THROWBACK: When a “robbery in Atlanta” denied Onyok Velasco an Olympic Gold

Gerry Plaza on Aug 04, 2016 03:58 PM
THROWBACK: When a “robbery in Atlanta” denied Onyok Velasco
“It’s robbery in Atlanta!” (photo courtesy of the Philippine Olympic Committee)

Everyone in the Philippines was in a jovial, festive, and patriotic mood that August night 20 years ago.

Viewing parties were set up in bars and restaurants across Metro Manila, people stayed at home glued to their living room TV sets all over the country, while malls nationwide had giant screens airing what should have been one monumental, colossal victory for the country.

We had then the biggest chance of salvaging our first official Olympic Gold Medal in a sport Filipinos can rightfully claim to be among the world’s best, boxing, in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

Incredible streak

The excitement was electrifying, as you hear the whole neighborhood screaming as one diminutive ring slayer, light flyweight Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco, outclassing one opponent after the other in the succeeding preliminary matches.

Onyok, whose brother Roel was a bronze medalist in the preceding 1992 Barcelona Games, had won the Gold in the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, Japan, qualifying him to the Atlanta Olympics, along with Elias Recaido and Reynaldo Gallido.

But in this stretch, only Onyok remained standing in the pursuit of the Gold in Atlanta, with his stupendous, gritty streak.

Onyok first waylaid Taiwan’s Chih-Hsium Tsai by a referee-stops-the-contest victory at the 2:27 mark of the second round. Then, in his second match, his being a serious contender for the Gold became all too real when he upset the previous Barcelona Olympics Gold Medalist Yosvani Aguilera of Cuba with a 14-5 triumph.  

In the quarterfinals, Onyok faced Morocco’s Hamid Berhili, whom he defeated handily, 20-10. But what became his biggest victory that made the entire country entranced in jubilation was his astonishing 22-10 semifinal drubbing of another Gold favorite, Rafael Lozano of Spain, with his relentless, overpowering combination of hooks and jabs.

Gold Medal bout

This victory led to a final Gold Medal bout against 1992 Olympic silver medalist and 1995 World Championships gold medalist Daniel Petrov Bojilov of Bulgaria.

A match every Filipino around the world, and most especially in the Philippines, had been eagerly anticipating with viewers of the live telecast via satellite staying awake at the scheduled 11pm encounter, local Manila time, to watch history unfold.

Screaming to the top of their lungs, Filipinos witnessed how Onyok had hammered Bojilov from the opening bell, with the Bulgarian seemingly dazed with each punch hitting him.

However, while they were exalting, one shocking truth was being revealed as the match went on. All the points that apparently should have been credited to Onyok were being awarded to Petrov instead.

Onyok’s coaching staff, which included his brother Nolito “Boy” Velasco, were fuming mad. The elder Velasco recounted in media interviews after the bout that as they celebrated what was supposed to be Onyok’s convincing lead, they realized that it was Petrov gaining a sizeable advantage in the scoreboard.

While Onyok seemed unfazed, still peppering the Bulgarian with intense blows that had apparently left him flailing and could not even muster a single retaliatory punch, it was an enraging reality for Filipinos watching that the scores were being counted in favor of Petrov. It was seemingly like the judges were pressing the score button for the wrong boxer.

In fact, Onyok even ended up scoreless in one round.

“It’s robbery in Atlanta!”

The Filipino sportscaster Ron delos Reyes, who was covering the bout for the Philippine broadcast pool, exclaimed what he witnessed so vividly on air: “It’s robbery in Atlanta!” And everyone back home were left speechless, and in tears as the final verdict came: Bojilov won the Gold, 19-6!

And as the awarding ceremonies came, boos greeted the announcement of Bojilov as taking the Gold while a somber and hurt Onyok heard the Bulgarian national anthem being played.

While even boxing analysts around the world condemned how the scores went and the five judges’ alleged partiality towards Bulgaria, Onyok gracefully and magnanimously accepted his fate, tying fellow boxer Anthony Villanueva as the highest reaching official Filipino Olympic medalist with a silver, saying it was an honor winning an Olympic medal and has been a major achievement.

However, Onyok has since left the boxing scene after that painful loss, and instead embarked on a career in show business as a comedian.

 

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