8 Pinoy Athletes Who Changed the Game

By Perry Mayo, Kasadi Shock, and Stella Silverstein

The representation of Filipino Americans in sports in the United States is few and far between, and very few Filipino athletes are widely recognized. Of the many Filipino athletes who have left indelible marks on the American sporting and cultural worlds, this list highlights eight individuals who every American should know about, but probably does not. Throughout history, Asian Americans have come up against many obstacles in the process of assimilation, as “Americanness” has become so synonymous with “whiteness.” These athletes have shown that a pathway to assimilation and acceptance of Filipinos in American culture can be paved through proving one’s athletic prowess. More importantly, they have and will endure as role models in the Filipino American community, providing a source of pride and connection to the Philippines. The eight athletes discussed in this listicle exemplify the hidden power of Filipinos in sports, in the United States and abroad, and demonstrate the ways in which Filipinos have defied stereotypes and consistently being less valued than white individuals through their athletic dominance.

1. Francisco Guilledo

Standing at 5 foot 1 inch and 114 pounds, Francisco “Pancho Villa’’ Guilledo was a Filipino boxer who lived to be the first Filipino and Asian world champion and is considered to be one of the greatest boxers of all time. Born poor in 1901 in Ilog, Negros Occidental, Philippines, Villa launched his career in Manila and by 1920, he was the Philippine flyweight champion. He got the attention of American boxing promoter Frank Churchill who began booking fights for him in the United States. He took the title of American flyweight champion in 1923, solidifying his place as a great in the American boxing community. Villa became so popular that he was making $20,000 per fight (~$310,000 today), catapulting him from rags to riches in a very short time. He died in 1925 at the peak of his career at 23 years old as a result of complications from a tooth infection. Over the course of his career, Villa fought 104 professional bouts, winning 92 of them for a win percentage of almost 90%, and was never knocked out.

Pancho Villa. Photo credit: Google Images.

During his short but successful run in the U.S., Pancho Villa became an ethnic icon for the many Filipino agricultural workers on the West Coast. Not only was he an exciting boxer, he was also the quintessential Filipino success story who made them feel that it was possible for them to achieve the American Dream. He expressed his masculine prowess not only in the boxing ring but also through conspicuous consumption, relationships with white women, and the use of servants at a time when many Filipinos spent their lives toiling in service to white Americans. The white American press shaped the story of his sudden death into a warning about the dangers of Philippine independence — fighting in a boxing match in Oakland, CA shortly after a wisdom tooth extraction against his dentist’s instructions. In contrast, Filipino migrant workers saw the story as one of sacrifice in which he refused to cancel the bout because he did not want to disappoint his hardworking Filipino fans. He had sacrificed his well-being for his people and his nation. Pancho Villa’s success paved the way for the “Filipino boxing invasion” in the U.S. in the following decades.

2. Ceferino Garcia

Ceferino Garcia. Photo credit: Google Images.

Many people considered Ceferino Garcia to have filled Pancho Villa’s shoes as the dominant Filipino boxer to lift the spirits and pride of the Filipino American community when he rose to prominence in the 1930s. Born in Naval, Biliran, Philippines in 1906, Garcia gained fame around the world for his bolo punch, a technique of a series of sharp, fast punches developed from his experiences working in the sugarcane fields with his family in the Philippines. Whenever Garcia fought in America, the venues would be jammed with Filipino Americans who would take time off of work, dress up in their best suits, and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to see him unleash his bolo punch. The automobile, central to the migratory employment pattern of the vast majority of Filipino laborers, took on an alternative significance in their lives during these trips. It became the vehicle that transported them from exploitative, mundane jobs for which they earned marginal wages and obtained little gratification to the places where they experienced some compensation, in terms of solidarity and excitement, for their efforts.

Ceferino Garcia on the cover of Ring Magazine. Photo credit: Google Images.

For those who could not attend the matches in person, avid reporting of bouts frequently made front page news in ethnic newspapers. For Filipino Americans, reading about the fight was not a passive activity. Their interpretations of the events formed part of a network wherein workers created meaning for their lives. Through the art of storytelling, Filipino migrant workers turned Ceferino Garcia into a living hero whose narrative codified the ideals of Filipino masculinity and exemplified the theme of heroic quest. He was also prominent during World War II; he became popular among Filipino Americans in the army, particularly inspiring the First and Second Filipino Infantry Regiments, and President Eisenhower singled him out publicly in a White House press statement for his commitment to inspiring and lifting the spirits of troops in the U.S. and the Philippines. Garcia holds the most victories ever achieved by a Filipino boxer at 102 and is also the only boxer from the Philippines to become world champion in the middleweight division.

3. Manny Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao. Photo credit: Google Images.

Manny Pacquiao is a Filipino professional boxer, regarded as one of the greatest professional boxers of all time. He is the only eight-division world champion in the history of boxing and has won twelve major world titles during his four-decade career. Born in Kibawe, Bukidnon in 1978 and raised in General Santos, Philippines in extreme poverty, Pacquiao was introduced to boxing at age 12, inspired by combat athletes like Mike Tyson, Bruce Lee, and Muhammad Ali. After making his professional boxing debut at age 16, soon came to be considered the best active boxer in the world. Over the course of his boxing career, Pacquiao has generated over a billion dollars in revenue from his pay-per-view bouts and was the second highest paid athlete in the world in 2015, also due to his numerous sponsorships and endorsements. He was elected to and served as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives from 2010 to 2016 and as a senator since 2016. Though he is not American, the rise of the global sporting arena and Pacquiao’s position as a world-famous athlete has allowed second and third generation Filipino Americans to generate meanings of nationalism, affirmations of ethnic identity, and to feel a sense of connection to the Philippines and other Filipinos in the diaspora. Pacquiao’s larger-than-life persona challenges the invisibility of the Filipino American community, giving a sense of esteem and status not often granted in other areas of their everyday lives.

4. Dave Bautista

Dave “Batista” Bautista. Photo credit: Google Images.

Born in 1969 in Washington D.C. to a mother of Greek descent and Filipino-American father, Dave Bautista (more commonly known by his ring name “Batista”) is a Filipino-American athlete-turned-actor. Bautista’s father was the son of Filipino immigrants and his grandfather served in the Philippine military. Known for his WWE career, Bautista began wrestling in 1999, and in 2000 signed with the World Wrestling Federation, renamed the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) in 2002. His first and longest stint in the WWE was from 2002 to 2010, during which time Bautista became a six-time world champion, winning the World Heavyweight Championship four times and the WWE Championship twice. Bautista visited the Philippines for the first time in 2007 as part of WWE SmackDown’s Philippine Tour, where he discovered he had amassed a large Filipino fanbase who he said “accepted me as one of their own, even if I was born in the United States.” The wrestler holds the record for the longest reign of the World Heavyweight Championship at 282 days, and has also held the World Tag Team Championship three times. Bautista began acting in 2006 and has since been featured in dozens of movies and most notably plays Drax the Destroyer in many Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

5. Adriano Directo Emperado

Adriano Directo Emperado, a famous pioneer in the martial arts community, was born in 1926 to Filipino-Hawaiian parents. Growing up in poverty in the Kalihi-Palama area of Honolulu, Hawaii, Emperado specialized in self-defense and hand-to-hand martial arts combat. Along with four other men, Emperado created the martial arts form, Kajukenbo in 1947. Each of the five founding members were trained in various forms of martial arts: Peter Choo was a boxer and expert in Korean Tang soo do, Frank Ordonez specialized in Sekeino jujitsu, Joe Holke was an eighth dan stylist of Kodokan judo, Clarence Chang taught Chinese boxing and Sil Lum Pai kung fu, and Emperado was trained in judo, Chinese Kempo, and Escrima. The five men formed the Black Belt Society and coined Kajukeno by exploring the weaknesses and developing the strengths of each of their individual martial arts to create a fighting style that would help the everyday American citizen in their fight against the common criminal. The name, Kajukenbo, comprises the various art forms it was created from: “Ka” for karate, “Ju” for Judo and Jujitsu, “Ken” from Kenpo and “Bo” from boxing.

When Choo, Ordonez, Holke, and Chang were drafted into the Korean War, Emperado was left behind as the sole creator of Kajukenbo, and opened the first Kajukenbo school at the Palama Settlement Gym in Honolulu in 1950 which was later called the “Kajukenbo Self Defense Institute (K.S.D.I)” starting in 1957. The original method of Kajukenbo is known as the “Emerado Method” or “Traditional Hard Style”, but the art has splintered into many different variations. Kajukenbo was brought to the United States mainland in 1960, when a school opened in California. While Emperado passed away in 2009, his creation lives on as a prominent form of self-defense and an impressive display of athleticism.

6. Roman Gabriel

Roman Gabriel. Photo credit: Google Images.

Roman Gabriel was the first Asian-American NFL quarterback, considered one of the best in the position during his career in the late 1960s and 70s. Born to a Filipino father and Irish American mother in 1940, Gabriel grew up in North Carolina among the state’s small Filipino population. Winning the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1969, when he retired in 1977, Gabriel was one of only 6 quarterbacks to toss more than 200 career touchdown passes, in addition to having the lowest career interception rate. For generations of Asian Americans, Gabriel was the first Filipino American sports superstar, appearing in commercials and television and movies. During his time in the NFL, he was widely known as “The World’s Biggest Filipino” for both his fame and his stature, standing at 6’5”. Despite his impressive career and overall impact on football and Asian-Americans, Gabriel has yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In an interview, Gabriel commented on being an Asian-American football player in the 60s and 70s: “Once you become an athlete, you’re a little more accepted. As I became more proficient as an athlete, I wasn’t a Filipino, I was just an American.”

7. Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow. Photo credit: Google Images.

Tim Tebow, famous NFL quarterback (with a short-lived run in the MLB), was born in 1987 in Makati, Philippines to two white Americans serving as Baptist missionaries. Tebow was raised devoutly Christian in Florida after the family returned to the US when he was three years old. Since then, he has returned to the Philippines numerous times to do missionary work, help at an orphanage founded by his father, assist other evangelists, and build a children’s hospital in Davao City on the island of Mindanao. There is a long tradition of white Americans traveling to Asia as missionaries to proselytize and “rescue” people they see as “heathens” in need of civilization, as well as aiding in Asians’ migration to the United States and supporting them in many ways when they are here. While missionaries do provide help to people and bring attention to the struggles of Asians and Asian Americans, it is from a place of condescension, imperialism, and American exceptionalism. Tebow’s children’s hospital and his father’s orphanage and all the other work he has done in his birthplace of the Philippines has likely helped and saved many lives, but, particularly for someone of his status with such a place in the public eye, these white savior actions are quite self-serving.

8. Vicki Draves

Vicki Draves. Photo credit: Google Images.

Born in 1924 in San Francisco, California, Victoria Manalo Draves was the first female diver to achieve gold medals in the 3 meter springboard and 10 meter platform Olympic diving events in the same games as well as the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal ever, achieving these milestones at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Draves did not learn to swim until the age of 10; because of heightened discrimination against Asian Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor, as the daughter of a Filipino father and English mother in a segregated United States, she was barred from many facilities. She was forced to hide her Filipino heritage and identity and had to use her mother’s maiden name, Taylor, rather than her father’s name, Manalo, in order to gain access to segregated pools. Following the 1948 Olympics, Draves visited the Philippines for the first time upon invitation from the Manila Jaycees (a leadership training and civic organization), where she gave platform diving exhibitions to president Elpidio Quirino. Draves was named by Life as one of the United States’s two best athletes of the Games and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969. She passed away in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

Vicki Draves at the 1948 London Olympics. Photo credit: Google Images.


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Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.