Manny Pacquiao is more than just a boxer in the Philippines: he is the touchstone, the golden calf, a mythic hero
Manny Pacquiao might just be the one boxer, or indeed the one athlete of any kind, with the ability to save the life of a woman on death row.
It was claimed last night by Bob Arum, his promoter, that a letter the Filipino had sent to the president of Indonesia helped grant the reprieve of Mary Jane Veloso, minutes before she was due to be executed this week alongside eight others for her part in a drug-smuggling ring.
“Manny explained that he was fighting on May 2 and asked him to spare her life,” Arum said. “That shows you the influence he has around the world.”
This extraordinary assertion by Arum, that his boxer had changed the course of a major diplomatic crisis by sealing a reprieve for Veloso as she faced death by firing squad, hints at the power of the Pacquiao effect. For here is a man equally adept at moving global markets. In six of his last 10 fight weeks, the Philippine peso has appreciated against the value of the US dollar, as the deeds of a one-time street urchin from General Santos City galvanised an entire country’s economy.
There is no reason to suspect that the pattern will falter this time. Over 600,000 Filipinos have found their home in Los Angeles, a mere 280 miles from the psychedelic mayhem of the Las Vegas Strip, and as he strode last night into the halls of the MGM Grand it felt like a corner of Nevada had transformed into Little Manila.
At every turn, the crazed chants of “Manny, Manny!” engulfed him. Many of Pacquiao’s disciples bore banners marked ‘T.M.T.’ – The Manny Team’ – in a mischievous appropriation of Floyd Mayweather’s ‘The Money Team’ cult. The lustre of his story, which stretches from tin-shack slums to his investiture as a congressman, shows little sign of waning. To those compatriots who cross the Pacific in search of a perceived idyll in America, he is the touchstone, the golden calf, the anointed ‘National Fist’.
Whenever it is put to Pacquiao that his 36 years of life would make a wonderful film, he reacts with a wry grin, pointing out gently that no big-screen treatment could adequately reflect what he went through. This, after all, is a child who would once beg for a few extra coppers to make porridge for his mother, Dionisia, to survive on.
In that benighted childhood, his version of an innocent pastime was to chase rusting bicycle wheels through the alleys. The conversion to boxing only came about through a cheeky untruth, when, as a 16-year-old, when he stuffed extra weights into his pockets to convince the producers of a TV talent show to take a punt.
“I used to live in the street, starving and hungry, and I could not imagine having the blessings that put me in this position,” Pacquiao said last night in the MGM’s cavernous Ka Theatre. “I want to share that with everybody.”
There is a school of thought, zealously espoused by Mayweather, that if a champion is beaten in one fight it kills the legend forever. Pacquiao is the living lie to such a theory. He lost twice in 2012 alone, first in a contentious split decision against Timothy Bradley and then in a savage knockout by Juan Manuel Márquez, where he was flattened by a sixth-round haymaker. But his public would not relinquish him so easily. A boxer who had been propelled from selling sugar doughnuts, or a Chinese wine called kulafa, to gracing the cover of Time magazine under the headline ‘The Great Hope’, would never be allowed to wither sadly into retirement.
This long-promised confrontation with Mayweather signifies an opportunity he had all but abandoned. All week he has been appearing in adverts for the US shoe company Foot Locker, in a series entitled It’s Really Happening.
“Floyd’s going to fight me!” he cries, in a skit that plays upon his scampish good humour. Even though he is fighting for £65 million, when he used to be happy with a couple of pesos for a street brawl,
his essential exuberance has not changed. It is a trait likely to be borne out inside the ring on Saturday night, as Mayweather’s calculated defence contrasts with Pacquiao’s whirlwind of attack, his one-man threshing machine of perpetual motion.
His connections back in General Santos endure. One of his mother’s cousins, Mejia, still lives there on a dusty plot of land with a fighting cockerel tied to a post, an emblem of the streetfighter’s spirit.
Aptly, the day of the fight will be a public holiday for his 98 million countrymen. He can trust that the vast majority will be gathering around screens wherever they can be found.
At no stage has he ever been resented for his colossal fortune. Filipinos, on the contrary, appear united in his conviction that his humility is much more than skin-deep. He continues to send substantial donations home, channelling a benevolence that he would display in school days, handing out paper to friends who had forgotten theirs or who could not afford any.
At the latest school reunion in Gensan, Pacquiao was at pains to ensure all his contemporaries were taken care of financially. When Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the city of Tacloban in late 2013, he dedicated his victory over Brandon Rios to the victims.
None of this is to imply that Pacquiao is unimpeachable. He is being pursued for £33 million in unpaid taxes, and was forced to deal with numerous allegations of gambling and infidelity before rescuing his relationship with wife Jinkee. He credits the about-turn in his life to finding God, a tale that plays powerfully in the Philippines, an intensely devout Christian country. Such was the strength of his mother’s faith that he grew up with an altar to the Virgin Mary in the yard. Freddie Roach, his trainer, acknowledges that he can sometimes be exasperated by his pieties, but in the eyes of Pacquiao’s followers the constant invocations of God only add to his cachet.
His stature as a mythic hero is underscored each year in Cebu City, where the role of celebrated Philippine warrior Lapu-Lapu is often played by Pacquiao himself.
In Gensan, the reminders of his distinction as the only eight-division champion in boxing history are even more prevalent.
Businesses from gyms to water companies all carry the Pacquiao imprimatur.
Even Princess, his eight-year-old daughter, has a printing company named after her.
Among his manifold talents, Pacquiao is feted as an accomplished singer in his native land. Two of his albums have gone platinum in the Philippines, and for this defining duel he has brought out a song especially, entitled Lalaban Ako Para Sa Pilipino, translated as “I will fight for the Filipinos”.
The lyrics inspire nothing but adoration in their target audience. “Even if I am in pain,” he sings, “I force myself to hide it and be silent. My heart is bleeding, yet others don’t see it, but what is important is that my country is happy.
“I will fight around the world, I will risk my life. I am Filipino, we are Filipino.”
He could have contrived no more potent call to arms than this.
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