As a way of starting Sports Desk again, I've decided to start by continuing with some Olympic roundups, Olympic replays and Olympic reconsiderations. Over the next 7 days I'll be running pieces from The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic/Olympics that you haven't seen yet and a number that you have. By the time I've finished I'll be in Denton, TX where I'll have some other things to say about poetry and sports and searching.
First up, Pat Rosal discusses Mark Anthony Barriga. I've included his first piece and now the conclusion, "Keats and Barriga: Filipino Capability."
Barriga’s Olympic Debut
By Pat Rosal
Ranked 33rd in the world in the light flyweight division (49kg), Filipino boxer Mark Anthony Barriga is a longshot to earn the gold medal in London, but he showed some promise in dominating Italian fighter Manuel Cappai. Barriga outpointed Cappai, 17-7, in what was both fighters’ Olympic debut.
Barriga charged at Cappai after the opening bell with an aggressive left lead combo. It may not have connected cleanly, but it seemed to surprise Cappai with its swiftness and ferocity.
Barriga did a good job of crowding Cappai throughout the fight, unloading fierce combinations, being mostly on the move and reading his opponent’s swiping rangefinder of a jab.
Cappai revealed his own frustration when he used his shoulder to heave the smaller fighter off his feet and shove him back down against the ropes in the first round. Barriga stuck with his game plan and was the more consistent aggressor.
Cappai, this year’s European pre-qualifying bronze medalist, hit the canvas with about a minute left in the first round. It was ruled a slip, though in replay it looked like a legitimate knockdown from a right hook. Then, with fifteen seconds left in the first stanza, Barriga blasted an overhand right into Cappai’s temple and a followed up with left to the chin. The referee gave the Italian a standing eight count.
Cappai, 19, has clearly modeled his style after two-time World Champion and Beijing gold medalist Zou Shiming who is comparable in height and has the same long body type. Both fighters are mobile and score touches mostly from the outside.
On the other hand, Barriga, a natural southpaw, likes to attack in spurts. He throws dynamic series of combinations, changing levels from the body to the head and back. One of his slicker moves is the way he slips an oncoming jab and throws a tight straight left to the body.
Barriga, who is also 19, is one of the smallest boxers in his weight division at this year’s Olympics—and his division is the smallest in boxing. He has boyish good looks and a real sweet disposition during interviews.
He told one interviewer that, if he were to have kids one day, he wouldn’t let them box because it’s too dangerous. When the interviewer asked why he boxes then, Barriga responded, “So I can help my family.”
He even giggles a bit when asked who his celebrity idols are and what actor should play him if they were to produce a Mark Anthony Barriga biopic. Inside the ring, however, there is some menace in his hands.
Barriga was able to convince ringside judges that he was the more effective fighter with a mix of hard body blows and one-twos to the head. Even with Olympic criteria that usually favor a boxer like Cappai who scores mostly head shots from the outside, Barriga won all three rounds convincingly, 5-2, 4-2, 8-3.
Barriga qualified for the Olympics by making it to the round of 16 in the 2011 Amateur World Boxing Championships where he was defeated by Zou Shiming, a two-time amateur World Champion and winner of the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing games. Shiming, 30 years old and one of Barriga’s childhood idols, is favored to win the gold in this year’s London games.
Like Shiming, Cappai likes to alternate between orthodox and southpaw stances in an attempt to disorient his opponent. The problem for both Cappai and Shiming is that they often square up in the middle of switching, depriving them of a good base and making them, one, less mobile and, two, prone to knockdowns if they’re caught off balance.
It’s hard to tell if Barriga has “it”, the quintessence of an Olympic champion. He does have decent power in his left hook, which knocked Shiming back a couple times during their October matchup. Barriga is young, though, and has a tendency to get caught in the pocket without throwing punches. When waiting to counter, he can lull himself to the point of inaction and just cover up. He is a better fighter when he’s aggressive.
Barriga, the only boxing representative from the Philippines and one of eleven total from the country, is listed officially at 5’2”, but some say he’s a razor’s edge over five feet even. He came into the weigh-in on Friday at 48.4 kg. That’s a full pound and a half under the 108-lb. limit for us Yankees, not an insignificant differential against others in his class who cut several pounds to make weight. Barriga is considered the Philippines’ best chance for a medal.
He’s trained by Roel Velasco, who won the light flyweight bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Velasco’s younger brother Mansueto won the silver medal in 1996 at the Atlanta games. That’s the last time the Philippines won an Olympic medal in any sport. Barriga was only three years old.
Recently, Barriga and a couple dozen other fighters headed to the Olympic games were invited to Cardiff for a three-week training session. It wasn’t long before Barriga earned the nickname “Little Pacman” for the stylistic similarities between the teenage prospect and the Filipino pound-for-pound phenomenon, Manny Pacquiao.
Actually, Pacquiao is a terrible model for a young fighter. Opponents can split his peekaboo guard with straight shots and uppercuts. Furthermore, the Filipino champion throws punches from extremely odd angles, which does allow him to find unlikely trajectories for his shots. However, lesser fighters who try to emulate Pacquiao’s style may find themselves out of position, being robbed of the sting in their punches and possibly prone to knockdown.
Not so for Barriga—at least against Cappai. The Filipino’s combinations overwhelmed the Italian’s pawing jab and took advantage of the European boxer’s tendency to fight with his chin up.
Barriga has the odds stacked against him in many ways—and yet so much seems at stake for the young man, so much on his shoulders.
Just about every Filipino abroad knows a narrative similar to Barriga’s. They remember the phone calls “back home”, the requests for cash to pay for a medical procedure, or some money toward tuition or just a school uniform or pair of shoes, and sometimes to purchase new rolls of fabric so an auntie can make new dresses to sell. in the Philippines, one source of income is meant to provide for a whole family.
This is not so much a morality tale about family and money as it is about the vast class differences that Olympians come into competition with. For Barriga, whose father is a print machine operator, his participation is indeed about national honor, but it is also about the hopes of making a living wage—not just for himself and not just his mother and father—but probably for a wide network of extended family.
Even in the pros, boxers are unlikely to make enough money to support their immediate families. This is true in the United States, so I imagine that is even truer in the Philippines, where the national poverty rate hovers above 30%. The outlook dims further when one considers how little media coverage the smaller divisions, like Barriga’s, get.
Well, the young man is an exciting fighter and has come a long way in just two years. If he manages to punch his way through a tough draw and a pretty deep field in London, he may get a rematch against Shiming. In nine months, Barriga has obviously become more confident and more aggressive with added tools to his arsenal, but the Chinese fighter still has a slew of experience on his side.
In addition to Shiming, the light flyweight division is peppered with outstanding talent, including the Korean Shing Jon-Hun, who lost to Shiming in the finals at last year’s World Amateur Boxing Championships. Additionally, the polished Cuban boxer Yosbany Veitia Soto will be a challenge for anybody in the division. Before Barriga starts looking too far ahead, he has to face Birzhan Zhakypov of Kazakhstan, another boxer who will enjoy a four-inch height advantage against the Filipino.
Sometimes, the measure of a nation’s dreams can be expressed in direct proportion to its material need. Barriga’s dream has an astonishing magnitude and a weight. This summer, there is a nation dreaming right along with him.
Keats and Barriga: Filipino Capability
Mark Anthony Barriga’s close loss (17-16) to Kazak fighter Birzhan Zhakypov means the Philippines’ last hope for a medal in this year’s games has ended. His punches had much less sting and he looked gassed, taking huffing deep breaths, as he sat between rounds. The southpaw little man seemed reluctant to pull the trigger.
What made Barriga (49kg) so exciting in his Olympic debut on Tuesday was the way he picked apart the taller Manuel Cappai with sizzling combinations, how he zipped in and out of range, fought with poise and power. Against Zhakypov, Barriga looked a bit sluggish and unsure. I imagine his supporters in the crowd sensed it, since they weren’t nearly as rowdy as in his first match.
The kid is nineteen. My disappointment in his loss is probably not unlike the few million other Filipinos who kept an eye on him as he entered London. But I hope someone pulls Barriga aside and tells him, Bahala na. The Tagalog expression loosely translates into English as Brother, shit happens.
Bahala na is a kind of a warning to guard against one’s stubbornness and ego. It’s a reminder to let go. If there’s a Western equivalent, it might be an awareness of our existential puniness in an unpredictable (and often dangerous) world. Bahala na acknowledges the caprice of the divine. It is a phrase coined in a nation prone to deadly earthquakes, monsoons, and volcanic eruptions.
The Philippines has known, too, the whimsy of kings—and that of generals, dictators, governors, judges and congressmen. That whimsy has often been the impulse behind the garrote, the blade, the bullet, and the bomb. With its rainforests, its thousands of miles of shorelines, its stunning sunsets, the Philippines has, for centuries, been a place of simultaneous natural beauty and man-made terror. And so, Bahala na, we say, to fend off the hubris of certainty, what John Keats called “a desperate reaching after fact and reason”. We remind ourselves and one another that the bastards running the big show are a capricious bunch.
I don’t mean to diminish the achievement of winning—nor the long litany of feats the Olympic games have given us, but one lesson that we can learn from our greatest athletes is how to surrender with rigor and grace. If poetry is an art of memory, then sport, and boxing especially, is an art of forgetting. Surrender is mostly not a part of the hero’s narrative. So where the story of the athlete ends, perhaps music and myth begin.
Yet for both the fighter and the poet, you can’t make the material do more than it wants—whether the body or the rhyme. It’s why we have flow in hip hop, swing in jazz, and the blues in the blues.
A young man lost a nation’s bid for a good hunk of metal. But, you know, Shit happens. And a lot of that shit was around before Mark Anthony Barriga put on boxing gloves. I understand the desire to pour our hopes (material and otherwise) into one young man who has become visible suddenly to millions of eyes around the world. But maybe we are merely grieving over our own insignificance, as if being seen might change us into something much greater. Maybe, too, we are grieving our inability to see, to know, what might come—calamity or miracle.
The story we need to hear the most won’t be covered—the one told by the young Mr. Barriga’s solitude, the one in which he sees his own grief clear as his two good hands, the one in which he lets go. Bahala na, brotherman. Bahala na.
Pat Rosal also wrote about Weightlifting for The Los Angeles Revies of Books Poetic/Olympic Coverage. Check that piece out here: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=830&fulltext=1