One man’s fists bring a nation together

Philippines’ 7,000 islands reportedly plummets to zero every time champion boxer Manny Pacquiao fights in the ring. It’s as if every single soul in the country is glued to their screens to see him win yet another title.

Although a single criminal offense (a jewelry store heist) broke this trend last November 13 while Pacquiao was beating up Mexico’s Antonio Margarito in Texas for the WBC World Super Welterweight title, it’s still astonishing how some boxing match can even triumph over hunger and poverty that fuel crime.

The fact that he does a better job than police forces in controlling crime is just one piece of proof. Pacquiao, who’s now among history’s greatest boxers, enjoys not only considerable celebrity in his homeland, but also bridges economic classes, religious denominations, cultural gaps and age groups.

Just two Sundays ago, major cinemas disrupted their lineup of shows to give way to satellite streaming of Pacquiao’s fight for the price of a regular film. From nine-year-olds to able sexagenarians, audiences watched Pacquiao brutally take shots at Margarito whose face seemed like a canvas painted with blood. Filipino Millennials, too, temporarily abandoned our usual programming to share mom and dad’s fondness for those deadly fists. Crossfire momentarily ceased in distant islands notorious for harboring al-Quaeda-trained terrorists. This is no exaggeration.

And most amazing of all, my mom, who doesn’t even know how to use a remote control, was able to configure the television set by herself to witness the match on pay-per-view.

“Pacman” indeed makes people forget their limitations and differences to remember their shared roots. He reminds me that beyond the individual identity I project, I’m still Filipino. And that is something I share with 90 million other people. Most of them are hungry, while many remain blithely ignorant of our nation’s needs.

In the developing world, it’s expensive to have someone like Pacquiao. His fights spawn the production of pirated DVD recordings of his match, made available the day after. He also has a second-rate album, a flopped movie on his life, a flopped movie where he plays a superhero, a monopoly of endorsements, and even a congressional seat. The latter is something I’ve protested against, knowing how dirty Philippine politics can be, and how much dirt it can cause his reputation. As a famous Filipino columnist commented, Pacquiao’s involvement in politics “does neither the country nor Pacquiao himself good.”

But if there’s something Filipinos love about Pacquiao besides his pugilistic genius is the Pacquiao outside the ring.

In this country, I think people can easily recognize a good man. He’s modest (easily acknowledges the skill of his opponents), generous “to a fault” (he gives away thousands of dollars in a day), and true to his faith (he dons a Rosary before and after match). He looks for meaning beyond boxing to lift others up from their plight, the battle in the war against the poverty he rose from.

If Manny were as awesome as Muhammad Ali, and as arrogant, I don’t think he’d be the well-loved figure here he is now. I think his legend is so because our connection is deeper and more transcendent than citizenship and sports. Commentators say Pacquiao is a fantasy, his fights are an escape from hand to mouth living, and his kind-hearted ways are simplistic. But it’s hard to deny that Manny Pacquiao is a moral hero. His hurts are of the people, too, and his values tap our ideals.

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