Sunday, January 23, 2011

Searching for Manny Pacquiao


It was just something that needed to be done. Technically speaking it's not stalking, because I had no need to see the man in person, I just wanted to see what he saw, do what he's done, eat what he used to eat. I guess it's similar to how I used to sleep with my notes on my pillow the night before a big test, in the hopes that through osmosis something would rub off. As an aspiring amateur boxer, it only made sense for me to look for Manny's Manila.

As if it weren't obvious already, Manny the Pacman Pacquiao and I have a lot in common. We are within an inch of one another's height, and were born less than a year apart. And, without disclosing too much personal information, we weigh within 10 pounds of each other. And of course we're both Asian.

Manny, however, happens to be a world champion prizefighter in seven different weight classes.
It is easy to admire him, particularly if you are Asian. Though fairly small in stature for his profession, he has developed a style that takes advantage of his endurance, his conditioning, and his speed, all acquired through hard work and extreme amounts of training. He is dutiful to his family, supporting even his formerly-estranged father who secretly lived with another woman before being kicked out by Manny's mother. Pacquiao never insults his opponent in public, even after defeating them, at which time he praises them as worthy adversaries. And he implores referees to declare TKO's before he has to finish the job and send a guy to the hospital.

Manny's weaknesses are familiar too. Known for spending extravagant amounts on family and sycophants, he also gives huge amounts of money away to impoverished strangers who badger him at his house at all hours of the day and night. And of course, Manny has a bit of a gambling habit; his achilles is cock-fighting, and owns a cock farm that employs a battalion of handlers.

Manny hails from Mindanao, one of the poorest islands in the country with the highest crime rate, and the location of an on-going civil war. The son of seven children, he never attended high school having left his home in General Santos City to move to Manila at the age of 14 to alleviate his mother from the extra burden. He sold donuts for 10 cents a piece, bringing home as little as two dollars a day. Eventually he joined the Philippines Amateur Boxing Association, known for having produced 5 Olympic medalists since the 1960's. But life as an amateur boxer brought him little more than room and board. He was still a teenager when he began to fight professionally.

Manny has become a national hero in the Philippines, and as a candidate of his own party, the People's Champ Movement, as of June 2010, Manny Pacquiao is an elected Congressmen in the district of Saramgami where his wife comes from. It was his second run for office and rumor has it he may retire from boxing to pursue politics more seriously. As a Congressman he has co-sponsored bills creating hospitals and breast cancer centers, and curbing human trafficking.

On any given day in the Philippines, one can watch boxing on television. And on any given Saturday, a Manny fight will be aired. Mesmerized by his unique style in a fight against Clottey, a larger, more muscular Ghanaian fighter, I sought to watch his most recent match against Mexican-American fighter Antonio Margarito. I ask one of the staff at the computer center to help me download the fight, to which he says with surprise, "You have not seen it yet ma'am?"

Margarito had a height advantage of 6", a reach advantage of 5", and a weight advantage of 17 pounds. Margarito is blustery and bombastic in pre-fight interviews. In the ring, however, Margarito is pummeled to pieces like Goliath. Next to Manny's fists of fury, Margarito looks sluggish, like a staggering zombie. Margarito is able to land a few punches, and the extent of his power is apparent immediately, creating a welt above Pacquiao's eye within minutes. But it is nothing compared to the gashing wound under that of Margarito, landed in the first round. Well before the end of the fight Margarito's eye is swollen shut and Pacquiao implores the ref in vain to stop the fight. Pacquiao finishes all twelve rounds being almost ginger with his opponent in the last two; Margarito required immediate hospitalization and surgery afterwards.

Pacquiao's discomfort with the injury he imposes has been widely observed. It was during the De La Hoya fight that trainer Freddie Roach was overheard saying in Pacquiao's corner, "Manny, it is your job to knock him out." Similar reserve was noticed by professional spectators in the Clottey fight as well.

On Saturday I attend an an all-Filipino birthday party at Capone's, a uber-Manila-hip restaurant and bar in Makati, one of the most posh neighborhoods in the city. It's not difficult to find Pachiao fans here and I gain serious street cred for my recall of details from the Margarito fight. In exchange, I learn some more local lore. I find out at which church he prays and in which gym he trains in Manila before leaving the country for a fight abroad. I learn that he ate only rice and bok choi as an impoverished amateur boxer. I learn that he usually trains in the mountain town of Baggio, hometown of one of his close friends. I hear about the cock-fighting olympics happening for a week and that his cocks are competing. I hear that he plays basketball and shoots pool with equal talent. I hear that he has a resort in Boracay, and when he plans to scuba dive out of Legaspi.

So I plan a couple days paying tribute to who he is and where he came from. Whereas my first few days in the Philippines consisted cocktails and champaign at luxury hotels in the most sophisticated part of Manila, my last few days in the country are also in Manila, where my Manny tour takes me to see how the other half truly lives, works, and breathes. Without the guidance of a Lonely Planet or a human guide, I am relying heavily on my Filipina looks and my ability to read body language to keep me out of trouble. And of course my fists of fury.

I start the day off at church. Quiapo Church, located in Cubao, is awe-striking not for its architecture but for the sheer volume of its congregation. In a monolithic concrete structure with painted religious statues, there are easily tens of thousands of people present on this ordinary Sunday. Speakers and a jumbo-tron broadcast the service outdoors for those who cannot fit inside. There are simple but familiar statues of apostles and saints both outside. Most noticeable is the statue of Jesus, his skin as black as chocolate, and there are vendors selling similar likenesses. There is a line outside the door and around the corner of those wishing to view a statue of the Black Nazarene. The church itself is situated in a densely populated working class part of town, which in Manila can mean poverty still. Pawn shops are found in scores across the street from the church. The congregation is numerous and poor, and utterly devoted to the practice of their faith. It is easy to picture Manny here, a man who blesses himself with the motion of the cross, every round in the ring.


I wander down some alleys flanking the church which are chock full of street stands selling everything from religious icons to stereo equipment lying on cloths spread out on the ground. There is a municipal basketball hoop erected on a site where a building was razed, leaving debris and building material in piles along the sides of the court. Food carts sell grilled pig ears, liver, and other scraps parts skewered on sticks. A man sells green mango slices store in water. Again, I envision young Pacquiao here amongst the chaos, stealing some time to shoot hoops with the boys and grabbing a skewered snack when he wasn't selling sodas or snacks.


In the evening, I buy a ticket for the 2011 Slasher Cup, the international olympics of cock-fighting. I enter a packed arena, also in the tens of thousands. Coincidentally, the arena happens to where Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali had it out, the famed "Thrilla in Manila" fight. But today, the ring is filled with cocks being handled by their owners. Before the fight commences, each rocks the cock towards the other, restraining them at the last second. Based on this ritual, shouts and hollers erupt from the crowd, gestures are made and money is passed to various men in green striped shirts. It looks like it could be the floor of the NY stock exchange, but with some large roosters thrown in the mix.

The fight begins and the cocks flutter at each other. It takes about 10 seconds for one to get the better of the other, using to his advantage the blade attached to one foot. If the losing cock is not dead yet, the ref repositions the two birds to finish the fight. The birds are then removed from the arena, one dead one alive, and a man comes up a few minutes later with a broom and dustpan, sweeping up the stray feathers. This proceeds for hundreds of fights, and I see Manny's cocks compete, one of which leaves alive. After a half-dozen fights with intermissions, I have been eaten alive by fleas and take it as my cue to leave.

It is definitely one of the stranger events I've attended in my life. And, while I will gladly eat bok choi and attempt to emulate Manny in other ways, I'm not quite sure if the cock-fighting will be a repeat event for me. For Pacquiao, however, this is his world; throngs of Filipino men wagering on birds duking it out until the death. This is the entertainment he grew up with and one he even promotes as an adult.


The next morning, I schedule a session at Elorde Gym in Quezon City, where he trains regularly just before going abroad to fight. Again, I am in a poor, industrial town on the outskirts of Manila proper. And again, it is choked with traffic, smog-stained buildings, and thousands of people on their way to work, or peddling dry goods right there on the streets. I make my way to the gym, tucked away on the fourth floor of a nondescript building. In it are a few punching bags and a ring. Posters of Manny are abound and his autograph blesses one of structural columns. I hit the speedball Manny has hit, work the double end bag that Manny has worked. But I am out of shape after a month of walking around the Philippines and eating fried lumpias, and it shows after an hour. After my 7th round on the mitts, I call it quits. But I will never wash my handwraps again!


On my back to the hotel, I'm looking at the chaos and poverty flanking my air-conditioned taxi, the crippled beggars, and the vendors selling whatever you can think of for a nickel. I think about General Santos City, and how it is even more impoverished than Quezon, and I think about Manny still living there after all these years, albeit in an eyesore mansion, where he manifests his guilt through generous donations of cash and food to all who ask. When a storm hit Mindanao, he insisted on staying until the last minute, leaving only after being implored to do so by his trainer Freddie Roach. He also was reprimanded by Roach to resume his focus on his upcoming fight rather than the political issues that have befallen him as a Congressman.

As my trip comes to an end, I am reminded of how important it is for me to travel. I meet so many people from different walks of life, reminding me that all sorts of people in this world can connect. I see so many different things, reminding me how beautiful the world outside mine also is. And I see the lives of so many people, and am reminded that my own life is filled with so much choice.

For all intents and purposes, Pacquiao did not have the choice of starting high school. He took the options he had and worked like a horse. And, while I have no delusions of boxing grandeur in my own future other than entering a single amateur match, Pacquiao is a good reminder to me, and especially to his opponents, of the strength and power that comes from hard work, and that resulting achievement does not require a relinquishment of heart. I and millions of others look forward to watching his fight with Mosley. Go Pacman go!

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