Survival Camp in Ramirez, Magallanes, Cavite, Philippines is not your average gym.
Trees surround the ring, as onlookers peer through the branches hoping to catch sight of the action. In December, the average temperature is an uncomfortable 26°c. They have no winter, in Cavite. If there were windows in Survival Camp, they would be steamy all year round, as the humidity slowly rises in the afternoon. This gym is outdoors however, with the ring looking as though it’s been dropped in the jungle as a form of emergency boxing relief. I guess, in a way, it has. The ropes are blue, resembling polypropylene as they creep their way around all four corners, securing the sacred space. It wasn’t always this ‘official’.
“Jerwin and myself own this small (piece of) land. We bought this after Jerwin’s fight in Brisbane. We did not have a gym before, we trained on the road, under a mango tree. That’s why myself and Jerwin wanted to have our own gym.”
Joven Jiminez, Ancajas’ manager and trainer (and perhaps the most polite man I’d ever spoken to) was keen to show off their facility. He was proud of what they had achieved, rightfully so.
Jerwin Ancajas (28-1-1, 19KOs) had travelled a fair distance since his arduous upbringing in Panabo City. Now, a recognised and respected World champion, he had recently knocked out Northern Ireland’s Jamie Conlan in simply devastating fashion. Though his performance was eye-catching, it was the story behind the smile that interested me.
He had been difficult to track down, but eventually with the help of Joven, I managed to unlock his version of events which was inspirational to say the least. The sport throws up various tales of hardship, acting as a sanctuary for life’s true ‘fighters’. I asked Jerwin about life as a young man, growing up in one of the poorer Provinces in the Philippines;
“My childhood was not easy. I was born in Barangay Togpore, Panabo City. We were struggling every day in order to have food on our plates. I remember one day, we only ate a banana, coconut and root crops for the whole day.”
Although known as the ‘Banana Capital of the Philippines’, the living conditions for many families were poor and surviving on a piece of fruit per day would not suffice. Jerwin opened up on his education, something that seemed split when I had researched the City itself. It has a number of institutes for further education, although many of these are private or ‘international’ schools for the children of expatriats.
“I grew up in a broken family as my parents separated when I was only three-years-old. My father brought me up as he worked menial jobs like cleaning the canals. But we, father and son, really worked as farmers until I enrolled in grades one and two (aged six) in school. For me to go to school, I had to walk for four hours to reach it.”
A desirable work-ethic from a young age and a discipline instilled in him by his father, the young IBF World champion made his entry into boxing as many others do, hot-on-the-heels of an elder sibling.
Ancajas dropped out of education at only nine-years-old, focusing his energy on employment and an amateur boxing career which ended without any outstanding achievements. As with fellow countryman, and now promoter and mentor Manny Pacquiao, the paid ranks were his chance to showcase his ability. He hadn’t yet turned eighteen.
“My elder brother brought me to the Almendras Gym in Davao City. (He) was then an amateur boxer. When my brother turned pro, he left and I returned to Panabo City. I was eleven years old when then-Congressman Tony Boy Floirendo started a boxing scholarship program and I participated. I aspired, but I was not fortunate enough, to be included in the national boxing team. I stopped to turn pro. This was in the year 2009.”
A professional career spent in the Philippines can be a slow one. Waiting for an opportunity to box overseas or to be noticed by one of the World’s largest promoters can frustrate and dishearten any young professional. Fighting for money in Manila or Panabo City is a way of life, much the same as office work at home in the United Kingdom. Jerwin had boxed in either his home country or China for the majority of his career, gathering stoppage wins and eventually high-ranking positions with governing bodies, notably the IBF. He had served his sentence as a prospect and was ready for release.
On September 3rd 2016, in the Jurado Hall, Taguig, Jerwin Ancajas fulfilled his destiny. He did so as an underdog, with reigning champion McJoe Arroyo expected to retain his title although the pair were reasonably well-matched with the bookmakers.
Ancajas had brought home the super-flyweight World title in a division which even then had flown under the radar of the mainstream. Pacquiao, was influential in the fight itself and the explosion of a new Philippino superstar.
“There would be no Jerwin Ancajas if Sir Manny Pacquiao did not promote my fight with McJoe Arroyo. The promotion to fight Arroyo was a really big help for me, one opportunity I really did strive not to waste. Sir Manny’s counselling to me is also very important. This is why we always give thanks to him.”
Ancajas continued, telling me of Joven Jiminez’ chance meeting with a member of Pacquiao’s team.
“He (Jiminez) had not much finance to promote me, he almost gave up boxing and planned to give me to another promoter who could give me a better opportunity. But he was fortunate enough to meet one of the staff of Sir Manny Pacquiao, Joe Ramos, and he was later on introduced to Michael Koncz. And this is how it all started.”
The mango tree and the diet of root crops were a far-cry from Belfast’s SSE Arena. With the lively crowd backing the challenger, it was a chance for the twenty-five-year-old champion to broaden his fanbase. In fighting Jamie Conlan, Ancajas was up against a tough, proud man as well as a nation of the same definition. He had never fought in Europe and at the time of writing, still hasn’t graced North America with his talent.
In six rounds, Ancajas dropped Jamie Conlan four times before the fight was waved off. It was a coming-out performance to be admired as he savagely attacked the body of the hometown fighter. Conlan got up time-and-time again, but the variation in the champion’s work and his reading of the damage that Conlan had accrued was key. We spoke about Conlan and his admiration for the bravery on display that night. Ancajas told me about his trip to Belfast, enjoyable despite any issues with the weather.
“Jamie Conlan is a good fighter with a big heart. He knows what to do in the ring. When I was in the ring with him, I told myself ‘I can handle anybody as long as I keep focused on my own capabilities’. The people in Belfast are very nice. They made us feel important. They say hello, good morning and greeted us wherever we met. So, thank you very much Belfast!”
As we approach the end of what some fans deem to be a breakthrough year, the super-flyweight division is amongst the hottest in boxing. With the success of HBO’s ‘Superfly’ card, the second installment has now been pencilled in on February 24th. Two notable names missing from its opener were Jerwin and Britain’s own WBA champion Kal Yafai. We have heard negotiations between the two are underway with a possible unification lined up, but I wanted to know both Joven and Jerwin’s thoughts on the division and Yafai in particular.
Jerwin told me, “The other champions at super-flyweight are all good and strong. This is why I strive to be likewise; strong, as I know what they can do and they are not ordinary. Whoever my manager Joven Jimenez, matchmaker Sean Gibbons and promoter Manny Pacquiao want me to fight next, I would be ready and I would not waste the opportunity.”
Joven, taking a managerial stance and balancing perfectly on the fence, re-iterated the willingness of his fighter to face any of the divisions champions. “For me, I think Jerwin is ready to fight anybody. We are ready, whatever our promoter’s plans.”
After recently interviewing Yafai, it would seem neither man is backing down from what would be an exhilarating contest. The speed, technique and variety in the arsenal of both fighters can only be admired. The amateur pedigree sits with Yafai, but the power and the hunger to succeed could arguably be found in the opposing corner.
Massive fights are on the horizon for the Philippino pairing, with Jerwin looking to claim more titles and make up for an amateur career of self-confessed underachievement. As the conversation wound down, I wanted to understand his priorities both inside and outside the ring.
A father of two young boys, Kyrie and Kyle, he was desperate to pour his energy into fatherhood. His children would never have to work on the farm as he did, aged only six-years-old. They would be driven to and from their chosen place of study, their young legs spared that energy-sapping four hour walk in tattered, second-hand shoes.
“My family is important to me. When I am not training, I spend my time with my children playing with them etc.”
Joven recalled his initial interest in Jerwin, the pair almost like brothers. Currently training other boxers at Survival Camp, it was his risk-taking and sense of intrigue that had led him to Ancajas, in turn, resulting in his first World champion.
He told me, “Somebody said that Jerwin wanted to come to my gym, and he told me that he was a very good boxer. I was hesitant because I did not hear his name in the national team, and then suddenly, someone from boxing told me that Jerwin had the potential to become a World champion. From that moment on, I was rushing to get him.”
The pair had found one-another, becoming a tight-knit unit who trained in the most unusual surroundings. Even their new facility, boasting a sheet acting as a ring apron on top of concrete, is far from what I’d imagined. It was amazing, receiving the pictures from Joven. Each one unveiling the Survival Camp at new angles and letting me into their ‘home’.
The last thing I asked Jerwin seemed the easiest to answer. How would he like to be remembered by the Philippino population?
“For me, it is a big achievement to be a World boxing champion. But I would only wish that my fans would remember me simply as a champion.”
From toiling in the farm as a child, to spoiling his own children on birthdays. From poverty in Panabo City to the People’s Champion. It could be argued that Ancajas has already lived out his wildest dreams. Achieving so much in a career relatively short-lived and propelling himself towards an HBO-broadcast World title unification viewed by tens of millions, he had started to become a household name. The smiling boy from under the mango tree had seen his potential come to fruition. Whatever follows, seems almost like a bonus.
Written by Craig Scott