Manny Pacquiao fights natural disasters and hammers crime rates, his fame has transcended the boxing ring... in the Philippines, he is the National Fist 

  • Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fight in Las Vegas on Saturday
  • The day of the bout is a national holiday in the Philippines
  • Pacquiao can't be compared with other sports stars - there's none like him
  • He has TV shows, plays, coaches basketball and sings
  • Pacquiao is a twice-elected and popular congressman in his homeland
  • Saturday's fight will be worth at least $300m

They take singing very seriously in the Philippines. In 2007, a 29-year-old karaoke performer was shot dead at a bar in San Mateo for delivering an off-key rendition of My Way. There followed a spate of copycat killings provoked by inadequate attempts at the song. The death toll now as high as 12, many clubs have taken My Way off their playlist. 

Manny Pacquiao need not worry. He already has two platinum albums to his name back home. And that’s the thing; in a country where the line ‘and now the end is near’ can have literal truth if delivered out of tune, Pacquiao’s voice really isn’t particularly special.

His jokes aren’t always zingers, either, but that hasn’t stopped him having his own sitcom, Show Me Da Manny, plus a game show, Manny Many Prizes on the GMA Network. 

Manny Pacquiao recorded his own song for when he takes to the ring for his fight with Floyd Mayweather

Manny Pacquiao recorded his own song for when he takes to the ring for his fight with Floyd Mayweather

This screenshot shows Pacquiao playing it for laughs in his sitcom Show Me Da Manny

This screenshot shows Pacquiao playing it for laughs in his sitcom Show Me Da Manny

Pacquiao also has a quiz show called Manny Many Prizes

Pacquiao also has a quiz show called Manny Many Prizes

He is being pursued for £33m in unpaid taxes but remains a twice-elected and popular congressman and if he ran for president would win by a landslide. He is just over 5ft 6in but doubles as the player-coach of a professional basketball team, the Kia Carnival. His birthday is celebrated like a national holiday, and there is a truce in the civil war to the south of the country whenever he fights. 

Each April, in Cebu City, the battle of Mactan is re-enacted, when Philippine warrior Datu Lapu-Lapu repelled the conquistador forces of Magellan. In previous years, the role of Lapu-Lapu has been played by Pacquiao; as this year he was in training to fight Floyd Mayweather, they merely dedicated the performance to him instead.

There is no point comparing Pacquiao with sporting contemporaries because there is no-one like him. Tiger Woods, at his peak, moved Wall Street. If he won a tournament on the Sunday, the markets were more confident and buoyant the following morning. 

To influence the biggest economy in the free world is beyond Pacquiao, true. Yet what does it say of Woods? That he was corporate America’s poster boy. 

Drive five minutes from the azalea-skirted fairways of Augusta National and it is possible to find whole communities entirely untouched by the Tiger phenomenon, no matter the racial boundaries broken. 

Pacquiao, in his own land, is different. Pacquiao is the people’s champion. Whatever the state of his accounts, he still pays 64 per cent more tax than any other citizen in the Philippines. 

He builds hospitals, his wealth fights natural disasters. The crime rate plummets when he fights, his country stops, roads clear. May 3 – the date of the Mayweather bout in Pacquiao’s homeland – has already been declared a national holiday, and there, the world’s richest fight can be viewed free. No pay-per-view in Manila.

Temporary paper billboards will be erected on street corners, plazas and in church grounds, so that crowds can watch the action direct from Las Vegas. The judges’ scores will be shown via Skype. No other sportsman would command this level of attention in one country; Pacquiao’s fame has transcended the boxing ring. 

Pacquiao's fan rally was another moment for the small screen as the ring legend took a selfie at the event

Pacquiao's fan rally was another moment for the small screen as the ring legend took a selfie at the event

Size doesn't seem to matter when Pacquiao takes to the basketball court - well, it's his team

Size doesn't seem to matter when Pacquiao takes to the basketball court - well, it's his team

As a pious Roman Catholic – his bible is never far from his side, its most affecting passages highlighted in pink – he would not welcome the allusion, but the devotion he inspires is that of a pontiff. It is papal, the love that follows him in the Philippines; his people would chair him through the streets if they could. 

On a more earthbound level, he is Rudolph Valentino, The Beatles or pre-ignominy Michael Jackson, a star beyond familiar experience. Mayweather is a boxer; a great boxer, a very wealthy boxer, but a boxer, still. Pacquiao, while being the underdog in pure sporting terms on Saturday, is somehow more. He has been elevated to higher ground.

At the South Convention Centre of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, the Filipiniana Dance Company of Las Vegas (Est. 2001) is on its third number. Corralled behind steel barriers, a crowd – bemused, impatient – are waiting to see one man. Instead, they are being treated to a second-rate talent show. Filipino singers replace the Filipiniana dancers and two unfunny MC’s try desperately to drum up frenzy. 

'He’s in the building,' they scream which, as Pacquiao actually checked into the resort on Monday, is hardly an earth-shattering development. When he arrives, the contrast between the hype and the human is immediate, the sincerity of the figure in the white tee and camel coloured trousers smiling sweetly at the crowd, quite obvious. They wave back: national flags and home-made banners. One shows a hungry Pac-man eating a dollar sign.

Later, in the Panda Room – strangely appropriate, pandas are bears yet are seen as benign, cuddly creatures – Pacquiao’s effect on those of Philippine descent is clear. The Filipiniana dancers file in and crowd the aisles. Every time Pacquiao speaks they giggle like smitten schoolgirls. An endless string of selfies are taken, until they begin teasing each other about their faux-teenage crushes. 

One of the dancers is given a souvenir boxing glove by a pressman. Nothing unique, just a memento that could be bought at any local sports shop or in the foyer of the hotel, a commemorative glove with the fight’s logo and date embossed on the mitt, yet she stares at it as if presented with a holy relic until broken from her reverie by the sound of more squeals as another image is committed to digital memory; laughing girls in the foreground, Pacquiao a smudge in the distance. But, still, that’s him.

Pacquiao whips up his fans, the ones lucky enough to be in Vegas anyway, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel

Pacquiao addressed his fans, the ones in Vegas anyway, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on Tuesday

Filipino dancers were part of the entertainment during the fan rally for Pacquiao in Las Vegas this week

Filipino dancers were part of the entertainment during the fan rally for Pacquiao

Fans of the fighter in Las Vegas wave flags calling for Pacquiao to be elected President  

Manny mania was in full swing with just a few days to go before he enters the ring in Las Vegas

Mayweather had dancers of his own for his arrival at the MGM Grand just along the famous Strip

Mayweather had dancers of his own for his arrival at the MGM Grand just along the famous Strip

It is fair to say there are few middle-class boxers but even by the standards of a working man’s sport, Pacquiao’s story is exceptional. Mayweather grew up poor, but it was first-world poor; the electricity might have been cut off, and his family sometimes slept seven to a room, but there were safety nets, checks and balances. There was always a roof and no-one went hungry.

Pacquiao is a third-world survivor. He was born in General Santos City, 600 miles south of the capital Manila, a part of the region now consumed by terrorism. 

Pacquiao knew tin-shanty poverty, hungry-every-day poverty, bare-foot poverty; he knew what it was to be filthy poor, unable to bathe, dirty, unschooled. His father abandoned the family when Manny was small, came home unannounced one day, killed, cooked and ate his dog, and then left again. 

When Pacquiao departed for the capital it wasn’t out of up-by-the-bootstraps ambition, but basic human necessity. His family couldn’t feed him; but maybe he could feed himself. He slept rough, he sold doughnuts for loose change and fought in the back streets for little more – sometimes the purse was the equivalent of £1. 

The iconic black and white images that have since emerged of Pacquiao at his Manila gym at the age of 17 were taken three years after he arrived in the capital, and 10 fights into his professional career. 

Even then, he looks scrawny, raw, unpolished – a street kid as much as a street fighter. It is hard to reconcile those haunted eyes with the figure who will march confidently towards the ring at the MGM Grand on Saturday, to the sound of his own voice.

These images of a 17-year-old Pacquiao training in Manila were published ahead of the big fight

These images of a 17-year-old Pacquiao training in Manila were published ahead of the big fight

Pacquiao left his home as a 14-year-old and headed for Manila, the capital of the Philippines

Pacquiao left his home as a 14-year-old and headed for Manila, the capital of the Philippines

Pacquiao turned professional aged 16 and had 10 fights by the time these images were taken

Pacquiao turned professional aged 16 and had 10 fights by the time these images were taken

Pacquiao, as befits a platinum-selling game show host, basketball player turned singer-politician and world welterweight champion, has brought out a song for this fight called Lalaban Ako Para Sa Pilipino , which translates as ‘I will fight for the Filipinos’. 'Even if I am in pain,' Pacquiao 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.' The video is at the botom of the page.

And yet, in its way, it is him. Just as Andy Murray tried his whole life to erase the association of his home town, Dunblane, with unimaginable tragedy, so Pacquiao’s mission is to reawaken feelings of pride in a nation whose global image has been defined by a corrupt political dynasty and a president’s wife, obsessed with shoes. 

At the time Manny Pacquiao was barefoot on the streets of GenSan, Imelda Marcos was hoarding 3,000 pairs of the finest designer heels. It is this perception that he, The National Fist – Pambansang Kamao – feels it is his duty to address. That is why he sings, that is why he stands, that is why he prays and, most significantly, that is why he fights. 

 

 

 

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