One Filipino athlete currently making a name in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) is Rolando Gabriel “The Incredible” Dy. He is known as the first Filipino MMA fighter who became a world champion in the Middle East and the United Arab Emirates, and one of six Filipinos who made it to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest MMA promotion in the world. Under the Brave Combat Federation banner, the 30-year-old athlete was hailed Fighter of the Year in 2020.
In the sports circle, Gab is also known as the son of a boxing legend, former WBC super featherweight title holder Rolando Navarrete. It’s a title that’s been attached to his name since birth, and something he doesn’t mind carrying in his 10-year career as MMA fighter. “Even if I have all these credentials, at the end of the day ang sasabihin pa din ng mga tao, that’s the son of Rolando Navarrete,” he tells ANCX. “It just means na sobrang layo ng naabot ng tatay ko kumpara sa naabot ko, so I’m humbled.”
But while Gab is often referred to as Rolando Navarrete’s son, he never grew up with the boxing champ. His parents separated when he was still a baby, so Gab has no memory of his father growing up. “Pero I grew up knowing na sya ang tatay ko. Hindi din naman ako pinalaking may galit sa kanya,” the MMA athlete is quick to add. “Kilala ko sya. I know his history. I know kung ano ang nagawa nya sa boxing at para sa bayan. I’m proud of him.”
Gab doesn’t carry his father’s surname, and that wasn’t exactly by choice. His parents didn’t have the chance to get married. In those years, a child will carry his mother’s last name if the parents are not legally married. But all is well, Gab says. “I like to carry my mother’s surname, to honor her.”
The MMA athlete was already 15 when he got the chance to meet Navarette for the first time in one of the events at Elorde Gym. His ninong, former Southeast Asia boxing gold medalist Johnny Elorde, would often invite him in the gym’s awarding events and there were a few occasions when his father Rolando was around.
“I’ll be honest. I don’t hate my dad. But I also don’t feel empty without him,” he says honestly. “Kasi pinalaki naman ako ng maayos ng nanay ko. Masaya ako na nakita ko ang tatay ko. I don’t have any negative feelings toward him. Pero hindi sya yung tipong, ‘Wow, at last, nakita ko na ang tatay ko.’”
Their last meeting was in 2017 in an episode of Rated K. The show covered Gab’s training and flew in Navarette to meet his son. It was quite an emotional reunion.
Gab says he gets to hear about his father from his siblings every now and then. Navarrete, who is now based in Gensan, is not on social media.
Born to be a fighter
Gab admits he had wanted to become a boxer since he was about six. The Davao-born fighter says he wanted to be like his idols Manny Pacquiao and Gerry Peñalosa, but he was discouraged by relatives to get into the sport because of what happened to his father. Sports history knew the sad fate that had befallen the legendary boxer once known as one of the most feared fighters in the world.
Gab says that like any typical Filipino family, the Dys wanted him to pursue traditional education so he can establish a professional career. “Hindi nila ako hinayaang mag-train to become a boxer. So my dream to become a boxer died,” he remembers.
When the family moved to Cavite, Gab finished Legal Studies, with a plan of pursuing a law career later on. One thing he knew though was that he was unhappy with the road he was treading. Then at age 21, he became a big fan of UFC. Unknown to his family, Gab would secretly try the MMA training, and he loved it. “For 21 years, hindi ko alam kung saan ako. Then I tried MMA. Ah dito ako magaling, dito ako masaya. This is what I wanted to do,” he realized.
He started fighting in amateur competitions and eventually turned pro. “I’m happy to be doing what I love, and to be earning at the same time.” He’s been practicing the sport for about a decade now, and at 30, he considers himself still at his prime. “Ang prime kasi ng MMA fighter is 30 to 35. I think I can still fight until 38 or 39 or maybe katulad ni Manny Pacquiao, aabot ako ng 40-plus. Only God knows,” he says smiling.
Going to law school is something he still considers in the next chapter of his life. But while he’s young, MMA is top priority.
He may not have grown with his biological father, but Gab says he never felt like something was missing in his life. Someone took on that role ever since he was young—his uncle James Joy Dy, the younger brother of his mom.
Dy is his manager in the sport, his best friend, and life coach rolled into one. He is currently a pastor in a Christian church. Gab says his Tito had been taking care of him since he was 10. “Simula noon, palagi na kaming magkasama. Siya ang nagpalaki sa akin,” he shares.
Gab says he owes his life, and whatever he had become, to his Tito. “I was a violent kid. Mahirap akong i-control nung bata ako. Meron akong anger management problem. Medyo weird ako nung bata,” he remembers. “Utang ko ang buhay ko sa aking uncle kasi iginayd niya ang sobrang hirap i-guide na bata to have a better future.”
He continues: “Siguro kung wala ang tatay na kinalakihan ko, who is my uncle, without his guidance, I am either dead, broke, or in jail now.” He pauses as tears start rolling down his cheeks. “Nagpapasalamat ako na a kid like me na meant for failure, because of the support and guidance of my uncle, kahit paano merong nangyari sa buhay ko. I became a successful athlete, naka-finish ako ng degree, hindi ako nagdodroga, wala akong bisyo, lumaki ako ng tama.”
His uncle, he says, is the father he wants to become to his daughter Joy Gabrielle. He named her in honor of his uncle Joy whom he describes as “Napakaresponsible, hindi mabarkada. Mapagmahal sa pamilya.” Being around and helping family is what makes his uncle Joy happy. “Yun din ang gusto kong gayahin,” says Gab.
His source of strength and joy
This is Gab’s first Father’s Day. He is grateful that amidst the pandemic, he has a wife and daughter, who serve as his inspiration to always feel motivated and hopeful. “Sila ang pinagkukuhanan ko ng lakas ng loob at kasiyahan.Alam ko na hindi ako pwedeng sumuko, kasi merong pamilyang umaasa sa akin,” he quips.
Gab says he brings his daughter to his trainings and she seems to enjoy watching him. “Maybe this baby will be an athlete as well in the future,” he says, adding that he will encourage her get into any sport she likes. “Sa sports kasi, kung ano ang malapit sa heart mo, dun ka. No one should force a child what she should be.” He’s obviously speaking from personal experience.
He says his priorities in life has changed drastically since he became a father. He became more mature and responsible. He knows he still has to work on his anger problems but he’s positive that “through God’s grace, I will change for the betterment of my family.” His goal is to take care of his family, and keep it strong and intact. “My goal is for my baby to grow up na meron syang tinitingalang ama.”
Photos courtesy of Rolando Dy