September 28, 2011
From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 05, 2011
From street urchin to arguably the most successful boxer on the planet, Manny Pacquiao’s story is classic rags to riches. Now he may even run for president of the Philippines. Gareth Davies, boxing correspondent for British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, charts his rise.
The extraordinary journey of boxer Manny Pacquiao, who started life as a street urchin in a shanty town in the Philippines, could culminate in him becoming his nation’s president within the next decade.
Astonishingly, that view is shared by the common man in those islands, as well as expert witnesses. Hollywood film-makers might have rejected such a script as being too far-fetched.
Yet today, 18 years after Pacquiao stowed away on a ferry boat from Mindanao to Manila, where he sold doughnuts in the streets for a penny apiece, and hoped to find his fortune as a boxer, Pacquiao is a global sporting star, beginning his career as a political figure.
Pacquiao left home at 14 and started his new life in Manila in a rundown gym, sleeping each night on the ring canvas. He had no home. By the age of 15 he was sending dollar notes back to his single mother and five siblings thanks to earnings won with his flashing fists.
“Manny can transform the Filipino nation, rid the country of corruption and be seen as a true leader. This is an adventure far more important than landing with left and right hands in a ring.”Bob Arum / Pacquiao’s promoter in the USA
Pacquiao, now 32, has entranced his nation with his boxing skills, but also with his charisma and messianic desire to rid his native
Philippines of the poverty he experienced as a child. The ever-smiling, God-fearing prize-fighter now has crossover stardom in the United States, is an eight-weight world champion, and was elected as a congressman for the province of Sarangani on a wave of popular support in the Philippine national elections last year. Many are predicting that a presidential campaign is only a decade away.
Pacquiao has made a remarkable journey into his fourth decade. He has never lost the common touch, nor therefore the huge support he has from his compatriots. Guerrilla rebels lay down their arms in battle with the national forces when he fights. The country grinds to a halt as millions of Filipinos stop to watch the man known as Pambansang Kamao (The National Fist) go to war in the ring. Yet it is Pacquaio’s generosity to his people, helped by prize-fighting earnings of more than US$50 million, that endears him to them even more.
Vast queues form outside the compound of his house in General Santos City every time he returns from his fights in the United States.
Beggars hold their hands out, knowing that Pacquiao always obliges. There is no welfare state in the Philippines. Some say the boxer has become exactly that himself, in a nation whose workforce earns on average a dollar a day.
Gary Andrew Poole is the American author of the biography, PacMan. As part of his research he joined his subject’s 2010 election campaign. He found the boxer’s relationship with his compatriots compelling.
“I went to see him in parliament, I went to speak to people who have known him from the beginning. It was staggering wherever we went. Thousands of people followed his every move, kids were hanging from trees in every town square. Politicians can be incredibly boring. He certainly isn’t. I don’t speak his language, but when he got up there, it was like a rally every time he spoke. I had a translator. He told the people: ‘I’m one of you, I grew up like you, and I want to make a change.’”
Poole says the crowd was totally devoted to Pacquaio. “Everyone there was transfixed like he was a rock and roll star, or a Martin Luther King figure. They really do look up to him.
They even want to touch him, just touch his shirt, like it is touching God. And he is incredibly compelling. There’s something about him which speaks to everyone living in poverty.”
Nick Giongco, one of the most respected boxing writers in The Philippines, says Pacquiao is a worthy politician. “Manny is doing very well as a congressman. He has been living up to his promises and he has led the groundbreaking move to build a public hospital in his province. He has been making a lot of heads turn.”
Chino Trinidad, a renowned sports broadcaster, added to that sentiment, but warned that Pacquiao must learn the skills of the tricky world of politics. “Manny’s sincerity is his true weapon in the political arena. But he could be used by other people in that arena pushing their agenda. I think he will learn this as he becomes more experienced in politics.”
Granville Ampong, a respected Filipino writer on sport and politics, believes the congressman is already acquiring these skills.
“Pacquiao has developed an ability to put current events into a broader perspective,” he explains. “He may bring about a revolution with his unrelenting crusade for social change. He is becoming a more compelling figure in the egocentric world of politics.”
Looking after Pacquiao’s affairs in the United States is Bob Arum, former promoter for Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. Arum has the increasing sense that the fighter-cumpolitician will further capture the hearts and minds of his people. He’s convinced Pacquiao will eventually become president, which he cannot do by law until he is 37 years old. The 80-year-old promoter reckons Pacquiao “can transform the Filipino nation, rid the country of corruption and be seen as a true leader.”
He adds: “We all know this century is going to be Asia’s century, with China, India and Malaysia on the rise, and they can go with that wave. This is an adventure far more important than landing with left and right hands in a ring. In another era he could have been a leader. Had he come earlier in history he would have probably been the resistance leader against invading nations.”
Arum sees Pacquiao’s potential influence as great as Muhammad Ali’s. “He is up there with Muhammad Ali. Here was Ali, a brilliant talent considered by so many to be a blowhard. People would not listen to him in the beginning about all the historic influence on race relations, on progress made in this country.
But look how he changed people’s views on the Vietnam War. Without Ali there would not be a President Obama. Ali, in his way, had resonated far, far beyond his exploits in the ring.
That is what Manny is about to achieve in The Philippines. He has started that journey and he is on the way to bringing great change.”