At 16 years old, Irish Magno found herself joining boxing training in a happy accident. Twelve years later, she made history to become the first Filipina boxer to qualify for the Olympics.
Words: MARISSE PANALIGAN
Video: YVAN LIMSON
August 27, 2020
This project was produced in partnership with Go Hard Girls, a podcast dedicated to incredible but underrated female athletes, under the PumaPodcast network. Listen to the episode featuring Irish Magno and stay updated with new episodes on their social media.
Irish Magno simply wanted to avoid household chores when she went to the town plaza that day. She headed there right after class with one of her cousins, both of them still in their high school uniform, killing time before heading home.
The town plaza in Janiuay, Iloilo is where sports teams of all kinds gather to practice every afternoon. But that day, Irish saw something new: amateur boxers training among the other athletes.
As she sat there watching them, Irish was surprised when the coach approached her and asked, “You want to try boxing?”
Irish, only 16 years old at that time, hesitated. She didn’t fancy the prospect of getting hurt, and besides, only boys go into boxing as far as she knew. But she was eventually persuaded to join training; she was told that with her height, she had potential in the sport.
She didn’t tell her parents. Their only clue that she was doing something behind their backs was her mother’s baffling discovery that some of her father’s shorts had suddenly gone missing, only to show up later in the most unexpected way.
“They were wondering why, when I got home after class, I was not in my uniform anymore, I was wearing my father's clothes,” Irish said. “That's what I wore when I trained.”
That year, the National Open, Youth and Women’s Amateur Boxing Championship would be held in Iloilo City. Irish found out that she was participating three days before the competition.
She had not done any serious training yet — she had been jogging and shadow boxing, nothing more. But she didn’t have any time to think, so she said to herself that she would be satisfied if she could just land a punch.
On the day itself, Irish saw the national team in action for the first time. She had only watched male boxers before, but Josie Gabuco, Analisa Cruz, and Annie Albania blew her away.
“I said to myself, They were really good. Where did they get their strength, they were women.”
When it was her turn to fight, Irish suddenly felt the nerves. She was facing Annie, who had just won a gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games the previous year. She kept hearing whispers that her opponent was good. She did not know what to do.
“When I was inside the ring, I was unable to throw a punch,” Irish said. “I just covered myself in the corner until the referee counted me out. That was it.”
Irish was ashamed that she could not even throw a single punch. But when it finally dawned on her that she just fought a boxing champion, it lit a fire within her. More than just handing her a defeat, Annie showed her what she could become.
It didn’t take long for Irish to devote herself to boxing. When she learned that the sport could provide her with education and other benefits, she grabbed the chance to go to Manila and earn opportunities through her fists.
“My mother is just a housekeeper, my father does carpentry. So it was really tough to send us through school, because my older sister was also in college,” she said on the Go Hard Girls podcast. “If I did not try, I might not have been able to go to school.”
The journey wasn’t easy. There are people who do not think that women belong in boxing, while others are not aware that female boxers actually compete. It doesn’t help that women’s boxing is rarely on television, compared to the ubiquity of men’s boxing especially at the professional circuit.
Irish has heard it many times before.
Women? Are there women who box?
Women couldn't really fight, the way men could.
Women would just end up crying.
Irish could not really blame them the critics; before she went into boxing herself, Manny Pacquiao was the only fighter she knew.
It is the one thing she wishes to change in the current boxing landscape: more exposure for amateur women’s boxing in order to break the misconception that women cannot handle it.
“It's safe for women because we have gear, we have complete equipment,” she said. “All they need is the knowledge.”
Irish was fortunate to have met female role models early on, and their achievements carved the path for everyone who came after them.
Josie Gabuco has bagged five gold medals in the Southeast Asian Games, a gold medal in the Asian Championships, and another gold in the World Championships. Analisa Cruz, Mitchel Martinez, Alice Aparri, and Annie Albania have all brought home gold medals from various competitions.
“When they compete abroad, they always come home with medals. And it's not just silvers and bronzes, they always come home with the gold, so it's really inspiring,” Irish said.
“If men could do it, then women could do it too,” she added. “They should look at us equally.”
It helps that their male peers in the national team have tremendous respect for them. They acknowledge the hard work of female boxers, precisely because they know what it takes to become one of the elites in what they do.
“There is no discrimination,” Irish said. “You'll never hear them say we're just women, that we can't do it. You'd never hear them say that.”
Male boxers even spar with them to help them prepare for competitions. They may pull some of their power, but they do not hold back with their skills, trusting that the women can take care of themselves.
“When we hit the guys, the coaches would holler at them, So they'd take it to heart, You hit me. They'd really try to get back at you,” Irish said.
The women, of course, also never back down. Irish would always remember being helpless on the ring against Annie in her first National Open, and uses it to motivate herself and other female boxers.
“I would tell them, Did you know they used to beat up on us? So if you want to last, you need to work harder. You can't just take the beating,” she said.
Boxing is the most successful sport in the Olympics for the Philippines. Since 1932, the country has never failed to send a boxer at the Olympiad except when it boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.
Five out of the country’s 10 Olympic medals have come from boxing: Jose Villanueva’s bronze in 1932, Anthony Villanueva’s silver in 1964, Leopoldo Serantes’s bronze in 1988, Roel Velasco’s bronze in 1992, and Onyok Velasco’s silver in 1996.
Female boxers are absent in this long history of Philippine participation in Olympic boxing. It’s not for a lack of trying; the Olympics only opened a women’s category in the 2012 London Games.
Put that way, it took Filipina boxers three tries before successfully qualifying for the Olympics — the same number of tries it took for Filipino boxers since the country joined the Olympiad in 1924.
Irish, however, admitted that she did not think she would be the first ever Filipina boxer to qualify for the Olympic Games.
When the Philippine boxing team set out for the Asia-Oceania Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Amman, Jordan last March, they had three female boxers: Irish in the flyweight division, Riza Pasuit in the lightweight division, and Nesthy Petecio in the featherweight division.
All eyes were on Nesthy, who won the gold medal at the 2019 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships.
Irish herself did not think much about her chances — she settled for the silver medal in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, and she knew she would face the same tough competitors in her weight division.
Everything changed when world champion Nesthy Petecio dropped her semifinal bout in the featherweight division. She fell short of securing a spot in the Olympiad, although she still has other chances to qualify for Tokyo.
Her loss pushed her fellow female boxers to do better. They were determined to raise the flag for women’s boxing and not go home empty-handed.
It was easier said than done for Irish. She needed only one more win to qualify, but she was facing Indian world champion Mary Kom in the quarterfinals. She still has the box-off if she lost, but she went into the bout thinking it was do-or-die.
She fought bravely in the first round, but she suddenly froze up midway while facing the six-time champion. It was as if she were 16 years old again, fighting Annie Albania in an Iloilo gym and unable to defend herself.
“When the second and third rounds came, my movement changed. I didn't know what happened. I wanted to move, but I couldn't move well inside the ring,” she said.
But if her fight with Annie taught Irish anything, it is that she can bounce back from that kind of loss. She reviewed the tape of the fight right away and began looking at it with a fresh perspective: before she fell apart, she was going toe to toe with Mary Kom.
“If I had kept it up, if I did what I'd done in the first round until the end, I would have had a good chance of beating her. It would have been great to beat the world champion.”
With a new resolve and her confidence back, she quickly moved on and changed gears for the box-off against Tajikistan's Sumaiva Oosimova.
“Even before the fight, I claimed it to myself, This is mine. I won't let this go. I gave myself another chance so I'll pour everything into this,” she said.
True to her word, Irish did not let the chance of a lifetime slip from her grasp. She controlled the fight from start to finish, and with her unanimous decision win, cemented her place in the pantheon of Filipino boxing heroes.
“I didn't expect the feeling, there were so many congratulations,” she said. “I am so proud and so happy for the women's boxing team in the Philippines.”
Irish made history by qualifying for Tokyo. But she doesn’t plan to stop there — she has her eye on the gold medal, something that she has won only once in her boxing career.
“I always think about how I've won gold just once. So I told myself if I get the chance to compete in the Olympics, I'll really work hard to win the gold,” she said.
It would be a tall order. The Philippines has never won a gold medal at the Olympic level. But if there’s anything that Irish can do, it’s her ability to aim high while planting her foot firmly on the ground.
“If it's for you, it's for you. But of course you need to put yourself in it, the work and the discipline. We can achieve all of that, especially since everyone dreams of the Olympics,” she said.
The Tokyo Olympics is postponed for a year, putting all the athletes back on square one. Still, Irish is not worried one bit. She knows she has the whole team — and her boxing sisters — on her side.
“I just always think positive. My coaches are there who never stop helping us,” she said. “Especially in women's boxing, a victory for one is a victory for all.”