LONDON — There are two contests on the horizon for Manny Pacquiao, eight-weight world champion and Filipino Congressman: His trilogy fight this weekend in Las Vegas with Timothy Bradley and then, next month, the race to be elected to the Senate in his homeland.
Boxing may have been the conduit for Pacquiao’s rags-to-riches tale, from sleeping in cardboard boxes in a
shanty town to estimated career earnings of over US$500 million
But it is in politics where the 37-year-old’s real ambitions lie, with his quasi-messianic desire to rid his country of the poverty he experienced in the small town of Kibawe in Mindanao, the second largest of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands.
“Pacman” had stowed away, aged 12, on a boat to Manila to fight for US$2 a time, half of which he would send back to his mother to help support his five siblings.
Some believe Pacquiao will go on to become president of the Philippines. They used to say it was a pipe dream, until he was unexpectedly voted into the House of Representatives in May 2010. It was unexpected, and decisive.
He represents his constituents in Sarangani, the province his wife, Jinkee, comes from. He was re-elected by a landslide in 2013 in a contest against hitherto ruling political dynasties.
But he could not have followed his political ambitions without boxing.
Masterminding Pacquiao’s pugilistic career is Bob Arum, the octogenarian promoter who also knows a thing or two about politics.
When John F Kennedy was elected president of the United States, Arum was recruited for the Department of Justice tax division, under Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother.
“Dealing with Manny Pacquiao is not like dealing with just a fighter, it’s like dealing with the emissary of a major foreign country,” Arum told The Telegraph. “Everybody puts their two cents in — public officials, even the president. He’s a national treasure in the Philippines.”
Such is Pacquiao’s standing in his home country that it is written into Philippines law that the army will go to his aid if his family is in danger. His humility and popularity help.
Said Vegas-based Arum: “Pacquiao’s deep desire is to bring social reform to the Philippines so that people live a decent life, get medical care. Up to now, nobody has really been listening and he has been spending money out of his own pocket to build hospitals and to supply hospital beds and give scholarships.
“In order for that to be successful, you’ve got to do it on a nationwide basis and there’s far too little of that in the Philippines. Manny would make those changes possible.”
The real test for Pacquiao is whether he can transfer his phenomenal popularity as a sports personality into political capital.
Arum said: “A lot of athletes talk a good game, but I know no athlete who has put his own funds and own resources into doing what he preaches the way Manny Pacquiao does.”
Freddie Roach, the boxer’s trainer, has seen his charge carry two roles. “It’s Manny’s ambition to improve his country,” he said. “I’m not concerned that he will lose his love of boxing. He still knows what he does best. Without boxing, he wouldn’t be where he is today.”
In his home town, General Santos City, Pacquiao has donated funds for ambulances and hospital beds, and set up a school, with grants for children and families. Those close to him fear he will end up running out of money.
Pacquiao courted controversy when he recently labelled homosexuals as “worse than animals”. Arum does not believe it will harm the fighter in the elections. “What he said was inappropriate, particularly the analogies. But his belief that he’s against same-sex marriage is a belief he’s entitled to,” he said.
“Remember, 70 per cent of Filipinos are Roman Catholics and the other 30 per cent are even more stringent, as they are evangelical Christians. I don’t think it hurt him at all in the Philippines.”
Running for Senate in the Philippines is a nationwide election. Every six years, the people vote for 12 new senators — there are 24 in all — for a six-year term. Pacquiao is running sixth in the polls at present.
Once one of South-east Asia’s best-performing economies, the Philippines is saddled with a large national debt, and tens of millions of people live in poverty. It also possesses one of the highest birth rates in Asia, with forecasters predicting that the population could top 140 million within three decades, pushing the economy past breaking point.
“He’s extraordinarily popular in a country that doesn’t have many sports stars,” said Arum. “Manny Pacquiao came up from a very humble background. People relate to him. It doesn’t surprise me that when he fights, there’s no crime in the Philippines. Manny is one of the greatest because of where he came from, where he rose, how dedicated he was and what a genuinely decent person he is.” THE DAILY TELEGRAPH