MANNY PACQUIAO: THE BEACON OF FILIPINO PRIDE
 

MANILA, FEBRUARY 16, 2012 (PHILSTAR) PEOPLE ASIA - By Glenn Gale (People Asia) - Pacquiao’s greatest singular achievement is giving Filipinos — home or abroad, rich or poor, lowly or mighty — a strong sense of belonging. They can hold their heads up proud and high with the very mention of his name which, fueled by his spectacular sporting achievements, resonates globally.

It’s a balmy November night in Las Vegas where the skyline melts on forever — jagged and glittering, blinking and winking. And somewhere in there, Manny Pacquiao, boxing champion of the world eight times over, is doing the business. His footwork fast and nimble, the jabs quick and powerful — though the terminal velocity his legions of fans come to expect whenever he is shuffling on canvas is delivered only in short bursts.

If boxing experts and armchair pundits were to be taken at their word, Mexican challenger Juan Manuel Marquez was expected to get a reality check with the laws of gravity before the bout reached the halfway mark. But no such luck for the Pacman fandom (and the panting punters). Marquez puts up a surprisingly dogged fight right through the full 12 rounds, and the Philippine nation catching the live action on TV screens scattered right across the archipelago heaves a psychic sigh of collective relief when their hero’s hand is raised in victory. The undisputed WBO welterweight champion lives to rule another day.

One week on, and the matter of yet another $25-million payday taken care of in Las Vegas (and due homage paid at the high altars of this city’s principal revenue earner, no doubt!) the man considered the beacon of Filipino pride is back in town. Now the scene shifts to the sprawling complex of the House of Representatives where he assumes his alter ego of the Honorable Emmanuel Pacquiao, Representative of the Lone District of Sarangani.

Here at the 15th Congress of the Lower House, there are two forces in motion. One represented by 284 of its 285 members who move purposefully about the place unconcerned, unheralded and mostly unrecognized. And then there is Rep. Pacquiao.

The inevitable circus that hurriedly materializes wherever and whenever he surfaces in his homeland is in full flow as pushy TV cameramen, anxious photogs, tense reporters, frenzied members of the public (including on this day even a nun or two) and starstruck janitors and security guards jostle to get up close and personal as he makes his way from his office at an adjoining building to the session hall some 200 m away. A couple of congressmen spot the scrambling procession and display deft footwork as they slip in at Pacquiao’s heels and take up position by his right shoulder, thereby affording themselves the incalculable public mileage which comes with being seen so close to the people’s champ. A harassed Pacquiao staffer shares that it’s like this every time he attends Congress — and he has been showing up there since he was elected 18 months ago!

Brief respite comes when he is able to disappear by his lonesome through the members’ only door and down a short corridor on to the session hall where it’s strictly congressmen territory. But his arrival in there is greeted with the sight of several congressmen (who, unlike Pacquiao, probably don’t embrace sweat that readily) in danger of scorching the blue carpet in their haste to get to him and touch the hem of his garment.

As more lawmakers gather hastily around Pacquiao, the atmosphere shifts from overstated reverence to high excitement to camp theater. Some press mobile phones to his ear and ask him to greet someone or other, while others produce cameras and press-gang colleagues to be photographers for countless poses. Autographs are solicited on all manner of objects, and one or two even put on solo performances of shadow boxing a la Marquez for his benefit. Pacquiao’s body language signals a slight discomfort with the attention, and to think that here in the legislative chamber he is in the company of equals. The scenario plays out for over 30 minutes and only breaks up when the Speaker calls the session to order so that the business of state can proceed.

Pacquiao for president?

Sports is said to be more dependable than sex, more addictive than drugs and definitely more engaging than politics. But in boxing, as in all sports, there is an afterlife — if you know when to quit. And since the man himself tells me that he is three fights away from retirement, then it is in the political arena that the next stage of Pacquiao’s life is set to play out.

Despite routinely notching up world boxing titles as if he were picking them off a supermarket shelf, politics has presented a completely different sort of challenge. Here he has always had to punch well above his weight, as he discovered when suffering his first knockout in the political ring against an opponent who was a lightweight when it came to size but a heavyweight when it came to political clout.

That defeat for the congressional seat of his hometown of General Santos City in the politically volatile region of Mindanao to demure Rep. Darlene Custodio taught Pacquiao a harsh lesson that success and adulation in the sporting amphitheater does not always transfer seamlessly onto the political stage. But suitably chastened, he exchanged his swashbuckling celebrity persona for a voter-friendly and more focused image and won a seat in Congress three years later.

Not one for the customary political bravado and verbosity, Pacquiao is more given to not using one word when none would do. He comes across as diffident and painfully unassuming. The brute and braggart in him is just for the boxing ring.

But aged 32, boxing may just be a prologue. His most startling public act, if he ever so chooses, would be to run for President of the Republic. To some, the very idea of Pacquiao as a future President may strain credulity. Is he really chief executive material capable of developing perspective on matters beyond the orbit of his own celebrity? Can he deliver on a new form of politics? Does stardom and glamour give him access to hidden sources of wisdom? And how about the idea of First Lady Jinkee Pacquiao holding court at Malacañang Palace, or the thought of delightfully flamboyant First Mom Dionisia being a rhinestone’s throw away from the corridors of power?

But the stark truth is that in an era when sports stars come prepackaged — what with multi-faceted handlers, the relentlessly attendant media whirl and product endorsements that bring in coveted TV face time — politics at the highest level is an extremely feasible post-career job alternative, and in recent years Pacquiao has embarked on something of a political odyssey.

Furthermore, thanks to the modern-day prerequisites for the job, the line between celebrity and high public office has been blurred. Celebrity is the most coveted structure in today’s society. More than ever, candidates need instant name recognition, charisma, media skills and access to a whole lot of moolah. And who better fits that bill than a sporting icon who has developed and matured on the national stage, and in the eyes of an adoring public?

Pacquiao is fully aware that there are many who are wary of his political ambitions. But he is equally aware that he carries the burden of countless Filipinos who see him as an instrument of destiny.

The opportunity to quiz him about politics comes when he invites me to ride with him on the trip from Fort Bonifacio Global City (where the photo shoot for this feature has just been wrapped up) to his congressional office in Quezon City. While other congressmen have to hope that their exclusive No. 8 license plate will help leverage their vehicles through the incessant Metro Manila traffic, Pacquiao has two uniformed police outriders to smooth his way onwards.

In the cozy and undisturbed comfort of his bulletproof Escalade SUV — with just a CD of Filipino folk legend Freddie Aguilar playing softly on the car stereo — I venture forth about his political aspirations. “Actually, I want my political career to take the same path as my boxing career,” he says quite self-assuredly. “In boxing, I started at the bottom, struggled to get recognition at first; but slowly proved myself and worked my way to the very top. That’s my aim for politics as well. I didn’t start so well when I lost the first time I ran for Congress. But since then, I am slowly beginning to prove to the people what I can do for them. And if the people will stay with me and support me all the way to the top, and if that means the presidency, so be it. But it is all in the hands of God. Everything in my life is guided by God because I have put all my trust in Him. All the success I have, and all the many blessings I enjoy are because of God.”

There is little doubt his strong faith as a devout and practicing Catholic is pivotal to his life. Interestingly, the only two items jutting out of the seat pocket of his car are the Bible and a prayer book. “When I am alone in my car going from one appointment to another, the Bible is my company,” he says, adding, “That’s where I get my inner strength.”

He goes on: “My faith is very important in my life. I never forget to pray every day, and often my wife Jinkee and I pray together, and whenever I am around at home I pray with my kids at night. We even hold Bible classes at home. I feel it is important to bring up my children so that they believe in God and grow up to be kind, caring and respectful of other people. I don’t want my fame to affect them in any way.”

The phenomenal growth of televised sports (and its lucrative pay-per-view sidekick) has run parallel with Pacquiao’s equally phenomenal emergence on the international boxing stage, earning him more money than most people ever see outside of a Monopoly board. In the Philippines, boxing has become the national dialogue, steering conversation whenever Pacquiao is fighting. Seemingly immune from the fear of a losing streak, his bouts bring a feeling of community.

And now that money — more or less — dwarfs the boxing arena, it’s no longer just a metaphor for the sport, it’s a microcosm. So much so that Pacquiao has become the catalyst for millions of impoverished youth all over the world who view boxing as a barometer to wealth and fame.

Pacquiao himself doesn’t appear to be sidetracked by the lure of big bucks, not even the single-minded pursuit of a monster paycheck with Floyd Mayweather in a match-up that everyone connected with boxing seems to want. He doesn’t even let the name Mayweather pass his lips when I ask him about his next three opponents in the ring. “I will fight whoever,” he says with a cursory flick of his hand. “My manager Bob Arum will decide that. And for me, it does not matter who.”

In the Philippines, as elsewhere, boxing has traditionally been a guy thing. While men passionately debated Pacquiao’s left hook, their women sat quietly sipping their martinis. This is no longer the norm. Pacquiao has sparked a whole new interest in boxing among women. And while women make up only fraction of the audience, they can be equally passionate.

Jinkee

But there’s something else. Women also identify with his wife Jinkee. With designer brands unarguably the right calling cards in this gilded age of overnight fortunes, they marvel at her ability to accessorize so stylishly on Hermès, Prada and Cartier — and they blush agreeably at her well-chronicled gilt complex! They covet her luxurious lifestyle which is equated with social respectability. But, above all, they share her angst, generated by rumored marital tales involving the couple that have become the national staple — with the marital infidelity debate advanced by TV tattle and tabloid mileage.

If the rumor mill is to be heeded, then the lady has sure been through the emotional wringer. A punching bag for the stress, anguish and sometimes even mortification that he has supposedly generated. To say she has taken it on the chin is an understatement — she has taken it all over. But to her credit, Jinkee has rarely every displayed her distress in public. She is the archetypal Filipino spouse who remains utterly devoted to her man. Her love and loyalty never appear to waver. And — in a very Filipino sort of way — it seems the same goes for him.

I get a chance to take in the other side of the Manny-Jinkee marital debate when I receive a call to join the couple at their new $9-million abode in the wealthy residential enclave of Forbes Park where they plan to move into early in the new year. News that the Pacquiaos were around had obviously circulated fast through the domestic circles of the swanky neighborhood, for dozens of people are holding vigil outside the front gate when I arrive.

Walking through the spacious but empty house (soon to be filled with furniture ordered from the US) that is enveloped in tall glass and flanked by infinity pools, I spot Jinkee down by the garden sitting on some steps. She beckons directions on how I can get to her through the glass maze. Once down there I park myself next to her, she looking relaxed and content in white shorts and top, hubby in laidback dress code of tee and jeans is just a few feet away giving instructions to a workman. On the porch, their two daughters are line dancing to disco music while the two nannies try gamely to keep up with the beat.

Jinkee points out that she has instructed the minders, aides and bodyguards who usually surround Manny to stay outside in the drive. So here it’s just them — with me privy to get a glimpse of how, far from the madding crowd and public gaze, the Pacquiaos get the chance to be a normal family.

Music over, four-year-old Mary Divine Grace a.k.a. “Princess” walks across and leans fondly on mom while two-year-old Queen Elizabeth a.k.a. “Queenie” hops on Dad’s knee. The affectionate banter between the quartet is indicative of a family (completed by sons 10-year-old Michael and 11-year-old Emmanuel Jr. a.k.a. “Jimuel”) that is close-knit and loving. Noticing that his kids talk to him in English, I ask if this is always the case. “Yeah, even if I talk to them in Tagalog, they answer back in English, because they attend a school where they are taught only in English,” he responds. “Actually, it’s thanks to them that my English is improving,” he adds gleefully.

The discussion then moves to a family holiday they plan to take over Christmas in Italy, with the deliberations dwelling over whether the European winter may be too much for their four children. At this point I casually ask Jinkee how exactly she spells her name since I have seen two or three versions of it. This gives her an impromptu cue to ask Manny to lift the sleeve of his shirt and display the name “Jinkee” tattooed over a heart on his left bicep. When I point out that he really wears her heart on his sleeve she gives me a playful high-five, while he smiles timidly.

I lob a gentle question about the marital rumors and the couple glance at each other and shrug their shoulders. “Of course, it hurts when I read and hear the things that are being said about my family,” he shares. “But Jinkee and I prefer to deal with that in private and share our tears also in private, because we know God is on our side and helps us get through all the negative things. Jinkee is my rock, and I am so thankful that God has blessed me with a wife who is one of a kind, and also four fabulous children.”

It seems the media-generated barbs tickle rather than sting. The couple give the impression that it is so much cooler to be offended by nothing. And even a cynical observer privileged to get this close to them and catch them off-guard can easily see that, despite the recent juicy tales of alleged infidelity on his side (and the Blackberry rage on hers), this is a marriage that is solid and enduring.

We are at a victory party hosted for him at the Midas Hotel by Solar Sports Channel where he uncomplainingly poses for probably his 100th photograph of the evening. If “Manny…Manny…Manny” is the jubilant cry that accompanies him into the ring, then “picture…picture…picture” is the imploring plea that follows Pacquiao unceasingly everywhere when he’s out of the ring. Having observed the routine close hand, one factor is constant: his smile is always ready and sincere, and his eyes fix on the camera with the same intensity he uses when he faces a boxing opponent. “It is sometimes a strain to pose for picture after picture,” he concedes. “But that is part of the responsibility that comes with fame and I have to accept it. Anyway, if I can make people happy through my boxing career by merely posing for pictures with them, that’s fine with me.”

To the edge and back

As sporting superstars go, Pacquiao was neither a child of privilege or a prodigy coddled from a young age and trained to single-minded focus on his chosen sport at the expense of all things. When he decamped from General Santos City to Manila at the age of 13 and was trying to hone his raw boxing talent, he was desolate, deprived and at times desperate. If surviving was living on the edge, he had been to the edge and back. On days that he was hungry, he fed himself with just his love of boxing — boxing was his nutrient, his light source. Acquiring self-esteem was the story of his early life. “I even had to claim I was 18 years (old) even though I was only 16 in order to get my boxing license,” he recalls with a sheepish grin.

He concedes that he constantly reminds himself that had it not been for a few lucky breaks along the way — all of which he attributes to Divine intervention — he would probably still be working in a construction site in downtown Manila (and) earning minimum wage instead of the eight-figure dollar denominated payday he now commands for a single fight.

“The biggest satisfaction I now have is knowing what I have achieved for myself, my family and my country in the boxing ring,” he says with justifiable pride. “Nobody can take that away from me.”

But perhaps Pacquiao’s greatest singular achievement is giving Filipinos whether home or abroad, rich or poor, lowly or mighty, a strong sense of belonging. They can hold their heads up proud and high with the very mention of his name which, fueled by his spectacular sporting achievements, resonates globally.

Back in his small but functional office at Congress — distinguishable from the offices of the other congressmen who share the long corridor with him in that there is always a crowd of people hanging around outside the door waiting for the chance to talk with him — he asks me to join him for a late afternoon lunch of soup, noodles, fried chicken and rice, served by a middle-aged retainer who waits on him like a doting aunt. As she piles his plate with rice, he points out that he can eat what he likes since he is not on the punishing regimen of diet and exercise, which he undergoes over several weeks prior to every fight. But he he stays away from pork and drinks mostly water. He also plays regular games of basketball to stay in shape.

Lunch is interspersed by a congressman who drops in to ask him to autograph a pair of boxing gloves for his nephew, and a governor from a southern province who has come by for nothing more than some small talk and a picture op.

Three uniformed members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines are also ushered in, one bearing a notebook and measuring tape. Now that the AFP has deemed him an honorary Lieutenant Colonel, it seems Pacquiao needs to be fitted out with a uniform. As the guy with the measuring tape goes to work, feverishly measuring Pacquiao from head to toe (Pacquiao noting loudly when he prepares to wrap the tape around his waistline that it measures 30 inches), the more senior of the AFP trio informs Pacquiao that they will have to measure him for five different ceremonial uniforms. “But I’m only just a reservist,” Manny says somewhat bashfully.

Maybe just a reservist now. But could Pacquiao — boxer, politician, entertainer and, above all, a decent and humble human being — add Commander-in-Chief to his resume in the not too distant future?

God only knows!


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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