jimmy Cannon, the “the red light district of sports.”

Last Jan. 15, Rivera passed away at the age of 77. He was in the process of writing a book on Manny Pacquiao and in the twilight of a colorful life, was still in the hunt for the fighter who would deliver the first Olympic gold medal for the Philippines. Rivera was convinced the gold medal would come from boxing. Someday, Rivera’s dream will come true sooner or later and he’ll be grinning from ear to ear, looking over the ring from his vantage point up in heaven.

While Rivera was known for his stewardship of Espinosa and East, boxing was only an incidental career for the late President Marcos’ press officer who made a name for himself in media. He was born in Baguio, raised in Rosario, La Union, and proudly called himself a GI (Genuine Ilocano).

Rivera finished elementary and high school in Rosario then went to Laoag to work as a radio reporter for RPM DzRL. He moved to Dagupan as head announcer for the Manila Times radio DzTD then ventured to Manila to work for ABC Channel 5, Philippine Broadcasting Services, MBC Channel 11, DzHP, IBC Channel 13 and NMPC Channel 4. In 1980, Press Secretary Gregorio Cendana assigned Rivera as Philippine media representative at the Philippine Consulate office in Honolulu. Rivera was later designated Press Attache at the Philippine Consulate office in San Francisco where he migrated with his family in 1983.

Rivera often shuttled from San Francisco to Manila and his interest in boxing never waned through the years. He took Socrates Batoto to two world title bids in Caracas in 1972 and Mexico City in 1975. Rivera finally hit paydirt when Espinosa won the WBA bantamweight title on a first round KO of Khaokor Galaxy in Bangkok in 1989. Espinosa was only 17 in 1984 when Rivera took him under his wings as a favor to the fighter’s father Dio who worked as a waiter at Malacañang. In 1992, Rivera added East to his list of world champions when he stopped Akinobu Hiranaka for the WBA superlightweight crown in Tokyo.

Rivera is survived by his wife Cristina with whom he celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year. The Riveras were blessed with six children, Noel, Tony, Andy, Jay, Charina and Christine and five grandchildren Keana Christine, Leila Rose, Nikolus Isiah, Grant Samuel and Louis. In 2011, Rivera suffered a huge blow when Christine, only 38, passed away of cardiac arrest. She was a spa owner in Los Angeles and one of her clients was tennis star Kim Clijsters.

“My dad continued his dream job ‘til the very end, covering and promoting anything Filipino through print, internet, TV with boxing as the enduring theme,” said his son Noel. “His proudest achievement was working for President Marcos who recognized his wit and guts, first-hand. During an impromptu live State of the Nation address before the EDSA revolt, my dad asked, ‘Mr. President, how would you respond to the Western media’s view that you are a puppet of the US?’ President Marcos’ reply was, ‘the US is our greatest ally, period.’ As a boxing manager, his masterpiece was making Espinosa and East world champions.”

Rivera was confined for a week at the Washington Township Hospital in Fremont, California, after suffering a stroke last Jan. 7. A blood clot in the left side of his brain triggered it. He was found unconscious at home in Newark and rushed to the hospital. Rivera was initially on a ventilator but never regained consciousness.

“My dad was very active up until about October,” said Noel. “He had a history of diabetes and hypertension. But he took medication. He attended Manny’s fight against Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas last May. I don’t know if he had any premonitions but he wrote two last articles for philboxing.com we can all relate to. He wanted us not to forget Luisito and before that, he reminisced about his late great friends Teddy Benigno and Raul Locsin.”

Noel said while his father disdained the sleazebags of boxing, he respected the fighters who laid their lives on the line in the ring. “In the 1990s, my dad co-wrote an article with Jack Fiske (the late San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist) called ‘Little Brown Dolls: A Gallery of Filipino Champions,’” said Noel. “They’re probably up there in heaven trying to not re-write it. Writer Mike Marley recently referred to the late Bert Sugar as the American Hermie Rivera.”

Noel said his father would like to be remembered as “a good reporter, good grandfather and as someone who loved his family and friends.” On his last few trips to Manila, Rivera found time to visit former President Arroyo and Sen. Gringo Honasan. And we always got together at Annabelle’s, his favorite hang-out. Rivera used to feed me leads for juicy stories and I obliged without question because if I didn’t, he would call me incessantly to follow up. Whenever we would meet, he would always make it memorable with a necktie as a gift.

When Rivera had a potential Olympic fighter in Fil-Am Julian Chua from Nebraska, he went to PSC chairman Richie Garcia and called on ABAP executive director Ed Picson for advice on how to proceed to get him on the national pool. That was how Rivera was – persistent in looking for boxing treasures to make Filipinos proud and bring honor to the country. Rivera wasn’t just a successful media practitioner and a maker of champions. He was a patriot, a true friend and a loyal ally. Hermie Rivera will be missed, big-time.

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