Our fascination with Manny

Photo via 15rounds.com

Photo via 15rounds.com

By Bill Velasco/The Philippine Star – Once again, Manny Pacquiao made a sincere effort to restore his credibility as a fearsome world champion. His domination of an over-hyped and under-inflated Chris Algieri showed long glimpses of the brilliant boxer that he has been, and Filipinos continue to rally around him as their hero. His ups and downs the last three years have only added to our immersion in the colorful story that is his life and, in many ways, the dream of many Filipino men.

Why are boxing fans and millions of Filipinos so obsessively fascinated with Manny Pacquiao?

Let’s roll back the time to 2005. Pacquiao lost his first clash with Erik Morales for the WBC and IBA international super featherweight belts via a very close unanimous decision. All three judges scored the fight 115-113 in favor of the Mexican.

Pacquiao had been world champion twice before, when he was a raw, gung-ho brawler who used his face as much of his defense. Pacquiao’s first championship was the WBC flyweight title, which he acquired when he defeated Chartchai Sasakul in Bangkok, Thailand. Pacquiao won by TKO in the eighth round, then was only able to defend the title once before losing it to Medgoen Singsurat the following year.

Pacquiao then laid claim to the IBF super bantamweight title in 2001 after scoring a sixth-round TKO over the tough Lehlo Ledwaba in Las Vegas. Eventually, Pacquiao got careless and undisciplined, and lost his world title, as well.

Where was the Philippines in 2005? The country was going through another economic downturn, spurred again by a fuel crisis. Prices were going up, people were struggling financially. The public was looking for a hero.

After getting back on his feet with a sixth-round TKO over Hector Velazquez, Pacquiao went for a rematch with Morales in January of 2006. In front of two of the three judges who have ruled against him the first time around, the Filipino left no doubt, finishing the fight in the 10th round. This was where he started an improbable winning streak, and also captured the imagination of a weary citizenry. There was something about this fiery, do-or-die fighting little guy that caught everyone’s attention. He was battling the odds, and succeeding.

Of course, after that, it was one sensational win after another, with the breakthrough being his winning the WBC super featherweight championship over Juan Manuel Marquez in their second fight in 2008, almost seven years after Pacquiao last won a world title bout. In the third round of that fight, Marquez happened to throw a punch as Pacquiao was sidestepping, and walked into a haymaker that sent him to the canvas for the only knockdown of that fight. That was the difference in what turned out to be a tight split decision. With the roles reversed, it was exactly what would happen on the sixth round of their fourth fight four years later.

From September of 2005 to June of 2012, Pacquiao did not lose, with all but one of his opponents in that span a present or former world champion.

Many of them were spectacular wins against opponents increasing in size. Six years is a long time to be a world champion in a sport as unpredictable as boxing. It was an even more remarkable reign given the variety of opponents. In that period, Filipinos grew in their admiration of and aspiration to emulate Pacquiao. He seemed bulletproof, and perhaps he himself also thought he was, to a certain degree. Even after a lackluster loss to Timothy Bradley and the aforementioned shocker of a knockout at the hands of Marquez, faith in Pacquiao was shaken, but intact. Who else was there to look up to?

And for Pacquiao, his resumé and his kingdom got bigger, as did the crowds of hangers-on who taxed his resources and energy. Because he was such a high-profile public property, opinion about all his actions was always very strong. Rumors about his outlandish expenses and non-boxing activities were suddenly headline material for the tabloids in print and broadcast. Everybody had something to say about him, and it was increasingly mixed. There were allegation of gambling, his foray into polities, buying in property for supposedly more than its actual value. His every move was under a microscope.

This writer even asked the Commission on Elections about laws governing the publicity surrounding Pacquiao fights during the election ban when he is himself a candidate. In this corner’s first front-page story in The STAR, the COMELEC ruled that broadcast merchandising for Pacquiao fights are exempt from the election ban because they are of “national interest”. So transcendent is the Pacman that even laws of the country bend to him, giving him an advantage over rivals outside the ring, as well. It’s not clear what exactly the definition of “national interest” encompasses, but in this country, it apparently includes world title fights involving only one exemplary (and exempted) boxer, Manny Pacquiao.

But lately, the criticism has been more amplified, sharper and more stinging, far worse than what Michael Jordan got when – horror of horrors – he decided to play baseball and – oh my God, is it true – play for the Washington Wizards. To paraphrase Dallas Mavericks team owner Mark Cuban, “the people own Manny Pacquiao”.

When it comes to his decisions regarding who to fight, we generally go along for the ride, except perhaps for the likes of Oscar Larios (who?), Shane Mosley (too old) and Algieri (too raw). But okay. Remember that fans never wanted him to run for public office, and he lost his first electoral campaign. Now, everyone is trying to protect whatever legacy Pacquiao has from himself, as well. Spend more time in congress, pay your taxes, don’t join the PBA.

But come on. From Spanish times, onward, part of the Filipino psyche – for better or for worse – has been a hidden desire to get away with it, to do the unthinkable and not ruin yourself. It’s what puts us in audacious, outrageous, and even awkward situations. For many of us, Manny Pacquiao’s life is the on-going Filipino Kardashian story. We don’t want to look, but we can’t help ourselves. We don’t want to hear, but we eavesdrop. Because who knows, the little guy just might surprise us, or more likely fall flat on his face. Either way, we want a ringside seat. Call it morbid, but it’s fascination nonetheless.

Another way of looking at it is this: he’s still doing things within the rules, for the most part. We can choose not to count all of his world titles, or discount his being a part-time professional player. In a way, he is living three lifetimes at once, and in this day and age, that’s more entertaining than a lot of what’s on TV. Until Pacquiao decides to buy a TV network. Then, who knows?

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