Probably the most renowned and universally loved figure in the Philippines, boxer Manny Pacquiao has certainly made his mark. During his fights the whole country comes to a standstill, but his achievements are even more significant in the history books of boxing as he is the greatest pound-for-pound fighter. Recently he has moved into the controversial world of Filipino politics. While starting to find his feet, the next bout is never far away…
It’s seemingly always rush hour in Manila and the traffic is crawling as we ease our way through the multi-laned streets en route to meet champion boxer Manny Pacquiao at the House of Representatives in Quezon City. Congress is perhaps a slightly odd place to be meeting arguably the world’s greatest boxer, however politics has started to play a more and more significant role in the fighter’s life over the last few years. In May 2010 he was elected to the position of Congressman of the district of Sarangani, finally fulfilling personal aspirations to join the political world that first began when he ran for a seat to represent South Cotobato in February 2007. Nevertheless Pacquiao is, and probably always will be, much better known for his achievements in the boxing ring.
Born Emmanuel Pacquiao but more commonly referred to as the ‘Pacman’ by sparring supporters who span the globe, Pacquiao is dearly loved in his home country of the Philippines and barely a fight goes by that doesn’t see the country grind to a halt. When a Pacquiao match airs crime rates fall and traffic rapidly departs from the city streets, as the whole country sits down together to cheer him on, many no doubt with money on matches which prove a much more exciting event than the local cock fights that their earnings normally go towards. Uniting the country and helping its people is something that today Pacquaio is trying to do through more legitimate means, by actually getting involved in the politics, legislation and decisions of his country. While he has rarely failed to disappoint his millions of loyal fans over the course of his boxing career (his losses tally to just three, with two draws to boot), there are those in the Philippines who have failed to be convinced that a political career is the right next step for Pacquiao. However, whatever their opinions, it is clear on meeting Pacquiao that his heart is in the right place and his interests lie with trying to establish a promising future for his country and its people.
The Congress building in Manila lies in a gated complex, American in style as much of the Philippines seems to be, an architectural hangover from the US presence in the country. As we pull up to the gate our driver’s telephone rings. It is Pacquiao’s aide informing us that the boxer will not be at Congress to meet us due to the traffic. Instead he will meet us at WackWack Golf & Country Club as quickly as we can get there as he doesn’t have much time. So round we turn and head back into Manila’s thronging traffic, jeepneys and trucks galore, SUVs with blacked-out windows and people-packed buses, all of which seem to be headed in the same direction. With Pacquiao’s vast Filipino fan-base it would be no surprise.
Pacquiao grew up in a poor household in General Santos City on the southern Filipino island of Mindanao and from a young age, like many Flipinos, he learnt to box, if only to protect himself from the larger, tougher youths of the neighbourhood. But it was soon clear that the relatively small Filipino boy had some greater power behind his tightly-clenched fists. He was knocking out older and bigger boys with the ease of an Olympic boxer. And he had had no training. His innate talent was already evoking the clang of round closers in the boxing ring. By the age of just 16 he was already a professional and his career has been on an upward trend ever since, both in terms of his winnings and with regards to the weight groups he has risen through, starting at a lithe 106 pounds and winning his most recent fight in November 2010 against Antonio Margarito in the WBC super welterweight (154-pound) with a catch weight of 150 pounds for which he weighed in at just 144.6 pounds (148 on fight night) to face Margarito’s heavy form of 165 pounds (having weighed in at 150 pounds), a mass that at a glance would have seemed far superior to that of the compact Filipino. However, at time of press, Pacquiao had just announced his decision to reliquish this super welterweight title as giving away so many pounds was “very detrimental to (his) safety”. He will no longer fight at 154.
When we arrive at WackWack Pacquiao is just finishing a meeting. The 32-year old champion looks far from the formidable boxer in the ring that his fans might be familiar with from watching his fights. Gone is ‘The Destroyer’ image and instead is what appears to be a scrubbed-up businessman, a tailored grey suit and pale tie grace his muscular figure and he is well groomed with a bright and welcoming smile. Where’s the anger that he exudes before a fight? How does this small (at five foot six and a half) and smiley man invoke the fear in his opponents that many of his defeated have shown? Far from intimidating, he is warm and sweet, intent that we order food and following his instructions and against our protests a waiter appears: “The Congressman insists you must eat,” says the similarly smiling attendant, so earnest at the urgings of Pacquiao that we are forced to surrender.
There is another set of press waiting for Pacquiao to finish his meeting. They want him to record a message on camera but he first ensures that we don’t mind waiting for ten minutes. Who said boxing wasn’t a gentleman’s sport? As he goes off to stand in front of the camera, a role he is fairly familiar with having appeared in numerous films and television commercials in his native Philippines, he leaves his three BlackBerry mobile phones on the table beside us. During his recording one of them starts to make noises alongside vibrations. “The Fighting Pride of the Philippines, it’s Manny Pacman Pacquiao” hollers boxing commentator Michael Buffer, drawing out the vowelled sounds that Pacquiao’s name so satisfyingly obliges him, in the muted, slightly distorted manner that suggests a ringtone. One of the other phones which Pacquiao picks up on his return to the table, has a telephone wallpaper background of a picture of himself in fighting attire and in stark contrast to the man who takes a seat today, so retiring and polished with a hint of shyness.
Pacquiao speaks quietly and sits close. He is more confident and enthusiastic when talking about boxing, a clear love for him, yet despite his apparent fondness for his country and his desire to do what he can to help – “I believe that I can do a lot of things to help them, to help people and also I believe myself that I have a good heart to help them, to listen to them”- he treads carefully in his answers to questions concerning his achievements in the political realm. “So far I’m doing good in Congress. We just do our job,” he says, reluctant to elaborate further.
Pacquiao’s recent move into politics does not seem to spell the end of his boxing career just yet as some have feared, and he is adamant that retirement is far away which the announcement of his next bout with Shane Mosley to defend his WBO welterweight crown on 7th May 2011 indicates. “No, I’m not thinking about that (retirement) right now because I can still fight and continue fighting while serving the people. I only spend two months in boxing training and after the fight, back to work,” he says, insistent that there is time to do both. And no doubt the backing of his country when he fights has something to do with his continuation in the ring. “Every fight that I have, millions of Filipinos watch. It’s not for one Filipino but for the pride of the Philippines,” he states.
It is clear that Pacquiao is used to winning and he is proud of his own achievements, doing little to acknowledge any influence of others. There are no boxers he particularly looks up to. Some have said that Oscar De La Hoya was a hero of his but following an easy victory over the former champion in December 2008 it seems that the Mexican ‘Golden Boy’ somewhat lost the regard that Pacquiao held him in after such a defeat. It is, however, a loss nearly six years ago that clearly still weighs on Pacquiao’s mind as he remembers it as the hardest fight of his career. “It was the one that I lost last 2005,” says the boxer quietly. After a long pause he continues: “I lost with (Erik) Morales,” pausing again. “That was the hardest fight.” However he has had many great moments in his career to counteract that painful memory, including going on to beat Morales following that match, twice. “My greatest achievement is to be seven, no eight world titles in different weight divisions, fighter of the decade and fighter of the year many times,” he lists.
Pacquiao is trained by former professional boxer Freddie Roach, who taught De La Hoya and Mike Tyson briefly and is most famed for working with British boxer Amir Khan and with Mickey Rourke who left Hollywood and an acting career to box professionally before returning to the movie world and later appearing in 2008 award-winning film The Wrestler about a past-his-prime boxer. Roach is tough and has been known to despair at Pacquiao at times, but as he told the New York Times in 2009 “Training a fighter like Pacquiao is what you live for” and it is clear the pair are more than just professional and trainer, but friends. Roach regards Pacquiao as the best boxer he has seen in a long time and the Filipino lives up to such accolades. He is a boxer through and through with a thirst to fight. “When I fight, when I’m in the ring I’m excited. I’m enjoying it. I’m not thinking about before the fight, before I came to the ring. I don’t get nervous. I’m excited to fight,” says Pacquiao whose break from fighting until two months before any bout leaves him yearning for more. “After a fight I stop training. I stop jogging. There is totally no boxing, so when I start training for the next fight I’m still hungry,” explains Pacquiao of one of the keys to his success. So what about Congress, does he experience the same excitement? Seemingly shy in person, was running for a seat in the House of Representatives a nerve-racking experience? “No. I don’t feel nervous when I’m running in Congress because, you know, if my destiny is not for that goal then I will accept that.” Well-known for being religious in the Christian nation of the Philippines it seems Pacquiao is something of a fatalist too. He soon shows his superstitious side too.
As we move on to a quick photo session, a boxer trapped inside a congressman’s suit is revealed as Pacquiao’s powerful and paced walk, which would no doubt intimidate anyone waiting in the ring, becomes apparent. A desire to photograph his powerful fists is met with a shy refusal and a hugging of his fists to his chest. “I never expose my hands. They’re sacred,” he says guardedly. And there is no coming round. It seems that Pacquiao would not be a sensible person to get on the wrong side of either so instead, after a few portrait shots that show the political side of the fighter, the photo session comes to an end and Pacquiao sits down to a large banana split filled with an assortment of creatively coloured icecream scoops, like a child thrilled to have been given a big bag of sweets. The smile on his face has barely left his handsome and intriguingly undamaged visage the whole time we have been there. There are few telltale signs of boxing injuries, testament to his success in the ring where his speed, accuracy and quick recoveries have triumphed over the likes of De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey and Ricky Hatton. However, there is one fighter who Pacquiao is yet to face, the unbeaten Floyd Mayweather.
There are a clear two sides to the argument when it comes to a Mayweather-Pacquiao match and critics and boxing commentators fail to come to an agreement. Mayweather has been known to duck opponents until they have passed their prime before jumping in the ring and inevitably beating them, while some believe Pacquiao’s avoidance of Mayweather’s calls to take drug tests in days nearer to the actual fight as an indication of guilt. Mayweather refuses to believe that Pacquiao can change weight groups so quickly naturally, beating fighters so much larger who should be more powerful. Unless what has already been termed the “Fight of the Century” actually takes place this disagreement seems destined to remain.
While the world waits to see if Mayweather will ever take on Pacquiao in the ring, it seems the latter is content to continue knocking others out- he just loves boxing and says he has already “achieved more than I wanted to achieve in my life” when it comes to boxing. He is without a doubt the best pound-for-pound fighter. For now he has been given the opportunity to embrace his new position within Filipino politics and add to his the many philanthropic gestures he already performs in the country by hopefully helping to bring about beneficial changes politically. While Pacquiao may never legitimately achieve the title of greatest fighter of all time- only the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight could grant either the ultimate accolade- his achievements are plenty and he could well reach the upper echelons of the other worlds in which he has chosen to roam. President Pacquiao perhaps? “I don’t know,” he says with a slight cringe and a shy laugh. “Right now I’m concentrating on doing my job and what I can give to my constituents.” As he remarked on his run for congress, if it’s not his destiny then he will accept that. For now at least he seems to be leaving his political future up to the Fates and from the ease with which he’s winning fights, his boxing seems to be taking care of itself.
Published: The Peninsula magazine, volume 8, issue 1, March 2011; Kee magazine, September 2011, 10th anniversary special edition.