A boxer’s life
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2019 - 12:00am

You are just a poor lad, and your awakening is to a hard life. Each day is physically demanding, as your family are farmers or fisherfolk. You’re up before dawn, cooking with scraps of wood, preparing meals wrapped in banana leaves to take with you on the long walks to the fields, or the even longer trips out to the unpredictable seas. You’re a miniature of your father, small, scrawny, and dark-skinned from generations of being baked by the sun.

Your prospects for an education are slim: perhaps the school in your barrio a few kilometers away, which you’ve had to walk without shoes when crops were bad or fish weren’t biting. You’re often too tired to listen, anyway, as your developing body is beaten down by all the work, the heat, the lack of sleep. And even if you only need to pay for school supplies, it’s an expense your parents can’t spare.

Sometimes, you sit under the shade of a mango tree, wondering where all of this is heading. The irony of it isn’t lost on you. The vastness of the fields and endlessness of the sea show you, day after day, that the world is abundant. Yet, night after night, you sleep next to one another on bamboo slats in a tiny hut without electricity, on huge lands you will never own. In the dimness, you look at your family. Your mother’s skin is dark from doing laundry by the river. Her teeth are dark, as well, from chewing betel nut or smoking those terrible, brown, filterless cigarettes, her only indulgences. Your father has no more front teeth from poor oral hygiene. You have younger siblings, too many to support, in your mind. No one in your family has graduated from high school.

How does this get better?

You look at your options. You’re never going to reach 5’4”, so you can’t be a policeman or a soldier. You can’t even be anyone’s bodyguard. Basketball, your favorite sport, is out of the question. Even the kids in the Palarong Pambansa are bigger than you, so no shot there, either. The only resource you have is your body, your fists, your desperation. You could be a boxer. You tell your mother. And even if she doesn’t want to see you get hurt, the burden of life has filled with a despair that outweighs your safety. At least, it’ll be one less mouth to feed.

So your family scrapes up money for a one-way ticket on a boat to a big city, Manila or Cebu, where you’ll meet a friend of your uncle’s brother-in-law or something, you’re not really sure. You don’t even have anything in your stomach to throw up when you get seasick. But you get there. 

The big city is loud, smoky, confusing. You feel even smaller. At the gym, they look you over. Too scrawny. But you insist on trying. They lace you up. The first punch to your stomach almost makes you vomit your tongue. The next shot, across your jaw, makes the world spin. You wake up in the crowded, stifling dorm room behind the gym. You’ve been appointed janitor. You stop communicating with your parents.

You wait, training at night, building up your strength, copying what the luckier ones do. After a year of that and eating beans, fish scraps and instant noodles, you ask for another chance. In three rounds, you get tagged multiple times. Your right eyebrow is bleeding. You ache all over. But you get your chance. They give you a contract, but you can’t read, and don’t know any lawyers. You sign, anyway. 

In five years, you’ve won over a dozen fights, lost a few. You still have very little money, and you’re eating only slightly better. You don’t know what you’re doing wrong. Then they tell you you’re fighting in Japan. They take from your money to pay for something called a passport. This is it. All the pain, sacrifice, stitches will be worth it. Soon, it’ll be Las Vegas, where all your idols have fought. You’re ready. Or you think you are. Your dream is alive again. You plan to tell your parents when you win.

The plane ride is nerve-wracking. To cut costs, you stay with a Filipino family outside Tokyo. It’s cold. Fight day. You see your opponent for the first time, a champion, a polished, razor sharp monster. You see your manager take a fat wad of cash from the Japanese promoter. There’s something unnerving about how they laugh together. What have you gotten yourself into?

You’re lying in a hospital ward. Everyone’s talking in Japanese. You don’t remember how you got there. Everything’s fuzzy. You can’t see out of your right eye. Your head hurts, all the time. You pee blood into a bedpan. The doctor shakes his head to your manager, who just shrugs like you don’t matter. He asks to have you discharged early. You have a flight to catch. You should be in a wheelchair. He makes you walk. 

You get on the plane for home, feeling so unlike yourself. Your head hurts. Your right eye is dark. You have trouble breathing. They only tell you one thing: you cannot fight anymore. 

This is a common story.

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