Thirty-seven years ago, Ali fought Frazier in the famed Thrilla in Manila. Until I was twenty-two, I thought Manila was somewhere in Africa. In fact, if I sat next to you right now, and I offered you a thousand dollars to name two Filipinos, could you? Probably not. Two Filipinos. Make it ten thousand dollars. Despite all the famous people that this joyful country has produced—Diego Silang, Eddie Romero, Fe del Mundo, Levi Celerio, Carlos Romulo, Lapu-Lapu, Josefa Gabriela Silang—you and I have never heard of any of them.
Rafael Nepomuceno, the six-time world bowling champion?
Benigno Aquino III, the president?
José Rizal, revolutionary, foremost Filipino patriot, and national hero?
Nora Aunor, the internationally acclaimed actress? Huge, she is.
But there is one.
Manny Pacquiao, as I touched down in Manila, had long been regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. He is the only boxer—ever—to win a world championship in eight different weight classes. The Boxing Writers Association of America recently named him the Fighter of the Decade.
He and his five siblings grew up in a broken home after his mother discovered that his father was living with another woman. Raised in extreme poverty, Manny was forced to drop out of school at fourteen to help his mother support the family. For a while, he lived on the streets of Manila. There, he started boxing on an amateur level, and the government paid for his room and board.
But where Manny stands now—his status in Filipino lore—is wild. Manny is more than just some kid who worked hard and made it out of the ’hood to run a thousand yards for a Super Bowl contender. This man is an icon. Such an icon, in fact, that he was voted into Congress of the Philippines. Congress. At age thirty-one, with literally zero minutes worth of political experience, while still in the prime of his boxing career. This, after he created his own political party, the People’s Champ Movement.
He was the first Filipino athlete to show up on a postage stamp. He carried the Filipino flag with pride at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, despite the fact that he wasn’t even participating. The Boston Celtics made him an honorary member.
A movie has already been made about his life.
Team Pacquiao, a store at the mall, sells shirts and gloves and DVDs and other memorabilia for the casual or obsessed fan. Stop by to get your own shirt with Manny’s profile on the front. No extra charge if it’s autographed by the champ.
He throws out first pitches at San Francisco Giants baseball games. He has a doctorate of humanities even though he’s never attended college. He’s a lieutenant colonel in the Philippine Army. He has starred in numerous Filipino films and recently signed on to play in his first Hollywood feature. He owns real estate all over the world, including a luxurious mansion in Los Angeles. He owns (and plays for) a team in the professional basketball league in his home country.
Manny Pacquiao is so popular that his wife scored her own nationally televised talk show.
He is such an icon that his people cheer with fanatical excitement when assembling to watch him sing karaoke, and he’s absolutely one of the top five worst male singers I’ve ever heard. Seriously. And that includes the barking “Jingle Bells” dog. Go search YouTube for “Manny Pacquiao sings.” Atrocious. But people love him, all of him, and if he drops a new album, then just show them the line so they can get their hands on one of the two million copies.
Bleacher Report listed him among the most exciting athletes of all time. Forbes Magazine boasted him among their list of the most powerful celebrities in the world. Time declared: “He has a myth of origin equal to that of any Greek or Roman hero.”
I’ve told you all of this to tell you one more thing: Manny Pacquiao is outstandingly ordinary looking. Unremarkable in appearance. Consider the dominating presence of the first two or three or five famous athletes that come to your mind right now. Tall and broad shouldered, they have impeccable posture and look incredibly sexy in a tight T-shirt with sweat dripping off their noses. With their success comes confidence, sure, but if Michael Jordan had never picked up a basketball and had instead forged an obscure baseball career, I’d still give him an inquisitive second look when passing him on the street. “Hm. Who’s that?”
Manny, though? Even now, when I see him in an interview, the first thing I notice is his underwhelming appearance. What a cutie he is. How I look like more of a professional boxer than he does.
We live in an age of prima donna athletes, who think they are way more important than they actually are, who say things that make them easy to scorn and cheer against. Not only is “Pacman” actually important, the pride of a country, but he carries himself with grace. Max Kellerman, while interviewing Manny, might say, Champ, your opponent has said that he’s going to knock you out, probably by the third round but no later than the fourth, and that you aren’t worthy of all of the hype. He says that you’re a punk and that you were a good boxer for about fifteen minutes back in your twenties. That your time has passed. That you float like a meat pie and sting like a flea. That he’s going to break your face apart and that your once-adoring fans are now going to have to refer to you as Pacenstein. That you look like a canker sore with the mumps. He spits in your general direction. He says—and I’m just reading from the cards here, champ—that you smell like the carpeting in a New Orleans Motel 6 the day after Mardi Gras. When he is hurling the belt over his head after the fight, he’s going to point over at your corner and laugh at you. Now, them’s fightin’ words. What do you have to say to him?
Manny would just grin and respond, Ah, he…uh…he berry good fighter. He train hard. This be good fight. I…uh…I excited to fight him. He good fighter. It in God’s hands now.
Hasn’t lost in seven years, doesn’t even remember what it feels like to lose, beating the hell out of everybody who dares to dance in the ring with him, yet if an opponent slings ten different servings of shit his way, Manny would just say, “Ah, he berry good fighter.”
Other than the corner across the ring, Manny has no enemies. This is a man who is easy to revere. Manny Pacquiao: legendary yet nondescript. He’s short—five-six and some change—just like every other Filipino man. Shaggy, bristly dark hair covers his head, and a scruffy goatee frames his thick lips. He smiles much and says little. He’s lean, muscular only when shirtless. He has a considerable entourage, but you certainly wouldn’t pick Manny out of that gang as the famous one when they come walking toward you at the mall.
If Manny Pacquiao came up to me at a bar and proclaimed, with that Filipino twist to his tongue, “Excuse me, sir, no disrespect, but I just wanted to come over here and let you know that I think you look like the result of a baboon mating with a lemon tree. And also, again no disrespect, sir, but I will be going home with your girl this evening,” my immediate next move would be to pick him up by the seat of his trousers and pile-drive him out the front door. He simply can’t be taken seriously in street clothes. He’s too adorable.
Yet there he is, all five-six, twenty-million-dollars-or-more-guaranteed-per-fight of him, hailing from a country where many people’s dinner tonight will cost about a dollar. He’s literally a living legend, knight of the archipelago that is the Philippines, and whilst your friends may think that a Vegas bar is a cool spot to watch him fight, I suspected otherwise.
The heat in Manila scorches, year-round. Sizzling. Australia is hot, but it’s that “dry heat” that everyone tells you isn’t really so bad. The air in Manila, however, swirls lazily into a miniature cloud over your head and settles on your face and neck and shoulders like a burning, wet towel. Prone to sweat or not, you’re going to glisten during the day and then wake up at three in the morning drenched on top of your covers.
And Manila is dirty and dilapidated just like every other busy capital city across the developing world. Ivana and I rode through the city on our first night and felt lousy. The taxi driver—and this really did happen—reached to lock his door at the first red light. Trash litters the streets and clogs up the sewers, people live on sidewalks and along waterways in the city. The walls and foundations of many buildings are already crumbling or cracking. It is Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with cheerier people and an occasional marvel of architecture. A rat crossed my path in the street on night two, but I hesitated to change course at first because I thought it was a kitten.
I said to Aldrich, the manager of the Red Carabao Hostel: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but this city scares me a little. Quite filthy, no?”
“Oh, man,” he replied. “You should go check out the slums on the north end.”
But Ivana and I had only a couple of days in town. We caught up on communication with home. We went shopping and then to a pool party Aldrich was hosting in the chic Malate District by the Manila Bay. On the other side of town, we watched a cockfight, an event as brutal and as captivating as I’d heard.
I bought two tickets to see Manny fight. Ivana asked, “Isn’t that the game where they bite each other’s ears? I just will not support that.”
Watching Pacquiao fight in the Philippines is different than back home, for two reasons. One, you can’t bet on the fight. In the States, one of your friends can call up a bookie to lay down a bet, but you can’t do this in the Philippines.
“No. No bets,” my taxi driver had explained on Saturday night. “No betting on the fight.”
“Seriously?” I asked, confused. “This is a betting-man’s culture.”
He glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “But you can’t find anywhere to place a bet. Everybody going for Pacquiao.”
“Fair enough. What if I want to bet on Bradley?”
The driver looked at me sternly. “I advise you not to bet against Pacquiao in Manila.”
The second reason is that, back home, to watch a fight, you can pay entrance to a bar or you can simply beam the fight, via pay-per-view, onto the big screen at home. In the Philippines, though, your average citizen with a twelve-inch snowy-screen TV and four channels cannot pay to watch the fight on their sagging couch.
So people flock to the cinema. Starting at eight o’clock in the morning, each cinema hosts the fight on every one of their screens. They sell tickets for ten bucks and these theaters fill up until elbows brush elbows.
Ivana and I found our assigned seats fifteen rows back, on the aisle. For the first of the three undercard fights, the theater remained sparsely populated. We bought a bag of popcorn and two waters. A few people trickled in for the second fight, and the theater started to fill up during the third and final undercard, which ended early after a couple illegal blows. By the time the main event hit, the theater was packed. An electricity flowed through the people, a buzzing energy akin to what you feel at the finals of a live sporting event. Murmuring voices babbled throughout the theater, offering predictions. Glancing around, you could see the faces of these people all lit up—not only by the screen casting the flickering white light, but also from the thrill of it. From the excitement. People were pumped.
Nearly every man or woman in the city, senior citizen or child, had packed into a theater somewhere. Boxing is to the Philippines what soccer is to Guatemala—it’s the lifeblood of their country, the passion that draws them all together, if only for a few hours. It makes them all equals. Gives them their common ground, no matter their financial status or faith. Corner stands shut down; tricycles stop running. Unlike many American sports, this event offers no excuse for the ladies to assemble for some hassle-free shopping. They’re in theaters, too. They yell and scream and cheer just as loudly as their male counterparts. And sometimes a little louder. In an interview six months ago, Joe Tessitore asked, “What motivates you now, Manny?” and Manny answered simply, “I need to be the best I can be so that I can bring honor to my country.” It is a well-known fact that the crime rate in Manila drops to zero while Manny is fighting. (“Well,” snapped Aaron from Australia, back at the hostel. “He oughtta fight more often.”)
Ivana didn’t understand it. “This is crazy,” she marveled. “These people love this guy. My goodness.”
“There’s no one like him in American sports,” I told her. “We’ve got sports stars and pop-culture icons and an occasional trustworthy politician, but no one so beloved that they’re the spectacle of an entire country.” From the Team Pacquiao store at the mall, we each donned shirts displaying Manny’s face and autographed by the man himself. Manny-acs we were, but unlike Star Wars fanatics who flock to conventions to help forget they’re middle-aged and own lightsabers, we were there to see a fight.
“He’s a boxer,” she noted, leaning in to be heard over the prefight chatter around us.
“An exceptional boxer,” I replied, “dominating the sport on the world stage from a country that most people don’t know much about. He’s the everyman. He’s the identity of this country.”
Manny’s opponent, Tim Bradley, Jr., was undefeated, 28-0, with twelve knockouts, although this was his first notable fight, his first moment on the big stage. He’s serious and stern and focused. He’s handsome, with a chiseled chin and a face untarnished despite so many rounds in the ring. He’s a vegan, and the muscles rippling through his chest, abdomen, and arms look like they could deflect bullets.
Notably, though, he’s from the States, the site of the fight, with many Americans in the audience. Strutting with an easy confidence, Bradley entered the ring of the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The crowd met the announcer’s introduction of this phenomenal American boxer with only faint encouragement. Encouragement barely audible over a chorus of jeering. Jeering. Boos. Oh, the roar of this merciless assembly. He bounced, light on his feet, and you could see his gaze roving over the people. Vocal abuse. Taunting. Whistling. Bradley is an American. In America. Getting booed. Taunted. Cursed at. By other Americans.
Manny walked in, a more shuffling gait. The crowd went crazy. Absolutely nuts. “Eye of the Tiger” screamed from the sound system. Everyone bolted to their feet, jumping, waving, ablaze.
I mean damn, homes, that’s kinda fucked up. This man comes into your country and steals all the love? Come on, dude. They can barely even understand the words rolling out of Manny’s mouth, and they’re erupting for this man. They love him more than they love you, a lot more than they love you, actually, and this is your home turf.
I mean damn, homes.
Bradley later said the Pacman Mania didn’t rag him, but sure it did. Somebody says they hate you and they’re pulling against you, and you say, “Yeah, whatever man. Go climb a bush.” Somebody else says they hate you and they’re pulling against you, and you cover your ears and say, La la la la, I’m not listening. But then more and more people show up at your door armed with hate. And more. Vegas has you as a 7-2 underdog. And then you realize that nobody outside your apartment really believes in you and that everybody—everybody!—is cheering against you. This is the kind of reception that makes a man think twice about his own abilities. I’ve worked hard, but am I in over my head here? Am I good enough to be in this conversation?
Of course Bradley told reporters that he was prepared. He wasn’t mean or engaged in hyperbole, was rather matter-of-fact. He stared into the camera eyes with a calm, level gaze. “I don’t care what [Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach] says, I’m ready to go…Manny Pacquiao hasn’t seen a fighter like me in a long time…I’m right in my prime. I’m very quick, very good reflexes…I get in the ring, and [other boxers] say I don’t have any power, but then they feel me and feel my strength. As soon as they get hit they want to hold me…You look at all [Manny’s] fights—he doesn’t fight well inside…If you miss this fight you are going to miss some greatness. He has to deal with me on June ninth and that’s going to be a tough task.” Bradley leaned forward a little, his expression completely still. “Pacquiao’s worn-out, tired. I can see it in his eyes, the wrinkles. This boy’s not ready for me.”
Pacquiao’s response? ABC asked him whether he had a special message for Bradley before the fight. He replied with that same friendly smile. “I send wishes of good luck. And God bless us.”
Sportswriters and promoters tossed out the word upset a few times but only to intensify anticipation. Everyone knew who would leave the ring a winner, and every time Manny’s mug in the locker room flashed onscreen, his countrymen and women in the theater around me gasped or clapped or both. After the anthems played out their final notes and the appropriate sponsors had been recognized, there came a moment’s pause. That moment you hold your breath just before the fight starts. The energy in that tiny Filipino theater roused the hairs on my forearm. I shivered and sat up straight in my seat.
The bell rang. Both fighters darted forward, dancing light on their feet and throwing some slight punches—at first, just light taps glancing against skin without real impact—testing the waters. Then they started playing for real. Some nice body combinations by Bradley and a couple of counters by Pacquiao.
Bradley blocked a powerful left.
A powerful left by Manny landed on Bradley’s cheek. He tried to twist to avoid the devastating blow, but you could see how it vibrated through him. Folks around me shouted, “Ahhhhh!”
Another hard body combination, a series of quick jabs from Bradley. The hate had amped up Bradley’s roar. On the edge of my seat now, I could see his revved-up concentration, focus, the speed of his movements. He was ready.
I spared a glance over at Ivana. She’d fixed her gaze on the screen; nothing would pull her away.
I turned back in time to see a big left by Pacquiao.
A flurried assault from Pacquiao. Bradley wobbled, clearly shaken by the battering his ribs and face had taken.
Pacquiao hooked Bradley, and the crowd around me exploded. Their emotions were tethered to every punch.
The ref warned Bradley about a blow delivered below the belt. The little man next to me sat down to nervously stuff his face with popcorn between rounds.
The rounds rolled on. Bradley landed a short, snappy jab, and Manny smiled and nodded. “Good one.”
I was caught up in this moment, too. The energy. The fervor. I cried out to Ivana over the chaos in the theater, “Why do I care so much! This is craziness!”
A short left inside by Pacman, who dominated the sixth round. Every moment of a main-event boxing match is as exciting as the last 3.8 seconds of a basketball game, the final drive in football, the bottom of the ninth in baseball. A knockout hangs in the balance.
And I thought: In the States, sport matters, but it doesn’t really matter. In the Philippines, Pacquiao defines these people around me in this theater. Pacman stepped out into the world and conquered it in the name of his countrymen.
A short right by Manny, and Bradley countered with a left of his own. Both men panted as they kept up the shimmy, sweat rolling over their muscled torsos.
A drop of blood beaded on Manny’s lip. The lady sitting on the center aisle two rows ahead of us yelled at the screen, though I couldn’t tell whether out of rage or joy.
A sharp uppercut by Bradley, and Manny countered with a left of his own.
The pace slowed.
A one-two by Bradley, followed by a furious exchange. It didn’t look as if any of this was hurting Pacquiao; an easy smile flashed over his face between rounds. Despite the blood on his lip, his movements remained light and quick. He bounced back from each blow as if it had glanced off instead of rocking through him. Still, his trainer wasn’t happy about round ten. A nearby mic caught his voice—“You let that round go,” he said.
Bradley landed a solid right on Pacman’s jaw, but the wiry Manny responded with a splendid left that sent Bradley reeling. Ivana smiled. The guy on my left let out a spontaneous, “Hey!”
In the twelfth round, Bradley needed a knockout so that the decision wouldn’t go to the scorecards. He started quick, a hard hook to the ribcage and a couple of combinations throughout, but he didn’t get it, didn’t have enough power for Pacquiao’s chin.
The vitality around me dampened slightly, progressively. The crowd’s energy slowly drained from one round to the next, despite the still-cheery faces. We watched before us an older, less dominant Pacquiao. Two years before, Bradley would have been staring at the ceiling of the arena, toes pointing to the sky. That day, though, Pacquiao had probably lost round one, perhaps round two, but regained control early and then cruised through until the end. He lost round ten, and arguably won rounds eleven and twelve. Both fighters slumped in their corner seats, panting with exhaustion. I turned to Ivana. “Well, there was that. The crowd didn’t get the knockout they wanted, but at least their man won.”
“I don’t understand exactly what just went on,” she said. “And you shouldn’t even try to explain it to me, but this was fun.”
“Cool. What do you want to do now?” As I shot the last two gulps of water from my bottle, something crazy happened. Without a knockout, the judges’ scorecards call the fight. The announcer blared over the loudspeaker at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and Bradley’s arms lifted to the sky. Battered but triumphant. I turned to the screen. Everyone in Manny’s corner turned to one another in disbelief.
Manny knelt and prayed, while Bradley danced and hugged. The audience booed with ferocity. Both fighters finally made their way through the rabble to pat the other on the back.
Around me, inside the theater, the assemblage roused. Everyone gasped, shouted, and jeered. Mouths hung open. Some collapsed back into their seats in disbelief. Others mumbled about corruption to the fellows sitting next to them. No one threw a drink at the screen. Not a single shriek rang out. Instead, the mood deflated. People began to meander out, discussing the unbelievable news and just sort of staring blankly up at the screen. One by one, they shook their heads and wandered out.
“SHOCKER!” a local Filipino paper screamed the next morning. Another showed a photo of Pacquiao’s mother, Dionesia, passed out on the ground after having heard the verdict.
Bradley later deflected the criticism: “There are three judges out there. That’s the way they judged it. What do you want me to do?”
Pacquiao was confused but unaffected. He shrugged a little as he offered the reporters a response to the chaos following his apparent loss. “I don’t even remember if he hurt me with even one punch. One hundred percent I believe I won the fight. But the decision has already been done. So you have to give credit to Bradley.”
Pacquiao’s trainer called for an investigation, saying, “I think the judges had their eyes closed.”
CompuBox, a computerized scoring system that records punches landed, showed that Pacquiao connected on 253 of 751 total punches, while Bradley landed 159 out of the 839 he threw. Pacman landed more hits in ten out of twelve rounds. He struck seventy-two more power punches than his opponent, and that’s a high number for a twelve-round bout between two well-trained warriors. Every percentage favored Manny. He outboxed Bradley according to every statistic.
Something wasn’t right. Sportswriters and sportscasters unanimously tallied the fight in Pacquiao’s favor, most by wide margins. Harold Lederman, a legendary former boxing judge and current analyst, scored it eleven-to-one for Manny.
The World Boxing Organization reviewed the controversial verdict with a panel of five judges. All five of them saw the fight in Pacquiao’s favor.
Back in Manila, no one really seemed to know how to react in this situation.
In an e-mail a few days prior, Pops told me to watch my ass if Manny lost. The mere thought had never occurred to me.
I stepped outside, blinking against the bright sun. With the crime rate dropping to zero during a Pacquiao fight, I expected riots and pillaging afterward. And stones in the air. And burning cars. Maybe some debauchery. At least a couple scared little naked kids standing around crying for their mothers.
But the town fell under an impenetrable hush. I stood outside the theater and let my gaze stray up and down the street. Groups huddled in peace to discuss the conspiracy—lips tightened into thin frowns, many shaking their heads. But there was no outrage, no flailing hands and red faces.
A legend had fallen, and inside the mall, men sipped coffee and women examined dresses on sale. Outside, the markets reopened. People hailed taxis.