One of the first stories I posted here was "Visitation of the Gods", which was about the love of a teacher for both her profession and her care for her students. It was a fictional tale told by an uninvolved narrator. In contrast, this story--one of the entries in the book "Profiles Encourage"--is about the love a mentor has for his craft and his students told in a manner that showcases the love and respect a student has for his mentor. It is a recounting of Jay Onsiangko--which the book describes as an "Ear, Nose, Throat, Head, and Neck Surgeon doing private and charity practice in Manila through the Makati Medical Center, the Seaman's Hospital, Manila, and the San Juan Medical Center"--of his relationship with the boxer Al Asuncion. Everybody now knows Manny Pacquiao, now a congressman and arguably the greatest boxer that ever lived. There is no question that Rep. Pacquiao's achievements are great and deserving of acknowledgement and praise. These days, Nonito Donaire, also one of the best in the world, is often mentioned in the news. Names like Rolando Magbanua, Luisito Espinosa, and Gerry Penalosa pepper the news. The older readers may remember Mansueto Velasco who became Vic Sotto's sidekick as an amateur boxer/Olympian. Even Gabriel "Flash" Elorde has his name mentioned, albeit for comparison with these more recent champions. And champions they all are. They've done the country well, being good in their craft. But for me, Al Asuncion seems greater. The man doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, but instilling life lessons to young people feels like a better alternative to seeking fame and fortune on the ring. Mang Al, who passed on in May 2006, was truly (to quote the book subtitle) an "ordinary Filipino making an extraordinary difference".
"Profiles Encourage" is a book that tells the "stories of people who were relatively unknown, or at least deserved to be known to more citizens of our country and the world." Mang Al made a difference through "a lifetime of random acts of kindness". Some of the other stories in the book are about people who have done more dramatic things. All stories are encouraging. All stories are inspirational. All should be read. But, the book itself was written to make a difference and proceeds from its sales will go to the Library Renewal Partnership. I wouldn't want to steal from that. So I hope you enjoy this story and, because of that, buy this book. - paris
"To a better Philippines!"- Edi Sian in his dedication to me on my copy of Profiles EncourageContributor to Profiles Encourage
I met Al when I was about nine years old. He was introduced to my by a family friend who was taking boxing lessons with him. John Gomez, like me, is now practicing medicine: I am an opthalmologist and he is a general surgeon. Other students have pursued diverse careers but all of us have a thread in common: all of us grew up, literally and figuratively, with Al.
Many parents, from both simple and prominent families, would find Al and convince him to teach their kids, help them defend themselves, and build their confidence.
After my lessons he would head over to the other houses in the village to teach other students. We grew in number, and after many years, in the late eighties to the mid-nineties, he had around ten to twelve students whom he would teach after class or over the weekends, or more intensively during summer breaks.
He would always insist on coming to our homes, and preferred to teach one-on-one, or at most, two at a time. Even if it meant making less money, he stuck to that.
I remember that first day very well. I was standing in front of the Gomez's home, peeping through the gate and watching the lessons.
After watching them, I went in to try it out. Then, after an exhilarating and exhausting try, I started my own lessons with Al. This went on for three decades.
I had taken other martial arts before, but this was different. Al would make things simple, and that was the common theme--he was always for the simplest, most effective way to teach, explain, act, and defend yourself.
He was encouraging and would spend extra time building my confidence. The common thread from my childhood to my adoloscence was Al, and this interaction--the lessons, the advice, and the friendship--made a big difference to me.
He treated me like a father and a friend and not just as a teacher would a student.
I though he was the true-to-life "Mr. Miyagi" (from the Karate Kid movies which were hugely popular then). Even Al's build and height were the same as Pat Morita's (the actor who played the character). Whenever he'd come by the house to train me, during breaks or meals together (we used to have merienda or dinner together to close out our sessions)--Mang Al, after all, was like family to us--he would show us clippings of his flights from his mangled wallet or diary.
I remember reading a faded brown cut-out showing him as Boxer of the Year on the cover of the international magazine Ring (which still exists to this day).
He told me he started as an Olympian during the Helsinki Games and then later turned pro.
That's when it all started for him: the Great Rocky Marciano--one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, and the only undefeated heavyweight champion of the world to this day--saw his potential and took him to the United States to train and futher hone his aggressiveness and punching power.
Other days Mang Al would bring a folded picture of him and Rocky Marciano, who became his close friend.
This was always a constant source of pride to me and his other students, to learn the "sweet science" in its purest form, the sport that defined its glory days in the forties and fifties.
Al repeatedly told me how different it was training in the Marciano camp, mentioning to me the diet he was on and the disciplined, methodical regimen he underwent to reach his fullest potential.
His pro career lasted from the 1950s to the 1960s, where he rose to Philippine Bantamweight Champion, and got as far as the number 4 contender in the world for the World Boxing Association (WBA) title. This in itself is an astounding feat, since, unlike today, there was only one championship and boxers then were true gladiators, fighting almost every month, for up to fifteen rounds, and under harsher conditions compared with today's sport.
I understand that he was just as popular as his successor, our great champion Gabriel "Flash" Elorde, who won and successfully defended the lightweight championship of the world in the 1960s. Al's fighting style was a little different from the Flash's in terms of artistry and punching power. I understand that the fans saw him as a crowd pleaser and a knockout artist, always taking the fight to his opponent and like a gladiator, going for the kill.
During my sessions with him, Al made sure I had a thorough workout but would gauge it so he would never overtrain me. As a physician, I respect Mang Al's approach with me (and he wasn't even into sports science). Al would practice the tried-and-tested "simple" approach.
He would always exhort me not to "obertrayn" (overtrain) because this would destroy instead of build me.
He would tell me to keep my guard up, or I would be "easy to hurt". He would raise his hands covered with gloves and tell me to hit them with the different combinations he ahd learned from hi Marciano training and pro career.
He would say, "OK, Jay, jab--street (straight)!" and a host of other combinations. These were tough but fun because of the intensity, repetition, and my persistence to earn his praise helped me markedly improve and feel better.
Mang Al always went against the grain with his no-nonsense approach to boxing. One of the things I learned was that the punching bag should not be hard. He would always say, "Hindi ka naman susuntok ng elepante." (It's not like you're going to punch an elephant) He stressed that in training you aren't there to over-exert yourself but more to prepare yourself slowly but surely; this I think is a great philosophy for life, which Al also gave me advice on, using boxing as a metaphor.
After a year of basics--the heavy bag, skip ropes, shadow fight, and even the dreaded medicine ball (an ironic term for a would be physician, and for something that inflicted more pain than any other fitness method)--I was ready for sparring.
I was fortunate to have trained this early because Mang Al was still in his fifties and would be the one who would spar with my in my makeshift ring. Even when I mastered the sport in my thirties, Al was the most elusive to reach; he would make it an even match for me to get both challenged and encouraged to keep keep improving.
Al never encouraged his students to use force. He demanded us to use our skills to just defense ourselves in critical situations. I think we carry that and the many lessons, boxing or life, with us to this day, many years after we all hung up our gloves for good.
I remember well when a family friend of ours whose son had been provoked into a fight by the school bully recounted that his son has protected himself, had defeated the bully, and since then had stopped being hectored. I remember this not because of the fact that he won, but because the father was emotional and profusely thanked Al for the training and experience that built his son's self-worth and confidence.
Through the years, Al would have different students like Dax, Howie, Quintin, and Marco as I stayed on. It was my weekly routine. He even took me to see boxing matches so he could show how the techniques were applied. I remember watching a bout when some people especially the older ones recognized and approached him. I also remember the time that Flash Elorde came over to us after one of those matches to pay his respects.
After these matches, Al would bring me to the fighters' rooms, show me the equipment, and share what would go on in a boxer's mind as he prepared for or reflected after a fight that he lost or won.
My boxing workouts with Al kept on until he reached his sixties, when age finally caught up. All those times he would make the long commute from Old Manila to come to our homes. He refused our offers to bring him home, always insisting to leave the way he came. He was very dedicated to us.
I remember one of my last training days well. It was around August 2001. Al came over to the house bringing his son along, whom I remember seeing as a little boy and was now a grown man in his twenties. After our session, he asked for the first time ever to be dropped home in Blumentritt as he was feeling and looking weak.
In those moments, I had the flashback of that first day when Al brought me to a store to pick out my first punching bag. Now it was I bringing him home. On the way, he looked at me gravely and said I should remember the directions to his place, because one day soon he wouldn't be able to visit me anymore.
He shared with me that he considered me as family and one of his own. Ominously, he asked if I would visit him, only when I could, in between my medical classes which I had begun to take then. Just like his boxing techniques, he repeatedly reminded me to familiarize myself with the Blumentritt area, drive around it for a bit so I would never forget my way. I never have.
The next week came and two days before I was supposed to meet up with him, he called and said "Jay, hindi na ako makakapunta sa inyo." (Jay, I can't go to your place.) I could really feel the pain in his voice when he said those words. It ended my boxing lessons with Mang Al, but didn't end our relationship and the good times we share to this day.
Now I am a man of forty-two, with a growing medical practice and family, and Mang Al remains a good part of my life.
I've never forgotten my boxing lessons, or for that matter, my life lessons from him, even if I get to hit the punching bags less often than I'd like. The mindset, reflexes, movement--all are part of my regular exercise and day-to-day movements/
Mang Al has been a second father and a true friend, and for that I will always be grateful. Every year since that last day, during his birthday, we come to visit and say hello, and check on his health to recommend any treatment for his condition. Accompanying me would be Dr. John Gomez, the boyhood friend who first introduced me to Mang Al--my teacher, mentor, and friend.