When Pacquiao the Fighter Becomes Pacquiao the National Symbol
Way back when, I grew up in a Man’s World in the Philippines. Men were surly, smoked up to three packs of Marlboros each day, imbibed large quantities of San Miguel and typically swore obscenities about each others’ mothers in conversation. In those days, Boxing was King. By the time I had some semblance of intelligence, I’d already missed “The Thrilla in Manila” of Muhammad Ali & Joe Frazier. I was lucky to be in the tail end of the last Golden Age of Boxing, with greats like Sugar Ray Leonard, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns. Until recently, the last great fight I had seen was the first Leonard-Hearns fight in 1981.
In the Philippines, my generation had Rolando Navarrete who had the WBC super-featherweight belt for all of a year. Before that, the most prominent figure in Filipino boxing was Flash Elorde, who was the champ from 1960-1967. In popular culture, there were the Kambal na Kamao (Twin Fists) on the daily cartoons, which I read faithfully. Boxing was, and still is, one of the few avenues in which Filipinos have been propelled to the international spotlight.
Not to say that one can’t be anything else without hard work and dedication, but recall that this is not the US or Europe. There aren’t too many opportunities for smart or talented people to succeed in economically-depressed Third World countries like the Philippines. Boxing is a glaring exception. There’s no prerequisite to being a good boxer. Your school, your training, will be the School of Hard Knocks, of countless fist fights, in rough public schools, in the barrios, in the slums. For working-class kids like myself, a common way to settle differences and blow off steam was by fighting and I’d seen my fair share of varying intensities, well into my senior year of high school. I readily admit, though, that I’m no boxer nor did I have any aspirations to become one.
By contrast, Manny Pacquiao had to quit school and work to support the family out of extreme poverty. He easily had as many as ten times of scrapping, and that was before he started fighting professionally at age 16. He had been, quite literally, been fighting for his life, all his life. Therein is the difference. The rest of the story about Pacquiao, as they say, is history: He pursued boxing as a profession in 1994, spurred by the death of his friend Mark Penaflorida, and went on to become WBC bantamweight champ. It was in 2001 that the Pac-Man got his first big break, as a last-minute fill-in against IBF champion Lehlohonolo Ledwaba; he won that match via TKO in the 8th. Months prior, Pacquiao and then-manager Rod Nazario went stateside to seek out a trainer to help bring Pac-Man’s training to the next level. After a fruitless search on the East Coast (“He may be strong, but he’s small.”), they came upon Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym in Hollywood. Roach was already respected in the boxing world as a primo trainer, but he was surprised and impressed by the diminutive fighter’s raw power and speed.
Three belts and three weight classes later, the new partnership of Pacquiao and Roach has not only helped him dominate the boxing stage, it has also brought on a renaissance of sorts to the sport. Pacquiao’s ascendance comes as a breath of fresh air, especially for Filipinos, among the hardest hit by the global economic recession. To many in this generation, it was a dream come true, if only vicariously. Manny Pacquiao has come to represent the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation, regardless of rich, poor, communist or democratic. Indeed, the Pacquiao-Hatton bout caused the Philippine Army to call a temporary truce with the insurgents, and crime literally stopped, just so everyone could root for their Boy. No one figure in any known country, president or otherwise, have had that ability to singlehandedly cause such a phenomenon. When Manny fights, all of the Philippines watches, from all corners of the globe.
Make no mistake about it, Boxing is a blood sport. It always is, and always will be. No amount of glitz and bling will ever make it glamorous. Pugilists getting one too many hits to the noggin could get blind, deaf or Parkinson’s; or worse yet, dead. While boxing organizations have gone through great lengths to reduce the rate of serious injury and/or fatality, one’s chances of surviving a thorough beating by a semi-trained boxer is much, much less than when driving on an accident-prone freeway on any given day — if one ever decides to do either one, or both. If you need to know why it’s never a good idea for untrained slugs to get into a Toughman/woman contest, find out here.
Nonetheless, there’s something about boxing with nothing more than fists (sometimes feet) that is pure and primordial. Zen warriors have tried to capture it and quantify it, but Chuck Palahniuk said it best in Fight Club: “After a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down.” In a fight, there is no one except you and your opponent; no one else matters at that point, not the spectators, nor the promoters. Sometimes not even the referees (although they can get physical with you if you piss them off). Hunters become hunted, and the roles frequently change. Fighters often fight for survival, to some degree or another. Though we like to think ourselves evolved from the rest of the animal kingdom, the ugly truth is that our mutual history has been largely carved out by millions of conflicts, big or small. The difference is, we have merely substituted the weapons for words of mass destruction, and strive to acquire or conquer, albeit by means that minimize contact and catharsis. Without sounding too contrived, two boxers engaged in a duel of fists capture the synthesis and conflict of Life itself, all in a microcosm.
On a higher level, a few fighters fight for glory. No one truly fights for just the money, although it does justify all the hype. Most of us don’t get that thrill anymore when we see any boxer or MMA fighter lock horns, and the fight gets reduced to a technical analysis. But when Pacquiao steps in the ring, millions of viewers are electrified. Why? For The Pac-Man didn’t settle for just being a champion, as many of his forebears did; he pushed and pushed, and fought, until he reached the pinnacle of glory, the kind of glory very few will ever live to see. The modestly-spoken man from General Santos City, Mindanao has been deified as an icon to which Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike will look up to, for as long as he is champion. When Pacquiao downed Ricky Hatton in the Second at 2:59, many in the latter’s corner were saddened, but most of England slept through it all. If and when Mayweather Jr. fights again, and regardless of whether he wins or loses, it would be nothing more than a murmur to America and the world. But when Pacquiao steps in that ring, it’s as if he is carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire nation and it could very well be. He carries this weight with pride and honor. And that’s what makes him more than a boxing champion. He is a hero, an icon. He is a Dream come true.
Here are some great articles about Manny Pacquiao and the Pac-Man Mystique:
Special thanks goes to Getty Images, AP, et. al., for all the awesome pictuers of the fight that are posted here.
Copyright Anabasius 2009