There is something wildly surreal about the upcoming Manny Pacquaio – Brandon Rios fight, set for this Saturday night (Sunday morning in the Philippines). I suppose that with the venue being Macau, it would always have seemed a little strange after watching Manny fight in the US for the last decade or so. But Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) has taken it to a positively strange place. How strange? Check this out.
First you have to understand that a Pacquiao fight in the Sellers household is bigger than any Super Bowl. We usually have Fiipino friends over — on one memorable fight we did a worldwide reunion of former friends and employees of the Hollywood Steakhouse, our restaurant in Subic back in the 90’s. We had 30 people in our apartment (the ones who have ended up in the US) and another thirty on skype from everywhere in the world — Subic, Manila, the Middle East, Ireland, Germany ….. it was great.
But the point is — there is a lot of anticipation around these parts for any Paquiao fight.
Fast forward to yesterday.
Rena, who is sleep deprived from holding down a full-time job while trying to get relief items into her hometown, woke up at 4pm (she’s on Manila time and anyway her job is 7pm to 3 am) and staggered to the coffee maker, then turned to me and said “What happened with the Pacquiao fight?”
I stared blankly at her. “What do you mean?”
She stared back. “Who won?”
“Honey, it’s not ’til this Saturday.”
“Oh. I thought I missed it.”
Then she was lost in her texts from Samar.
That’s how much the typhoon has taken over Rena’s life.
And she’s not alone — 98 million Filipinos and plenty of Friends of the Philippines feel the same way.
For all of us, it’s hard to now how to feel about the fight.
First, how can we enjoy a fight when so many people are suffering? There is still hunger — massive hunger — in the Visayas.
How do we pay $60 for a PPV when that $60 could feed a lot of people?
How do we get our Pacquiao mojo going during these difficult times?
It’s a real question.
Is there an answer?
Manny Pacquiao’s Contribution to the Filipino Spirit
Yesterday in the US President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to more than a dozen Americans including Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton and in the process reminded us of what President John F. Kennedy said when he started that award:
I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.
I am certain too that long after Manny Pacquiao is a Lolo with a dozen grandchildren, he will be remembered in the Philippines not as much for his victories as he will be remembered for the contribution that Pacquiao at his best has made to the Filipino spirit.
What is Pacquiao at his best?
I would submit he was at his best in the aftermath of the his stunning epic defeat to Juan Manuel Marquez.
At the time, in a post entitled In an Epic Defeat, Manny Pacquiao Shows Class and Courage, I tried to capture it:
Manny was out cold when he hit the canvas and there was not the slightest possibility that he could stand up and beat the count. The blow was that decisive. The only question — and it was a real one — was whether he had been truly injured in a frightening way. He lay on his face for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably a full minute before slowly being helped to a stool.
There, sitting on stool, the glaze slowly receding from his eyes, what did Manny do?
Not the false-bravado, “he didn’t hurt me” smile that beaten boxers so often present.
It was a rueful smile, an honest smile that said “he got me, didn’t he?”
As soon as he was able, he got up, waded into the crowd that had poured into the ring, and congratulated Marquez. Then he stood and waited his turn for post fight interviews. When his turn came, he was honest, reflective — and most impressively, he seemed to have already put everything in perspective far better than millions of distraught fans. ”It’s boxing,” he said. ”That’s sports.”
In the HBO post-fight interview, Larry Merchant fished hard, trying to get Manny to take the bait on the issue of the possibility that Marquez was juicing. Twice, rephrasing it slightly each time to be sure Pacquiao knew what he was implying, he tried to get Pacquiao to say there was something unnatural about Marquez’s power in this fight — power that had become suddenly much greater after a training camp in which he hired a known purveyor of performance enhancing drugs–Angel Heredia–to be his strength and conditioning coach.
But Manny did not take the bait.
He would not diminish Marquez in his moment of glory, nor would he make excuses.
Manny was at his best in the final rounds of the Margarito fact, when a cut and exhausted Margarito was ready to go, and Pacquiao “carrie” him for the final rounds when it seemed clear that he could have ended the fight.
That fight prompted me to think long and hard about Pacquiao, and his meaning. I wrote a post entitled What We Can Learn from The Empathy, Grace, and Humility of Manny Pacquiao. It ended with this
The Last Word
Those of us who are connected to the Philippines have followed Manny Pacquiao for many years and we’ve heard him speak and act in this humble, gentle manner — so this in itself is not news for us. But as his fame grows and the rest of the world gradually wakes up and takes notice of Pacquiao as a sporstman who transcends national boundaries and the niche of boxing, hearing him speak this way reminds us that while on the one hand what we see in Manny is unique, in another way it is not, because what is on display when Pacquiao speaks is essential Filipino values that typify the elusive best of a country whose people’s humble and gentle virtues are not particularly well understood abroad. This is, after all, a world where, for example, some cultures have adopted the term “filipina” to be slang for “housekeeper”. The truth is, it’s easy for ill-informed westerners to underestimate and misinterpret the gentle, gracious nature of the Filipino character — yet somehow Manny Pacquiao is singlehandedly changing that, teaching the world and reminding the Philippine universe that humility, grace, compassion, and empathy can coexist with the heart of a warrior.
Yet even if Filipinos instinctively understand the meaning of Manny Pacquiao better than we foreigners — they have been traveling on a learning curve with Pacquiao as well. Remember that Pacquiao’s popularity in the Philippines, great as it is, did not automatically win him a berth in Congress. On his first attempt, he lost badly. Some said the loss reflected what was in essence a cynical “no” vote from an electorate who wanted him to keep fighting; others inerpreted the “no” as a desire keep Pacquiao from becoming tarnished by the dirty nature of Philippine politics. Either way, Pacquiao lost, and it wasn’t a split decision — it was much closer to a political knockout.
But he didn’t give up, he showed patience and sincerity and above all perserverence, and throughout it all he continued to talk compellingly about his real reasons for doing it — and along the way many of the skeptics who saw in his first run for Congress a questionable act of celebrity ego began to gradually come to understand that it was another impulse, the impulse toward genuine and sincere public service, that was driving Pacquiao. And so now he has the position he sought — the position of “public servant”, and he has stated that his goal is to become a “champion of public service” as his life transitions toward a new phase. Boxing has been his vehicle to “make people happy” in one profound, “let me lift you up” way that Filipinos perhaps understand better than the rest of us. That phase will end. But now, today, he is an elected Congressman who through both his boxing and public service has truly has made millions of people happy in that transcendant way he seeks–so truly and so beautifully happy that the result may be that the skinny kid who grew up on the streets may well someday have the opportunity to lead not just an impoverished Sarangani province, but an entire resurgent nation that with Pacquiao as example-maker-in-chief. Could it be that a long-suffering and self doubting country might, under his inspired leadershp, find the courage within itslef to lift itself up as a country in ways that would be just as surprising, yet just as inevitable, as Pacquiao’s rise to the top in boxing. I for one believe in Manny Pacquiao–his heart, his sincerity, the sheer power of his will, and the true Filipino essence of his character. He makes me feel hope for the future of the Philippines, and proud to be the American half of a Fil-Am marriage and the father of children who have Filipino blood flowing through their veins.
That was three years ago and much has transpired since then.
I don’t know about you, but I could sure use another shot of whatever t was that Pacquao jolted me with that night in November 2010.
So what happens this time?
I truly believe that Manny Pacquiao is determined to lift the spirits of Filipinos in his fight with Brandon Rios. Hopefully, he will do so by delivering a performance that once again establishes him as a top pound-for-pound contender. But if that’s not how the story is written — if there is a stunning setback like the one he experienced with Marquez, my hope and belief is that Manny Pacquiao understands that his true mission is to contribute to and lift the spirits of all of us who either are Filipino, or have agonized with the Philippines, during the typhoon and its aftermath.
A win would be great; a knock-out win even better.
But win or lose, just make us proud.