Olympian Anthony Villanueva died after a lingering illness Tuesday in his house in Cabuyao, Laguna, leaving an indelible legacy as an athlete who blazed the trail for other boxers—and athletes—to follow his lead.
Not many know that Villanueva, who gave the country the first of only two Olympic silver medals, was a protege of none other than his own father, Jose ‘Cely’ Villanueva, also an Olympian, who won a bronze medal in boxing in the quadrennial conclave billed as “The Greatest Sports Show On Earth.”
The elder Villanueva captured a bronze medal in the bantamweight division in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where the Philippines finished with its finest performance that also saw high jumper Simeon Toribio and swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso also won bronze medals in their respective events.
Yldefonso’s feat, incidentally, was the Piddig, Ilocos Norte pride’s second, having won his first hardware in the 200-meter breaststroke event four years earlier in Amsterdam.
Cely must have considered his achievement not good enough, but it eventually planted the seed for what has to become 34 years later, through his son Anthony.
The elder Villanueva realized that dream in 1964 in Tokyo when the boyish-looking Anthony, or “Boy” to his loved ones and friends in the boxing world, won the silver medal, racking up four straight victories on his way to settling for a runner-up finish against Soviet Union’s Stanislav Stephaskin in a close and controversial 3-2 score.
Aside from guiding is son’s boxing career, the elder Villanueva used to train professional and amateur boxers as his family’s bread and butter.
Cely’s most prominent pupil as a boxing trainer was the then reigning world junior-lightweight champion Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, who eventually made it to the Hall of Famer, and the only man to rule the 130-pound division for an unprecedented seven years.
Anthony would later receive the same accolade as the first Filipino in any sport to bring home an Olympic silver medal.
Another boxer Mansueto, “Onyok” Velasco, would follow Anthony’s feat 32 years later in 1996 in Atlanta to raise the country’s overall medal harvest tally to nine, including a pair of silver medals and seven bronze medals.
Out of the seven bronzes, two were won by two other boxers in Leopoldo Serrantes (1998 in Seoul))and Roel Velasco (1992 in Barcelona).
Unofficially, the country had won a gold medal in bowling through Arianne Cerdena, also in 1998, and a pair of bronze medals in taekwondo courtesy of Stephen Fernandez and gymnast-turned-jin Bea Lucero, now wife of softball association president Jean Henri Lhuillier, also in Barcelona, back when their events were still categorized as ‘demonstration sports.’
On his way to winning the Olympic silver, Anthony put himself under his father’s rigorous training regimen.
The father-and-son tandem’s target, of course, was to win the gold medal. Cely used to tell this to anyone who would care to listen every time they leave the family’s apartment in 83-A Annapolis St. in Quezon City to do some roadwork before proceeding to the Elorde Gym in Sucat, Paranaque or wherever Elorde was training for a fight.
Suffice it to say that Anthony would not have been an Olympic star had it not been for his father’s dream and sacrifices as both father and trainer for his young son.
Cely loved to reminisce about Anthony’s excitement after receiving a pair of boxing gloves as a gift when he was only four years old.
Later, when a fire broke out in their neighborhood, Anthony’s first thought was to save the precious present.
When Anthony announced to the family that he had earned a slot as a member of the Far Eastern University boxing team, the happiest man on that day was his father Cely.
After winning the National Open amateur bantamweight title in 1962, Anthony was picked to become a member of the Philippine boxing team at age 17, and quickly rewarded the country with a gold medal in his division the following year in the Asian Boxing Championship held in Taipei.
Interestingly, Anthony almost didn’t make it to Tokyo trip when he was knocked down by veteran Philippine Navy campaigner Jose Ramirez in the first round of the elimination and had to show his resolve to eke out a 3-2 decision to advance to the finals of the Olympic trials.
Anthony brought the same determination in Tokyo in hacking out three straight victories to advance to the silver medal round in the semifinals against American Charlie Brown from Cincinnati, a namesake of the lovable Peanuts cartoon character.
Before this, Anthony, who was then still a high school student at the Far Eastern University, turned back Giovanni Girgente of Italy, 3-2; and dominated Taher Ben Hassen of Tunisia, 4-1, despite suffering a cut in his eyebrow.
In his next fight, Anthony knocked out Piotr Gutman of Poland in the first round to make it to the semifinals.
His 4-1 victory over Brown did not come easily as the score suggested, as Anthony again had to call on his firm resolve when the cut he suffered earlier had re-opened right in the first round.
According to newspaper accounts, the British referee, a Dr. Joseph Blonstein, was ready to step in and stop the fight and examine the Filipino’s injury and the Filipino’s injury examined and was thinking of stopping the fight if the cut got worse.
Luckily, the cut wasn’t deep enough to prevent Anthony from fighting and the referee signaled the protagonists to continue.
The injury, however, turned Anthony, a southpaw, into a ferocious fighter who threw right jabs to the head and stinging lefts and short straights to win the round.
The next two rounds were no different as Anthony boxed masterfully to totally outclass his opponent, with the judges, except one, declared Anthony as the winner.
Ion Boampa of Romania (60-57), J. H. Common of Fiji (60-56) and E. P. Jitcher of Hungary (69-58) all scored it for the Filipino. But Ben Brit of the Netherlands scored it 59-all although he late confessed that he was inclined to give the bout to Boy.
“Son, the gold within reach. Please win for the Philippines,” was Cely’s message to Anthony which he sent through the wires after the bout.
In the gold medal bout round held in October 20, 1964 at the majestic Korakuen Ice Palace, Anthony appeared to be the stronger fighter as he landed the more telling blows.
But despite Anthony’s unrelenting attacks, Stephaskin never slowed down.
The judges scored the fight 60-58 by the Italian judge; 60-59 by the Lebanese, and 60-58 by the Tunesian, all for the Russian.
The Egyptian and German judges, meanwhile, had it with similar 59-58 verdicts for Anthony.
Villanueva thus settled for the silver, but that didn’t prevent his countrymen to give him a warm welcome when he returned home.
From ordinary men and women on the streets, to the highest official of the land, the late president Diosdado Macapagal, all celebrated his victory.
From the motorcade which started at the Manila International Airport, through the sunset strip of Roxas Bouvelard and to Escolta, there were pandemonium and showers of confetti, even as fans raised banners printed with the words Mabuhay!
There were others from the crowd who even shouted ‘Villanueva for President, Puyat for Vice …. “
Later, Anthony would fall victim to the lure of the movies despite threats that he would lose his status as an amateur boxer.
He made a film with Nida Blanca titled “Malakas, Kaliwa’t kanan.” This was followed by another film entitled “Salaonga Brothers” with soon-to-be San Juan Mayor, Senator, Vice President, President and now Mayor of Manila Joseph Estrada.
He ended his stint as a movie actor in the film playing a boxer like he was in the “Pancho Villa Story.”
He turned professional at the age of 20, a year after winning the silver in the Tokyo Olympic Games but didn’t really make a mark as a prizefighter.
On October 2, 1965, several days short of his silver medal anniversary, he fought Japanese Shigeo Nirasawa in a Fiesta Fistiana card organized by the Philippine Sportswriters Association, an annual fund-raising event for disabled boxer that proved to be a flop.
A failure in both his movie and pro careers, Anthony had to go back-and-forth to the United States to try to earn a living and even tried to sell his silver medal.
Anthony Villanueva, a certified Olympic hero, died a poor man as he wasn’t able to get enough help from the government even as he tried to recover from a stroke he suffered a few years since returning from the United States for good.
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