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Before Manny Pacquiao, There Was Flash Elorde

Very few of the pugs doing business in prize rings today are loved by their countrymen the way Manny Pacquiao is loved by his. In the Philippines, Pacquiao is no mere sports hero the way, say, Michael Jordan is in the United States, or Tiger Woods or Oscar De La Hoya. He is a national treasure.

But Pacquiao is not the first prizefighter to whom the good people of The Republic of the Philippines have handed their hearts. They have been fight fans for a long time and before anyone had ever heard of Manny Pacquiao, Flash Elorde was filling arenas and building hopes and fueling aspirations in the Philippine people, just as Pancho Villa, the great 1920s Filipino flyweight champion, had done before him.

"Flash Elorde is, to this day, one of the top, if not the top Filipino sports figure of all time," said Ted Lerner, a boxing commentator and writer living in the Philippines. "Every Filipino knows of him and reveres him. His story is included in school textbooks. His career and life serves as a basis for comparison of every fighter who has come before and after him, including Manny Pacquiao."

Born Gabriel Elorde in Bogo, Cebu Province, on March 25, 1935, Elorde turned pro in 1951 at 16 years old and fought exclusively in the Philippines and Japan over the first four years of his career. He wasn't instantly recognizable as a future hall of famer; he lost eight times before his first big fight against a recognized American star, who happened to be the great featherweight champion Sandy Saddler, whom he outpointed in a 10-round non-title fight in Manila in July 1955. But he was already a hero in the Philippines, having won Oriental and national titles at bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight.

The upset win over Saddler got Elorde a title fight rematch in San Francisco in January 1956. Saddler, who was making just his third title defense in five years - he'd spent two years in the Army - was a notoriously dirty fighter and he continually butted the faster, more skilled Elorde, wrestled, and hit on the break. The crowd booed him throughout.

"I complained to the referee all through the fight," Elorde's manager and father-in-law told the press afterward. "He told me that was the only way Saddler could fight and I had to be satisfied with that." In the seventh, Elorde was cut over the left eye and in the 13th the bout was stopped. All three judges had Saddler ahead 67-65 at the time of the stoppage.

Although he lost, Elorde had shown American fight fans who he was: a busy, tenacious, quick-fisted, boxer-puncher who eventually would single-handedly give credibility to the junior lightweight division and become its greatest-ever champion, making 11 title defenses over a division-record, seven-year, three-month championship reign. His activity and workrate were such that he became one of the best-known fighters of his generation, even though much of his best work was done in Asia. He logged 117 fights, going 88-27-2 (33) against consistently high-end competition.

Don't get the wrong idea; over a career that lasted a full 20 years from start to finish, Elorde had his share of bad nights, as those 27 losses would imply. And he couldn't do a thing against the great lightweight champion Carlos Ortiz, who twice beat him when Elorde jumped up in weight and tried to take Ortiz' belt. In Manila in 1964 and in New York three years later, Ortiz stopped Elorde in the 14th round.

In their first meeting, 60,000 fans jammed the Rizal Memorial Coliseum and watched Ortiz build a slim lead with jabs and thudding rights to the body. Elorde countered well but couldn't match Ortiz' strength and faded down the stretch. When Elorde protested the stoppage in the 14th, referee James Wilson told him, "I had to stop the fight or he would have killed you."

The rematch wasn't nearly as competitive. By that time Elorde had logged nearly 1,000 rounds and was well past his prime. Ortiz nailed him with a picture-perfect left hook and for the first time in 101 professional fights, Elorde went down and out. The next day The New York Times reported, "...it was too many punches in too many rounds in too many cities that drove the Filipino to the canvas."

The loss to Ortiz did little to tarnish Elorde's reputation or to negate all the good work he'd gotten done over all the years prior as one of the busiest fighters in the business. After losing to Saddler in 1956, he got right back into the ring, fighting an astonishing 30 times over the next four years in rings all over the world - San Francisco, Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok, Honolulu, Caracas, New York. He finally was rewarded in March 1960 with a junior lightweight title fight against Harold Gomes in Quezon City.

It was no contest. Elorde floored Gomes six times and stopped him in the seventh round. But Gomes wasn't the only casualty that day. Several hours before the fight a full-scale riot erupted when promoters announced that all the tickets had been sold. According to the Manila Times, 50,000 people stormed the Araneta Coliseum. You couldn't blame them; Elorde was the first Filipino world champion since Villa. His fans couldn't have known he'd still be a champion six years later.

Thus one of the great title reigns in modern times began. A rematch with Gomes five months later was even more conclusive than the first fight: Elorde's first flush punch, a sizzling left cross, dropped Gomes for a seven-count, and a combination moment later sealed the knockout. More wins, mostly in Manila, followed. Many were title defenses, some were not. All were attended by thousands. A defense against tough but limited Johnny Bizzaro in February 1963 brought 40,000 to the Rizal Coliseum. Nine months later 35,000 packed the Araneta Coliseum for Elorde's disqualification win over awkward and dirty challenger Love Allotey.

The Allotey fight brought out the worst in Elorde's fans. After the challenger was disqualified for repeated fouls, hundreds of fans rushed the ring; some hurled oranges and soda bottles at him. Elorde, in his humble, quiet and dignified way, said only, "I'm sorry it had to happen this way." That's the kind of man he was, and it accounted to some degree for the love the Philippine people showered on him. Elorde didn't court attention and headlines outside the ring and was no rock star personality. He was a gentleman.

"Elorde was loved as much for his shy, humble demeanor as he was for his huge fighting heart," Lerner said. "He never got into trouble, nor was he ever seen carousing on the town. He stayed in shape between fights, and lived a low-key life. He was the consummate family man, and even built a church and orphanage with his winnings."

This shy, modest man knew how to throw down. This was never more evident than in his battle in July 1964 with tough Teruo Kosaka at Kuramae Sumo Stadium in Tokyo. The two had fought three times before for the Oriental lightweight crown with Elorde winning twice. Their third meeting, for Elorde's junior lightweight world title, was going mostly Kosaka's way. He seemed quicker and fresher than Elorde going into the later rounds and after the 11th was leading on two of the three judges' cards.

Elorde exploded with a right hook in the 12th that dropped him, and a follow-up flurry prompted referee Jose Padilla to stop it. The 8,000 fans in attendance started hurling seat cushions into the ring in protest at what they thought was a quick stoppage. Kosaka demanded a rematch and in June of the following year he got one. Elorde knocked him down five times and stopped him in the 15th round in Manila.

Elorde, nearing the end of his career, had one big win left in him: a 10-round win over former lightweight champ Ismael Laguna in March 1966 in Manila. Not long after came the kayo loss to Ortiz in their rematch, and then, in June 1967, Yoshiaki Numata ended Elorde's long championship reign with a majority decision win in Tokyo. Elorde had barely made the 130-pound weight limit and faded badly over the latter half of the fight. Though he fought on for another four years and continued to pack houses, he never was a title threat again and finally retired in 1971 after losing a decision to Hiroyuki Murakami in Tokyo.

Elorde enjoyed commercial success in retirement, particularly as a television pitchman for San Miguel Beer. A heavy smoker, he was stuck with lung cancer and died on January 2, 1985 at the age of 49. Lerner says his legacy among the great Filipino fighters is secure.

"If you walked into a Manila bar and proclaimed Elorde as the greatest Filipino fighter of all time, you might get some friendly argument from other patrons, but you'd also have plenty of people sticking up for you," he said. "Many old timers who were around at that time say he is the greatest Filipino fighter of all time. Of course, they may say this out of nostalgia because certainly a case could be made for Pacquiao."

Pacquiao has an advantage in the debate; we haven't seen him yet as an older fighter in his last days. We don't know how he'll wind down, how it will end for him. One or two fights can change everything. Either way, he shouldn't fret if by the end he is judged by history to be the inferior of the two. There is no shame in coming in second to Flash Elorde.

Posted 12:00 AM | Mar 7, 2008

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