The room was dark but the lights were bright. It was seventeen minutes past ten at night. The music was booming and the girls were dancing. The alcohol was flowing and the guests started coming. And then, a Michael Buffer-esque voice came calling, searching for a referee to a round of midget boxing.
This was the scene we found ourselves one evening night in the red light district of Makati. Home to a plethora of rowdy bars, lively nightclubs, and diners that look like they came straight out of Riverdale, it was quite a sight to behold. One of the more prominent establishments within the area is Ringside Bar. With a sign that had more than its fair share of graphic posters, Ringside would be hard to miss. This obviously is no ordinary bar. Ringside is famous, or infamous, for its unconventional attractions. Of course, there are the voluptuous dancers who are not the most uncommon characters in places like these. Certainly, no ordinary bar has midget boxing for its main attraction.
We entered Ringside around 7:30 PM. Our eyes were greeted by a miniature boxing ring at the center of the bar and a lady dressed like a ring girl dancing inside it. In the background was a looping replay of the 2009 Pacquiao – Cotto bout. We were the first customers for the night. We bought our drinks, which were sold way above the prices back in Taft, and then took our seats. Surprisingly, or not, neither the guard nor the bartender bothered to check for our IDs.
If one word could describe the bar, it would be colorful. Reminiscent of a retro diner, neon lights dotted the scene, while disco balls spun seemingly endlessly all-night long. Black light bulbs loomed overhead, giving anything that was white a distinct glow. Red padded chairs offered customers a comfortable, yet questionably clean place to sit and relax. Numerous signs were posted all around the bar, serving as a reminder to patrons as to its rules and regulations, which however, were practiced very laxly.
Later into the night, more people started piling in and we began to notice that it seemed like we were the youngest of the customers, and probably the only locals. The night’s crowd was composed of twenty-somethings to people in their late fifties. They were of different ethnicities, ranging from African-Americans to Caucasians and other Asians. Most of the customers were men, though there were a few seemingly reluctant women who tagged along.
A quick chat with one of the customers, an American in his mid-twenties, enlightened us as to why so many foreigners frolic to Ringside for a drink. Apparently, it is almost impossible to find attractions such as midget boxing in the United States. So as much as possible, they make use of their vacation time here in the Philippines trying new and unusual things.
As we sipped our overpriced lights, we took a quick gander at the Ringside girls as they swarmed foreign customers. A friendly security guard later explained to us that the establishment mostly attracted foreigners on a vacation who were looking for a show they haven’t seen before and pictures to impress their friends back home. And the Ringside girls were more than happy to oblige; they flooded the foreigners, chatting the night away with them, offering them drink after drink, maybe performing a dance or two.
Let’s get ready to rumble!
After watching what seemed like the 10th replay of the Pacquiao – Cotton fight, the lights were turned on and just like the Manny fights, Eye of the Tiger started playing. This could only mean one thing: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Both fighters entered the ring with the complete boxer’s getup: Trunks, shorts, gloves, and even headgear. If it weren’t for their dad bods, their looks could have passed for pro boxers.
The announcer then grabbed the mic, officially kicking off the match with a bang. “Now all we need is a referee!” his voice boomed. “Any one of our customers would like to referee the match?” Muttering ensues, as the audience reluctantly talked amongst themselves, followed by the loud jests that came from a group of friends that kept on egging each other on. Finally, a well-built gentleman in front raised his hand, offering to be the “official” referee-judge for the night.
The boxers met at the center of the ring and touched gloves. Then the bell rang. The glorious brawl lasted all for one round. Now sure, the dwarves neither had the technique nor exerted the punching power “Pacman” and “Junito” used against each other, but there were still some interesting moments. There were more combinations in that one round than, arguably, an entire Mayweather fight. There were even some switching of stances. And we probably witnessed one of the longest clinches in boxing history which lasted about 12 full seconds before the referee broke them up.
At the end of the bout, both men were left standing. So we went to the judge’s scorecard for a decision. The customer-turned-referee-turned-judge raised the hand of his chosen victor. After which, the announcer then wisely coaxed the customer-referee-judge to buy two shots for the boxers and another one for himself.
The secrets of Burgos Street
But we did not come to Ringside merely for the drinks or the spectacle. Our goal was to be able to interview the boxers, in hopes of getting an insight as to what life in their shoes would be like. And so, we tried to secure that interview, several times in fact. On the first night, we were told by a guard and a waitress that we had to get a permit from upper management to be able to interview the boxers. Determined to get that interview, we visited the main office the following morning and were informed that the lady authorized to issue the interview permits would arrive later in the afternoon. Upon arriving and after being made to wait a few minutes, were then told that the lady was currently attending a meeting. The courteous receptionist gave us the option to stay at the reception area and wait for the meeting to finish. She added that the said lady manager would stay in the office until later in the evening. So we just decided to return in the evening, only to now be told that the aforementioned lady was currently out of the country.
The conflicting accounts gave us an impression that the management is purposely keeping what goes on in their businesses under wraps. And it’s not hard to see why. We had a brief talk with one of the higher-ups at the main office, who explained to us that the managers of Ringside Bar really try to maintain secrecy as to its employees, which is why they tend to refuse interviews.
Fortunately, we were able to divulge bits and pieces of information about the nature of the business through conversations with workers and people around the area. We learned that the owner of Ringside, said to be a fair-skinned Filipino from Bicol who owns several other bars within the Burgos area. Some of these bars were established by the owner himself. But like a savvy Monopoly player, the same owner bought the other bars within the area after they started to lose money. So in effect, this owner controlled most of the bars in that street.
With the outrageous profit margins for the beer and liquor, one would think that that the employees could get their fair share of the pie. Sadly, however, that is not the case. The dancers earn as little as ₱140 a night, while the boxers earn around ₱200 a night; both rates significantly below the minimum wage. It’s barely enough to cover the cost of a bottle of beer in the bar, much less their daily needs. In fact, on our second night back in Ringside, we once again bought drinks but this time did not receive the exact change. Now, it could have very well been just a simple miscalculation, but it would not be implausible either to think that some of the waitresses have resorted to pocketing change in order to get a few extra bucks. The meager pay also probably explains why some of the dancers are incredibly eager to chat with the foreign guests. We were told that the dancers rely way more on customers’ tips than on their actual salaries to earn their living.
Admittedly, we cannot claim to have the entire picture of the situation in part because we were not able to talk in depth with the boxers. However, after dealing with all that secrecy of the management, coupled with our knowledge of the miniscule wages of its workers, it is only prudent out of investigative reportage: What really is going on in Ringside and Burgos Street?
Living on the ropes
They may not be boxing for real. But it seems that the boxers of Ringside Bar are living on the ropes. Just like the showgirls of the bar, it is likely that they were bereft of educational opportunities, and given their standing, were left with few alternatives to a better life than serving as means of entertainment for drunken foreigners for meager pay.
Spectacles like midget boxing however, should lead us to think of how we personally and as a society, view and treat dwarves. Dwarves face not only physical but also social disadvantages. It must be hard to be small in a world which favors height and might and it must be somewhat uncomfortable to walk the streets and know that people are looking at you differently; especially with a stink eye. Our views on dwarves need to change. We have to go past our stereotypes of them. They are more than just comedic relief or characters for entertainment.
They may look differently, but that does not make a dwarf any less of a human being. They share many of the same traits and desires than we “normal” people have too. They are worthy of our respect and a chance to make an honest and sustainable living. They feel pain when they are judged for their limitations and not given fair opportunities. And just like us, they desire and deserve to be viewed not for their outer appearances, but by their character and their willingness to work hard. They may be short in stature, but that does not make them short in mind and spirit.
Only time will tell if the boxers of Ringside Bar will receive their fair share of the pie and the respect from society that they deserve. But tonight, like any other night, they will don their boxing gloves and put on their headgear, and continue to fight for a better life.