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Manny's Maturation From PacMan to Statesman
Examining the myth and the man that is Manny Pacquiao.
IMAGE Roy Macam
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So, it’s the night of May 7, 2011, and I am close enough to Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress and reality TV performer, that I feel like I can touch her waxy blonde hair and peer into her vacant eyes. Manny Pacquiao is “awesome,” she says. I am not happy—at all—about her appearance at Pacquiao’s post-fight press conference because she has ruined my entire premise for this story (“The Maturation of Manny Pacquiao”) and created some serious doubt in my mind that Manny Pacquiao will be alleviating the suffering of close to 30 million people anytime soon.

How does one explain Manny Pacquiao to the readers of Esquire Philippines and how does one say anything new about him? You know Mr. Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao. He is a part of you. Everyone knows Pacquiao is the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. He is one of the most dynamic fighters ever. He turns the violent sport of boxing into an art. But there is something more, of course: Pacquiao, like it or not, is the symbol of a people.

Pacquiao wants to be something more than one of the best boxers to ever walk the planet or a symbol to the world’s impoverished: he wants to lead people out of abject poverty.

In the last ten years, his popularity and mythology have grown exponentially. He deserves a great deal of the adulation. His success in the ring, in which he has won eight world titles in eight different weight classes, and the way he handles his boxing success with a humility foreign to the sport of boxing, has created a worldwide love-fest for the PacMan. On the surface he can do little wrong, and people so desperately want to believe in him. They think he can do anything.

But Pacquiao wants to be something more than one of the best boxers to ever walk the planet or a symbol to the world’s impoverished: he wants to lead people out of abject poverty. It’s a million times easier to dispose of Oscar De La Hoya, Miguel Cotto, or even Juan Manuel Marquez than to alleviate that sort of suffering. Does Pacquiao have the gravitas, the smarts, and the leadership ability to help people on a large scale?

Just three days before Paris Hilton’s appearance at the post-fight press conference, Pacquiao had held the traditional pre-fight press conference. He gave a great speech—“The biggest fight of my life is not in boxing. No. The biggest fight in my life is how to end poverty in my country.” The press seemed to do a double-take because we’re not used to such levity at these events. Pacquiao announced he would wear yellow gloves for his bout against Mosley, yellow being “a symbol of hope and unity.” He urged support for the organization Gawad Kalinga, which helps build houses for the poor, and he said then, “I’d like to invite you all to join us and wear yellow on Saturday. I believe there is hope we can win this fight together.”

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We were smitten. Everyone might have been suffering from self-delusion, but the notion that Manny Pacquiao was maturing into a statesman had hit its apex, especially with the Western press.

Then it was Saturday night, fight night in Las Vegas, and reality started setting in. Before he pounded his yellow Cleto Reyes gloves into Sugar Shane Mosley’s skull, I walked around the MGM Grand. I noticed that only a handful of people wore yellow. Was this because people hadn’t listened, or didn’t care? Were people back in the Philippines clad in yellow?

Pacquiao won by unanimous decision, and then made his way to the press room. And there’s Paris Hilton—of all people!—sitting on the dais next to Pacquiao’s wife, Jinkee. Hilton, you see, is a symbol of monetary excess and other unsaintly virtues. Do I care about Hilton’s morality? Not. For. A. Second. But Pacquiao made an odd choice by inviting her. News Alert to Pacquiao’s Handlers: Pacquiao dedicated the fight to the impoverished. He has enough charisma and fame that he could have invited anyone (Bono, for example) to show his commitment to the poor, but by bringing Hilton he undermined his entire message. And in the coming weeks he would participate in more political pratfalls.

Pacquiao’s “maturation” did not seem imminent, or even probable. So why had I thought it was?

* * *

I asked for the tinolang manok. Manny Pacquiao passed it to me.

I was sitting in Nat’s Thai, in Hollywood, attempting to interview Manny Pacquiao. He was answering some questions, ignoring others. Was it me?

I am an American journalist. I am an outsider. I don’t speak Tagalog or Visayan.

Before I formally interviewed Manny Pacquiao for the first time, I asked around about him. A friend of mine, a journalist who has interviewed world leaders and speaks Filipino, had spent some time with Pacquiao. Any advice? He laughed. “You don’t really interview Manny.” Meaning? “He is definitely aware of what is happening around him but he doesn’t really focus on you. You observe him more than actually ask questions.”

I didn’t really know what that meant. But he was right. “Interviewing” Pacquiao is an unusual experience. Getting his attention is practically impossible. He is interrupted constantly—a text message, a phone handed to him so he can wish a hospital patient well, or myriad other distractions. He answers questions with platitudes and canned responses. He gives nothing of himself. But it doesn’t really matter. In a world in which people are so anxious to be noticed, Pacquiao’s lack of candor creates a mystery around him.

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There is so much hope centered on Manny Pacquiao. It’s unreasonable, and ridiculous. But Pacquaio has stated that he wants to become president someday, so it is important to investigate his capabilities as a leader and what he believes because the consequences are huge.

His disinterest in the Western media (ABC News, major magazines, and newspapers have been stood up for interviews) has had an amazing impact: American and British journalists are given so little material to go on that they continually repeat Pacquiao’s life story—the poorest of the poor boxes his way out of poverty. Since Pacquiao offers us so little (we desperately want him to be Ali but, alas, he’s not), we are forced to write about the periphery, the trainers, the entourage, etc. On many a day I have seen reporters from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the AP, and worldwide outlets try and wrestle a quote from Pacquiao. Muhammad Ali would have capitalized on the opportunity. Part of it might be the English language, but Pacquiao has the chance to speak to the world, and he refuses. 

And then there are the Filipino journalists who know him so well but are loathe to cross him. The Filipino sports reporters create a comfortable bubble around him. They don’t want to be associated with gossip-mongering about him, and it is unseemly to talk against a national icon, the national fist. And what good would it do? Access would be denied and millions of people would despise you. And aren’t there serious issues to write about in a country where one-third of the people live on less than a dollar a day? The Pacquiao story makes everyone want to shed tears because it is Pacquiao who has endured so much hardship and yet shows so much class, humility, and good cheer. He is 32 years old, but his infectious smile and childlike behavior make people imagine a child on a General Santos City street corner selling cigarettes. Pacquiao reflects a collective guilt; his cheerful attitude and humility lets us off the hook. How can we help but admire him?

* * *

One night, down in the southern Philippines, I slept in the back of a van. Pacquiao was campaigning and I was following him around. To truly understand Pacquiao, I felt like it was important to see where he came from, what he could do to help, and watch him speak before his people. When he gave a speech, the crowd reacted enthusiastically, like he was the Second Coming. After the speech we went to his house, where Pacquiao strategized with his political operatives. Since I was supposedly a kidnap target and couldn’t travel safely back to General Santos City without armed guards, I slept in the back of a van most of the night.

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Eventually, a caravan of cars and guards, and Pacquiao, drove down to Gen San. Pacquiao hadn’t slept all night and he was in the weeds of his campaign. His dedication told me how passionate he was about his politics. What were his ideas? What did he really stand for? He hadn’t really articulated a concrete message. But it was easy to believe in him because I had talked to dozens of people who had told me how he had paid their medical expenses, provided money to buy a coffin, paid for scholarships. It was inspiring. But for all of his personal humanitarian efforts, how would he create policies to help people in a scaleable way?

Who will help Pacquiao fulfill his destiny?

* * *

I have written about the Pacquiao entourage and pointed out how the bloated group helps the champ relax. It is like a traveling family and can seem harmless enough. But I have also pointed out the less savory aspects of the group, like how some members have lost important opportunities for Pacquiao, like a Gatorade endorsement, which could have been worth a lot of money, and spread his image to millions of people. While the entourage can easily be laughed off, it is also a symbol of dysfunctional leadership.

Soon after my biography of Pacquiao was released I was contacted by a Filipino tabloid television program. The producers interviewed me. It was two a.m. in Los Angeles. There was a coldness from the interviewers, who told me that my book was causing controversy because Pacquiao’s “entourage didn’t like it.” Honesty is not always welcome. My book talked about the massive number of people around the PacMan, and gently pointed out the dysfunctional side of the enterprise. The tabloid producer, who hadn’t read my book, told me how hurt they were by my words. It was all very surreal to me, because it represented collective denial and fear of hearing the truth.

The sensitivities of the entourage don’t really matter. And in fact the book was credited with leading to a change in Pacquiao’s business practices. A professional endorsement specialist was brought in to run Pacquiao’s endorsement deals and capitalize on his fame. There is a bigger picture. Pacquiao’s choice of cronies does matter, especially when it comes to his political life. There is a very real possibility that Pacquiao could be president someday. But will Pacquiao be up to the challenge?

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Developing world poverty is an enormously complex issue. Many a great mind has tried to solve the crises. It is probably not feasible that Manny Pacquiao will create ground-breaking policy solutions, but he has enough charisma to attract great minds to his cause. Will he become a serious leader and surround himself with the right people to inform his thinking?

After Pacquiao stepped inside the Wild Card in 2001, he improved as a fighter under the tutelage of Freddie Roach. Does he have a Freddie Roach equivalent in politics?

I talked with Bob Arum, Pacquiao’s promoter, about Pacquiao’s current political operatives, and he was dismissive of them. I asked Arum about the sophistication level of his political advisors and if it had become better since Pacquiao entered politics.

“No,” he said, flatly. “He has kept the same kind of people around him. He has to bring in experienced operatives who are trustworthy, who are trying to accomplish what he wants to accomplish, which is to make an impact on poverty. The team he has now is not a great team. I know what he has around him is not right.”

Citing Pacquiao’s re-organization of his boxing and endorsement business, Arum predicts, optimistically, that Pacquiao will evolve into an effective politician. “He came from the lowest rung of society. Everything is getting developed. Just like his right hand got developed, now his brain is becoming developed. His analytical powers are much better now...” Are we deluding ourselves?

* * *

Ever since he was a kid, he wanted to help people. That was his ultimate dream. Here is the irony: Boxing has given him his platform, but it also stripped away his chance for an education.

* * *

It is the Pacquiao paradox. Pacquiao serves an important purpose in the minds of many Filipinos. This is an outsider’s view, perhaps superficial: He is like an ancient warrior (a Maharlikan, of the original tribe which occupied the islands in the South China seas before the invasions of the Spanish, and Americans) who has appeared in the 21st Century. He has the religious views of the underclass; he believes in a strict interpretation of Catholic doctrine. His clarity of belief is refreshing to devout Catholics, of course, but a growing group of more progressive people are moving toward a more flexible belief system. Under their breath—and on Twitter and Facebook—young progressives ridicule Pacquiao’s singing career, foray into politics, and his intellect. He creates conflicting emotions.

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There is so much hope centered on Manny Pacquiao. It’s unreasonable, and ridiculous. But Pacquaio has stated that he wants to become president someday, so it is important to investigate his capabilities as a leader and what he believes because the consequences are huge.

After the Mosley fight, he showed astounding political naiveté. He returned to Manila and went to the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene for his regular Thanksgiving Mass. But his visit had political overtones. He wore a purple tie to show his support of the Catholic Church against the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, a government bill to introduce free contraception and information about safe sex. Many experts believe a primary cause of poverty in the Philippines is the fact that too many children are being born into impoverished families. And there is concern that it will only get worse. A survey had shown that 11.3 million or 27.2 percent of Filipinos over the age of 18 were jobless, and a World Bank study showed that rapid population growth would depress wages at the bottom end of the pay scale even more.

For Pacquiao, the Bible superseded any study, economic analysis, or temporal argument. Pacquiao, a young man, came across not as a reformer as much as he looked old-fashioned, a scold, and well, uncool.

“God said go forth and multiply,” Pacquiao said, after a meeting with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. “He did not say go and have just one or two children.”

Pacquiao put forth the assertion that he would never have been born to become the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter had his parents used birth control.

Ever since he was a kid, he wanted to help people. That was his ultimate dream. Here is the irony: Boxing has given him his platform, but it also stripped away his chance for an education.

As anyone who follows Filipino politics knows, Pacquiao went to the floor of Congress to question Representative Edcel Lagman, one of the authors of the bill who is also a graduate of the University of Philippines law school. He opened by saying it would serve the country better if they focus on making laws that would alleviate poverty.

Lagman replied, “The RH Bill is just one solution to poverty. But it’s not the only solution. If we combine this with other solutions, then we might be able to alleviate poverty.”

Pacquiao pushed the issue further by questioning government spending for the reproductive health program. Rhetorical questions are used to trap an opponent, but Pacquiao trapped himself.

“How many billion pesos will be allocated each year? Won’t this be a burden to taxpayers?”

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Lagman said the budget would be comparatively small compared to many of the bigger government projects, and quoted the United Nation Children’s Fund saying that family planning brings the “most benefits to more people with the least cost.”

“Are we going to deny our mothers and women the chance to avoid high-risk pregnancy?” asked Lagman, who was referring to the 11 Filipino women who die every day giving birth.

Pacquiao asked the same questions over and over again, and advocated... praying.

“Unlike in his boxing bouts,” said Recah Trinidad, the newspaper columnist, in an email to me, “he readily got clipped after being caught unprepared.” Pacquiao seemed to read off a script. And he also seemed to get caught in another tangle: Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a backer of the bill, charged that Pacquiao was acting like a “fundamentalist.” Defensor-Santiago, who has several degrees from the University of the Philippines and a doctor of law from the University of Michigan, corrected Pacquiao on his Biblical quotations, saying he had misinterpreted the Bible.

She took off the gloves when she said there was an “element of hypocrisy,” as Jinkee had been quoted as saying she was on birth control pills while Pacquiao said he was using self-discipline to space the couple’s children. The Filipino tabloids excitedly speculated that Pacquiao and his wife must be using contraception because his youngest child was nearly three years old. Jinkee went on television and explained that she had used birth control without her husband’s knowledge. Pacquiao was not-so-subtly jabbed during these reports as shows rebroadcast the images of a despondent Jinkee during the “Krista affair.” No one ever expected Pacquiao to come across as Churchill, or even Muhammad Ali, but his blundering performance was making people laugh.

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it was clear that Pacquiao lost valuable political capital.

“The Maturation of Manny Pacquiao,” and all its hopeful implications, seemed farfetched at best.

* * *

How do you tell the story of Manny Pacquiao? He came from the City of Dust and became one of the greatest boxers ever. His is a beautiful story of overcoming terrible odds. He has remained the man-child who can make a room melt with his infectious smile and laughter and show artistry and brutality in the boxing ring. His is a 21st Century story. In slums around the world, he is a symbol for good and hope. Boxers represent something profound to the world’s poor. Boxers overcome so much to become the conqueror. That experience can whip away a lot of injustice and is more fulfilling than money—and more pure than politics.

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His is also a story in progress. The remaining chapters of his life might not have the thrills of a boxing match, but they could be the most important and daunting period of his life. Can Pacquiao transcend athletic brilliance and turn his fame into effective public service? Will he use his fame to alleviate suffering? Pacquiao will fight in November, and he will probably fight another two or three years, but as the story of his fighting life comes to an end, Pacquiao hopes to take on a much larger issue. He needs to use this time wisely. He says his primary concern now is to use his influence to help his people. Pacquiao is correct—his real fight now is against poverty. Hopefully, it will be a fight he becomes capable of winning.

This article originally appeared in our October 2011 issue, under the title "The Maturation of Pacquiao." Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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