Navarrete a cautionary tale for Pinoy boxers

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 17 2009 04:21 PM | Updated as of Sep 17 2009 12:36 AM

GENERAL SANTOS CITY - Ageing brawler Rolando Navarrete attacks the heavy bag swinging above the dirt floor of his crumbling home, each crunching blow evoking the old times when he was the boxing-mad Philippines' most famous son.

Stuck on the unpainted wall is a calendar given to him by six-time world champion Manny Pacquiao, the other, much younger local icon who now holds the prized tag as the planet's "best pound-for-pound" fighter.

"Manny has become a much better fighter than I was. He has discipline," said Navarrete in a heavily slurred voice.

In his time he was at least as big as Pacquiao, as shown by fading framed pictures on the wall of the older champ in all his former glory. But those days are long gone and Navarrete now sells fish that he says earns him 800 pesos (about 16 dollars) a day.

A three-year stint in a US prison for rape, a series of failed relationships with women who bore him a total of seven children, various police complaints for wife battery and drugs, and an assortment of ugly scars from scraps outside the ring are all he has left to show after a dizzying fall from grace.

The sculpted, V-shaped torso and bulging biceps with the distinct blue-rose tattoos are all admirably intact and the 52-year-old's left fist, though it has perhaps lost some speed, still packs the same destructive power as the best in Pacquiao's arsenal.

In a country that has produced a remarkable crop of more than two dozen world champions, Navarrete rode his explosive fists to fight his way out of poverty and soon after he turned 18, he was the bantamweight champion of the Philippines.

He knocked out Uganda-born Cornelius Boza-Edwards in five rounds in Viareggio, Italy to win the World Boxing Council junior lightweight crown in 1981 and later starred in one of two local films made about his life.

But a rock star-lifestyle in Hawaii, where he lived it up and partied once he reached the top of his sport saw him crash and burn out.

Navarrete kept the world title for exactly nine months, successfully defending it in Manila against South Korean challenger Choi Chung-Il before losing it to the Mexican Rafael "Bazooka" Limon in Las Vegas.

Boxing experts consider all three world title bouts he fought as among the best contests ever seen in the 130-pound (59-kilogram) class.

He later spent three years in US jail for a rape he would not discuss, and he lost his last three bouts before calling it a day in 1991, his win-loss-draw record standing at 54-15-3 with 30 knockouts in a memorable prizefighting career spanning 18 years.

The beautiful house, the sportscar, the trophy girlfriends, and his money are now distant memories.

These days it is Pacquiao, the former street urchin who lives in a palatial home in this southern city, who is the star.

His finger it seems is in every pie, the tens of millions of dollars in prize money helping fuel a construction boom in shopping malls, cockfighting arenas, boxing gyms, and even a planned 400-hectare (988-acre) Manny Pacquiao Economic Zone.

Meanwhile his flawed, older role model, aptly dubbed the "Bad Boy of Dadiangas", after the old name of this southern port city, lives alone in a grimy, dimly-lit, unfinished shell of a two-storey building in a tough neighbourhood. A "House for Sale" sign is painted above the rotting bamboo door.

His dirty laundry soaks in a bucket of murky water on the floor, where a dog nurses her scrawny puppies and empty bottles of gin litter a corner.

Two pre-teen nephews cook his food on a basic stove propped beside his bare bed of wooden planks, and get boxing lessons from the old champ in return.

"We still hear a lot of heavy hitting here," said a neighbour, Joe Tantiado, who says the ex-champ works the heavy bag at least three times a day.

"He is lonely and complains he no longer has friends," said Joy Soria, another neighbour.

"He says people look down on him, because he is back to being poor."

Her teenage daughter Therese Soria adds: "He says Pacquiao is his idol. He regrets having thrown it all away."

In a final indignity, the championship belt was stolen from his home several months ago.

Navarrete insists he does not dwell too much on his current circumstances. "If I stopped to think about it too often I would go crazy for sure," he told AFP.

Neighbors say he does not get many visitors, though Navarrete says Pacquiao occasionally helps him pay the bills.

"Manny is a really good person. He does not withhold help to the needy. He knows how to treat people well," Navarrete said.

"But I don't begrudge him his fortune. That is life, it's like riding a wheel," he said.

Hope springs eternal, even in the depths of Navarrete's personal hell. Two of his seven children, not yet out of their teens, have taken up boxing.

Navarrete alleges his many ex-girlfriends, as well as the various camp followers that typically surround boxing celebrities in the Philippines, are to blame for his fate.

If given the chance to do it all over again, he said he would "change everything" while getting himself a financial adviser.