I was on my way home from the supermarket when I realized that Manny Paquiao’s bout with Juan Manuel Marquez was just a few hours ago. When my wife was checking her phone for the results, I joked that Pacquiao lost, knowing that such a outcome was unlikely. As I read the news, my smile was wiped off my face. Manny was knocked out, and knocked out cold, in the sixth round.
Being a Filipino sports fan for the last 30 years brings little ROI on the global stage. We are fanatical for basketball but too small to compete internationally. We lack the expertise and equipment to train many of our elite athletes to be truly elite. And until recently, we’ve been too selfish to play the purest of team sports that is soccer.
So it’s no wonder that the athletic areas where we excel the most are those which require the least. They tend to be individual, basic, inexpensive and accessible. Let’s call them the three B’s: Bowling, Billiards and Boxing.
We’ve had a gold medalist in bowling, and world champions in pool. But you’ll never see them heralded in Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated or The New York Times. For the longest time, a Filipino athlete was an unknown. A pushover. A nobody.
Manny Pacquiao changed everything.
He came along in the typical bruising style most Filipino boxers are known for. Relentless punching with no regard for personal safety. Brawn not brains. Mind under matter. But his physical gifts stood out: blinding speed, endless stamina and remarkable power. He got by with these early in his career. And when he joined the big boys, he found out he needed not just will, but skill.
It was lucky he found Freddie Roach, who saw his gifts and took him on. And it was a blessing that he had the smarts to adapt and learn to be a true ring tactician. Longtime Filipino fans will tell you that his rise seemed miraculous.
The moment I realised that Manny had hit it big was in his first match with Marco Antonio Barrera, who at the time was considered pound-for-pound the best featherweight fighter in the world. I was just happy to see that Manny reach what I thought would be the pinnacle of his career. But after Manny pummelled Barrera, I was in complete shock. Could it be that a Filipino was the best in his class? In his sport?
Manny’s stock continued to rise with each succeeding big bout. He lost his first fight with Erik Morales and was beaten badly in a draw with Marquez. But he won each rematch in convincing fashion, fighting smartly and sticking to strategy. Each succeeding win became more and more resounding and one-sided. Manny Pacquiao became something that the Philippines never had: A dominating superstar in a high-profile global sport.
His powers became so great that he no longer took on opponents in his own weight class. Many thought his superfight with Oscar De La Hoya, a gold-medalist and boxing superstar in his own right, was downright foolish (myself included). But heavens be praised, he made Oscar look like his namesake statue. He continued to overpower bigger fighters meant to overpower him. His quickness and explosiveness remained constant despite his weight change. He became legendary, recognizable as a single name: Ali. Leonard. Pacquiao.
A worldwide Filipino icon. Was this really happening? Was it all a dream?
It’s hard to describe to Americans how much Manny Pacquiao means to us. Yes, you’ve seen the headlines where the whole nation stops to watch his matches. Rebel factions fighting against the government hold truces. Crime rates plummet while heart attacks soar. Entire towns fill public squares. Movie theatres feature his fights as the main bill. When I was in living in Malaysia, I knew Pacquiao won that day when a nearby building (full of my fellow countrymen) screamed in joy over a knockdown.
You have to realise that Filipinos for the last three decades have had nearly nothing to look forward to. We’ve witnessed multiple coups d’état and grown tired of overthrowing our own heads of state. We’ve seen innumerable scandals. Gotten used to graft and corruption. Violent crimes, deteriorating infrastructure, red tape, disease, yearly typhoons, and occasional earthquakes are a way of life. It’s a miracle that we’re such cheerful people.
So if there’s anything that’s sure in Philippine life, it’s uncertainty. It’s why our diaspora exists, to escape the hopelessness of it all. But in Manny’s meteoric rise, we were all there with him. Hoping against all hope that he wouldn’t lose. Hoping “we” would win. And win he did.
Manny gave us hope. And at his peak, he gave us certainty. Was there any other time, where we Pinoys knew in our very bones that any of us would win?
You will read how boxing is a brutal exercise (and it is very much so), robbing its pugilists of their wits when they fight too hard and too long. But I don’t know of any other sport where so many of its warriors come from so much hardship. They fight to escape misery. Their metaphor is their reality. So when someone like Manny who comes from virtually nothing, from nowhere, showing a nation what we can do with our bare hands, it’s glorious and undeniable.
I write this today a little sad knowing Manny has suffered a clear cut defeat. His loss is felt by all of us who rode along with him. It was a great ride, full of ecstasy, uproar and triumph. For everything Manny provided, I am beyond grateful. It will be hard for him to give up the glory, especially with his entourage who has latched onto him hoping that ride’s not over. It’s my fervent wish that he finds the courage to retire and serve as a public servant with the same fervour he showed in the ring.
The good times are over. But they’ll never be forgotten. Thank you Manny for everything.