The slogan ‘It Ain’t Easy’, only barely readable, when slapped across a sweaty back in Survival Camp. Adjustments are made as children run through the forest. Men, talking tactics pace up and down the ring, paying no mind to its thinly padded, concrete surface.

“Survival Camp, (here) it is isolated right in the middle of the forest. A very good camp for boxers. I think if you don’t have a deep passion for boxing you are not gonna like staying here, but, if you are looking for a real one… this is the place!”

Ernesto Saulong (21-2-1, 8KOs), a 28-year-old bantamweight from Santa Rosa in the Philippines, is facing his biggest challenge. A maiden World title awaits him on March 1st in Tokyo as he takes on IBF champion Ryosuke Iwasa, with the challenger a hefty underdog. 

This is his first training camp in Cavite, deciding to relocate to Joven Jiminez’ jungle workhouse. I’d spent time getting to know Joven whilst writing about Jerwin Ancajas. Ancajas was Joven’s first World champion, created on a shoestring budget under a mango tree. As they work together, Saulong and Jiminez establish a bond the pair hope will be long-lasting.

Saulong told me of their arrangement as we discussed the beginning of his new camp. “My team decided to train here because we want something new because we believe that we will learn more if we will train here in his training camp. Coach Joven never hesitated. He welcomed us, like one of his own. Coach Joven is very humble, he is a good man.”

Jiminez added to his new fighter’s comments, replying in kind, “Ernesto’s manager called me saying that he wants me to help train Ernesto in this World title fight. And I accepted. I’d love to help Ernesto achieve his dream. We are hoping that we can make more World champions and help boxers in other ways.”

The third of nine children, Ernesto told me about his introduction to the sport. A busy household, the constant struggle to be heard and the lack of an education had shaped him. His father would toil in the field while his mother needed eyes on every part of her head to manage the Saulong clan. A full football-teams-worth.

Now weighing approximately 53kg, he had never been the biggest growing up on Occidental Mindoro. Scraping a high school education, there were other things that sparked his interest.

“My father is a farmer and my mother is a housewife. I only finished High School in Occidental Mindoro. I started boxing at the age of twelve. I (would) fight during town fiestas. Yeah, I really had a tough time growing up. That’s why I decided to become a professional boxer.”

Turning professional at the age of twenty-two, Saulong has been thrust into the limelight after the announcement of his bout with Japan’s Iwasa. On talking to him, he seemed composed. There was an element of calm as he discussed boxing and its deep-rooted influence in his life.

“Boxing is my only way of life, my family is my inpiration and I hope I will soon succeed in my campaign. I’m really excited for this fight because it’s a World championship. It’s every fighter’s dream to become a World champion, so this is a big break for me and I will do my very best to win. This fight is not only my fight, but also for my family!”

“Ryosuke Iwasa is a smart boxer. He is like a sniper. My team are already making some game plans for him. We want a convicing win and that’s a knockout that we are looking for. We will just train harder now.”

The Philippines has been a constant fixture on boxing’s map with names like Nonito Donaire, Ancajas and of course Manny Pacquiao topping bills for the last two decades. Although Saulong was punching for pride and glory, it was Joven Jiminez that intrigued me. 

I’d never asked, during our first conversation, how he had found himself lacing up the gloves of others. He struck me as a kind man, incapable of instructing violence yet intelligent enough to master it. I wanted to understand what had led him through the vines and trees towards the newly constructed ring in Magallanes?

“When I was 10-years-old, I was invited to train boxing with my friends. My father and uncle were small time promoters in our province. They (would) always bring me whenever they had a boxing event. I took boxing seriously. In four months training I was selected to be part of the National team. I was not succesful because there were so many good boxers at that time and they were better than me.”

“I was chosen to become a Navy Boxing team head coach and I performed well. But one day, I was replaced in my position as head coach. I was hurt and I did not want boxing anymore.”

Joven turned his back on the sport. An act of bitterness that could have ended his involvement in boxing, prematurely. Thankfully, this wasn’t the end of Team Joven. I’d like to tell you how polite and generous he is, but I couldn’t convey it. He calls me ‘Sir’ and thanks me for doing… nothing, really. A true gentleman.

I asked Joven how it made him feel, having a World champion in his stable?

“Very, very happy Sir. I dreamt about this when I left my work in the Philippines Navy. I was very confident that I could produce a World champion, even though I was new in professional boxing.”

Still young in the game, the future of Survival Camp looks bright. The humidity tips 80% as the thermometer bubbles towards 32°. Just another day in the office. 

Ernesto Saulong has linked up with one of the Philippines’ most promising trainers ahead of his most daunting task. A young man, primed to grasp his opportunity, Saulong carries thoughts of family in his heart and the power of an island in his gloves.

It’s a funny old game, boxing. In the words of Pacino, just when you thought you were out, it pulls you back in again. A sentiment Joven strongly identified with.

“I stopped boxing three times, but I always come back. I realised God put me here. This is my life – boxing!”

Written by Craig Scott