It was 10 years before Twitter was invented and 20 years before Hidilyn Diaz trended on the social micro-blogging site.
#Onyok and #AtlantaRobbery could have been the top trending topics during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco was the last Filipino to win a medal in the Olympics before Diaz duplicated the feat with a silver of her own in weightlifting in the ongoing Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Nakakatuwa din at nakakuha tayo ng silver medal. Tapos weightlifting, tapos babae pa,” Velasco told FOX Sports on Wednesday night. “Ibig sabihin na hindi lang tayo umaasa sa boxing.”
Diaz became the first Filipina to bring home a medal from the Olympics and the first for the Philippines outside the sport of boxing since 1964.
Unlike Diaz, who climbed up the podium with the silver instead of a bronze, Velasco went down from a golden to silver finish.
Velasco, now 42, still recalls that fateful night in Atlanta like it only happened yesterday. He was at his prime, only 22, when he almost gave the Philippines its first gold in the Olympics.
“Nung 1st round, ang alam ko lamang ako. Siyempre, ikaw nararamdaman mo kung lamang ka,” Velasco told FOX Sports on the day Diaz returned home to a hero’s welcome, similar to what he had experienced 20 years ago.
The 5-foot-1 Velasco entered the finals with his confidence at an all-time high after a dominant run in his division starting with a 1st round knockout of Chinese Taipei’s Chin-Hsiu followed by big wins over Yosuani Aguilera of Cuba (15-4) in the next round and Hamid Berhili of Morroco (20-10) in the quarterfinals.
He primed himself up for a shot at the gold when he pounced on Spain’s Rafael Lozano, 22-10, that gave him the confidence that he can go all the way even against Barcelona Olympics silver medalist Daniel Petrov Bujilov of Bulgaria in the finals.
Giving up five inches in height, the smaller Velasco was unfazed and was the aggressor right from the opening bell. But despite connecting and landing the most lethal blows in that opening round, the judges saw his Bulgarian foe, the reigning European champion at that time, leading, 4-0, much to his horror.
“Nagulat ako ‘nung sinabi ng kuya ko na lamang ang kalaban ng apat,” said Velasco referring to his older brother Nolito, who is part of the coaching staff along with George Caliwan and Cuban Raul Liranza.
“Bawi ako nang 2nd round, ratrat ako ng ratrat eh lamang pa rin. Sabi ko, mahirap na ‘to,” Velasco recalled.
Despite cutting Bujilov’s lead to 5-7, Velasco fell by the wayside, 6-19, that elicited howl of protests from fight fans and Philippine boxing officials to no avail.
To this day, Velasco still feels the pain of losing what could have been the country’s first gold medal in the Olympics.
“Talagang hindi mo makakalimutan. Kahit ilang beses mo panoorin,” said Velasco.
He also rued the sudden rule change on the gloves, from 8oz in the elims and semis to 10oz in the gold medal match.
“Kasi ‘yung gloves makapal na kaya ang hirap maka-knockout [‘yung kalaban]. Kaya nanibago ako. ‘Pag fighter ka kasi gusto mo mas manipis para maramdaman ang suntok,” explained Velasco.
He felt the new rule should have been applied in the next Olympics and not in the middle of the Atlanta games.
Turning silver into gold
Two decades after that debacle, Velasco feels like he’s won the gold. What he failed to win inside the ring, he convincingly won outside of it.
He used the incentives he got from the government and private sector along with his career earnings as a comedian in his post-boxing life to become a good provider and raise his kids well.
“Nabigyan ako ng P750,000 noon, tapos may mga taga-private sector na nagbigay din at may P1.2 million din akong nakuha ‘nung panahon ni President Gloria Arroyo,” said Velasco, who is still hoping he could get the P2.5 million incentive that was filed in the House of Representatives during Speaker Jose de Venecia’s leadership.
A father of 4, Onyok is proud to have given his children the education he never had that led him to boxing.
“Yung panganay ko UP graduate, kumuha siya ng Arts Management. Ngayon teacher siya sa isang private school tapos nag-M.A. sa Ateneo de Manila. ‘Yung pangalawa ko naman, lalake, Civil Engineering sa Mapua, ‘yung pangatlo sa College of St. Benilde (Sports Management) while ‘yung bunso nasa San Sebastian College, grade school pa lang,” shared the proud father.
Velasco said he doesn’t want his kids to experience the poor life he once had in Bago City, Negros Occidental.
“Dati kasi sa probinsya, bunso ako sa 9 na magkakapatid. Nung hindi pa ako nagbo-boksing (tuwing fiesta lang kasi may boksing) um-extra ako sa pagpasada ng trycicle. Nasubukan ko rin magtanim ng palay. Lahat ng trabaho sa probinsya naranasan ko,” he recalled.
Aside from looking after his family, he also helped his siblings.
“Nakapagpatayo ako ng bahay sa probinsya at natulungan ko rin ang mga kapatid ko na magpaayos ng kanilang mga bahay,” Velasco added.
Chasing the ‘lost’ Olympic gold
Velasco is still hoping he could make a comeback in the Olympics and win a gold for the Philippines — no longer as a fighter but as a coach.
He currently serves as a consultant in ABAP, which is set to change leadership after its president, Ricky Vargas offered his resignation following another medal shutout in the Olympics for boxing.
“Kailangan talaga sa ABAP ay marami tayong tournaments para masala ang mga magagaling na boksingero. Para makita ang mga batang may potensyal,” said Velasco, who was hired by PSC chairman Butch Ramirez.
Aside from his consultancy position, which is contractual by nature, Velasco also teaches boxing in the provinces upon invitation.
“Gusto ko lang magturo ng mga bata. Malay mo makakita tayo ng mananalo ng ginto [sa Olympics]. Malaking karangalan na sa akin na may batang tinuruan ko na makasali sa Philippine team,” said Velasco.
While he entertains thoughts of pursuing his dream to become a national coach, he wants to focus first on his family.
“Mayroon talaga akong planong mag-coach kaso sa ngayon, ‘yung kinikita mo as national team coach hindi kakayanin sa 4 na anak. Pag-graduate ng mga anak ko, puwede na po,” said the boxer who campaigned as light flyweight.
He believes that the national team no longer need coaches from abroad saying that Filipino coaches are at par with their foreign counterparts.
“Yung experience ko sa Cuban coach (Liranza) ‘yung pag-disiplina lang naiba. ‘Yung sa training nakukuha natin eh. Matindi siya mag-disiplina talaga,” which he said should be emphasized in the present and future national boxers.
Twenty years after that robbery in Atlanta, Velasco still yearns for the Olympic gold. Maybe, 10 or another 20 years later, he could finally make it and reverse the trend for Philippine boxing. – By Alder Almo
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo