#SEAGames2019: Born to fight
How the ancient sport of Muay Thai changed the life of a waste scavenger from Iloilo who dreamed of a bigger, better future
He could taste blood. Dark crimson cascaded from his mangled nose down to his cold lips.
Philip Delarmino tried to hold on even if victory was slipping away like sand filtering through the creases of his fingers. This wasn’t the outcome he imagined. But there it was.
Muay Thai has been his sport for over a decade but this was his first-ever match, professionally, in the country where the brutal martial arts was given birth to.
There were three rounds. He had taken the first — mixing punches, kicks and blows to the elbow and knees. But his Thai opponent took the upper hand in the second bout. An upward blow from his elbow hit Philip directly in the face.
“Tuloy pa rin ang laban kasi akala ko wala lang.”
But the pummeling continued as the hometown crowd roared in support of the Thai fighter.
Philip knew the odds were stacked against him but he kept throwing kicks and punches. He had trained years for this. He wanted the win.
First came the blurry vision. Then the excruciating pang of an oncoming defeat. And then there was the blood.
“Hindi na ako makahinga, nanlalabo na yung paningin ko.”
His coach took him aside, right before the third and final face-off.
“Sinabi ng coach ko na parang na-fracture na ang ilong mo. Itigil na ‘yung laban. Mananalo na pero hindi mo talaga maiwasan yung disgrasya."
Philip lost the match. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and imagined a different punctuation to a match he had long trained for.
He didn’t want to surrender.
It didn’t matter if he was hurt or if the challenge was too gargantuan. He needed to fight. He would have wanted to wave the country’s colors. Instead, it was a white flag.
It was tough loss and even a tougher flight back home.
With a broken nose, Philip had to quit mid-match against his Thai opponent. The broken heart that followed hurt more.
Yet Philip understood, with clarity, that it was part of the sport that he had grown to love all these years.
“Motivation mo talaga na manalo ka talaga. Maipakita mo na deserving ka sa allowance na binigay sa'yo ng government natin.
“Happy ako kasi sa tingin ko naman, naibigay ko lahat pero may time na maiisip mo na parang may kulang. ‘Yon ‘yong mag-push pa sa’yo na magtraining pa, bumawi sa mga susunod pang laban.”
It’s a lesson that Philip has carried with him for years. While the wins and losses are important, the more important point is that he fought.
And he’s been fighting his entire life.
NOT A TYPICAL CHILDHOOD
Philip grew up in a small town right outside of Iloilo City. It wasn’t a typical childhood by any means.
At eight years old, he was forced to take on responsibilities reserved for adults. Complications from diabetes forced his father out of work. And in order to put food on the table, he and his older brother had to find means.
“Wala naman kasi permanenteng trabaho yung tatay ko. Nangungutang lang para may pang negosyo. Wala kaming pera. Kumbaga, nangungutang lang kami doon sa mga tindahan. Minsan sobrang dami na ng utang, umuuwi kami wala kaming bigas kaya wala kaming makain.”
“Tapos kung may natira pang bigas, lulugawin lang.”
So, Philip and his brother went to the streets and started scavenging for wastes — finding metals, plastics, papers and anything that they could sell for some small change. It was a way to feed the family, as well as to keep themselves in school.
“Kapag walang pasok, sa weekend, nangangalakal kami ng kuya ko para makasuporta rin sa pambaon sa araw-araw.”
At the time, Philip felt that he was down for the count. Unlike other children his age, he wasn’t allowed to dream anymore.
“Ganun sir, pag naisip mo yung dati wala ka ng chance mag-college. Okay lang sa high school walang bayad, walang tuition na pro-problemahin. Hindi na kaya mag-college. So yun, naiisip mo dati na mawawalan ka na ng pangarap mo sa buhay, mawawala na.
Philip’s nature though would prod him to find other ways. When he was 16 years old, he knew that scavenging couldn’t be his life forever. He knew that finishing school was his ticket out, but that it would come a steep price.
To earn extra cash, he and his brother decided to join town festivals. The job was brutal: street fighting for entertainment.
“May mga boxing doon dati, sinasalihan namin yan. Pag may mga fiesta-fiesta. Basta laban sir, karate, taekwondo. May Muay Thai pero hindi pa naming alam na Muay Thai ‘yun.”
“Maglalaro kami, 500 pesos kapag manalo. 150 pesos kapag matalo.”
Little did Philip know that street fighting would pave the same road out of the streets.
A KNACK FOR BRAWLS
After high school graduation, Philip’s brother had an idea: they should train in a local gym to learn more moves. They had heard of a sport called “Muay Thai” although at the time, they only knew it as some form of “mixed martial arts”.
During street fights, Philip was told that he had a knack for brawls. So, armed with this encouragement, he sought out training.
But training meant money. And it was something Philip didn’t have.
“Pumunta ako sa gym. Pero nung pumunta ako sa gym, siyempre hindi ka i-eentertain ng mga instructor doon kasi wala kang pera eh. Yung mga nagte-train doon yung mga may pera na kayang magbayad.”
“Kaya ang ginagawa namin, nanunuod lang. Kapag tapos ng session nila, kami nagte-training kami, ginagaya lang namin sila.”
He and his brother would learn by watching fighters train. Shadowing their moves — the form, the punches, the kicks — until the wee hours of the night.
“Score system ng Muay Thai which is yung mga solid na mga tama na suntok, sipa, knees at tska elbow. Yun yung mga pinu-puntosan nila. And ‘yung clinching, included samin yung clinching, pwede mo siyang hawakan sa ulo, pwede mong tuhudin yung ulo niya, pwede sa katawan, sa legs.”
When he became confident enough that he could mimic Muay Thai fighters, Philip entered a local competition. He won. Then came the regional. He won there too.
Before the year ended, he won his first national Muay Thai competition. The training might have been lacking but the talent was certainly there.
“Kasi nakatulong din sir yung palaging lumalaban ka, yung experience, made-develop yung confidence mo, kaya ma-eengganyo kang lumaban din.”
Philip didn’t stop at this victory.
He eventually joined the national team and would finally gain the proper training he had long hoped for. The blood and bruises continued. But he forged on. Every punch had a purpose as they led to other opportunities.
In 2013, he represented the Philippines and became a silver medalist in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Myanmar.
A few years later, he also took the silver from the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.
But it’s not just in sports where Philip has carried the flag. Muay Thai also led him to join the Armed Forces of the Philippines, where he remains on active duty with the rank of Seaman Second.
More importantly, Philip has found a way to help his family.
“Minsan kapag nagkukuwentuhan kami ng kuya ko, hindi maiwasan talaga na malungkot ka rin dahil sa naging hirap. Muay Thai talaga yung tumulong sakin para marating ko kung ano ‘yong meron ako ngayon. Proud ako sa sarili ko. Proud din ang pamilya ko.”
Now, at age 28, he’s the captain of the Philippine Men’s Muay Thai team in the 2019 SEA Games.
Philip remembers his loss in the 2013 SEA Games match. He settled for second against the hometown fighter from Myanmar who beat him in the scorecard.
He remembers his loss too at the hands of a Thai fighter in the 2017 SEA Games held in Malaysia. He wasn’t able to reach the medal round then.
And what he vividly remembers is the loss last year in Thailand —the country that gave birth to the sport he loved. It was the first time he fought there, and it ended in defeat and a fractured nose.
For Philip, these losses are nothing but motivation to do better and to be better.
When he fights in Manila in the 2019 SEA Games, he wants to finally get the elusive hardware.
“Hindi pa ako nag-gogold. Kaya yun yung aim ko. More on silver lagi. Konting-konti pa para makuha yung gold kaya ngayon, ibibigay ko lahat sa laban. Lahat ng mga natutunan ko sa talo, gagamitin ko.”
“Bago man lang makapag-retire sa Muay Thai, makuha ko naman ‘yung gold. Para sa kuya ko. Sa tatay ko. Para sa bayan din.”
If anything, life has taught Philip a valuable lesson: when you’re down for the count, getting back up is already a win.