Why you should care
He’s one of the best boxers of all time, and now his legacy will be decided outside the ring.
In March, Emmanuel Dapidran “Manny” Pacquiao stepped onto the Senate floor in the Philippines to debate his first sponsored bill — an innocuous proposal to create a Philippine Boxing Commission. It was possibly a sidestep from the junior senator’s more controversial views, like opposing gay marriage and supporting President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent drug war.
As a boxer, Pacquiao was celebrated for his speed, but here, contending with Philippine Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, he seemed outmatched. His English faltered as he was grilled on the need for the commission, and he apologized for inadvertently saying his opponent lacked “common sense.” When it was proposed he take more time to master the specifics of his position, he refused. He said he could answer now. He’d faced worse, after all.
Like a hometown superhero, Pacquiao has an origin story everyone in the Philippines seems to know. How he was born on the southern Mindanao island, in a poor region of a poor country, wracked by insurgencies and crime. And, like every superhero, his story hinges on a journey. Pacquiao left home — after his father ate his dog, according to his longtime trainer, Freddie Roach — slept on the streets and eventually reached Manila, the capital, and broke into boxing.
The hero completed his journey and found redemption: Last year, ESPN named Pacquiao the second-best pound-for-pound boxer in the past 25 years. One year earlier, he earned at least $150 million fighting Floyd Mayweather Jr. And he always returned home with his treasure. By his own estimate, he’s given approximately $200 million to charity. Now, as the 38-year-old continues to train for what’s likely to be the last fights of his boxing career, one legacy is ending while he struggles to build another in politics — but the transition could have him on the ropes.
Many of his fans when he was a boxer turned on him when he turned into a politician.
Carlo Pamintuan, sportswriter for ESPN5
He’s certainly starting out with a wealth of cultural capital. “This is the reality, not the mythos, of Pacquiao,” says Gary Andrew Poole in his 2010 biography, PacMan. “Filipinos see him, at the height of his career and worldwide celebrity, as a demigod who emerged from the City of Dust.” Rombel Catolico, chief city public information officer of General Santos City (aka the “City of Dust”), says Pacquiao is seen as the “epitome of determination.” He showed his people that with perseverance one could become successful and remain humble. “Pacquiao unified the people here,” says Catolico, who describes fight days when bustling streets would be as quiet as during Sunday mass. “The rest of the world may not know a lot about the Philippines, but for a time the best boxer in the world was a Filipino, and this was something the country was proud of,” adds Carlo Pamintuan, a Philippines-based sportswriter for ESPN5.
While the boxing chapter of Pacquiao’s life is drawing to a close, its record is etched into Filipino history. The 5-foot-5 fighter is the only eight-division world champion in the history of the sport. He won 11 major world titles and was the first boxer to win the lineal championship in five different weight classes. And he was a heckuva lot of fun to watch. His fast footwork — Pacquiao’s conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, believes he picked it up by mimicking kung fu idol Bruce Lee — allowed him to open up angles and deliver his wrecking-ball best.
He retired once but came back. And after losing to Australian Jeff Horn, and along with it the World Boxing Organization welterweight belt in July, some think Pacquiao should stay retired. “Speed was always Pacquiao’s best weapon, and it’s well known that speed is the first to go when boxers get up there in age,” says Pamintuan. There are talks of a rematch with Horn — and Pacquiao just issued a Thanksgiving Day challenge to Conor McGregor to fight in the coming year — but even Roach thinks that he’s reached the end of the road.
Pacquiao first ran for office in 2007, losing his bid for a congressional seat. He has since served two terms in the House of Representatives before being elected senator in May 2016. His political career so far has been rocky, tarnishing the view of him as a humble warrior-priest. He supports President Duterte, whose brutal war on drugs and encouragement of extrajudicial killings have drawn international condemnation. Pacquiao has also been a vocal critic of homosexuals, saying they “are worse than animals.” Although he later apologized for the comment, he stands by his opposition to same-sex marriage. “Many of his fans when he was a boxer turned on him when he turned into a politician,” says Pamintuan.
Catolico supports his hometown hero, predicting that Pacquiao will be as talented a senator as he was a boxer, and saying he will “grow as a politician” because of his discipline. Others aren’t so sure. “Personally, I hope he stays away from politics. I know he has good intentions, but there are so many other ways to help the poor people in our country,” says Pamintuan.
Then there are those, like Ryan Songalia, sports editor at the Philippines-based Rappler, who want to see him enter the ring one last time: “I would like to see Manny fight just once more in the Philippines, against anyone, really, and just walk away after that.” Songalia, a Filipino-American, says no matter what Pacquiao does, he will always be a cultural icon in his native country. Future generations may not remember “the feeling of waking up early on a Sunday morning and gathering in the town square with people young and old to cheer on the giant killer,” he says, but there will be those who can explain “what it meant when victims of Typhoon Haiyan were able to forget their misery for a moment” by watching him batter his opponent in the ring on a giant screen.
Now it’s time to see if Pacquiao can take his punches in the political arena.