The commute from Bruno Escalante’s home to the venue of his next fight this Saturday night shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes.
The SportsHouse in Redwood City, Calif., where will face Michael Ruiz Jr. in his first ten-round bout, is just on the other side of town from where he has lived since moving to the Bay Area in 2009.
The scenery is familiar to Escalante (10-1-1, 5 knockouts), and so is the opponent, having split a pair of bouts against Ruiz (9-3-1, 3 KOs) as an amateur. While making it to the ring on Saturday night will be simple, the journey to this point has been anything but.
Escalante, 25, is a California-based, Hawaii-raised and Filipino-born junior bantamweight prospect gunning for his sixth straight win as a professional.
Adopting the nick name “The Aloha Kid” as an homage to the state that he called home from age 8 to 20, Escalante was born in the small town of Sibonga in the Philippine province of Cebu. Escalante was the youngest of ten children; his father made sofas out of bamboo while his mother sold beverages at a fair on Thursdays to help support them all.
“When I was younger, my parents, my brothers and siblings would work just for food,” said Escalante. “That’s the money for the following week, to buy dried fish, vegetables. We couldn’t get rice.”
Relief and hope came in the form of Escalante’s grandmother on his father’s side, whom they discovered was an American citizen based on the fact she was born in Hawaii before returning to the Philippines at age three.
The family saved up enough money to send their grandmother back to Hawaii, where she would petition for visas for the entire family to return. The plan took years, with Bruno’s father finding work on a horse farm, before the family was finally reunited intact.
But they had accomplished their mission the youngest generation with opportunities that they’d never have back home in the Philippines.
“It was like a lottery ticket that we won,” said Escalante. “We were living very poor, but we were very fortunate to have my family helping each other.”
Then based in Waimanalo, Hawaii, Escalante discovered the sweet science at age 14 after hearing the rhythmic snapping of a speed bag off in the distance. Escalante dreamed of making his high school basketball team, but at just 5-foot-1, that was a mere pipe dream.
Escalante walked a few yards from the basketball court he was practicing on to where the sound was coming from. There he discovered other kids his size training – many whom were no doubt told they were too small for other sports.
Despite his mother’s initial refusal to sign the waiver to allow him to train, Escalante went on to amass an amateur record of 28-10, earning a Police Athletic League (PAL) national title in 2008 and a scholarship to the boxing program at Northern Michigan University in the process.
After being ousted in the semi-finals of the 2008 Olympic trials, Escalante looked towards the pro ranks. Escalante was a realist, and knew that his career wouldn’t take off unless he relocated to the U.S. mainland.
Escalante stayed with fellow pro boxer and former Northern Michigan teammate Walter Sarnoi in Los Angeles for a short while before connecting with fellow Filipino-American boxer Nonito Donaire Jr.
Escalante, who was in Las Vegas for the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto fight in 2009, saw on Donaire’s Facebook page that he was also in town and decided to contact him. Three days later Escalante was in the Bay Area working out a managerial deal with Donaire.
Escalante turned pro in 2010, drawing in his debut on a card that featured Donaire and Filipino boxing legend Gerry Penalosa. He managed just a draw that night, but won his next five bouts.
As the story goes, Donaire’s own career took off, and to this day “The Filipino Flash” has won world titles in three divisions. Escalante became less of a priority, and while they no longer have a manager-client relationship, Escalante still trains (and works) out of the same Undisputed Boxing Gym in San Carlos as Donaire, and has served as his sparring partner.
Escalante still trains with Michael Bazzel and Brian Schwartz, two of Donaire’s closest boxing assistants in recent years.
His record wouldn’t see another blemish until he faced Matthew Villanueva in June of 2012. Villanueva entered the bout at 7-0 with 7 knockouts, and without a major promoter, Escalante took a chance in stepping up to the eight-round limit.
As Escalante remembers it:
“I think I lost because I didn’t believe in myself. It was my first eight-round fight. Nothing against Matt, he did what he had to do. In the early rounds I was winning the fight. I started too fast, like a four-rounder, you start fast because it’ll be over quick. Later on, I felt like I got tired. I won the eighth round but it wasn’t enough because I lost in the middle rounds.”
The loss ruined his unbeaten record, but didn’t ruin his career. He signed with veteran manager Herb Stone and has since won five straight.
Michael Ruiz will be a decent test of how much Escalante has improved since that loss. Ruiz, 24, of Fresno, Calif., has lost three of his last four fights, but to opponents with good records. The lone loss by knockout came in seven rounds against Villanueva.
“I’m familiar with his style,” said Escalante in a knowing tone. “I have something to prove so it’s going to be an exciting fight.”
Photo courtesy of Mario Serrano
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.