On this day in 1925, Filipino boxing legend Pacho Villa died suddenly, at just 23 years of age, as the result of a blood infection from an abscessed tooth. Alongside Mexican great Salvador Sanchez, Villa’s untimely passing ranks among the most tragic “what-ifs” in boxing history.
But even in his short life and career, Villa did enough to rank among the all-time greats in the flyweight division. Born Francisco Guilledo, Villa grew up in grinding poverty. He was abandoned by his father as an infant and spent his early childhood helping his mother herd goats for a wealthy property owner.
At age 11, Villa moved to Iloilo City and began earning money as a boot black. It was during this period of his life that he fell in with the boxing community of the city and became something of an attraction as an undersized teenager who would frequently spar with friends. He turned professional at age 18 and within two years had claimed the Philippine flyweight championship.
Standing just 5’1”, Villa was a ferocious attacker, earning him the nickname of “The Filipino Whirlwind.” He briefly considered retirement in 1922, as the result of getting his heart broken by a girl. But the boxing public in the Philippines clamored for his return.
In 1922, legendary fight promoter Tex Rickard imported Villa to the United States. He knocked out American flyweight champion Johnny Buff in 11 rounds. Despite the racism of the era, Villa’s style made him a fan favorite.
In June 1923, the great Jimmy Wilde came out of retirement, specifically to face Villa for the vacant flyweight world title at the old Polo Grounds in New York. A former Welsh miner, Wilde was known as the Mighty Atom and is considered by some boxing historians as the greatest fighter ever from the United Kingdom.
But against the surging Villa, the aging legend was over-matched. Villa swarmed him and knocked him down twice before finishing him in Round 7. Wilde would never fight again.
In 1925, Villa had a swollen tooth pulled on the morning he was scheduled to face Jimmy McLarnin in a non-title fight. McLarnin would go on to win a world title at welterweight and is considered by many boxing historians to rank among the top five ever at 147 pounds. Facing this much larger, highly skilled boxer, Villa fought with one hand, while using the other to protect his excruciatingly painful jaw. A few days later, Villa died from blood poisoning.
Although much shorter in duration, Villa’s career shares some similarities with that of his countryman, Manny Pacquiao. Both were true “people’s champions” to the Filipino population and achieved major stardom in the United States. Despite his abbreviated career, Villa definitely ranks among the top few flyweights in boxing history.