When Manny Pacquiao was introduced to the crowd prior to the Miguel Cotto-Joshua Clottey bout in Madison Square Garden last June, nearly 18,000 fans, most of them Puerto Ricans out to support Cotto, their native son, erupted in cheers. That so many boricuas in attendance applauded a Filipino fighter whom they knew might some day be an opponent for Cotto is testament to the popularity of an athlete who stands apart from his contemporaries the same way Man o’ War stood apart from a cotton mule in the Yazoo Delta.
Long before he became a household name by whipping Oscar De La Hoya in 2008, Manny Pacquiao was on his way to the Hall of Fame by virtue of his stellar record against topnotch competition. But his amazing cultural standing in the Philippines–reminiscent of the reverence Puerto Ricans accorded Wilfredo Gomez, Sixto Escobar, and Felix Trinidad, but on a much larger scale, of course–is amazing to the outsider. Films, television shows, music, websites, commercials, politics, post office stamps–name the Filipino medium and Pacquiao has a part in its message. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo even announced a national holiday after Pacquiao demolished Ricky Hatton last May.
The Philippines has a rich boxing history, one that includes such talents as Ceferino Garcia, Flash Elorde, Small Montana, Little Dado and the incomparable Pancho Villa, but Pacquiao may well be on his way to outstripping them all. If so, Pacquiao would add a further distinction to his legacy: as one of the rare contemporary boxers to actually surpass his predecessors.
In addition to the adoration of nearly 100 million Filipinos, Pacquiao has also begun infiltrating the often hermetic American consciousness. Not long ago, Pacquiao was named to the 2009 Time 100, a list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Needless to say, it is not often that a boxer makes it into Time Magazine, or any other mainstream American media outlet for that matter, and his inclusion is a sign of his much wider acceptance.
After all, his status as “National Fist” is not the only reason Pacquiao has become a phenomenon. Despite his negligible English, Pacquiao has earned a following in the United States–where foreign boxers rarely break through into superstar status–partly because of a humble demeanor seemingly at odds with his ferocious ring style. This is in stark contrast to some of the high profile braggarts in the sport whose boasts are nearly always undermined by the notorious “Death of a Thousand Jabs” strategy come fight night. In the case of someone like Edison Miranda or Zab Judah, crowing is almost certainly a comical preamble to being knocked senseless in the ring. Pacquiao, similar to the gentlemanly Alexis Arguello, sees no need for the heckling routine. When Pacquiao left Ricky Hatton counting atoms in Las Vegas, he made sure to remind the world that bad taste is not in his DNA: “I was just doing my job in the ring and doing my best to make people happy,” he said. “Nothing personal–I am just doing my job.”
Even defeat could not undermine his class. After losing to Erik Morales in 2005, for example, Pacquiao simply shrugged and apologized. He did not blubber on about poisoned Vaseline; he did not claim that his allergies were acting up or that his dog collar was on too tight during the ring walk; he did not cry about the referee or the judges; he did not invoke the fantastic laws of some unknown parallel universe and pretend that he had actually won the fight despite losing clearly. No, he merely said he did his best and came back to knock out the hard-bitten Morales twice in succession. “All I’m trying to do,” he once said, “is make people satisfied with my performance, not only in the ring, but as a champion outside the ring.”
This attitude is so unusual today that it makes one wonder whether Pacquiao is in the right sport. In fact, one of the main reasons Pacquiao is so popular is that he stands as a symbolic counterpoint to all the wooden nickels currently weighing down a pursuit that threatens to sink alongside Jai Alai as a spectator sport in America. Where other fighters, many of them beneficiaries of the HBO “Clash for Clunkers” program, seek the easiest fights possible and are somehow illogically lauded for it, Pacquiao has earned his fame by taking on one challenge after another. Pacquiao takes the dusty cliche of “I will fight anyone, anyplace, anytime,” and concretizes it. Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez, Oscar De la Hoya, and Ricky Hatton are only some of the names Pacquiao stepped through the ropes against. Instead of entering the ring routinely as a 7-1 favorite the way so many fighters do, Pacquiao has consistently fought only the biggest names possible. Pacquiao is not in search of fighters two or three divisions below him–as is the norm for his slacker contemporaries–he is searching two or three divisions above him.
And when the bell rings? Well, when the bell rings, Pacquiao resembles a supernova. Elite fighters today rarely understand the value of entertainment or closing the show. Some, when facing outclassed competition, prefer to soliloquize to ringside television commentators during fights or mock their opponents, more or less acknowledging that the entire affair is a joke being played on the public. Others violate the “win today, look good tomorrow” clause by never bothering to fulfill the second half of the equation. Still others become “champions” and multimillionaires by abusing crash test dummies and full-time policemen in the ring. Sixty years ago, the kind of fight put on by Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov in New York City last year would have been stopped by an incensed referee somewhere around the seventh round and declared a “no contest.” Then a formal hearing to determine whether penalties should be handed down to the two stink-out artists involved would follow. These days, boxers work under long-term, guaranteed contracts and rarely extend themselves any more than necessary. Not Pacquiao, however, whose intensity in the ring is astonishing.
Unlike Klitschko, for instance, a good boxer but one who often gives the impression that his only objective is to remain vertical during a fight, Pacquiao understands that risk is a part of greatness and that coasting through fights is a poor way to earn the wide-eyed attention of the world. His wins over Barrera (in the rematch) and Jorge Solis were tame affairs in comparison to his torrid battles with Erik Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez. But this is what an off-night for Pacquiao amounts to: knocking out Solis, 33-0-2, in the eighth round and outboxing a sureshot Hall of Famer in Barrera. How often has the public been hijacked by “stars” who seemingly confuse boxing with ballroom dancing? Pacquiao, on the other hand, firmly believes that the public is entitled to excitement.
Perhaps Oscar De La Hoya was over-the-hill when he stepped into the ring against Pacquiao. If so, Pacquiao, as a professional thrill maker, knew exactly what to do: steamroll his opponent, look spectacular doing it, and avoid monotony at all costs.
Above all, it is his desire for war, yes war, in the ring that makes him special. A combat sport without combat is, after all, a pursuit not worth undertaking, and Pacquiao is hyper-aware of his art as performance, that is to say, a hazardous theater played out for an audience secretly waiting for those isolated instances when boxing overreaches itself and becomes something else: something to gaze at in wonder, something to turn away from in revulsion. When the tangible risk of boxing is heightened, as in a bullfight, by the rare athlete willing to bring himself closer to jeopardy in order to further dramatize the spectacle, then what you have is an uncommon prizefighter and a future myth. Despite the fact that his last three fights have been complete washouts, Pacquiao is still breathtaking to watch because of this unusual desire to create unforgettable moments through risk.
So David Diaz hit the mat like a base jumper whose equipment malfunctioned. So poor Ricky Hatton was hearing the sound of xylophones before he even crashed to the canvas, stiffened, for the ten-count. These images, even in memory, are disturbing, horrifying, and thrilling, flashpoint personifications of Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao and of boxing itself, its terrible beauty.
This article originally appeared in 2009.