Ask a hundred men, women or children from Philippino-lineage about Manny Pacquiao: every one of them will smile with fondness or furrow their brow at his latest endeavours. I’ve tried it. Pensioners and housewives respond, ‘Manny Pacquiao!’ raising their fists accordingly.
But what of Donnie Nietes (40-1-4, 22KOs)?
Rising star Jerwin Ancajas garners less of a response with the general public. Fans from Cavite or Manila may recognise the name as a prospect-on-the-rise, but the wider population may require some research.
How about The Snakeman?
As he crawls towards the pound-for-pound top ten, I was fascinated to discover the story of Nietes. A four-time, three-weight World champion, he is infact the Philippines’ longest serving titleist. His accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed outside of his native Island, perhaps Groundhog Day for a smaller fighter.
Nietes is preparing himself for a fight on the Superfly2 card, February 24th in California. He will defend his IBF flyweight World championship in his 46th contest and, aged thirty-five, you have to wonder whether life with the little men is time-stamped.
I don’t know how much you know about snakes? Infact, I’m not sure how much I know about snakes! I know that weighing-in before a fight with one draped around your neck is intimidating. Slipping one around your throat for a walkout is a dangerous form of fashion, certainly. So why was Donnie known as The Snakeman?
“I used to be the janitor in the ALA gym and part of my job was to take care of the chairman’s 11ft snake. Every day I cleaned the snake pit, which no-one dared to get in as they would be eaten alive. Since then, they called me The Snakeman.”
Stories of Nietes persevering with the enormous creature had been echoed in previous clippings. According to various reports from the Philippines, he used to suffer snakebites regularly, although not life-threatening. He’d dust himself down, an eleven-year-old boy, before climbing back in and getting the job done.
There are many parallels that could be drawn between his work in the gym and his career inside the Squared Circle. Both were dangerous. Both meant facing fears, overcoming emotion and making that walk. Whether being bitten or beaten, Donnie adopted the same mantra: tomorrow, we win.
However, battling wasn’t new to The Snakeman, after living in a manic household. Bodies and voices competing over the simplest of things, it was from an early age that he had learned to fight, just to be heard.
“We lived in a very small Nipa household together with my grandparents. Altogether there were eight of us! So far, so good. Everything (in the home) was under control.”
Nietes continued, telling me about his introduction to boxing in one of the Phillipines’ outer Provinces.
“I grew up in the countryside. In my childhood days after every lunchtime together, my Uncle and classmates would be boxing! We would be sparring in their house so at this time, I was interested in boxing.”
Not blessed with a plethora of industrial savvy, young men from the Philippines can easily find themselves trading punches for pennies. A very small percentage will make decent ‘liveable’ money, with an even slimmer minority managing to establish themselves within boxing’s rankings system or contest for championships. Ancajas, for example, made an estimated $3,000 to fight for a World title, although that figure is unconfirmed.
Donnie told me he used employment at the gym to subsidise his training fees and living expenses. The gym, ALA, now firmly established and producing champions, had become something of a home to him.
Coach Edito Villamor had fighters such as Milan Melindo bearing his brand, but there would always be a soft spot for the janitor. He had grown up cleaning their floors and feeding their unnerving mascot, so when the time came, he had their full attention.
“It feels like a job AND a family!” Donnie confessed, thinking back on those days slipping fangs in the pit instead of jabs. “Because I love my job, it feels like a family. ALA has come into my life and it is a big part (for me).”
It’s been over ten years since The Snakeman lifted his maiden World champioship. Fighting at minimumweight, light-flyweight and flyweight had afforded him a stellar reputation amongst boxing’s hardened fans. His achievements though, had gone largely unnoticed.
I asked Donnie his thoughts on being the Philippines’ longest-serving champion in boxing history, as we wound down our conversation,
“It feels so fulfilling that all my training and my sacrifices have paid off. I never thought that I would reach this far, not in my wildest dreams. I never thought I would be holding this record.”
As he approaches his contest on February 24th, his focus is razor sharp. American television shall be showing the fight, opening Donnie Nietes up to a brand new audience. Having been around the block, I got the sense that it was business as usual for the champion, although probably without the snake accompaniment on this occasion.
As the smaller divisions have snatched their portion of glamour over the course of the last twelve months, the stage is set for an explosive performance. Cards such as Superfly, featuring fighters like Srisaket Sor Rungvisai have grabbed the attention of a previously ignorant audience. But try and name me an exceptional flyweight, aged thirty-five?
“At my age, I still feel as young as twenty-five years old! I’m still going to fight and want to be in the upper weight divisions (115-118lbs) over the next two-to-three years.”
Time will tell, as it often cruelly does.
The pocket-sized, Philippino history-maker will once again attempt to defend his World title in California.
From a lowly janitor in the ALA gym, Donnie Nietes has progressed through boxing’s curriculum. That juxtaposing, over-crowded home and remote, countryside environment seem to have clashed – creating an inner stillness.
Smaller than many, but sharper than most. Exquisite when throwing venomous shots. He keeps his head close to the ground, there’s no ego detectable. Strong, adaptable and hungry as ever. That’s the story of The Snakeman.
Written by Craig Scott